In the Rocket League Championship Series, there are two regions that trade blows when it comes to serious World Championship contention: Europe and North America. Oceania and South America pull the occasional upset, but in the end, it’s typically the usual suspects that take home the crown. However, there are two notable regional absences for Rocket League: Asia and the Middle East. The latter especially is home to a high quantity of Rocket League talent, but they are not allowed to play on the grandest of stages. Players, organization owners and the community alike are beginning to grow impatient.
After ten seasons and several overhauls to the RLCS, the Middle East is yet to get proper recognition. If Psyonix wants Worlds to be as stacked as possible, they cannot risk letting the Middle Eastern talent pool fall behind.
It started with one player in 2017, Ahmad “Ahmad” Abdullah, when he faced Kyle “Scrub Killa” Robertson on RLCS caster John “Johnnyboi_i” MacDonald’s Twitch stream, which is often used to highlight lesser-represented regions and players. He was the vanguard of Saudi Arabia, the one to put his country on the map, by playing in show matches. But he wasn’t alone for long. Soon after, he was joined by Khalid “oKhaliD” Qasim, and the two started making waves in the competitive Rocket League community. They were being invited to show matches more often and fans began to realize there were talented players outside of the RLCS regions.
In 2019, this caught the attention of INCIVIK, a Saudi Rocket League fan who found Ahmad and oKhaliD playing a show match on Johnnyboi’s stream against French RLCS stars Victor “Fairy Peak!” Locquet and Yanis “Alpha54” Champenois. INCIVIK said he had to speak to them directly.
“I wanted to know about their situation because it didn’t look like they were getting exposure at all,” INCIVIK said. “I’d never heard of them myself, and I’m a big fan of the game. It bothered me a little.”
Ahmad caught INCIVIK up on the Saudi scene and the struggles he faced with his team. So, INCIVIK saw an opportunity.
“I made him a deal,” INCIVIK said. “I told him that if they would agree, tomorrow I want an answer, I’ll make a team the day after.”
The age of Sandrock Gaming
With the deal made, Sandrock Gaming was born. Ahmad, Khalid and their third, Ahmed “Senzo” Ayed, started their reign over the region immediately. There were not a lot of Middle Eastern tournaments and when they happened, they were too small to be picked up by official broadcasts. So instead, the roster often decided to play in the European ranked ladder, and smaller tournaments, where they’d face strong resistance from top RLCS teams. According to Liquipedia – which may not have covered all Middle Eastern tournaments – SRG reached 61 straight wins in the region before they finally lost a series in March 2021. EMPTY, another full-Saudi team, took them down in the Elemental Series 2 tournament. Three months after that, they suffered their second-ever loss at the hands of Falcons Esports in the Intel World Open Middle Eastern qualifiers. SRG later corrected that misstep by reverse sweeping them in the final, but one thing was clear: the competition was gaining ground.
“These teams are on the come up and they’ve only really been on the come up for a year, year and a half now,” Johnnyboi said. “Go back 18 months and Sandrock hadn’t lost a single game. So the region is making a lot of progress and I expect that to continue.”
This growth is reflected in-game as well. The top 100 ranked leaderboards are stacked with Middle Eastern players where there were once just a handful of players.
“Some people say that ranked doesn’t translate, but I firmly believe it does,” Johnnyboi said. “You look at the 2s ranked leaderboard, who’s number one? It’s M0nkey M00n. Who’s after him? Firstkiller, Daniel, these are all established players, everybody knows they’re some of the best players in the world. So when you see the likes of oKhaliD, Trk, and others from the Middle East up there competing with these guys, you know that they’re legit.”
Aside from their rising skill, another common theme with these players is they are all from Saudi Arabia. While there are other, lesser-known players from other countries in the region – like Oman’s BuZayed and Israel’s MisTaKe – Saudi Arabia leads the pack.
“Saudi Arabia is the country that just has a ridiculously large Rocket League population,” Johnnyboi said. “That is why we’re seeing teams from Saudi Arabia. And all these players here are such good friends with each other, helping each other improve, coming out from that country.”
The Middle East has repeatedly shown they can roll with the best. From performing in the ranked ladder, to show matches, to European tournaments such as the European Invitational. Middle Eastern players have proven that they are not far behind the titans of Europe, the region with the most RLCS World Championship titles. So, to be left out of the RLCS when you know you can compete is a frustrating ordeal, according to INCIVIK. But instead of throwing in the towel, he went to work to make sure his players had the chance to test their mettle.
“I’m sure the boys feel it 10 times more, but I had to make tournaments myself just for the boys to be recognized,” INCIVIK said. “That’s why we made the European Invitational, that’s why we made Fusion. That’s why we did all of this stuff. I will do anything for the boys to get what they deserve. They deserve so much more.”
The Middle East did recently get a chance to step up on a bigger stage through the Intel World Open event, which tied in with the Tokyo Olympics. However, after the disappointing 0-9 win/loss ratio against France, Germany and the Netherlands, fans began to speculate whether the Middle East was as good as some made them out to be.
“Opportunity equals motivation, and they have opportunity,” INCIVIK said. Johnnyboi, meanwhile, took things one step further.
