Can NRG Finally Seal the Deal in Rocket League?
The perennial NA favorite looks stronger than ever going into the World Championship.
In both previous seasons of the Rocket League Championship Series, NRG's team claimed the North American regional crown — and then couldn't cash in that online success for the championship trophy at the live finals.
Well, here we are again: NRG won the regional playoffs earlier this month, making them three-time North American champions. Will the third time finally be the charm for this storied squad when it comes to the World Championship?
We'll find out this weekend in Los Angeles, but one thing is for sure: NRG's Rocket League team has never looked better, thanks to a key offseason upgrade that brought in one of the region's top players. They've moved past the internal strife that helped derail last season's attempt, and the refreshed lineup handily dominated the region as a result. As they tell it, they're ready to prove they can take this run all the way to the championship.
Making a change
Formed as Kings of Urban, NRG's team has been a consistent NA threat since the earliest days of competitive Rocket League, with captain and co-founder Jayson "Fireburner" Nunez and longtime member Jacob "Jacob" McDowell anchoring the squad since 2015. Kais "SadJunior" Zehri joined up in April 2016 for the start of the Championship Series, and the team won the second online final and took NA — but then crashed and burned at LAN, finishing seventh-eighth and losing both of its series.
Back into online play in season two, the team continued its winning ways and signed with NRG about a month before capturing its second NA online championship. But once again, that success didn't carry over into the live finals. NRG lost its first series before sweeping Genesis in the loser's bracket, but then lost to the ultimate winner, EU's FlipSid3 Tactics. The 5th-6th finish was an improvement from the previous season, but as Fireburner shared earlier this year, there was conflict behind the scenes.
According to the captain, the main issue had to do with the amount of work SadJunior was putting toward the team's success. He was logging fewer play hours than his teammates, who raised the issue to try and get everyone on the same page. "We confronted him about midseason that his play was dropping off, and [that] he needs to play more because we want to win and do well at LAN," says Fireburner.
He claims that the request was acknowledged at first, but then says that SadJunior made his Steam profile private to hide his playing time. A similar dispute emerged closer to the LAN in Amsterdam, although Fireburner declined to elaborate on the matter. All told, the internal issues were having an effect on the team, and it was clear that something had to happen.
"We knew that we wanted something to change," says Jacob. "We couldn't see our teammate respecting us enough to change and grow better as a team with us. Because of that, we knew that a change in roster was needed."
Asked for comment, SadJunior — who will be at the World Championship with his new NA squad, Denial Esports — acknowledges that the team relationship had been strained, but also suggests that his former teammates' claims exaggerate his actions.
"Tension slowly started to build up after our loss in LA during the first season of RLCS, and it got to a point where the other two and I had stopped playing together outside of tournaments and scrims," he says. SadJunior doesn't dispute that his play hours had fallen behind the others, but says that end-of-semester demands from college played a role in his decreased playing time. As for making his profile private, it's something of a sticking point: He says he did it "so that during a tournament or scrims, they wouldn't have to worry about checking my hours and would be putting more attention towards the upcoming games."
"Their claims weren't off-base but were taken out of context, and I agree that it might not have been possible to continue with the roster moving forward into season three," SadJunior concludes. And that's exactly what happened: He departed the team in January, about a month after the season two LAN loss.
Just as soon as SadJunior exited, Garrett "GarrettG" Gordon entered. He had been to both previous RLCS live finals with Orbit (originally Exodus), which disbanded after a disappointing 7th-8th finish the last time around. Orbit and NRG had scrimmed regularly the previous season, so the players already had a solid relationship, and NRG set their targets on GarrettG as soon as Orbit split.
"Fireburner and I knew that we wanted Garrett on our team after we saw that Orbit was disbanding," admits Jacob. "The offseason for us was more of a, 'How do we get him on our team?' rather than a 'Who do we get on our team?' [situation]. We started playing together and knew early on that our team had a ton of potential, and we all mutually agreed to come together."
Garrett was well-known for his on-the-field firepower with Orbit, but despite some obvious early synergy between them, he had to tweak his approach to pair well with Fireburner and Jacob. "I'll admit, it took a while for me to adjust to NRG's play style," he says. "I had to become a player that was more of an anchor — a lot different from my offensive play style from the previous two seasons."
