College basketball is known for the game’s propensity for Cinderella stories. Small schools no one has ever heard of take down major programs filled with top recruits every single year in March Madness. While the bracket of all brackets crowns a champion in the end of the year, the beginning of the year features tournaments of its own and the most notable is the Maui Invitational.
With origins in its own massive upset in 1982 when Chaminade University of Honolulu took down #1 ranked Virginia, the Maui invitational has grown to a gathering of America’s best college basketball teams as they showcase new rosters in the first real competition of the season.
This year, the Maui invitational expanded to esports and they wanted to keep the core of what made the tournament great by grabbing the best group of college Rocket League teams. But they also wanted to stay true to the major colleges participating in the basketball tournament.
“The overall format of the event was enthusiastically debated,” said Scot Thor, VP of Content for KemperLesnik, the organizers of the event. “We wanted to create storylines between your traditional basketball powerhouses with Rocket League teams, with up-and-coming schools through the open qualifiers and with the great programs in college esports.”
The result was 20 teams from universities around the country ranging from traditional sports powerhouses like the University of Texas to top esports programs like Maryville University to open qualifier spots filled by LSU and Northwood. Heading into the final weekend of the event, only five teams remain.
Northwood, a small school but major college esports program fielding ten varsity teams, takes on the University of Illinois. LSU, a true traditional sports powerhouse, takes on the winner of Boise St and Mizzou, two of the largest universities with varsity esports programs. The final match of the quarterfinals and the two semifinals will start on November 20th at 4 PM ET on ESPNU and the official Rocket League Twitch channel. The finals will be held November 22nd on the same channels at 5 PM ET.
With ESPN and Rocket League’s Twitch channel, this is one of the biggest platforms ever afforded to a college esports event.
“The Maui invitational has primarily been on a linear platform through ESPN, we really didn’t have a strong digital platform around the event,” Thor said. “As we looked for ways to expand the brand to the digital space and connect with new audiences, esports made sense and Rocket League specifically was the perfect game for us.”
Rocket League operates in a unique section of the esports landscape. It’s simple to pick up, making it accessible to the casual fan, but difficult enough that over five years the skill ceiling hasn’t been reached despite the game being virtually the same it was on release. There are also no violence concerns, an important consideration for Maui’s brand partners and ESPN’s broadcast.
But while Rocket League mimics traditional sports in many ways, it exists separate from the sports simulation titles in a world of its own. That’s made it the go-to choice for many traditional sports institutions who want to extend to esports. If the Tokyo Olympics had been held this past summer, Rocket League would have been played during the Intel World Open in the run up to the event.
“Instead of doing an obvious game like NBA 2K, and we looked at League of Legends and everything else as well, we thought Rocket League made the most sense,” said Thor continued. “Rocket League gave us the ability to connect with the ESPN audience, with a broader audience that may be a bit new to college esports, that made it a great title to go with for our first event.”
Rocket League is a constant choice among college esports programs as well. Through either clubs or varsity programs, only one of the eight Maui Invitational basketball teams didn’t have a Rocket League team – get with the times Providence.
The quarterfinal matchups drew a peak concurrent viewership of 30,000 on Twitch alone, not counting the viewership on ESPNU. That will likely only grow higher as the event reaches the finals. That’s insane viewership for a college esports event and shows that events which coincide with established traditional sports competitions could be a huge opportunity for the space going forward.