“It’s a life choice thing,” he said. “Do you want to dedicate 40 hours of your week to playing this video game, which, at the end of the day, is not going to really earn you that much money? It’s not going to really give you many opportunities going into the future, given how short esports careers tend to be.”
Faced with the choice between competition and something like school, Johnnyboi said it’s no wonder there’s a gap between the Middle East and regions with more support.
While Rocket League is a viable career path in Europe, North America, Oceania and South America, the Middle East does not have that security. This is made worse considering that outside of hosting a Middle Eastern show match in between RLCS matches, or approving one of INCIVIK’s and APL Esports’ tournaments, Psyonix has yet to truly acknowledge the region.
Psyonix is taking its time
Psyonix is notoriously slow when it comes to making significant RLCS changes. They added Oceania in the third season, while it took seven seasons for South America to join the fold. Middle Eastern players are eager to show what they can do on the grandest of stages. If the waiting game had been difficult for them before, the longer season of RLCS Season X has undoubtedly made it worse.
Psyonix hasn’t commented on what is keeping the developer from adding the Middle East to the RLCS, but according to Johnnyboi, it can’t have anything to do with player skill.
“That’s never been a question for anybody who’s seen these guys play,” he said. “We know that they can play great Rocket League, and everybody can see that they’re really entertaining to watch as well. But these things all take time, and Psyonix, I think, over the course of the RL esports history, have shown that they don’t always do things really quickly. But when they do it, they do it right, and they’ve got a great streak of momentum on their side right now.”
While Middle Eastern players are still awaiting their turn, the region could have been recognized years ago if some things had been different. Sandrock Gaming’s Senzo had planned to play in the first season of the RLCS before there were strict rules on regions, according to INCIVIK. He backed out in the end and, from the following season on, only specific regions were allowed to compete.
“I told him, he should have went for it,” INCIVIK said. “If anything, that would have shown us at least something for the future.”
However, that was not the only opportunity that would present itself for these players.
Moving to Europe
The Middle East, and more specifically oKhaliD, had caught the eyes of more than just fans. A notable set belonged to Team Liquid, who wanted to enter Rocket League and sign a strong roster ahead of RLCS X. Their first choice was oKhaliD, but, according to INCIVIK, he wanted to stick together with Ahmad and Senzo. For him, it was all or nothing. In the end, Team Liquid opted for a fully European roster instead.
We're here and we're ready.
— Team Liquid (@TeamLiquid) July 4, 2020
Then there was the idea of leaving SRG, which was an additional hurdle. INCIVIK had done a lot for him, but ultimately, the deal fell through. Moving to Europe and leaving SRG was a step too far for the Saudi trio.
“It’s a case of school,” INCIVIK said. “It’s a case of family. And after all of that, it’s a case of, they don’t want to leave SRG. They specifically said that if I’m the manager with them and Liquid, then they will leave, but I told them, that’s never gonna happen. I obviously was trying to hype them to do it.”
Johnnyboi said he would have loved to see what SRG could do in Europe on an equal playing ground. With how fast and demo-heavy the meta is these days, the ping difference plays a larger role than before. But despite the excitement, he said moving may not be the best way forward.
“You know, these guys have made a name for themselves in the Middle East, and they’re really, I think, gaining the respect and the love of the community,” Johnnyboi said. “So I really do think it’s only a matter of time before they get integrated, just like OCE and SAM were. If they just stick to what they’re doing, they seem to be doing just fine getting attention and respect on their names.”
Hopes for the future
A year after the Liquid deal fell through, it’s still unclear if the Middle East will get to compete in RLCS Season 11. Ahead of the RLCS Season X announcement, a spinning globe was displayed on the official website, hinting that a global tournament was finally on the cards. However, that never ended up happening.
Meanwhile, The RLCS 11 announcement is expected soon, though there are no real rumblings about the inclusion of the Middle East, yet. The hope is turning into despair, reminiscent of what happened with South America. After many seasons of trying to get noticed, fans slowly began to doubt they would ever get to play in RLCS.
“After OCE got included in season 3 of RLCS, everyone got very hopeful that it would take very little time to get SAM included as well,” said RLCS caster and analyst Abner “Chamako09” Custodio Gonzalez. “But after a few seasons of wait without any news, hopes started to wind down. Rocket Street switched things up by creating League-style competitions with bigger prize pools.”
These competitions ultimately led to the SAM championships, where teams in South America could compete for a spot at an offline LAN. This kept the region afloat and motivated for long enough, before Psyonix officially adopted South America into the RLCS. INCIVIK and APL Esports have gone to great lengths to provide similar opportunities for players in the Middle East and Asia.
Despite the lack of rumors about the Middle East’s fate regarding RLCS 11, no news doesn’t always mean bad news, according to Chamako.
“There were no credible rumors about the announcement of SAM in RLCS,” Chamako said. “At least not credible enough for me. I would always hear that Psyonix was interested in the region but that SAM was not ready yet. It wasn’t until the SAM Championship that the region was finally deemed worthy of being part of RLCS.”
So, there is still hope for Rocket League and the Middle East, but it may hang by a thread. If the Middle East does not have something real to play for soon, they risk falling further behind, and the fans could never see what the talent pool might have accomplished at Worlds.
“Me trying to motivate the boys for the past years was the hardest thing I could do,” INCIVIK said. “Senzo literally retired and I don’t know what else to do.”