Junior Ben “Vortex” Friedberg (right) sits with OSU Scarlet teammates sophomore Kevin “Slepy” Higgins and sophomore Justin “Maseter” Raiff. Credit: Courtesy of Justin Raiff

Less than three years ago, Ben Friedberg, Aaron Nikolai and Jimmy Bauer were strangers at Ohio State, but they had one thing in common: Rocket League.

The soccer-inspired video game not only brought them together, but garnered them a $9,000 reward –– the first time any of them had earned a monetary prize for gaming –– and set the standard for the growing Rocket League esports community at Ohio State.

“If you’re interested in video games, don’t get discouraged because you think you’re not good enough or you won’t fit in,” Friedberg, a junior at Ohio State, said. “Don’t stop because you don’t think you’re good enough.”

Ohio State missed out on a chance to be represented in Atlanta for the Final Four Fan Fest –– and a $75,000 prize pool –– this year, but in December 2017, Ohio State players competed remotely from personal computers in their bedrooms during the grand finals of Collegiate Rocket League’s first season.

Ohio State won nearly $10,000 in a second-place finish to Northeastern, but hasn’t attained that level of success since. Once the fall 2020 semester begins, Friedberg, who plays by the name “Vortex,” will be the only person remaining from the team’s original roster.

Bauer, known as “Jbob,” initially failed to qualify for the Collegiate Rocket League in fall 2017 with his original team, but he still had one final date to meet the mark.

Bauer had to assemble a new squad though, and linked up with Nikolai –– known as “KiiNGz” –– through a signup page set up by Ohio State’s esports initiative. The pair searched other avenues for a third member to complete the team.

Bauer said he visited the Twitch stream of popular professional player “Jacob” to ask if there were any high-level players at Ohio State. He was referred to Friedberg, who as a freshman nearly qualified to play professionally at the time.

The trio took the league by storm, winning five series in a row in the Northern Conference playoffs to qualify for the national tournament.

“No one knew how good we were, and we took everyone by surprise and just slayed everyone up until finals,” Nikolai said. 

In four months, Ohio State went from being nearly unable to play in the regular season to competing for a $50,000 prize pool in the league’s grand finals.

On Dec. 10, 2017, Northeastern emerged from the loser’s bracket for a second chance against Ohio State. Both best-of-seven matches in the grand final went 4-3. This time, Northeastern won.

“Being able to get that far in my first tournament felt really good, and that kind of solidified me playing for the rest of school,” Nikolai said. “I knew I was good enough, so that tournament meant a lot.”

Nikolai continued to play competitive Rocket League until this semester, when he was unsuccessful in qualifying for Collegiate Rocket League Spring 2020. Meanwhile, Friedberg took a break from competitive play after 2017. 

“After that first season is really when I stopped playing, probably for nine to 12 months,” Friedberg said. “When I was playing Rocket League, I was getting kind of burnt out.” 

The team expanded shortly after its first run, adding a team manager and drafting a “B team,” consisting of three alternate players to form distinct OSU Scarlet and OSU Gray units in 2018.

But neither team made it out of playoffs several seasons in a row, and Bauer moved from player to president of the Buckeye Gaming Collective after the spring 2019 season ended. 

“If we had performed up to our expectations, I think I might have stayed with it. But if we’re not going to be a top team, I don’t think there’s a reason to play,” Bauer said. “If I’m not getting them there, then they might as well try and get there on their own, and I can try to help them out.” 

Now, Bauer said he helps with reviewing practice and match replays to help players improve. He said criticism is much easier to give and take when it comes from a nonteammate.

Friedberg was drawn back to the fold this past fall though, joining OSU Scarlet with new teammates under BGC.

“What made me come back was I missed competing so much. I love competing, and this was the game that I put so much time into and was so good at,” Friedberg said. 

Freidberg and OSU Scarlet missed the playoffs Feb. 23, while Nikolai and OSU Gray failed to qualify for the league altogether.

Nikolai said he is spending the rest of the semester without the pressure of competing as he helps underclassmen improve their games. 

“I think it’s about giving younger guys more experience now, so trying to build up the next squad that’s gonna be here for a few years,” Nikolai said. “The focus isn’t really on me. It’s more on making OSU Rocket League better next year and the next years after that, too.” 

Friedberg said it’s enjoyable to think about a time when there were only three players who hoped that when it was time to graduate, there would be others to continue playing on the team after them.