Believe it or not, there was a time when sports games weren’t the redheaded stepchildren of the video game industry. If you grew up with ’90s and ’00s video games, it’s likely that some of your best early moments within the medium were hitting that triple kickflip down a stair set in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, or avoiding a crushing hit by wall running in NFL Street, or turning the Chicago Cubs into perennial World Series champs in MVP Baseball. While the video game industry at large was still figuring out its place within the contemporary zeitgeist, sports games were pushing the industry forward. Innovation and technological breakthroughs were par for the course due to an incessant need to realistically replicate the awestriking moments fans saw on primetime television week in, week out.
Unfortunately, the standard has fallen dramatically when it comes to sports games in the modern era. The sports franchises you likely fell in love with as a kid are all but gone or just a shell of their former selves. Today’s companies no longer prioritize recreating the essence of the sport they’re attempting to capture. Instead, sports games are, by and large, predatory cash grabs that emphasize gambling on packs (or loot boxes) rather than mastering mechanics and having fun with friends. Annual titles like FIFA and Madden – both produced by EA Sports — all but force players into the pay-to-win sinkhole that is “Ultimate Team,” with other game modes being either an afterthought or left to rot entirely. This is the stigma that has plagued the sports game genre for the better part of a decade.
One game, however, has emerged to make things right again and that game is none other than Rocket League. Unlike its modern counterparts, Rocket League isn’t based on a real sport – the game involves two teams of three players driving around in motorized cars chasing a ball and attempting to guide, or smash, said ball into a net. It’s a weird, almost dystopian amalgamation of soccer, hockey, and a demolition derby that feels like it shouldn’t work but it does. And despite being released in the summer of 2015, Rocket League enjoys continued success with an average monthly player count of almost 96 million as of May 2021, as estimated by activeplayer.io.
So, why does Rocket League continue to be one of gaming’s most popular titles despite its age? The answer is quite simple: It’s honest.
Whereas other sports titles rely on an algorithm to determine the player’s success, Rocket League’s gameplay is completely dependent upon physics. It isn’t like FIFA where scoring a goal or sending your shot into the nosebleeds is more or less randomized, or Madden determining if your perfectly timed tackle is going to be as effective a wet noodle being used as a lasso. In Psyonix’s bizzarro sport, your shots and blocks are only as effective as your positioning and timing. Using a well-timed speed boost can be the difference between clearing the ball out of danger and missing the play completely, making yourself look like a complete fool to your friends in the process. It is also the difference between bagging a wondergoal and your shot sailing far wide of the mark.
Unlike many other games in its genre, Rocket League has a steep learning curve. Because of this, the game boasts a robust game mode completely devoted to training and covers every aspect of the game, whether it be how to attack the ball in the air, scoring goals, or keeping goals out. And even after you’ve gone through each section with a fine-toothed comb, it’s likely that it’ll take quite a few games to truly settle in to the game’s breakneck pace and technical skill it requires to adjust on the fly. One might think such a difficult acclimation period would discourage some newer players from sticking with it through the trials and tribulations of becoming a formidable force in the game, but if the numbers are any indication, this has done little to stop gamers from enjoying the experience. If anything, Rocket League’s difficulty adds to its depth and keeps things interesting for even the most seasoned players, giving it a ton of replay value.
And if you were wondering, no, there is no pay-to-win element within Rocket League at all. Any and all microtransactions in the game are completely cosmetic and exist simply to make your personalized cars cooler as opposed to more effective. The playing field is always level, never unbalanced due to one player being able to afford pricy loot boxes going against another who cannot. Even if you can’t afford all of the cool swag Rocket League offers, the game will allow you to earn a good portion of items as you play and even trade items amongst other players. To make things even better, all maps added to the game through DLC are completely free as well, which ensures you will never be left alone whenever a new add-on is released.
Another big aspect of Rocket League’s appeal comes down to it being a cross-platform title. As of February 2019, players on any platform can match up against each other whether they’re playing on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, or PC. This makes the game’s ranking system a truer reflection of skill and prowess whereas many of its competitors lock their player base to whatever console or platform they are playing on. This also keeps the pool of competition vast at all times.
Rocket League’s genius and lasting power is defined by its simplistic yet challenging gameplay, dedicated community, and affordability. In an era where gamers are constantly let down by unethical and predatory practices of the sports gaming industry, Rocket League’s honesty and purity is a welcome and refreshing revelation. It’s one that you hope to see replicated more often in the future whether it’s from other indie developers like Psyonix or even the big boys at EA and 2K (though we’re not holding our breath).
Even if smashing cars into large metallic balls doesn’t sound like your thing, it’s an experience that needs to be had at least once. And odds are it’s one you’ll want to revisit over and over again.
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