Why We’re Still Addicted To ‘Rocket League,' One Year Later

Psyonix's muscle-cars-and-massive-balls game has been a mainstay of our evenings since it came out, and we're not about to break the habit any time soon.
July 1, 2016, 5:30pm

A screenshot from 'Rocket League'

Remember when Rocket League came out? Glorious days, they were. The UK was well and truly in the EU back then, and had been basking in the summer sunshine of early July 2015. Rocket League emerged, hype free, on the 7th, and on that day record temperatures for the month gave way to thunderstorms and torrential rain, perhaps contributing to why we were all indoors, sat in front of our PCs and PS4s, furiously propelling hat-topped monster trucks into super-sized silver spheres in the greatest soccer-ish game to have been released this side of Sensible Soccer.

Psyonix's second crack at doing jet-propelled vehicles smacking a gigantic ball about the place in a demented future vision of Match of the Day meeting Top Gear on the set of Total Wipeout did what the San Diego studio's first, 2008's PS3-only Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, categorically didn't: it became a hit. A week after release, with substantial thanks directed the way of Sony's PlayStation Plus "free games" subscription service, on which it was featured, Rocket League had been downloaded over two million times. Come the end of the month, that figure had risen to five million. Today, a year later, the game's earned its makers $70 million in revenue, and its player numbers have exceeded 12 million. I (oh hey, that's me, Mike) still fire the game up almost every week, and can never leave it at one match per session.

And I'm not alone. VICE writers Joel Golby and David Whelan remain equally addicted. We thought we'd better work out why none of us can put this game down, given the usual shelf life of a video game (approximately eight minutes, I think, at the last count), and its simplicity, which is so often shorthand in games for a lack of depth.

David Whelan: What I really like about Rocket League is how you can go from being the Kobe Bryant of the game in one match straight to being told to leave by some kid in Stoke within the space of six minutes. And I dunno about you guys, but I'm rarely on a roll. I go from good to bad in seconds. And there's something very fun and addictive about that. But maybe I'm just terrible.

Mike Diver: Dave, I don't think I've ever played against you. I have played Joel though, and he's just terrible. Jokes. But then, I'm awful, too. At least, when I really come up against it. I have my good days where I go five games as MVP and score 18 goals and shit like that. It's hard to really explain, but this is a game, to me, where you have to be "in the zone" to get the most out of it, much more than, say, FIFA or PES. In those, you can consistently roll over the opposition, regardless of how shitty a day you've had. But if you've had a shit day before a few games of Rocket League, I really think that comes through in how you perform. There's something about the simplicity of it, that how you feel comes through in how you play, and perform. Right? Am I getting too deep, too soon, here? Fuck's sake.

For a game about rocket-powered cars and big balls, though, there's a shit load of "playability" in there isn't there? Whatever I think I mean by that. Which I don't think anyone was totally anticipating. It looked like a novelty game on release, not this massive hit that's also breaking into eSports.

Joel Golby: Mike's actually quite bad, in my experience. Misses crosses all the fucking time then goes on Twitter and boasts about getting seven goals in one game. Absolutely bullshitter. I, however, am good.

DW: I'm not sure I've played you or Joel. It may have happened just by chance, because I've played Rocket League a lot. If my friends only knew what I was actually doing when I said, "I have to work tonight."

The simplicity is one thing. It takes you back to being a kid in the yard with a soccer ball and pretending to be Sol Campbell. I'm kidding. Gazza. Like, it's very possible in Rocket League to actually do some amazingly cool and crazy stuff that is very childlike—am I going off on one, here? I dunno, but it feels like when you pull something off—a shot off the ceiling that goes in, for example, or a last minute bicycle kick save—that it's the culmination of both a) a childlike joy that the game celebrates and b) a bit of skill? Not sure you get that with FIFA or PES, which are lots of fun but also predictable. What I'm saying is: Rocket League lets you play like a non-drugged up or drunk Gazza, in a gravity-defying car. And what could possibly be better than that?

