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The Genius of Cars Playing Soccer Can't Be Denied Twice

The core idea behind 'Rocket League' was ignored seven years ago, but is now being embraced by the eSports crowd.
July 28, 2015, 5:55pm
Rocket League. Credit: Psyonix.

I've played more than 40 hours of Rocket League. It's time I don't have, but I'm obsessed with it to the point of making bad life decisions, sacrificing hours of sleep for just one more match that easily turns into 20 more matches.

It has one of those simple concepts that sounds too stupid to work at first, then pure genius: It's soccer, but with cars.

Two teams of up to four players each take to the pitch with cars that can boost, jump, and flip midair, trying to push the ball into the other team's goal. When the ball goes in, it explodes, blasting the cars away in every direction, and resetting the game for another kickoff.

I'm not the only one who's obsessed. More than four million players downloaded the game since it was released two weeks ago. Many of them got it on PlayStation 4 as part of Sony's PlayStation Plus program that gives paying subscribers a few free games a month. But Rocket League has also dominated the list of top sellers on Steam since its release. It still sees more than 100,000 concurrent players regularly, with a peak of almost 180,000 concurrent players.

What's baffling about Rocket League's success is that developer Psyonix already made an almost identical game years ago, and nobody seemed to care.

Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, which looks almost exactly the same as Rocket League. Image: Sony.

Released on the PlayStation 3 in 2008, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars was a little faster and had a few more stages as opposed to Rocket League's uniform court, but was mostly the same game. It got mediocre reviews after release and was quickly forgotten by all but the small, tight-knit community that stuck with it.

Vice president of marketing and communications at Psyonix Jeremy Dunham told me that the idea for Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Car came out of pure experimentation. Psyonix, which previously designed some vehicular combat for the Onslaught mode in the multiplayer first-person shooter Unreal Tournament 2004, was working on a dedicated car combat game. A level designer dropped a ball into the environment, and after the team played many, many makeshift kick-ball matches later, it realized that this was more fun than whatever it initially set out to design.

Dunham said there isn't one reason why Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Car came and went, while Rocket League is blowing up, aside from the much improved title.

"The timing of [Rocket League] worked out for us really well," Dunham said. "YouTube and Twitch are huge now. Video game streaming is everywhere. eSports is a thing. It's fun to watch. Because of our very specific release window, we don't have a lot of high profile competition to fight against to get people's attention. It's the collection of all these elements that is making the game successful."

Kronovi, the online handle of an emerging star of the Rocket League competitive scene, was one of those dedicated Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars players, and a tester who helped shape Rocket League over multiple beta and alpha trials.

"As far as fundamentals go, the game is the same," Kronovi told me. "The physics in Rocket League got a little bit heavier, but that puts an emphasis on teamwork, which I really enjoy."

Kronovi in a one-on-one match against another top player, Gambit. This is what high level Rocket League looks like.

Kronovi said he loves that Psyonix's car soccer concept is finally getting the recognition it deserves, and he feels that he and longtime fans like him helped make it happen.

"A lot of what shaped the game into what it is right now is the feedback we gave," Kronovi said. "The devs are amazing, they listen to everything everyone says, and they really take it to heart. When we said the game was too heavy they sped it up a bit, they made it a bit lighter, it slowly reached a point where we hit a sweet spot."

Kronovi's team, Cosmic Aftershock, are so far undefeated in eSports organization ESL's Rocket League brackets, which already include more than 100 teams. Psyonix partnered with ESL to support Rocket League's eSports future, which Kronovi believes is bright.

"If people want it to be an eSport, I definitely think it can be," Kronovi said. "With the addition of spectator mode in the coming months, I think that people are going to enjoy shoutcasted matches of high level gameplay."

"We're talking to the MLG [another eSports organization] now about how we can work together," Dunham said. "Twitch has reached out to us and has given us a lot of valuable advice to help Rocket League grow with both the competitive crowd and the more casual personalities. We don't know how it will pan out in the long-term, but we're really happy and excited about its potential so far."

Dunham doesn't think that Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars was underappreciated. It gained over two million downloads over its lifetime and hardcore players like Kronovi that stuck with it for half a decade.

"What Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars really was, was under exposed," Dunham said. "It came out in a time without the sort of bells and whistles that it needed to get to compete with AAA games that had massive marketing budgets or epic stories and amazing voice acting. It's today's eSports and streaming culture that has allowed us to find a better path."

You can get Rocket League from Steam for $20.

Correction 7/29/15: The post has been updated to reflect that Rocket League allows teams of up to four players each, not three. Sorry about that.