The most pervasive stereotype against American soccer is that Americans don’t know anything about soccer. It’s a very hard stereotype to break, and an easy one to reinforce. Regularly reaching the knockout rounds of the World Cup does little to enhance the reputation. Winning the Women’s World Cup outright also does little, as many countries still don’t seriously compete in women’s soccer. But a slump by the men’s team under an increasingly embattled Jurgen Klinsmann and his increasingly erratic squad selections, which continued with a comprehensive 4-1 loss to Brazil on September 8, will show that it’s still easy to find comments in the Guardian writeup siding with Klinsmann, as he can hardly be blamed for Americans being inherently bad at soccer.
Despite being one of only seven countries to qualify for the last seven World Cups- alongside Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain- this remains America’s lot. South Korea doesn’t catch this kind of grief, even though the US has made four knockouts to South Korea’s two (even if one of those two was a 4th-place finish on home soil in 2002).
Perception matters. If you have a Brazilian passport, it’s quite easy to find work abroad, even if you personally aren’t very good. There’s a reason that the squad list for Thailand’s Buriram United, at least as of the latest Wikipedia update, shows an entirely homegrown team except for one South Korean, one Venezuelan… and four Brazilians. Or why Shandong Luneng Taishan of China, in addition to their homegrowns, was as of March running only one Argentinian… and four Brazilians. One player, Gilberto Macena, has played for both. Is Macena any good? Well, this is where he went after six years with Denmark’s AC Horsens- who did not spent that entire tenure in the top flight with him as their main striker- so you tell me.
Meanwhile, unless you’re a goalkeeper, an American passport can be quite damaging to job prospects, especially if you’re a coach. If your name’s not Bob Bradley, good luck finding a coaching job anywhere outside the US/MLS… and if you are Bob Bradley, have fun in Egypt and Norway as opposed to any of the established elite nations.
This, meanwhile, is a list of currently overseas players, and it IS intended to be comprehensive, tagging everyone from Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan, Everton’s Tim Howard and Bayern Munich’s Julian Green to the likes of Travis Cantrell, a midfielder for Finnish second-tier side Vasa IFK and defenseman Royal-Dominique Fennell, plying his trade for Germany’s Stuttgart Kickers in the third tier. Given that fact, it’s not very impressive. Here’s the equivalent list for less-accomplished Australia.
But how true is it exactly? Where does America’s knowledge of soccer really stand?
I’m going to take a rather unorthodox method of measuring: Jeopardy. Jeopardy is recognized as a pretty intellectual test of a cross-section of the smarter folks in America, and any question asked on any topic would, naturally, be calibrated to be a challenging- though not overwhelming- test of the knowledge of a random cross-section of the smarter folks in America. Random, here, is key, because that means the question writers are unable to anticipate in advance the knowledge base of the contestants. All they know is the contestants are all pretty smart in general.
And that means you can’t get into overly deep minutiae on any one topic. You can’t be asking a random person the third ingredient listed on a can of Mountain Dew. For someone to have any chance of knowing that, they’d need to be a soda hobbyist (and there are some out there), or a health expert. (The answer, by the way, is concentrated orange juice.)
What would Jeopardy ask about Mountain Dew instead? For that, we go to the resource we’ll be using for this exercise, the J! Archive, a complete directory of every clue, response, and other assorted info, including the order the clues were called for. A search for questions concerning Mountain Dew (as clue, correct response, or even incorrect response) shows one particular clue that’s been used three separate times over the years. The wording used in 2008, when it was Beverages for $800, was “An animated character called Willy the Hillbilly once sold this citrusy soda brand.” It has been answered correctly twice and incorrectly once.
So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take the archive of Jeopardy questions and see what comes up for soccer. Where, exactly, do the Jeopardy writers peg as the limit of an average intelligent American’s knowledge of the sport.
For it to actually mean anything, though, we need a control. In fact, let’s take two controls: a sport in which Americans are indisputably knowledgeable, and one in which Americans are indisputably not. For the first control, we’ll use baseball, and for the second, let’s use its Commonwealth counterpart cricket. For all three sports, baseball, cricket and soccer, let’s take note of the fact that a question in which the answer is the sport in question demonstrates less actual knowledge of the sport than one in which the question establishes that the sport is being asked about, and you’re asked to identify something within the sport. In Ken Jennings’ book Brainiac, about his 74-game win streak, he stated that Jeopardy writers love to toss in extraneous factoids about an otherwise pretty basic call-and-response, as doing so simply makes for better viewing. It is, after all, a TV show. If you’re asking ‘What’s the capital of Wisconsin?’ (Madison), that’s pretty boring. But if, like the show did in 2012, you ask ‘In 1901 the USA’s first reference library for state legislators was set up in this Wisconsin capital’, now it’s spiced up a bit. Not that we can’t get anything from it, but we’ll have to be a bit more careful and concentrate on factoids that keep popping up when they ask about it.