JG: I think my favorite thing about Rocket League, and perhaps it taps into what you guys are saying about the undulating skillset you seem to have game-to-game, is that it's very accessible. Like: if I go on the latest Black Ops, and spend ages doing my rigout and getting my costume just right, and I line up my shot, and: boom, a 12-year-old boy shoots me in the head and laughs about it. Or if I go on FIFA, and spend ages tweaking my formation, and have my Arsenal team set up just right, and: bang, a 12-year-old boy demolishes me 6-0 with Portsmouth and laughs about it. Essentially, if anything's more than about four days into an online community, I am far, far behind the skill curve, and that puts me off. But Rocket League is a great leveler. I go on there, I pick a hat, and then it's three-on-three and I could do anything. You feel just as much success for a good block as you do for a decent mid-air connector. You feel the same little victory for a good assist as you do getting the first touch at kick off. There are so many yes moments in Rocket League, which I suppose is what makes it such a euphoric little drug of a game: five-minute match-ups, as many moments of victory as there are despair, and then you go again. Every loss can quickly be erased with a decent victory. Every fuck up can be canceled out by something cool.

MD: That five-minute thing is important, isn't it? The quick starts, too, how it rarely takes long to get into a game. And that's so vital when you play several games in a row, because seriously: who the hell only has one game of Rocket League, when they think that's all they're gonna do, before bed? You have a shit game and you have another to try to be less shit. Fuck that up, another one, and so on, and so forth. I can't turn it off until I know I've had a decent game; maybe not MVP, but nudging it at least.

When you see the real elite of the game at play though, do you just do a little cry and think: fuck me, that's poetry?

DW: You can look at the global rankings here. I do not want to see where I am.

What's your favorite hat? I've gone for the spin-top baseball cap for about six months.

MD: I've pretty much rocked a pirate hat since day one. Changing it now would ruin my goal tally.

JG: I'm actually post-hat at the moment. I had a moment where I looked at my car—flame-lick paint, bobbly aerial accoutrement, large paper hat—and thought, "I'm trying too hard." I'm on the plain paint, no fuckabouts at the moment. I'm playing better, with more focus. I'm David Beckham when he shaved his head.

DW: A lot of people talk about "the meta" with online games—i.e. the folks who go off on Dark Souls and get themselves to a certain level so that they only hang out with the other cool folk—and I wonder if there's one in Rocket League? The introduction of the new ranking system, for one, suggests there could be? I remember reading a David Foster Wallace article about thinking he was a pretty good tennis player, until he actually saw Michael Joyce play. Joyce was ranked something like 100th at the time, but was playing a totally different sport, according to the Big D. I am sort of interested in finding out if there is a secret society of ridiculously sick Rocket League players out there who are never put into our random matches because they live in an ivory tower constructed out of all the chassis of the cars they've pummeled into dust. I'd like to watch a match competed by the top six players and see if it feels different or if they're just a little bit better and not doing that thing where you speed up to cross the ball, misread the path it's taking, and end up missing it and driving up the wall like an idiot.

Would it be really offensive to compare Rocket League to a great iOS game? Something that is small, but perfectly formed.

JG: Another thing I like about Rocket League is it's so mindless as to be soothing. The gravity is very intuitive: you don't have to think about it. The controls are "stop", "go", "move," and "jump." I play it a lot before bedtime, which means I end up going to bed about half an hour—or, as I call it, "six games of Rocket League"—later than I wanted to, but I play the game with half a brain on, and it sort of gets me in the mood for bed. You don't have to think much with Rocket League; you just have to react. There's nothing planned about it, nothing tactical: you just play full-on, high octane, throw your car at the big metal ball and hope you don't explode along the way. So yeah, in that way, it's much like an iOS game: as addictive as it is meditative, shallow fun with a dash of something more.

Here's a question that's been keeping me up at night though, lads: are the cars and ball really big, or are they really small? There's no sense of scale. The ball could be the size of a bus or a soccer ball. The cars could be car-sized or dinky RC things. Help me align this in my mind.

MD: Without a human-proportioned proverbial yardstick, it's hard to say. There's that pitch in the stadium, but those sure as shit aren't people. They're just, what, sentient colored blobs? Perhaps this is in the far, far future, and that's what people have become: just globs, perfectly round and smooth but still capable of waving a flag somehow, and roaring on an underdog because they heard stories of "Leshter Citay" in the Second Era of the Old Lands. Perhaps the whole game is powered by telekinesis, since the cars don't have drivers? This is making me think of the end of Men in Black now. You know, this.

