Video Game football is struggling
Football fever is gripping much of the world, as continental competitions in Europe and South America race towards their finals. By far the most popular sport in the world, football has been described with some lofty adjectives: universal, beautiful, religious.
These qualities that make the sport so appealing cannot be applied to football in gaming. FIFA, the dominant football game on the market currently, can best be described as stagnant. Players are asked to pay full price year after year for titles that are largely similar. Accusations of ‘scripting’ – artificially biasing gameplay to one player or another – are rampant, with gamers frustrated at the inconsistency. For developers of EA’s quality, the lackluster engine is a particular disappointment. Then, there is the ever-present controversy of the online economy and loot box system.
Players of these games are increasingly apathetic. FIFA sales are in relative limbo compared to the growth of gaming in the last decade. While there are other names in the football genre, notably PES and Football Manager, these lack the mass-market casual appeal that the so-called universal game should attract.
Those looking to scratch the football itch might find one in an unlikely place. Rocket League (2015) is an arcade game about car football, with players using rocket engines to blast around the pitch. Yet behind the comical concept is a genuine gaming gem that captures the spirit of the sport – a mass-market title with an infinite skill ceiling, and a strong focus on the community. What makes Rocket League such an exciting game, how does it beat out FIFA, and how does it capture the footballing ethos?
Rocket League wants everyone to play
Accessibility is a well-documented factor behind football’s success. While other sports might require equipment and complicated pitches, all you need for a kick around is the ball itself. Accessibility has also been a key focus in the development of Rocket League, developed by Pysonix and now under the Epic umbrella. Rocket League was one of the leading titles to push cross-platform play. This was no easy feat in 2015, with the developers battling legal and technical hurdles, and also reluctance from Sony. After a hard slog to implement cross-platform play, the results are self-evident. Gamers today can play the game together across all the major platforms, uniting players into a single community.
In addition to this, Rocket League made the bold decision to become Free-to-Play from September 2020, leading to a massive influx of new players (especially as this came for many during lockdown). The game was never expensive, with a standard price of around £15 (or $20) and frequent sales reducing this price further. The Free-to-Play transition removed the largest entry barrier for gamers, as players didn’t even need an online subscription on consoles. Player numbers exploded in response to this. On Steam alone the player count more than doubled from August to September 2020, peaking at almost 150,000 concurrent players.
Comparing this to FIFA, with a yearly triple A release price and no cross-play in FIFA 21, the difference is night and day. FIFA has the advantage of a massive existing player base and an impressive array of licenses, but both of these are in decline. The franchise will need to arrest this slide before its rivals take advantage.
Rocket League has two gameplay advantages over FIFA:
- While FIFA is simulating an existing game under realistic conditions, Rocket League has complete freedom in game design.
- FIFA sells gameplay affecting items as part of the online economy, and is motivated to maximise these sales. Rocket League items are purely cosmetic, focussing design motivations on gameplay alone.
These come back to the issues mentioned earlier regarding FIFA’s engine. The engine has to manage many variables and present them in a way that looks realistic to a football match, while also making the gameplay satisfying. EA is struggling to find a solution players enjoy. While capable of adding interesting fluff mechanics each year, core balance across games is lacking. Player speed is still far too important compared to real life, heading and corners are underpowered and the ball seems magnetised to players at times.
In comparison, Rocket League is a purer experience that better captures the feel of a football match if not the exact look of it. Rocket League uses real-time physics rather than pulling strings behind the scenes. When an element of gameplay felt wrong during development it can easily be tinkered with. This is evident with the ball used in Rocket League, which is sometimes described as floaty. This was a conscious design decision: the ball encourages players to take to the air and prevents the ball from zipping around too much. The result is a game that can feel chaotic, but an enjoyable chaos that comes together well. This feels better than FIFA‘s clunky simulation.
None of the items in the online economy of Rocket League affect balance, as opposed to the variety of buyable players for some modes in FIFA. There have long been complaints of FIFA being pay-to-win as the developers encourage selling these items.
