Is Rocket League still welcoming to new and casual players?

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.

35 Comments

  1. MrPete says:

    Absolutely right.
    Rocket League still is the go to game for me and two friends when we have some time to spend.
    We can talk about our lives and whatever stupid shit happened at work or is nagging at us while still having a load of fun.
    And while typing a message might be done (yes, I’m one of the few using M&KB to play this) the quick chat pretty much has everything you need.
    Fun, amazement, holy-shit-did-you-see-that moments and despite quite different skill levels (our south African friend is making awesome shots look like easy stuff) we all have fun and our Ace moments.
    Setting up a goal, following a missed shot and barrel rolling into a rebounding ball just to have it hit the top of the goal and seeing that one being slammed in by the third of us who raced across the field to make a solid hit on a difficult ball – priceless!

  2. caff says:

    I play this game fervently. Almost every day, definitely every weekend – it’s embarassing, because I love diversity in games yet I get sucked into Rocket League like my number one drug. A few years ago it was Garry’s Mod Zombie Survival mode, now it’s this.

    Re: almost no-one is using a keyboard

    Not true – I think a lot of people still play this way. Make sure to disable cross-platform play, because you get more fellow PC players who are willing to type & talk.

    Sadly, 1 in 20 games results in an idiotic team mate that will either criticise every shot, abuse you, or abuse everyone. It’s a sad fact of the game, but it doesn’t detract from the thrill of a 2v2 competitive game.

    It’s so great, the physics are superb and I recommend this to anyone that enjoys multiplayer gaming. Just don’t let the 1 in 20 put you off.

  3. oversoul says:

    I agree that most casual games and (maybe) lower-ranked games are generally very friendly, often downright encouraging, places.

    Once one starts climbing the ranked ladder however, whiffs (on shots or saves), bad rotations, and poor touches are really obvious and will be openly mocked fairly regularly via text chat or “What a Save!” “What a Save!” “What a Save!”. Things can get salty real quick if two or more jerks are in the same game. I ALWAYS go in ranked with friends or just play casual. It can be exhausting otherwise.

    Not really a problem for new/unranked players though.

  4. Soda says:

    This is the kind of community I want in Brawlhalla, but I don’t think it will ever happen again.

  5. reroracle says:

    I’ve never really been into online multiplayer games. Rocket League is a clear exception for me though. It allows me to keep up with friends, and the matchmaking is right on in ranked play. Most matches that we play come down to the final minute or overtime.

    As simple as this game is, the level of strategy, and mastery that can develop over time is impressive. I’ll admit, I’m not a player that can fly all over the map and nail every shot, but in the beginning it’s very much about just hitting the damn ball, and after playing this game with friends for about a year, we’re more concerned with rotating positions on the field properly and taking advantage of teams that have overextended chasing the ball.

    Two years ago I would have never thought RL would be one of my favorite games of all time, but here we are. I bet it will still be up there for me two more years down the road.

  6. Viral Frog says:

    This is good to hear. It’s kinda sad, but I went to play last night and ended up closing the game while thinking, “I haven’t played in over a year. I don’t feel like dealing with bitter vets.” That’s typically how I end up abandoning multiplayer games. Jump in, find out everyone’s become bitter and vitriolic to new players and people who are out of practice, then I never play again.

    This gives me the encouragement I need to boot it back up and jump into a game!

  7. utzel says:

    I have to disagree about the masked ineptitude. I always see it, it’s right there in front of me, almost centered on the screen. But I can give it a nice hat.

    • ludde says:

      Agreed, it’s painfully obvious who’s good and who’s not. Alec probably thinks it’s not because he’s new.

  8. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    Oh you could not have picked a worse time to write this. Once the school holidays start, Rocket League turns into a playground for two months. It’s like flicking a switch.

  9. ulix says:

    I really like the quickness of it, which suits my ADHD style of playing most games.

    When you hit “join” it usually takes less then 20 or 30 seconds until you actually start playing the game. It finds a game very quickly, and the game loads very quickly, in ranked and unranked, which is awesome. And of course it only takes 5-6 minutes to play a game (unless there is overtime).

    It is the perfect game to have running in the background while you do something else on your PC, then just open it up and play a quick match.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    I played this every day after it came out in 2015. I loved it to death and it was such a great antidote to the hugeness of the Witcher 3 and MGS V. But the first half of 2016 was a very difficult time for me, with part of it involving going through a sort of depression that saw me eschewing many forms of social interaction, both in real life and online. Rocket League became a casualty of that, for me.