What we’re really wanting to see here are questions more along the lines of ‘Sheboygan, Wisconsin began its annual festival of this sausage in 1953’, as asked in 2009. (What is bratwurst?) You’re gifted the Wisconsin part, now do you actually know something about the place.
Let’s do cricket first. The sport America absolutely doesn’t know. The cricket clues are here. Ignoring all the stuff about the animal, you can see quite a lot of clues simply asking people to identify cricket. Cricket has been a category in and of itself twice. Once was in 1998, and it was the fifth of six categories tackled by the contestants that day. The other was in 2009, and it was saved for last, with time running out in the round with two clues still covered. Clearly, cricket is not an attractive category from a contestant perspective. The last of that second set that was asked, “Cricket’s World Cup is contested every 4 years; crikey! This country has now won 3 straight”, seems like almost absurdly basic info for a cricket fan, but the Jeopardy writers felt the need to toss a ‘crikey’ in there as a further hint… and still they got a ‘What is Britain?” in response before someone else came up with Australia. The other two clues had similar hints tossed in: never mind who Canada played in the first international match; who’s Canada’s neighbor. Never mind how many players are on a cricket team; it’s the same as a football team. How many is that? Among the more common things asked are if contestants can identify that the player that delivers the ball is called a bowler; if they can identify his goal as hitting the wickets behind the batsman, and if they can properly identify a cricket bat.
When, as a $2000 clue in 2013, contestants were asked the birth country of Cricket Hall of Fame inaugural class member Imran Khan– the options narrowed considerably by the fact that his name is Imran Khan- one incorrectly said India, and the other two failed to buzz in at all. (What is Pakistan?)
Baseball’s Yasiel Puig- then a rookie- rated $800 in the same category, and after one person said Venezuela, someone else correctly said Cuba. So right away you can see that more baseball knowledge is expected of Jeopardy contestants than cricket knowledge. All cricket questions combined- sport and animal and wrong answer concerning something else entirely- turn up 150 results in the database, and the only Final Jeopardy clue that actually dealt with the sport, as opposed to being listed because someone gave cricket as a wrong answer, dealt with the animal as well (“Name shared by a popular world sport & a member of the Gryllidae family”, which all three players got.) A search for baseball turns up 1,242, with 37 Final Jeopardy clues, nearly all of them actually about baseball in some way.
The most recent Final Jeopardy, asked on July 30- less than a month ago- was “This major league team’s official colors are Sedona red, Sonoran sand & black.” Clearly, they expect you to know a little something here. Even if you take the Sedona and Sonoran hints that the clue gives you, you’re still being asked what the Arizona-based MLB team is named (who are the Diamondbacks?) And all three players got it. Another Final Jeopardy from 2008 asked “For nearly 30 years, California’s Catalina Island was the spring training camp for this non-California Major League team.” Even if you ARE a baseball fan, that has a chance of stumping you anyway, and sure enough, all three players whiffed on it. So prior to revealing the answers, Alex Trebek supplied his own clue, “Some people will recall that the island had been purchased by a rich man of chewing gum fame, and if you could come up with that bit of information, it would have helped you, I’m sure.” Which if you’re a non-baseball fan still might not have been too helpful. The contestants came up with the Rangers, Mariners and Brooklyn Dodgers; they needed the Chicago Cubs.
Other assorted baseball clues requiring actual knowledge of baseball:
‘Point “A” To Point “B”, 2014, $400: “Go from the present to the original home of baseball’s Braves & you’ve gone from here to here” (What is Atlanta to Boston?, correct)’How Novel!, 2012, Daily Double (wager $8,600, a True Daily Double): “If this alleged report is true, that is the last of Roy Hobbs in organized baseball” (What is The Natural?, correct)
‘September’s Here Already’, 2010, $800: “I’m 2 weeks late with my 73rd birthday gift for this L.A. Olympics organizer & ex-baseball commissioner” (Who is Peter Ueberroth?, nobody got it, someone guessed Pete Rozelle)
‘On His Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque’, 2010, “Boston Red Sox A.L. 1939-1960… batted .406 in 1941” (Who is Ted Williams?, correct)
Jeopardy baseball questions have a high tendency to ask about the idiosyncrasies of specific MLB teams. Whose official magazine is called Vine Line (the Cubs). Whose stadium name was swapped from SkyDome to Rogers Centre (the Blue Jays). Who won the 1969 World Series (the Mets). You are not very often asked simply to identify baseball as a thing.
