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Rocket League blasts into the world of esports

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

The easy-to-learn “cars playing soccer” game brings the spectator-friendly accessibility of traditional sports to the technological world of competitive gaming. Anyone who’s had to suffer through watching a friend or significant other play “just one more round” of a videogame will readily admit that most titles aren’t such thrilling spectator sports. While slaying enemies in Halo 5 is exciting for the shooter, it’s a snooze-fest for any player without a controller in hand. One game, however, seems to have cracked that code.

Psyonix’s Rocket League not only pulls spectators into the action, it achieves the sought-after balance of successful competitive videogames: easy to pick up; difficult to master. Within days of its July release, Rocket League took the world of eSports by storm, amassing followers on streaming services like Twitch and securing a place in big-name tournament organizations such as the Electronic Sports League (ESL) and Major League Gaming (MLG).

The secret to its success? Beyond the eccentric combination of cars playing soccer, Rocket League manages to be something other esports aren’t: A game that reads like a sport in the most traditional sense. In Rocket League, the object of the game is the same as any soccer match—simpler, even, since there are no red cards, yellow cards or penalty kicks. Players must put the giant ball in the other team’s goal by controlling a car that can perform only a handful of basic maneuvers: drive, jump, dodge and boost.

Rocket League achieves the balance of being easy to pick up; difficult to master

As any high-level Rocket League player will admit, of course, the simplicity of the controls makes each face-off a serious test of reflexes, speed and familiarity with the game’s physics. “By the time you’ve spotted the ball’s position and are charging down toward it, an opponent has already hit the ball down toward your goal,” said Ryan “Doomsee” Graham, the captain of Team Rocket, a top competitive team based in Europe. “Everybody is trying to improve their speed just that little bit more, and the ball can barely travel two feet before being hit by another car.”

Most esports, on the other hand, look nothing like their non-digital counterparts. Fire up a game of League of Legends, DOTA 2Starcraft or Street Fighteror start streaming a match on Twitch, and players won’t see a green pitch with two goals or a hardwood floor with two baskets. Instead, there’s a dizzyingly complex interface packed with dozens of buttons, functions and information readouts. Players execute split-second combos that require thousands of hours of studying arcane, invisible systems.

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For the initiated, it’s extremely thrilling. For the n00bs, it can simply be confusing. At the highest level of competitive play, other esports like League of Legends also boil down to contests of speed. The player with the most clicks per second or “actions per minute” gains a huge advantage. In Rocket League, speed and lightning-fast decision-making translate into dizzying spectacles of vehicular athleticism. As influential game critic Ian Bogost observed, game design is always, on some level, “a process of abstraction.” Even reflex-heavy competitive games often translate simple button presses into complex actions, movements and combos (not to mention numerical values). But Rocket League resists abstraction on a fundamental level. The game puts as little as possible between the player’s input and the car’s movement.

From a spectator’s point of view, this means that watching a player fly up, do a flip in the air, and punt the ball into the goal after the clock hits zero—which is exactly what happened at the end of the first Rocket League tournament for MLG back in August—is a lot like watching the same thing happen in the physical world. In this case, it’s better because in the physical world, cars can’t fly.

“Some of the inspirations we had were games like Tony Hawk, Amped, and SSX—snowboarding, skiing and skateboarding games,” said Psyonix CEO Dave Hagewood, who considered having the cars sliding on rails during one phase of the game’s inception. “We thought it was a cool combination to take a trick-based game and put a car into it.” Ultimately, the game’s tricks involved freestyle movements. “The beauty of the game comes in when someone who doesn’t know how to fly first sees it done while watching a stream,” said Randy Gibbons, manager of the top-ranked North American team formerly known as Cosmic Aftershock, which won the first-ever tournament for ESL and went up against Urban in the MLG Final.

Speed and lightning-fast decision-making translate into vehicular athleticism

In late October, Cosmic became “iBP Cosmic,” picking up Rocket League’s biggest-ever endorsement deal. The saga behind Rocket League, however, began long before its little-known predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Carshit the PlayStation Network in 2008. Hagewood got his start by designing a vehicle mod for Epic Games’ popular multiplayer first-person shooter Unreal Tournament 2003. Epic then approached him to design the marquee feature of UT2004, a multiplayer mode called Onslaught that focused on—as the announcer liked to say in a deep, gravelly voice—“vehicular manslaughter.” Aspects of Onslaught are everywhere in Rocket League, from the tight yet “floaty” handling of the cars themselves to the way the ball explodes gratuitously every time a player scores a goal.

“That’s my style. I like big explosions,” Hagewood said. “Maybe it’s the Michael Bay-style of making games. “I love that kind of short, quick, very visceral kind of gameplay,” he continued. “And that’s exactly what you see in Rocket League. We pulled a lot of that same kind of style forward.” It might seem paradoxical to find this kind of “maximalism” in a minimalist game. But that might also be the point.

Since its release, Rocket League has shaken up the esports world by delivering a very different vision of what the term “esports” means to most players: Something that feels, looks and plays like a physical sport but is amped up to the extreme. Only time will tell whether the game can grow while retaining the simplicity that makes it so distinct. But one thing is for sure: gamers and spectators can expect to see similar games on the market in the future.