We tackle what it is about Rocket League that makes it so very addictive.
Rocket League is dominating the games conversation right now. Self-described as soccer with cars, the game pits teams of three in a showdown between vehicles. The challenge -- score more goals than the other team in five minutes.
It's a simple concept, one tried earlier with the developer's own Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, and it works well. It's a bit more Ice Hockey than soccer -- it's a full contact, anything goes sort of endeavor -- but once you get a handle on it, it becomes highly addictive.
The concept is simple enough that we've seen it before. I'm seeing it compared to Twisted Metal and Mario Kart's battle mode, but it reminds me more of Quake 3 Gridiron. Or, more recently the brilliant (but complex) Supraball.
I first played Supraball early last year as I was chasing a sci-fi style sports experience. The concept of eSports is intensely interesting to me, but I find it odd that the most popular eSports often have very little resemblance to traditional sports. Basketball, hockey and football are centuries old, they're well refined and they deliver regular, consistent experiences for spectators. So I find it odd that the eSports we love to watch are so dramatically different to those experiences. That's not a criticism of them -- I think it's a testament to the inherent 'ingestibility' of your DOTAs or Counter-Strikes that they manage to capture the attention of thousands. I just find it odd that the closest sporting facsimile for most modern eSports is competitive paintball.
So when I find out about a futuristic sporting experience in video games, I get hooked quickly. And I think the popularity of Rocket League over the weekend proves that, conceptually, the idea has legs -- people are keen to play a game with the structure of modern sports but the fantastical elements of a 'future sport'.
So why is it that Rocket League kicked off, but Supraball and Quake 3 Gridiron never really did?
Good eSports look for what is called a high skill ceiling. What you want is room for the best players to grow, to get better. Skill differentiators create these opportunities, and they establish scenarios where the best can get better. If you think about Counter-Strike, map knowledge is a skill differentiator. The more you know a map, the better you're able to strategise AND adjust tactically during a match. Aiming is a skill differentiator -- just being able to put 80% of your shots on target makes you better than most CS players, and if half of those are headshots, you'll clean up at your local LAN. Bunny hopping is something only the elite can manage (well, the elite and Youtubers allegedly playing on private servers), so that gives the very best an even greater advantage. CS has a high skill ceiling -- a lot of that has to do with aim, but there's so much that goes into a single round of Counter-Strike that I can't list all the elements.
DOTA 2 or League of Legends is similar -- Last Hitting, knowing where Sentry Wards might be, knowing when Runes will drop, knowing your Heroes best build, knowing your team synergies and how to counter the other team... the ceiling is massive, which creates compelling and interesting matches for spectators (and allows players to continue to improve each time they play).
Rocket League hints at a high skill ceiling, although I've only played a few hours of the game so far. Like Counter-Strike, a lot of this has to do with aiming, but there are other factors at play. Boost power management, positioning on the field, jump timing -- all these things offer players room to grow as they get more experience in the game, but the ability to hit the ball where you want it to go (while under pressure) creates a differentiator of considerable value. So Rocket League has potential right out of the gate, but it's the game's skill floor that gives it the most potential, in my opinion.
Rocket League is, at its most basic level, a game about ramming your car into a ball. Where Supraball combines the skill based running and jumping of quake, creating a first person shooter mixed with soccer, Rocket League is Dodge-em Cars with goal posts. Anyone can drive their car at a big-ass ball as fast as they can, which means, very quickly, anyone can get in on the fun.
At its most basic level of play, the resemblance between Rocket League and a game of Under 5 soccer is uncanny. If you've ever watched Under 5's soccer, you can recognise it immediately -- they're like piranha's chasing some food, swarming towards the ball with very little regard for those around them or the direction they take it when they get it. Rocket League is the same -- people, who I presume must be at least over 10, will rush towards the ball in an effort to hit it irrespective of where that sends it.
The thing is, everyone still has fun. That's the essence of the game -- even when nobody is doing things correctly, they still have fun because it evokes a very deep and immediate level of understanding. Almost everyone knows how to drive a vehicle in a game, and tapping A to jump isn't a grand leap beyond that. More than that, everyone knows the basic rules of hockey or soccer, and Rocket League uses that to its advantage as well.
What's fascinating about Rocket League is that as soon as one player stops ball chasing and begins playing a role, their team's advantage becomes significant. If I move to play in Goals, only coming out for the occasional attacking run, our team will regularly go 4+ to nothing. The chaos of having six players chase after the ball like a swarm of bees is no different from that of five players, but my team has a permanent defensive fixture. Of course, being a goalkeeper is no easy task in itself -- you still need good timing, and it helps if your killa bees don't smash into you while you're trying to defend.
What's really interesting about self-assigned, unspoken roles in Rocket League is that, if the same group plays together repeatedly, other players start to adjust their play style to match. In multiple consecutive rounds now I've watched a player on the opposite team decide to tend their own goal. I've seen players ignore the ball to focus on checking me away from the goal line, and I've seen my own teammates insist on taking over keeper duties.
In Rocket League, water finds its own level very, very quickly. And it's fantastic.
Obviously only time will tell as to whether or not Rocket League achieves success as anything more than a brief distraction during a relatively slow period of game releases. Available for free on PSN, and just $20 on Steam for PC gamers -- and featuring cross-platform competitive play between the two -- it should maintain a sizeable community even after its launch window. Supraball, the other title I mentioned, is still an excellent game, and it's free-to-play. But with a higher skill floor and a depleted community finding others to play it with can be complicated.
PS - I should clarify that I'm not saying you should go down to your local park and watch 5 year olds you're not related to play soccer. If you have a 5 year old child or sibling, watch them play. Do not show up at random children's sports games.