Ridealong is our regular feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This month, he takes on a pro singlehandedly in a game of car football, as teams around the world prepare to fight for their place in the Championship.
The countdown starts and Fireburner asks me if I play much Rocket League. I am halfway through replying when he scores his first goal. We have been playing for 5 seconds and he is already winning. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, this man is a professional.
Fireburner plays for Kings of Urban, a pro team that regularly plays in both tournaments and the game's 'ranked mode' - a competitive league open to all players. Right now the team is in the middle of the official Rocket League Championship Series (the 'RLCS') held by the developers Psyonix and Twitch, with a total prize pool of $75,000. It's still the qualifying season, so even as Fireburner and I play our one-on-one kickabout, he is thinking about the games he will have to win to get through to the finals, along with his teammates Jacob and Sadjunior.
"We've always been at the top or near the top of the NA scene," he says, referring to the North American rankings of teams. "Right now we're the number 2 ranked [team] - actually tied for first in the community power rankings.
"We scrim regularly. We usually scrim more when there's an important tournament coming up like the RLCS that's going on these past few weeks. But yeah, if we're not scrimming we're playing matchmaking together and stuff like that to keep our mechanics in shape."
He scores another goal. I have barely touched the ball. He continues at this, boosting across the field in single leaps and jumping off the wall with terrifying precision like some kind of trained lizard. After only one minute of play the score is 4-0. I press on with the interview. Does it feel like a job for him, in the same way that pro Dota or Counter-Strike players will dedicate huge amounts of time to their tactics and teamwork?
"Well, not necessarily for me," he says. "Background to myself is that I played the original game, th -
I take this opportunity to drive into his car at full speed, blowing him up in a desperate effort to get him away from my goalposts.
"That's dirty," he says, and continues answering my question.
"I played the original game. There was a game before this one, a prequel... 'Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars' - crazy name - but yeah I played that for 3 years. I started playing that game when I was 12 just for fun. It was a very small game with a very small community, only like 20 people online at a time. I was just playing because I loved the game and I loved the concept of it. I was like: 'oh, this game is car football, how has no-one never thought of this before?'
"And then I stopped playing, because I got older and I had to do other stuff. But then last year this game came out and it was super popular because the developers did a really good job of marketing the game and getting it out there. And so I already had some background on how the game works, so I was automatically kinda good, so I joined a pro team and all that stuff.
"I would have never imagined to being playing pro in a videogame... so I don't really see it as a job, I see it more as like an opportunity for me."
Even as Fireburner is speaking, he is weaving around me, dribbling the ball more or less wherever he wants. He has scored two more goals in the time it took to answer my question. He scores a third straight from the centre of the pitch at the following kick-off, with a single touch of his bumper. I keep asking questions in a vain attempt to distract him.
In the middle of a sentence, he realises his controller has disconnected. My eyes widen. This is my chance. I pivot as best I can toward the ball and boost. I go flying right past it.
"Okay," my opponent laughs as he reconnects his controller, "you didn't score."
I pick myself up and go on. Fireburner is playing from home in the United States. I console myself with the knowledge that he cannot see the shame on my face. But it's okay, embarrassment is something we gamers sometimes have to feel. Is it difficult for him to describe what he does, if someone asks him?
"Well, I go to college when I'm not playing this game... and I have talked to my parents about it. Most of my friends don't know that I do this because I don't really think they'd understand, you know, esports and all that stuff. I describe it to my parents, they're OK with it. I guess they're kind of supportive but I imagine once more money gets involved in the game and they see me making more money from it they'll be much more supportive."
This isn't an unusual attitude to the industry. For many with no knowledge of esports, the revelation that huge sums of cash are often up for grabs is a complete surprise. In the current Rocket League Championship there is that $75,000 prize pool. And while that certainly looks like a big wad of cash it is nothing on the $400,000 total to be won in League of Legends, or the millions of dollars regularly offered in Dota's 'International' (a jaw-dropping prize pool of $18 million last year).
