Rocket League has been out for well over two years now, but only recently have I seriously gotten into playing it, and I’ve noticed something. Though most widely referred to as the “soccer with cars” game, it encompasses something more profound in practice.
It seems hard to ably express exactly what that is with words alone. My best attempt at the short version of it would be as a metaphor: Rocket League is a distillation of sports. Not just of a combination of elements from multiple sports outside of just soccer—though that is indeed a major part of it—but even of the fundamentals of the sports-playing experience.
Distillation is, in essence, a form of purification. An extraction of a desired substance that leaves behind most of the other trappings usually associated with it. A simplification that does not do away with the essential flavor. It is through that lens that I hope to analyze what Rocket League does.
We could go about this two ways. First, perhaps we talk about what Rocket League does that makes it an amalgamation of multiple sports? Otherwise, perhaps we tackle it by talking about how it distills the fundamental tenets of sports?
I think it would be best to tackle it from the latter angle, because I believe the distillation of sports fundamentals is what in turn lends Rocket League the ability to seamlessly mix the concepts of multiple existing sports into a single experience.
And to talk about the distillation of sports fundamentals, I’d like to bring us to Tim Rogers and VIDEOBALL.
Before his current stint as a Kotaku video producer, longtime video game critic Tim Rogers made a game of his own dedicated to making inroads towards his vision for the perfect sport. His efforts led to the modern-day Pong-with-Asteroids-esque-controls VIDEOBALL. Unfortunately, I’ve never played it with other people, only with bots taking the place of other players, but even then, it is still evidently a good damn game in its own right.
My aim in bringing this up, however, is not to compare and contrast his game with Psyonix’s. Rather, the copious amounts of time I’ve lately spent playing Rocket League reminded me of a talk that Tim Rogers did for the Game Developers Conference in 2016. Though it was in relation to a different game, i.e. his own, what he discussed then may very well transfer over to what makes Rocket League tick as an e-sport.
In summary, his talk was about the principles that he believed would underpin the hypothetical perfect sport, his arguments as to why he felt video games were the ideal environment for this sport over real-life physical spaces, and how that underpinned VIDEOBALL’s design. It’s thought-provoking and entertaining, complete with his signature deadpan funny style, and absolutely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already. Especially when thinking about Rocket League, which had come out a year earlier.
The part of greatest interest to our discussion would be the principles for what defines Tim Rogers’ vision for the quote-unquote “perfect sport.” Granted, they are the product of a single critic and wholly up for debate, and thus not some golden standard to just wholeheartedly commit. However, “the proof is in the pudding,” as they say, and VIDEOBALL being such the quality experience that it is ought to indicate that he must certainly be on the right track, at the very least.
Additionally, it is also interesting how Rocket League, despite coming out before VIDEOBALL and before this GDC talk, nonetheless seems to match quite closely with Tim’s five rules underpinning the perfect sport. Looking at the game through that rubric is rather illuminating, especially when you consider how the rules themselves seemingly exist to do away with much of the overhead and bullshit that governs other sports, i.e. it’s largely about the very process of distillation already.
So how about we do precisely that?
Tim posits that penalties—the infractions against rules and regulations that temporarily bring the game to a stop so that the undesirable circumstances can be addressed—drain the momentum of a game of sport, and in that way are a hindrance to the fun of said sport. He’s not just talking about unnecessary roughness violations here, but even such universally-adopted rules as stopping the game when the ball goes out of bounds.
It should be easy to see why video games would be a significantly better medium for achieving this than physical space. The very nature of physical space, where such factors as physics and opportunities for players to just clothesline another for whatever reason are ever present, necessitates having penalties in place so that the rules can be enforced. In a video game, however, the mechanics and controls can be designed, restricted, and fine-tuned to the point where no matter what players try to do (well, barring glitches, bugs, and hacks, at least), they will always be playing by the rules no matter what. Hence, no penalties required!
Rocket League has that 99% down to a tee. For one, nothing can ever go out of bounds; in fact, they actually use that enclosed dome that Tim is apparently obsessed about in order to enforce that. Not only that, but explicitly using the bounds for maneuvers is valid and useful, not just for things like bouncing the ball off the walls, but even to the point where the cars can literally drive up the wall and ceiling.
What about rough-housing, that constant source of penalties in virtually all sports? Not only is it also allowed here, but you’re even able to straight-up destroy them and take them out of the game for a few seconds by running into them at full speed! Colliding into opponents’ cars, in turn, is a legitimate strategy for disrupting their plans.
Rocket League also does not have an offsides rule. Meaning all cars can go to all places on the field at any time, no matter what. And thank fucking God for that.
Basically, there are almost no instances where anything will ever stop the procession of play. Rocket League removes most of what could bring things to a halt, while keeping in all of the sports action largely uninterrupted. This may very well be the most significant way that it distills the fundamental sports experience.
However, there’s still that 1% where Rocket League goes somewhat astray of the no-penalties rule, and it’s rather instructive: The scoring of a goal. It’s not even a penalty as we conventionally understand it—it’s literally the whole objective of the game—but the action does stop momentarily because the ball went somewhere that it usually doesn’t.
Thus, it arguably fits Tim’s definition of a penalty, technically speaking. I’m sure he’d actually argue this exact point, too. Consider that in VIDEOBALL, the action does not stop and reset whenever a goal is scored; it keeps on going. Note how this also ties into his belief that the perfect sport also utilizes multiple balls rather than just one, which is relevant considering that Rocket League is itself a one-ball game.
But is this at all a detriment to Rocket League? I’d say that it is not! The break in the action after a goal is a necessary part of the flow of the whole game; it’s such a momentous and important occasion, that everyone—players and audience alike—actually does need the short moment of respite afterwards to process it and mentally prepare for the next volley. Which goes to show how Tim’s Rules may indeed not the complete golden standard.