"A lot of teams go through 'honeymoon phases' where they play really well together, but I feel like we didn't have one," adds Jacob. "We knew that we could be dominant together, but it took about a month of us trying different styles of rotation and general play styles. We didn't have the easiest time figuring out how to play together, and there's still more that we could work on."
Whatever stress or struggle it took to get to that point, it was surely worth it — because NRG looked nearly unbeatable for much of the season. They weren't actually unbeatable, of course: They lost a series to Genesis and a handful of other games, but their 19-6 games record in League Play across a 6-1 series tally shows incredible efficiency to their dominance, including a trio of sweeps.
We explored the stats last month, and the numbers are pretty staggering: NRG had the most shots, goals and assists across both NA and EU, while Fireburner led NA in goals and Jacob led in assists. Jacob was also named the region's MVP. And their collective success extended into the regional playoffs: While they had a close call in the semifinals, narrowly defeating Selfless Gaming 4-3, they then swept Rogue (previously Atelier) 4-0 to take NA and $10,000.
They're scoring goals in bunches and keeping up pressure both offensively and defensively as they maintain precise rotations. Fireburner has "adapted to a more midfield play style," says GarrettG, although it hasn't diminished the captain's scoring potential. Meanwhile, Garrett typically hangs back and plugs rotational holes as needed to keep pressuring opponents.
"In general, I am the playmaker," says Jacob. "Garrett tries to make a play off of whatever shenanigans I pull. Fireburner plays a bit of a cleanup through his precise shots. That's generally what we do, but we also incorporate horizontal passes and simple backboard plays to throw off our opponents."
And while Jacob has always been an assists machine, this season has seen him amp up his own scoring — it's common to see his car's giant foam cowboy hat soaring above the pitch to nail some ridiculous shot. "Since Garrett is now on the team, it adds an extra layer of protection in our defense that we didn't have before — so Jacob feels more free and comfortable being aggressive on attack," explains Fireburner. Adds Jacob, "I've been hitting my nutty plays slightly more often, but other than that, I feel like I haven't changed."
Looking to LAN
Fireburner's role as captain has played an important role behind the scenes, too, as he helps keep emotions in check during tense matchups. "Having a captain like Fire has helped me a lot this season," admits GarrettG. "I used to have so much pressure on me that certain days, I really couldn't handle it. Having someone to calm me down and keep my morale up has made me a lot more comfortable playing in high-pressure situations."
"Fire is one of the most knowledgeable people in the game, and I knew I could become a smarter player from playing with him," adds GarrettG, who said earlier this year that he specifically wanted teammates that he could learn from. "It has improved my game a lot: I go for a lot less flashy things and try to be as efficient as possible."
Fireburner's calming influence could be critical at the World Championships. NRG's path to a potential championship won't be an easy one, as their first matchup could be against either EU stalwart Northern Gaming (or Oceania's JAM Gaming) — and the next series thereafter could pit them against last season's champion, FlipSid3 Gaming (or NA's Selfless). Northern is playing down a starter, while FlipSid3 hasn't seemed as consistently strong this season, but they always turn it on in tough battles. Clearly, NRG won't have a light early load this time around.
"Being first seed is nice. Seeing Northern Gaming as a fourth seed is not," says Jacob. "The seeding bothered us when we first saw the results, but we've had a bit of a change in mindset since then. If we want to be able to win RLCS, we have to get through FlipSid3 and Northern Gaming regardless, [so we] may as well do it at the beginning."
After North America's rough collapse last season, it's encouraging to see NRG firing on all cylinders and looking like a team that's every bit as strong as Europe's best. Even their competition think they look scary: Snaski, captain of this season's surprise EU team The Leftovers, told us this month that NRG "seems kind of flawless."
NRG are clearly confident, but they're also trying to not buy into the hype. They've been close before, and they know they'll have to earn a potential championship by beating the world's best. Fireburner says they've set a modest goal of placing in the Top 4, which would be an improvement over last year's result, while GarrettG thinks they "have a huge chance to go far into the bracket," and that he's "never felt more confident in my team going into LAN."
According to Jacob, however, they still have plenty to prove. "We feel much stronger going into this live final than any of the others," he asserts. "The pieces have come together with our team and this is 100 percent the best iteration of NRG there has been. Now all we have to do is prove that to everyone else."