DW: What if the cars themselves are sentient—like a gladiator scenario? What if they're being forced to play this game to appease the glob-people?

MD: And when they're destroyed, they just respawn. Their suffering can never end. Oh Christ, we're monsters.

DW: I feel that Joel wants to talk about the beautifully balanced systems that make Rocket League such a pleasure to play, and here we are talking nonsense about sentient blue globs. And Joel is on to something: while it took me a few tries to get into the game, once you have that light bulb moment, I don't think there's a more immediately fun game available. Anywhere. It just feels perfect. I think a lot of that has to do with the jump—the way your car hangs in the air even if you're going at full throttle. It makes timing a crucial aspect—timing as a fundamental part of the game's mechanics. And timing is also key to actual, real-life sport. Am I saying Rocket League is an alternative to PE? Yeah. Yes I am.

JG: Yeah, Rocket League is the first video game I've played where I've thought: you could play this, competitively, like a real sport, and that's because so much of it is built on intuition, timing, and pre-empting, rather than learned routines. You can train yourself to be incredible at essentially every video game—as I mentioned before, your Call of Dutys, your FIFAs—because they are built on firm rails, you can know the exact size and dimensions of the invisible rules at play and tweak them to your advantage. But what Rocket League offers is a true taste of chaos, and that's the vital ingredient that works as a leveler—you can be playing the greatest player on earth but an errant bobble can get you back in the game. It makes every game, every match up, feel unique and different—I think every Rocket League player can describe this one perfect, amazing goal they scored, and watch the slow motion replays of pretty much any of them and you'll see ten little battles taking place, cars shunting other cars out of the way, cars pirouetting close but so far away from a block, vehicles boosting just behind you ready to take their own shot, and it doesn't matter how many times you play it, you'll rarely score two goals that are the same, because you can't. And that all keeps it fun, too. You've got to hand it to Psyonix, they know how to keep the game fresh: new arenas (the new, mad, neon Tokyo one is a favorite), new game modes (ice hockey fucking rules), new hats—but it's all built on this fundamental system, a perfect gravity of chaos, that means you can twerk and play around on top of it, again and again and again, and never feel like you're playing the same game twice.

MD: Does anyone else sort of dart their head up, kinda jerk their neck, when they jump in the game, when they're going for an air ball—like they would when attempting a header in an actual soccer match, or kickabout at least? Just me? Surely it's not just me. I never do it in PES.

JG: I sometimes hold my breath when things get particularly frantic and I need an extra little boost of focus.

DW: I feel like you could actually write a thesis on probability with Rocket League at its center. A game of vectors and geometry, with six agents of chaos steaming around for five minutes. As you say: it's so close to being a real sport.

MD: Does that mean, then, that like Real Sports That Are Actually Good, it'll be around forever? I mean when it comes to eSports, Rocket League is one of the few disciplines I can really imagine myself getting into, screaming at the little people on stage, moving their little cars around. I wonder though, how long it'll be until Psyonix go too far and fuck it, with some addition they don't need. I like hockey too. The basketball version is alright but it's way too easy to score an OG. Is the proverbial jumping of the shark imminent?

JG: Basketball doesn't quite work as well as I'd like it to, TBQHWY. You want to have tweaked gravity so you can do perfect, careening-through-mid-air dunks, but instead it's quite low and the rim is too obtrusive.

DW: I may be in the minority between us here, but I haven't bothered with the alternate versions they've provided—am I missing out? I'm in love with the original too much. I can't imagine how they can improve on it. So, yeah, if they start tinkering and make it obligatory for all players, then I might throw my sentient cars out of the metaphorical stadium.

MD: So basically we're saying: we love this, but if you change this, if you dare to tinker with it, we will leave you.

DW: I genuinely, full heartedly, believe they won't change it. They must know what they've got here—I mean, how often do people celebrate a game's one year birthday? Counter this with something like Destiny, which was fun a few months, but has pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth for all but the truly invested. Halo was called "combat evolved," right? And I think Rocket League has done something similar—but with cars and gravity and massive balls.

MD: Anything more you wanna add, Joel?

JG: I like Rocket League.

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Rocket League is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Visit the game's official website for more information.

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