"It's not too bad for their first tournament. But I imagine after this one they'll start increasing the prize pool for the future seasons."
Obviously, most of us will never see money like this. I know I certainly won't. When the whistle blows at the end of our game, Fireburner has beaten me with a score of 12-0.
Across the world, another player is preparing for the next set of matches at the weekend. Snaski plays for Supersonic Avengers, a pro team on the European tables. Playing from Denmark, he has been scoring goals in Rocket League since the game's release in July last year. But unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he was not a player of the developer's earlier game - something that might seem like a disadvantage until you consider that the Supersonic Avengers are among the highest ranking teams in Europe.
Our plans to play a 1v1 are scuppered by internet woes and a ridiculous ping on my end of 999, making a match like the one against Fireburner impossible. We settle for chatting about the pro scene instead. He is currently very busy.
"Right now there's tournaments Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So yeah."
He started playing with his current teammates after seeing them on Twitch and simply getting in touch. After a few games one of them noticed that, despite having "only 300 hours" of playtime, that Snaski was pretty good. They have been playing together ever since, taking advantage of the many smaller tournaments that North America is lacking.
Without time in the schedule to "scrim", the Supersonic Avengers need to practice simply by playing competition after competition. The benefit of this is that European teams learn about their opponents through constant matches, which is useful in a limited way, says Snaski.
"There's a certain way to play against some teams, I guess. There's some teams that are more aggressive or passive, so you gotta know how aggressive you gotta play or how defensive you gotta play and stuff. But we mostly just go in and play... it's not really that tactical yet."
His team, like the Kings of Urban, are currently fighting their way through the RLCS with the next round of matches due to be played this weekend, on July 9 and 10. The winners of these qualifying matches will then head to Hollywood, Los Angeles in August to play in the live final for the grand prize of $55,000. Four European teams and four North American teams will duke it out to win the first official trophy in this new esport. But even though it's a relatively new competition, Snaski is still wary about the young talent sneaking up behind him.
"I was talking to ELMP [his teammate] during the winter, we were like: 'oh shit, there must be new players coming out who can contest us and maybe replace us and stuff'. We were pretty afraid. Because I'm a quick learner, I learned the game really quick and got really good compared to a lot of others who hadn't played the old game, so we expected people to do the same as me but over a longer period.
"But now we're ten or eleven months in and it hasn't happened. Like, we always see the same players in the top ten, so we always know what to expect of them. When you have been here for ten months or eleven months... you have a certain playstyle, like maybe you like to go up the walls, maybe you're a good dribbler, maybe you're just amazing at shooting. We know that about every person. So no matter what team shows up, we always know what to do against them and how they play.
"The problem is with those teams who have been playing together for a long time, like FlipSid3 has, they are so good that even though you know what they're going to do it still works for them against you."
FlipSid3 are less a Rocket League team and more an esports "organisation". Co-owned by an NFL player, they have a team in this competition but they also field professional Counter-Strike gunmen and Street Fighter V brawlers. But while there might be some disparity between big organisations like FlipSid3 and homegrown teams like Supersonic Avengers, there is one thing all the players have in common. They are all very young. At 19 years old, even Snaski has to sometimes explain both the appeal and the rewards of pro gaming to his parents.
"I have always been very competitive in gaming. I used to be a very high-level League of Legends player and I was pretty good in CS:GO and spent a lot of time on it. So they know that it's important to me but also they understand the amount of money that it's possible to earn.
"It's like, if you're good at football you're going to want to play football all the time. And if you can earn money playing football, it's very nice - and you earn a lot of money. So I've tried to explain to them that it's kind of the same thing, except Rocket League hasn't quite made it yet."
I ask about the fear of burning out. One of the downsides of pro gaming is the lightning fast rate at which players can go from the top of their game to retired, especially in games like Starcraft. In football you can expect to be in your prime in your mid-twenties. But in esports you could be the best in the world at 16 years old, then at 24, you're out. Snaski thinks this will be less of a problem for rocketeers like him.
