Rocket League is ridiculous. It’s a multiplayer soccer game that involves rocket-powered cars, and many silly hats. On the surface, the irreverence makes Rocket League an accessible videogame, appealing to people who might be controller-averse; on a deeper level, it’s mechanically impeccable in ways that even the most seasoned of gamers can appreciate. That’s why Rocket League has become one of the year’s most commercially successful and critically lauded games. But past its outlandish exterior, Rocket League emulates real soccer in surprising ways. This isn’t soccer, the world’s most popular sport that is regularly mired in all forms of international politics and scandal. This is soccer in its purest form: a game of ball-handling skill and athleticism, that just happens to involve a car.
Rocket League’s mechanics are dead simple. You drive your vehicle and try to push a giant ball into the other team’s goal. Each player has a limited amount of rocket boost that can be charged by running over specific areas on the field.
All of this is sort of intuitive. Anyone that's played a Grand Theft Auto game will be right at home maneuvering their weird rocket car around the field. And yet it does take some getting used to; at first, you'll likely charge at the ball, whiff, and get turned around enough to lose your bearings.
The most popular soccer game in the world is, unsurprisingly, the officially-licensed-by-the-corrupt-organization-itself FIFA series. It has been around for 22 years, and each iteration renders its players more lifelike, its stadiums more convincing. But I think FIFA is more of an accurate representation of what it’s like to watch soccer on television than to be playing the sport itself. I decided to ask several independent game developers and critics whether they believed Rocket League was better at capturing the spirit of soccer than FIFA.
According to Steve Swink, indie game designer and author of the book Game Feel, Rocket League’s success comes from its perfectly calibrated controls under the hood. “The tuning of the car's turning radius, the acceleration, the friction coefficient of the wheels, the slip of the brake, the top speed of the car, the adjusted acceleration of the boost—these things come together perfectly to make the player feel complete control,” he said.
What he said rang true. Early matches feel clumsy and funny, but as you play more, the game reveals its depth. As the game’s physics start to crystallize, you develop a sense of kinesthetic awareness—the same kind of feeling you get when you’re playing soccer (though it does develop quite a bit faster). Certain angles and lines reveal themselves to you as opportunities for a pass or a shot. Communication and teamwork become paramount. And that’s when you realize Rocket League is as essentially as thrilling and intelligent as soccer itself.
The sense of control the player feels in Rocket League, that physicality, is also what’s missing from FIFA, according to Russ Frushtick, editorial director of games at Product Hunt. Compared to scoring a goal in FIFA, which can feel like luck, Rocket League gives players “a tactile, gritty sense that you have complete control over everything that's happening.”
Ramiro Corbetta is a longtime player of the FIFA franchise and cites it as one of the inspirations for Hokra, the minimalist soccer game he designed as a part of the local multiplayer anthology Sportsfriends. For Corbetta, FIFA puts its emphasis on passing, whereas Rocket League is a game about communication and positioning. Even more so, Rocket League’s attention to the individual player rather than the whole team makes it an entirely different experience. "FIFA does a great job of making me feel in control of a soccer team,” he said. “What Rocket League does much better than FIFA, though, is emulating (and amplifying) the physical, spatial, and teamwork aspects of soccer."
Perhaps the most unexpected advantage Rocket League has over FIFA is how it sheds all of professional soccer’s thematic elements: the franchises, high-profile players, and international stakes. Rocket League embraces its silliness. When a goal is scored, the ball explodes and each car goes flying for absolutely no reason. As you play more matches, you unlock new vehicles, engine effects, and accessories (to reiterate: very dumb hats). All of these changes are cosmetic.
According to Doug Wilson, designer of the game Johann Sebastian Joust (also a part of Sportsfriends), Rocket League doesn’t carry the burden of real-world influences, allowing to be both accessible and focused on capturing the spirit of the sport. It’s not tied to soccer fans’ expectations. “Lots of people, especially many gamers, feel alienated from mainstream sport culture. Rocket League is something ridiculous that can't directly be tied to any high school experience or professional league,” he said. “People who would otherwise dismiss a ‘regular’ sports video game are willing to give Rocket League a chance. Ridiculousness is like the sugar of a sugar-coated pill.”
Earlier this September, the international esports organization Major League Gaming announced its first season of competitive Rocket League. (For comparison, the FIFA games are not part of MLG.) A representative of the organization cited the game’s combination of accessibility—as both a player and spectator—and competitive depth as the perfect formula for a successful esport “The coordination required to hit an accurate aerial shot, calling and executing complex play schemes, and really working together as a team is where you start to see a separation between casual [players] and pros, and it’s astonishing to watch when it all comes together.”
Rocket League is already one of the five most-watched games on the live videogame streaming service Twitch, the company acquired last year by Amazon for $1 billion and attracts over 40 million viewers a month. The game’s popularity—downloaded over 5 million times between Playstation 4 and PC versions—and its fervent fan base has led video game blog Kotaku to dub Rocket League “the next big esport.”
I’ve made several attempts to watch esports, but I often find myself totally bewildered spectating games as convoluted as League of Legends and Starcraft II, two of the world’s most popular esports titles. But even as a casual Rocket League player, I found myself totally absorbed in a thrilling MLG finals match. The underdogs blew an unexpected 3-0 lead, eliminated by a ridiculous last minute shot in the final seconds of the game to push the game to 3-4—the most dramatic conclusion anyone could ask for in any sporting event. At the time of this writing, that YouTube video had over half a million views. For comparison sake, that’s just above the average TV audience in the U.S. for an English Premier League match, and still a far cry from the viewership of a World Cup match, which averages to 4.5 million.
Still, that’s not too shabby for a videogame that’s been around for just shy of three months and available on only two platforms. For all Rocket League’s quirks, it is has a chance to be the first sports video game with mainstream potential. Soccer is often referred to as the beautiful game; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Rocket League called the beautiful video game.
Rocket League is currently available for PC and PlayStation 4.