Rocket league is Easy to Learn…
So what is it like to play Rocket League? Like football, the basic ideas are easy to grasp. Players control their car, which can jump, flip and use boosts to increase speed as well as the expected car controls. The objective is to outscore your opponent by moving the ball into their goal over a quick five-minute match. Rather than having to learn button mappings for moves like in FIFA, the basics are intuitive and accessible to new players with no sporting background – no offside rule to learn here.
Your first game of Rocket League will be a car crash (pun obviously intended). Driving the car might be simple but understanding the flow of the game will take a bit of time. Fortunately, the initial hiccups are rarely frustrating and often hilarious, as players rocket past easy balls, bounce off their teammates to score tragic own goals and flounder in front of an open net. Early improvement comes quickly, however, and it won’t be long before you can complete basic passes and shots (most of the time). At this point, players are discovering the first dangerous addiction of the game. It is fundamentally fun to smack a ball around the pitch either alone or with your friends, just like it is playing five-a-side football at the local park. Rocket League is even fun to lose in many cases, an ability that many other games would wish for.
but hard to master
The second addiction comes a little later. At some point, you will either accidentally do something cool, or see someone else accidentally do something cool. Whether it’s a long shot that goes in the top corner or a bit of skill to beat a player, there comes a time where most players take a look at the deeper skills in this game, which are quite frankly incredible.
Footballers have bicycle kicks, Ronaldo chops and rainbow flicks. Rocket League players have their own moves: flip resets, musty flicks, and wave dashing to name a few. Unlike footballers, Rocket League players can learn to fly by making use of their boost. The skill ceiling is essentially limitless, taking hundreds of hours of play to master if you so wish across a variety of skills. More importantly, players of any level can feel constant, incremental increases in their abilities as they put time into the game. It’s a very natural system that feels rewarding, with no reliance on new artificial unlocks and upgrades. The satisfaction of seeing your skills increase in such a fundamental way is one of the biggest draws to the game.
As players get comfortable playing the game, many will be drawn to test their skills. There are three ways for players (of any level) to compete in Rocket League. There is a ranked mode that will feel familiar to most gamers, with a placement system and tiered ranks to climb up and tumble down through across different seasons. There’s nothing exceptional in terms of design here but the format is functional enough.
Tournaments are a little different, throwing players into knockout brackets. The tournament system is a lot more engaging than the traditional ranked system, where individual games are more high-stakes. Like the ranked system, anyone can compete in these regularly scheduled events, from lowly bronze players to season champions. The result is a highly accessible yet entertaining system that matches your ability and encourages skill progression, as well as being a memorable experience for the players.
Rocket League and Esports
For players seeking to watch the top level of play, Rocket League has an exciting Esports community. The recently restructured RLCS X championships see top teams face off for a whopping $1 million prize pool. A different format, RLCS: The Grid, hosts more regular contests for constant action. There are massive names in Rocket League, and the commercial potential is even drawing actual football teams into the fray.
There are two factors drawing players to the Esports scene: the chance to watch high-level play and to experience the explosive stories that are key to any competitive sport. Top-level players have spent nearly 6 years honing their craft: Jstn, GarrettG and Musty are only a few of the game’s greats. More important than the talent, Rocket League has shown the potential for miracles and dramatics that are driving its growth. The story of GarrettG, who endured an 8 season slog to win RLCS, is reminiscent of Liverpool’s long journey to the top in 2020. The community even has its own ‘Aguero!’ moment, with a late goal during one grand final leading to an iconic piece of Esports commentary.
The Spirit of the game
The success of Rocket League can be measured in part by its thriving community. Rocket League has seriously flourished in the years since its release, with players contributing to the features of the game. Player-led innovations include a completely overhauled training system through mods and Steam Workshop support, and a community analysis program that can break down your performance in a variety of interesting ways. More casual players can engage with growing Rocket League communities and content creators across the internet.
Rocket League has formed a blossoming community across skill barriers that is rare in gaming, similar to the culture that has christened football as ‘the peoples game’. Accessibility and a strong focus on simple mechanics have created an experience free from tedious balance discussions and community division. Picking up the game and playing with your friends is the gaming equivalent to a kickaround in your back garden.