"I can understand it with CS:GO and League of Legends and Dota and Starcraft because you gotta have very fast reflexes and have a fresh mind. Whereas in Rocket League it's not as much about your reflexes, it's more about your awareness all the time. You always gotta think one step ahead of what's going to happen... It's more about thinking or being clever or smart about it, rather than reacting to something."
Facing off against established teams and battling burnout are not the only difficulties teams have to handle. There are two qualifiers in the championship - weeks of matches and eliminations - yet in the weeks between these fixtures there have been instances of players switching teams, essentially "upgrading" themselves in the middle of the tournament while simultaneously kicking another player from their adoptive team. Treating the interim period between qualifiers as an unsanctioned "transfer window".
"There's a lot of drama," says Snaski. "But also just people getting pissed with each other."
I'm playing Fireburner again. I can't let my 12-0 loss go unanswered. I ask him about the players who have switched teams in the midst of a tournament.
"That happened to me," he says. "I wasn't the one that left. But I was on the 'receiving end' of that, I guess."
During the break between qualifiers, his teammate left for another team. The way Fireburner talks about it, it sounds like all has been forgiven. But at the time it caused some discord.
"At the time I was pretty annoyed and so was my team mate, Jacob. At the time it was me, Jacob and the guy that left - that was the team... We were pretty annoyed at the time, not exactly because he left but how he left. That was more annoying than anything at the time."
I ask what the name of this guy was.
"Gambit. He plays for IBuyPower now."
I decide to change the subject (and the game mode). Following my 12-0 defeat, I have swapped the football field for an ice rink and the ball for a hockey puck, in the hopes that it keeps my professional opponent from performing any of his usual aerial tricks.
"I don't really play on this game mode," says Fireburner, instantly scoring another goal.
Partway through the game, for a brief, glorious moment, his net becomes wide open. I screech toward the puck, palms sweating with hope. I miss.
I accept the inevitable and continue with my cross-examination. I ask what he might say to a team of people as hopeless as I am at "car football". Imagine you're coaching the worst team in the world, I say, the 'Jamaican Rocket League team'. What do you tell them?
"That's one of the most common things [I get asked]. Like, what can I do to improve? And this game, it's all based on mechanics, right, and decision-making. And the only way you can improve both is just by playing the game more and more... like, the more hours you put in, the game rewards you.
"Even at the highest levels when players or teams have a 'dip' in hours, it kinda shows when they play in tournaments. Some players and teams perform worse when they don't put in the hours for a specific week, per se... You do notice the difference.
"For instance, one time I left for a week. I came back and I played Rocket League and I felt like a complete noob. I was getting beaten in ranked all the time..."
Five minutes have passed and I have failed to score a single goal. The game is still rewarding me some personal points for getting "First Touch" at kick-off, as if that means anything. The last ten seconds are uneventful. Fireburner has won again.
"This is a game that you have to practice to maintain your skill level."
Three days later I will tune into the Championships on Twitch. It is the second round of the North American qualifiers. Only the top 4 teams in these games will through to the next round, taking them one step closer to an ultimate victory. The Kings of Urban need to place 4th or above to stay in.
I watch as Fireburner flies across the field with the other Kings, pulling off trick shots with wild abandon. They are playing against a team called 'IBuyPower Cosmic' - the very team that now houses their old teammate Gambit, the one who left them mid-tournament.
It is a hectic 5-game battle. IBuyPower fights well, pulling off some amazing feats of teamwork, unfathomable to amateurs like me. But when the final whistle blows, it is Kings of Urban that walk away victorious, winning three games to two. The Kings have scraped through to the next round in 4th place on the table. Their rivals, IBuyPower, have finished just below them, in 5th.
The next day, in the European games, Snaski's Supersonic Avengers will also get through in 4th place. It is now possible that both my interviewees will face each other in the finals. In that event, I wouldn't know who to support - the whizz kid who made pro at 300 hours, or the three-year Battle Car veteran. But here's one thing I do know: playing football with toy cars has never looked more professional.
The next round of the Championship Series will be streaming on Rocket League's Twitch channel this weekend