Rocket League [official site]! Cars with fire shooting out their bums, playing football! The absolute best! Or… so it was in 2015. There is this trend whereby the most fresh and accessible game drifts into incomprehensible specifity and a poisonously impatient community over time. Two years on, has Rocket League escaped that curse? Or: if you are, like me, something of a casual player when it comes to competitive online games, is there still a way into Rocket League?
I admit it: I was braced for the worst. My blood temperature dropped ten degrees when Graham suggested I check back in with Rocket League. Though I’d absolutely enjoyed it in 2015, the relentless march of new game releases and relentless demands on my spare time by my child had meant that my time with it was brief. From afar, I’d seen regular news about new modes it had added, all these new cars and arenas, tweets about amazing trick shots and friends who’d played it every day since launch and I could only think “uh-oh.” This is the exact pattern for a game that turns from “c’mon everybody!” to “spank the newbie.”
I was conscious, too, of the fable of Team Fortress 2 – while still a game you can drop into and start shooting people, there is now this wall of complexity to it, in terms of equipment and modes and special abilities and what you need and what other players expect. It’s often the price of continued success, and I was sure Rocket League would have begun its own drift into satiating the hardcore at the expense of welcoming the novice.
Also, obviously people were going to be horrific to me, the greenhorn of greenhorns, as cack-handed at racing games as I am at football games. Rocket League, surely, would have devolved from a free festival to a street fight.
“Rocket League is art, innit?” is what I wrote in the RPS chatroom half an hour later. Some black magic has kept Psyonix’s car football game from the impenetrable, angry fate of other long-lived online games. It takes confidence and perception to stay the course as this has done, to not swamp it with complexity and mandatory add-ons. The DLC that there is is all about car designs and accessories, the playing field kept absolutely level. Even slightly less easily-comprehended modes, such as one where you have to gradually demolish the floor and score goals by knocking the ball into the resultant hole, are tucked neatly into a second tier of modes, opted-into rather than forced upon the overwhelmed newcomer (or late-in-the-day returner, as I was).
Rocket League, in other words, is still Rocket League, which is to say a game in which you make a Micro Machine chase a ball around a relatively small and enclosed pitch, trying to knock it into a goal with an impressively minimal set of controls.
Reading recent developer comments about cross-platform play, it’s clear that their interest is in continually expanding the audience over and above meeting whatever demands the already faithful might have. “We’re not trying to build six Rocket Leagues,” Psyonix’s Jeremy Dunham told Engadget. “We’re not looking forward to when Rocket League 2 and 3 and 4 are coming out. Rocket League is the game we’re gonna keep updating. It’s important to us to keep that going, cross-generation, across multiple platforms without sacrificing anything.” Opening up, not locking down.
This untarnished spirit of accessibility isn’t merely down to a caution about how much new stuff gets added, however. There are two elements of Rocket League that, to my mind, have most successfully kept it fresh while at the same time sparing (in most cases) rookie players from the worst vitriol of the pros.
The first is this: a really solid insta-chat system. Pick a canned phrase from the d-pad, be it encouragement, commiseration or the declaration of an intended role, and that’s all your team needs to hear. It’s instant, it’s got almost all the lines it needs, and, beautifully, this is used more than vocally swearing through the mic. Rocket League is not a game in which everyone talks, while its gamepad-fitting nature means that almost no-one is using a keyboard, and the net result of this is that, whether truthfully so or not, it feels quicker to use a prefab line than to shout, let alone type one. Tap, tap, well done / oh no / I’m on defence.
I’m reminded of demos for kid-friendly MMOs I had to sit through a decade ago, and the padlock-tight systems they contained in order to remove the possibility of awful adults saying awful things to children – only pre-approved phrases and emotes were permitted. That isn’t a requirement in Rocket League, but, thanks to sheer ease and speed, it is its reality. In other words: someone has to make a significant effort if they want to give you a hard time and, if you’ll forgive the sweeping generalisation, the kind of person who is minded to be deeply unpleasant towards perfect strangers is not big on making significant effort.
As such I’ve found my return to Rocket League to be a broadly silent one, bar matey back-slapping for a good goal or save. Crucially, that includes congrats to players on the other team. If a goal is good, even opponents will say so. And they do: chat, at least in the more casual matchmade bouts I’ve been playing, is filled with praise, not vitriol. Remarkable.
Rocket League’s other, and most abiding, masterstroke is that this is a game in which failure is rarely conspicuous. If someone’s a spectacularly skilled/experienced player, it absolutely shows; if someone’s an absolute car crash of ineptitude, it’s invisible unless you’re looking incredibly closely. Which, beautifully, is effectively impossible in a game in which you’re moving at rocket-speed throughout.
Rocket League has this thing where you press a button and immediately start driving incredibly quickly. This alone makes any player look like they’re a professional race car driver, to the extent that even someone who doesn’t even remotely know what they’re doing is nonetheless covering the length and breadth of the arena constantly. You press the button and you drive in the direction you are facing really, really quickly; this looks intrinsically awesome. Compare this to sights of novice FPS players getting stuck in doorways or starting at the ground for the six seconds until they’re shot in the base of the skull.
Oh, you can look close, see all the missed taps and bungled goals, the propensity for being on the other side of the arena from the ball, but nonetheless it will always be someone looking cool in a rocket-powered car. Maybe they’re off over there because that’s where they think the ball is headed next; maybe they’re just righting themselves from the most awesome manoeuvre you did not in fact see because you were too busy driving along the wall the yourself; maybe they will be a split second away from scoring the most incredible goal you’ve seen in five minutes, which in Rocket League terms is exactly the same as a lifetime, because that is how Rocket League goes.
The point is that Rocket League’s essential, accelerated nature means that almost all ineptitude is masked, and the game has not escalated to the point where there is a certain strata of people being visibly and dramatically superior to everyone else. Yes, there will always be a few pros amongst the rookies, and yes, one or two of them may dominate the scores, but right now they serve as inspirational figures rather than punitive ones.
Everyone in Rocket League contributes; no-one is on the margins. Other players cannot give you a hard time if they cannot see that you are having a hard time. Sure, the final tally might show that you contributed zero goals and/or no assists, but in the heat of the moment you’re just one more superstar on the pitch.
That Rocket League has managed to maintain this, after two years of tweaking and a dedicated audience, is a rare and beautiful thing. This is a welcoming game, now as then, and I have felt as excited by it now as then. Long it may reign. May the fans never steal it away from the rest of us.