    At some point I’d find myself loading up the main menu, only to hit “quit” after a few seconds and throw on XCOM 2 or something instead. I had been getting pretty decent at it up ’til then, but during that weird time I just couldn’t put myself in a position that involved performing in front of people–be that with words or car skilllz.

    I’ve missed it a lot, and while I’m in a much better place right now, many of the anxieties Alec has laid out here have kept me at bay. I, too, have been worried that things have moved on a lot since last year–that and the inescapable “I’m probably shit at it now” feeling. But… fuck it. I’ve been thinking about taking the plunge again, and this article is tipping me over the edge.

    I know that in some ways this is silly stuff–I mean it’s a game about rocket cars–but yeah, brains are dumb. Cheers, Alec!

    • Muncle Uscles says:

      Oh man, can I relate to that – I’ve had periods of my life where I’ve gone for months without opening it up, even though by all accounts I love the game, I just hit 900 hours in it. I also find that a lot of the time I’d rather play solo than with friends, because at worst it’s 5 minutes and I never have to see any of the random strangers again, which often leads me to putting Steam in offline mode before playing so that I don’t get any invites.

      But it’s so worth it when I get past all that, when I get in the zone and start pulling of crazy shots and epic saves, or make that perfect pass and set up a teammate, I feel like pure Rocket Jesus.

  11. jancoo says:

    Few things I’d like to notice about that.

    I jumped into the game fairly late – in fact after purchasing it at a summer sale. I did my tutorials and trainings and I admit I’m still pretty bad – I make a lot of mistakes. Regardless there’s no league for those hopeless like me. I’m still being trash talked even at bronze level 1. I did not feel that way even playing Overwatch although the community there is pretty toxic. That’s not the type of gaming online experience I’d like to get.

  12. Slazia says:

    Toxic players is a huge issue in online games in general. They need to start sorting players by skill and attitude. Put friendly players with friendly players. Keep a trash can for the rest.

    • jancoo says:

      Yeah and even if you report a player – it seems like no one gives a shit about that.

      • Premium User Badge

        MajorLag says:

        That’s probably because people report people for things like being bad at the game or beating them. Solving the asshat problem on the internet is not an easy one.

    • BooleanBob says:

      I think some games do try this. Dota 2 employs a hidden metric called the behaviour score (you can find yours by poking around in the console) which is affects the pool of players you can be matched with. Mine is in the upper bracket and I almost never get melons on my team.

      I think League is moving towards a similar model now too. And Overwatch has its word filtering thing.

  13. c-Row says:

    I would probably love this more if I didn’t suck so hard at using the jetpack.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    “May the fans never steal it away from the rest of us. ”

    I’ve never played Rocket League, but this right here? SO MUCH.

    This happens in almost every other online game ever. MMOs are the biggest casualties. The older they get, the less accessible new content becomes to new players. Old hands become difficulty fetishists, proclaiming hard content to be easy. Stupidly, developers listen to these assholes 99% of the time, and the games end up being ones where if the whole of your free time isn’t being devoted to them, you’re not able to keep up.

    Diablo 3’s gone this way too, with extra stash tabs only being available to those who spend the most time playing the game, and being completely out of reach of the weekend enthusiast (I refuse to use the term “Casual”, as I believe its become too much of a negative label in gaming communities).

    And it’s the primary reason my multiplayer gaming has tailed off severely over the past 10 years.

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      I think if anything devs are getting better all the time at making games accessible, especially in MMOs; see WoW and Guild Wars 2. I must admit off the bat that I am one of the old hands you speak of when it comes to wow – I was there in 2004 for the beta and played it right through till 2013, and pick it up for a couple of months whenever the new expansions come out. I really do miss when it was harder; while I am not one of those salty Douchebags that complains about it I can offer a little I sight into why it happens, and that’s money.

      Some people have been subscribed to wow since forever and have spend hundreds of pounds keeping Blizzard’s servers afloat, so it can be difficult to see the game you’ve signed up for becoming something you don’t like. I can also understand Blizzard’s desire to stay relevant though, so it’s a tough balance to strike. It would be nice if they could leave the truly challenging endgame content in for those of us who like difficult Raid bosses, while confining the “dumbed down” (god I hate that phrase) content to LFR and LFG which most of the newer players use. That said, I don’t get my kickers in too much of a twist over it, since there are plenty of decent games out there for me to play while they work it out (or dont).

    • Asurmen says:

      Sorry, in what way does finding difficult content easy make someone an asshole?

      You can just buy new stash tabs in D3.

  15. GameCat says:

    I’m really enjoying this game on 4 players splitscreen, 2 vs 2 local or 4 local vs 4 online players.

    Playing with randoms online? Not fun at all.

    • Agnosticus says:

      Yeah, this is how I started playing RL and it’s the tons of fun!

