The term eSports has become very wide-encompassing over the past few years, incorporating all types of gaming genres, from fighting games to first person shooters to strategy titles and MOBAs. Even as the burgeoning competitive pastime has grown to huge heights, I’ve never been able to fully appreciate the appeal.
What changed? Two words:
If you’ve played Rocket League, you might understand how it could convert a former non-believer. If you haven’t played Rocket League, my description of the game won’t really help you understand the appeal at all, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Rocket League is a game of indoor soccer played with rocket powered cars instead of people. The objective is to get to ball into the other team’s goal and stop them from getting the ball into your goal. You can play 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4. That’s it. That’s really it.
Despite its simplicity (and, as I’ll explain later, perhaps because of its simplicity), Rocket League is a runaway success, with over five million downloads and the servers constantly running at around a hundred thousand players at any given time. It’s also becoming a popular spectator sport with YouTube videos of matches and highlights garnering huge numbers already. So what is it that makes Rocket League so much fun, and such a strong candidate for eSports immortality?
It’s deceptively simple
Rocket League is the best representation of “Easy to learn, difficult to master” game design that I’ve seen since… well, I honestly can’t think of many games that do it better. Once you understand the basic fundamentals of Rocket League – jumping, boosting, centering, defense and aerials – you can follow and appreciate any match. Even if you can’t pull off an aerial windmill kick into the goal, you can at least appreciate what makes it such an impressive feat. Rocket League makes anyone think they can be a professional, as you’re always improving, and anyone could potentially get lucky bounces and have a great match any time. Rocket League’s approachability allows for everyone to appreciate the time and effort required to excel at the game.
It’s the truly skilled players, though, that are really fun to watch. It can be exhilarating to watch the best players in the world go head to head, as both sides make mesmerizing saves and gravity defying goals. And since everyone is playing on an even playing field, and Rocket League features no upgrades or bonus powers, there’s little for players to rely on besides their own abilities. The developers are hinting that new modes and power-ups might become available at some point, but the main mode is pure and simple – and should remain that way. It’s that mode, specifically 3v3, which is the most eSports worthy. Variety is derived from the unpredictable physics and the various strategies teams can utilize to achieve victory. This ensures that wins are always earned and losses always deserved, which is ultimately what makes for a strong competitive sport.
In the most literal sense, Rocket League is fast. After all, the cars are rocket powered. A match can change pace in an instant, which makes each contest a nail biting volley of physics, explosions, and speed. It’s a good thing, then, that each match only lasts for five tension-filled minutes. It’s easy to imagine a tournament with a dozen or so teams lasting for just around an hour or two, which is the perfect amount of time for a sporting event in the digital age.
Cars are customizable
A sport is nothing without all-star players, and since Rocket League cars don’t have jerseys with numbers on them, we need some way to tell all the players apart. Luckily, taking a cue from Valve, Psyonix has created a robust car customization suite with different paint jobs, hats, antenna ornaments and even exhaust effects. Combined with the easily legible player ID’s above the cars, this customization allows for each car to look unique and possess its own identity. Hopefully Psyonix will expand this feature and even add licensed cars or features.
On the other hand…
There are some things that the developers need to implement or improve before Rocket League can attain full eSports legitimacy. The recently added spectator mode is a huge boost, as the only two camera options – “standard” and “ball cam” – aren’t great for casual viewing of a match. As mentioned though, the game needs some more content; expanded car customization options, along with more stadiums would go a long way in improving the viewing experience. Foremost though, some strategic planning abilities are an absolute must for Rocket League to compete in the wide world of eSports. Teams should be able to assign positions and choose their starting positions from the pitch, eliminating the randomization that could create an accidental advantage for one of the teams. At the risk of contradicting myself though, the game could become a bit stale after a while, since there are few variables that would differentiate one match from another. Only time will tell if audiences start to lose interest in the standard 3v3 mode.
For now though, it’s hard not to be excited about the future of Rocket League as an eSport, especially after the recent Major League Gaming tournament and its absolutely stunning finale. I could go on and on about why Rocket League is a great spectator sport, and what it needs in order to be a legitimate part of the competitive community, but the fact is, there’s no denying it once you’ve played and watched a few rounds yourself. With an ever-improving player base and growing community, Rocket League is already exploding on YouTube and Twitch, and has nowhere to go but up.