And crucially, by being the only moment where such a pause is ever used, is an additional example of the sports experience distillation that Rocket League goes for.
Note how this dovetails with the no-penalties principle. Taking penalties into account would not only mean more rules, but rules that would necessarily have to get more complicated in order to define the violations and state how said violations would be addressed. Thus, given what was discussed above, Rocket League thankfully avoids much of that right off the bat.
What about how simply it keeps things otherwise? Well, let’s give a shot at a description and see.
There two teams of cars. A ball starts off in the center of the playing field. Each team has a goal area on their side of the field. Before each volley, the cars get into position on their team’s side of the field. After a three-second countdown, the action begins, and the cars are now allowed to move. The instant that the first car touches the ball, the game clock starts counting down.
During a volley, the cars hit the ball around. When the ball fully enters one team’s goal area, the other team scores a point. At this point, the volley stops and the game clock freezes to a halt. The cars then get back into starting positions for another volley.
The team with the most points after the game clock (by default set to five minutes) runs out wins.
If there is a tie by the time the game clock runs out, the current volley stops, and everyone resets for one final volley, i.e. overtime. The team that scores the point during the final volley at overtime wins.
That’s pretty much it as far as the game’s rules go. Obviously, it took a few paragraphs’ worth of explanation, but overall, I think that is all relatively straightforward. As mentioned before, the fact that there are no additional penalties to keep track of helps this out a lot; otherwise, those paragraphs’ worth could have turned into pages’ worth of rules and explanations.
That allows Rocket League to play similarly to the likes of soccer, hockey, and basketball, but with far less regulations involved. Such an open-ended nature even lets the game take on elements of other sports. As crashing into other cars is not a violation, it can take on strains of football or rugby. Thanks to the walls that do away with out of bounds rules, there’s even a little bit of raquetball to be found here.
All of this ought to be especially refreshing when viewed in the context of sports games whose entire aim is to realistically simulate their sports experiences and mechanics all the way down to the plethora of penalties and their game-stopping, game-altering consequences.
However, there is also the matter of the rules governing what the cars themselves are able to do. Thus, we ought to go over those as well.
For one, the cars are able to do conventional things like accelerating forwards and backwards, steering, and using an e-brake for drifting maneuvers; crucially, they can do this along the walls and ceiling as well as on the ground.
Additionally, the cars can also jump. While in the air, they can do front flips and back flips, spins, and barrel rolls. After a jump, cars can also do a “second jump”/“air dodge” that gives them more control over their aerial movement.
Finally, the cars can also perform a turbo boost to move at higher speeds, and can even lead to flying in the air when combined with jumping. Boosting uses fuel, which is replenished by driving over power-ups scattered about the playing field.
These actions are considerably more complex than the one-stick, one-button scheme used in VIDEOBALL, so in that sense perhaps “the rules” are not nearly as “simple” as ideal. In that sense, fair enough. However, I’d argue Rocket League’s controls are still likely simpler—and, crucially, more intuitive—than other sports games.
An equivalent soccer video game might have different buttons dedicated to different types of kicks and passes, or to such actions as slides, dodges, and jumps. Hell, buttons that do one thing when you’re on offense might do something else when you’re on defense!
With Rocket League, however, literally every soccer-like action is done through the car’s mechanics, and those mechanics always stay consistent. Blocks, passes, shots on goal, chasing down the ball or an opponent—all of it is done by either accelerating, steering, jumping, air dodging, or boosting. Any advanced maneuvers, in turn, are not mapped to other buttons, but rather come from combinations of those listed mechanics.
Actually, that very fact also ties into the next rule.
Rocket League’s rules may be simple, but they still warrant constant moment-to-moment decision-making on the part of the players. Additionally, with a set of relatively straightforward mechanics that can nonetheless be strung together into some pretty crazy techniques, there are plenty of tools at everyone’s disposal for pulling off everything that they hope to achieve. Thus, there is plenty here that lends the game athletic depth.
And it does that while also handily decimating the “You’re just pressing buttons to make things happen!” stereotype of e-sports. Those advanced maneuvers where cars are striking at balls in mid-air for goals or defense? Speaking from personal experience as a not very good player, no mere “pressing of buttons” makes any of that happen. You need to earn every ball maneuver that you want to perform through skilled driving.
Which is to say that Rocket League not only has the “What should they do?” facet of sports, but even the “Can they actually pull it off??” aspect that drives much of sports’ appeal.
Rocket League fits this to a tee. All players are constantly switching between all conceivable roles at all times. It’s a state of affairs borne of a playing field small enough, and a player count small enough, and that is to the game’s benefit. Each game is only around five minutes, but there is no lack of action given that reduced time limit on anybody’s part.
Two years in, Rocket League is still a thriving e-sport. It certainly does not lack for spectators. Additionally, it is absolutely a riveting watch. Also a fair bit more legible than the seemingly chaotic likes of MOBA’s or competitive Overwatch. and definitely more intuitive to pick up on than the nitty-gritty of fighting game mechanics.
Even as a player, that last fact is especially nice to have; no matter how good or bad I’m doing, I pretty much know exactly what happens during each moment, and what led up to it. Not even other competitive games that I adore, e.g. Splatoon, allow such constant awareness of everything that had gone on.
That covers all the criteria. And honestly, that seems so exhaustive that it covered all of my thoughts—and then some, hoo boy what an amount of “some” it turned out to be—about what Rocket League does so damn right on the sports front.
Ultimately, this is the kind of game that even I, someone who has never really been much into sports but could still appreciate to a certain degree, can be totally on-board with. I don’t know if the lack of extra stuff that Rocket League represents would really have been enough to get me into sports as a kid, but I’m pretty sure that it certainly would have helped.