So these are our two extremes. Now, let’s tackle soccer.
Searching for cricket, sport and animal, resulted in 150 clues. Baseball turned up 1,242. Soccer– which isn’t sharing status with an animal- returns 290 results…. though in increasing frequency as the years go by. Only 19 of those clues came in the first 2,000 shows, ranging from 1983-1993. By that point, baseball had garnered 161 clues, one of them a Final Jeopardy (“For the 1st half of this century, it was the westernmost city represented in Major League Baseball”, what is St. Louis?, everyone answered right). The most recent 19 soccer clues, though, have come in about the last 350 shows, a dramatic increase in the pace.
Given the increase in pace, while 290 is certainly closer to cricket’s number than baseball’s, that number alone can’t be counted on to tell the whole story. The proof is in the clues.
If you’re looking to Final Jeopardy to provide any encouragement, well, the most I can say is that soccer’s been used. It hasn’t been involved in a long time, though; the last question to directly ask about it was in 1999 (“In August 1999, for the first time in its 75-year history, Wheaties began featuring players of this sport on its boxes”), and it got one hockey, one soccer, and one contestant who had already ended in negative numbers and didn’t even get to answer. (In case you’re wondering, it was an assortment of players from the US women’s team after they won the Women’s World Cup.)
Things get a fair bit better in the rest of the set, though. In the early clues, you’re largely asking people to either identify soccer, identify Pele, or use soccer as a way to get to a clue about some other sport (e.g. “Soccer was forbidden in 14th century England for taking practice time away from this military skill”- what is archery?- which amazingly enough, fun fact, was asked in exactly the same wording in two 1987 shows five months apart, and correctly answered by the same contestant, once in regular play and then again in the ensuing Tournament of Champions; but I digress). There’s one notable exception- “British soccer fans who started disastrous Brussels Riot were supporters of this city’s team” (what is Liverpool?)- but the clue came in 1986, the year the Heysel Riot occurred, and it qualified as current events back then.
Expectations have risen in the ensuing years. You are rarely asked nowadays simply to identify soccer. Gone are the days when knowing that the goalkeeper can use his hands was sufficient to get by. It might be instructive to provide a sample of the evolution of soccer clues, which I’ll break up in 1,000-show chunks (the most recent show as of this writing being #7,132), leaving out the aforementioned Pele and goalkeeper topics. If the answer is anything besides “what is soccer?”, I’ll list it.
Shows 1-1000: “Sports event that set off a 1969 war between Honduras & El Salvador” (1984, Wars for $600, answered correctly); “Played in 1869, the 1st intercollegiate “football game” in the U.S. was actually this sport” (1987, Football for $200, nobody got it; one person said rugby); “The 1950 U.S. defeat of England has been called the greatest upset in the history of this sport” (1988, Sports for $400, nobody even guessed).
Shows 1001-2000: “While bullfighting is Spain’s most distinctive sport, this int’l sport is the most popular” (1989 Teen Tournament, Spain for $800, correct); “Argentina has won 2 of the last 3 World Cup titles in this sport, the country’s most popular” (1990, Argentina for $100, correct); “This sport derives its name from the word association, as in association football” (1993, Word Origins for $400, correct).
Now let’s introduce the 1994 World Cup… and watch the expectations rise.
Shows 2001-3000: “This London stadium has been the site of cup finals in soccer & of Live Aid”- what is Wembley Stadium? (1996, Stadiums and Arenas, $500, first person answered ‘what is Wimbledon?’, second person, who’s actually from London, answers correctly); “In keeping with the Buccaneer theme of its football team, this area’s MLS team is the Mutiny”- what is Tampa Bay? (1997, Major League Soccer for $300, correct); “This man who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup soccer title played for Italy’s Napoli from 1984 to 1991”- who is Diego Maradona? (1997, International Tournament held in Sweden; answered correctly by a contestant from Norway).
Starting here, the frequency of questions goes from a trickle to something far more substantial.
Shows 3001-4000: “If Disney starts a soccer team, they’ll probably name it for this 1995 film with Olivia d’Abo”- what is The Big Green? (1998, The “Big” Screen for $1,000, correct); “Abbreviated NASL, it peaked in the 1970s with stars like Franz Beckenbauer & Pele”- what is North American Soccer League? (1999, Sports History for $400, correct); “The band Simply Red took their name in part from their love of this northern English soccer team“- what is Manchester United? (2000 Tournament of Champions, Fandemonium for $500, nobody guessed). ‘What is soccer?’ questions are still getting asked, but at lower dollar values and they’re being knocked down much more frequently.