  16. thischarmingman says:

    I’ll echo the author here: I just play this casually with friends now and then, and I feel the matchmaking is pretty spot on.

  17. TRS-80 says:

    Call me when it supports LAN play, then I’ll buy it.

    • Siimon says:

      With 4 player local splitscreen/multiscreen, and being able to set up private games w/ friends, the lack of LAN play is a tiny detail.

      • ulix says:

        You can also play 2 player “splitscreen” on 2 screens, so everybody has their own screen, if you change the resolution in a config file to 3840×1080. Runs great on my GTX 970 with a 6 year old Intel 2500k.

  18. Titler says:

    Part of this politeness seems to be because the author hasn’t grasped that cross platform players can’t type messages to each other. But PC to PC can….

    The politeness of people only remains true where you play in the casual matchmaking; however if you play in competitive team ranked, which is the only way to get the season rewards, you’ll run into toxic players again and again. In competitive 1v1 everyone is polite, but where people can blame a team mate, they can and will… even if you’re not doing badly, or actually playing as a team; sitting in the goal, to prevent the inevitable “chip over the top and everyone is too far forward to stop it” goal gets you just as much abused as missing a shot.

    This is exaggerated by the fact match making seems to be seriously, seriously wonky the last two releases, and you can get a huge disparity of skill in the bronze and silver ranges at least; so you’ll get frustrated newbies being torn apart by god like players, and people who know nothing but don’t know (or won’t admit) they know nothing raging at those who do on their team…

    To be fair to RL it’s so much less common than in other online games. The game’s community is, taken as a whole, much much better than most. But toxic individuals are still there.

    • ludde says:

      Yup, plenty of toxicity in ranked. And quick chat is mostly used sarcastically. E.g. “What a save!” when someone doesn’t save the goal, and so on.

      I disabled the chat and quick chat after a while and found my experience much improved.

  19. Eery Petrol says:

    Steady player since Season 2 here :) Rocket League has a nice community. You can be a part of the good vibes by applauding others’ successes, avoiding sarcasm and admitting your mistakes. I personally don’t even type in public chats because the quick access phrases are all you need.

  20. Nosebeggar says:

    Sadly what you described, a newcomer friendly community turning sour, is exactly what happened to Rainbow Six: Siege. The game is still great but you could tell the call of duty kids have now transitioned.

    “lol fag ez pz”
    “Nice hacking asshole”
    “OMFG NOOB HOW COULD YOU NOT WIN THIS?”

    It’s sad really. I try to be as welcoming as possible, not kicking new people just because they are new. I try to be a good sport and teach them a thing or two and even compliment the other team on a nice kill from time to time, but just my work isn’t going to make the community what it used to be.

  21. lanelor says:

    Aside from toxicity it is sad when teammates try to forfeit at 2-0 with 2-3 minutes left or even blatantly state ‘FF or AFK or I switch sides’. Then again, it is sooo good to turn 0-3 into a 3-3 and win it. Or then people thank you for the encouragement and trust to continue the fight and not FF.

  22. eljueta says:

    Still the only game I had to uninstall because it was ruining my relationship. I reinstall it whenever I get some alone time. It’s a bit like porn really.

  23. CartonofMilk says:

    I had played the game in pirated version last year just to see if id even like it. I did but was unable to play against human opponents of course because it wasnt a legal copy.

    And so at the summer sale this month i decided to buy it and play human players.

    I don’t know…. it matchmakes and all but half the time half the players are great at aerials and i find myself just hoping the ball will fall back down to the ground at some point. I end up on the losing team way more often than not (probably because the constant is me) and have scored 4 goals in about 20 games so far. I mean i don’t expect to be the star of the match obviously but between losing all the time (not to mention the people quitting before the game is finished) and barely ever contributing to the score ive come to the realisation maybe i should still stick with playing the bots…

    I wish it would forever only match me with new players as with probably a total of 40 hours in the game (ive played the bots a lot both when i pirated it and with my current legit version) i don’t feel i’m bound to improve much more. I’ve never been great at twitch gaming (well yes, in childhood i was) I KNOW how to do aerials in theory but in practice its beyond my skill level. Almost wish there would be a no aerials setting… i mean the ranking anyway means nothing as you WILL advance just as long as you play matches. I’m semi pro right now but what does it mean? Just that i played a bunch of matches, it says nothing about my actual skills. You should only be earning points through actions you do in a match. Then it would mean slightly more

    in short im not really having fun against human opponents because their skill isn’t matching up to mine in general. Or it is but you’ve always got one or two skilled players and they just score all the goals for their respective teams leaving the rest of us feeling rather useless.