This is where the dollar values rose to their current values.
Shows 4001-5000: “This soccer player whose real first name is Mariel is one of 4 women to have scored over 100 goals in international play”- who is Mia Hamm? (2003 Teen Tournament, Female Athletes for $200, correct); “The WUSA, the USA’s women’s league in this sport, folded September 15, 2003” (2004 Teen Tournament, Sports for $1,600, correct); “Juventus, Arsenal, Ajax”- what are soccer teams? (2005, 3 Of A Kind for $2,000, correct)
Shows 5001-6000: “In 1981 soccer’s 1st Toyota Cup was held in this world capital between the champion clubs of Europe & South America”- what is Tokyo? (2006, Sports Stuff for $800, nobody guessed); “He may have stepped down in 2006 as captain of England’s national team, but nobody bends it like this soccer great”- who is David Beckham? (2006, Celebs for $800, correct); “Major League Soccer in the sun: The Milky Way or Andromeda” (2008, Pro Sports Teams In Other Words for $800, correct). There were a lot of David Beckham questions in this set.
Shows 6001-7000: “Including 1952’s “Magnificent Magyars”, it has won more men’s soccer medals than any other current country” (2013, Olympic Fact Sheet for $800, correct); “Also called a one-two, this play can start with a pass or a throw-in; then the player breaks past the defender into open space for a quick return pass”- what is a give-and-go? (2013 College Championship, Soccer, The Beautiful Game for $800, nobody guessed); “No longer just stadiums but teams are renamed: the Metrostars are now the New York Red Bulls in this sport” (2014, Naming Rights for $800, correct).
Shows 7001-current: “AKA “The Red Devils”, this team that averages 75,000 fans per game is the most popular English soccer team” (2015 Teachers Tournament, Roots for $1,000, correct); “Fittingly, the national soccer team of this African nation is known as the Elephants” (2015 Celebrity Jeopardy, Gilligan’s “I”sland for $1,600, correct); “This ritual is believed to have begun at the end of a 1931 soccer game when France beat England for the very first time” (2015, The Sporting Life for $1,000, nobody guessed).
While at the start Jeopardy merely contented itself with asking people to name soccer, over time it started asking specific things about soccer, and more often. ‘What is soccer?’ has always been an option for the writers, but it’s gone from being leaned on all the time, to being relegated to lower dollar values, and as of late, they’ve simply asked for that response less often altogether. And they, once in a while, have seen fit to ask a question that wouldn’t seem ridiculously, insultingly easy when asked of a European fan, though this has to be tempered by the fact that, when spotted, the contestants still reliably can be counted on to leave the clue alone. There’s still a reliance on a few megastars when asking about individuals, but it’s not just Pele anymore; David Beckham, Mia Hamm, Wayne Rooney and Christiano Ronaldo will now show up as well. MLS was seized upon within a few years of inception, but within the last couple years an odd clue about a foreign club has peeked its head in (even if it is just Manchester United). National team nicknames have started to show up as well.
What does America know about soccer? Well, we’re still not nationwide experts. But if Jeopardy is anything to go by, we’re not total idiots anymore either. We have a ways to go. But we’ve cracked the book open. We know some things.
We know enough to know we’re losing patience with Jurgen Klinsmann, for instance.
One of the things that leagues across the globe can generally agree on, even if they agree on little else, is that Saturday is matchday. Continental obligations are typically saved for midweek so as to best squeeze them in between league dates.
One of the many things that they can’t agree on is religion. Playing in all corners of the world will do that. These days, religious differences in sports can involve such things as if women can play, what the women can wear while playing, who can sign for a given club, and whether two religiously-opposed fanbases will end up hating each other. A much larger issue, though, used to be what day of the week you can play.
The Fourth Commandment in the Bible is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Modern interpretation typically just figures this as ‘go to church once a week or at least pray a bit’. In the early half of the 20th century, though, it was much more common to regard this as a mandate to not perform any kind of real labor at all on the Sabbath, instead devoting it entirely to rest and religious duties. This included not taking part in sporting events, and it was not a particularly uncommon sight to see devout athletes forfeit a sporting event because it was held on the Sabbath, up to and including the Olympics.
I choose the words ‘more common’ carefully, because this practice still occurs, albeit less often than it used to. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, devout Mormon, does not play sporting contests on Sunday, to the point where when they qualify for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the selection committee makes sure not to put them in a position where they might have to play a tournament game on Sunday. (A task they screwed up at in 2003, causing speculation of a possible reseed if BYU advanced to that point. They didn’t.) In 1995, offensive lineman Eli Herring of BYU, despite gaining intense interest from the NFL, sent letters to every team in the league asking them not to draft him. The Raiders took him in the 6th round anyway. He did not sign, and became a math teacher instead. He has never regretted it.) And here’s an editorial arguing that even so much as watching an NFL game violates the Sabbath.
Even if you’re a soccer fan- and if you’re not, errrrrrr, hi there- you still probably don’t pay too much attention to beach soccer. But the Sabbath played a major role in deciding this year’s Beach Soccer World Cup, held in Espinho, Portugal. In the final, the hosts took on Tahiti. Tahitian captain Naea Bennett, who is Mormon, sat out the final, as it was held on Sunday. Prior to that game, Bennett had scored five goals in the four games he did play (he also sat out the previous Sunday’s group game, a 7-5 win over Paraguay). As many dissenting Tahitian fans feared, Tahiti turned out to miss Bennett badly in the final, as Portugal won 5-3.
Two years prior, Tahiti itself hosted. The final that year was held on Saturday, which ended up not concerning Tahiti, as they lost in the semis and ended up watching Russia beat Spain 5-1. Bennett’s club teams are heavily Mormon and do not schedule games for Sundays.
However, Sunday isn’t the only Sabbath. There’s a Jewish Sabbath as well, and Jewish Sabbath is Saturday. Which has ended up placing the Israeli league under threat. In 1951, the Hours of Work and Rest Law was passed requiring any employer who wants their workers to come in on a religious day of rest to get a special dispensation from the Minister of Economics: not only Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians, but also Friday for Muslims. For over 60 years, though, even though Saturday is soccer matchday, everyone’s generally agreed to look the other way and hit the field anyway.
They are no longer looking the other way. On August 20, in response to a petition signed by hundreds of Israeli players, labor judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled that, without that dispensation which nobody ever bothered to go get, soccer on Saturday is a criminal offense… as well as any other sport. For now, soccer can continue, as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave a two-month waiver on status-quo grounds, but some sort of permanent compromise or solution will need to be found.
Why not just get the dispensation? The person who would be issuing them is Aryeh Deri, current Economic Minister. Deri is a member of the Shas party, which adheres to Haredi Judaism (known widely as ‘ultra-orthodox’ Judaism). This branch, among other things, mandates modest dress to the point of public harassment of anyone thought to run afoul of expectations, advises against the watching of television, and many Haredi Jews have asked for their neighborhood roads to be closed on Saturday, as driving is also advised against on the Sabbath. State-run buses do not operate on Saturday, to the chagrin of anyone who isn’t Haredi that would like to get things done on Saturday. A gay pride parade in Jerusalem in July was marred when one Haredi Jew stabbed six people, as the sect opposes homosexuality. The attacker had been released from prison just three weeks prior for stabbing three people at the same parade in 2005. A bus line in Brooklyn serving a Haredi community attempted to practice gender separation, leading the city of New York to quickly cancel the bus line entirely. I need to stop this paragraph now before it gets out of control.
So the chances of Deri granting the dispensation are…. shall we say, slim.
So what happens if they can’t play on the weekend? Well, UEFA isn’t moving their continental matches off of Tuesday and Wednesday (the Champions League) and Thursday (the Europa League). Which leaves Monday as the only remaining day of the week that won’t be a continental date or anyone’s day of rest. And this assumes you’re only holding one competition, and not trying to hold a cup competition as well. Things are going to break pretty quickly, and the net effect is sure to be significantly less soccer from top to bottom, down all the way to youth leagues… and a less attractive outpost for anyone looking to play professionally. As Israel is presently 21st in the UEFA coefficient– the higher end of the countries allotted only one Champions League club- a setback like this could utterly crush any hopes of carving out a second berth (they would need to be at 15th for that). Dropping much further would mean extra rounds of qualifying for their Europa League teams as well; two of their three failed to make it past their first opponent this year as it is, and none made the group stage.
The effect on this year’s Champions League group stage representative, Maccabi Tel Aviv, should prove instructive. They’re grouped with Chelsea, FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev. Their first game is Wednesday at Stamford Bridge. The return match against Chelsea, to be held in Haifa, will be on November 24th, by which time the two-month exemption will have expired.
So circle that fixture on your calendar.
If you’re sufficiently entrenched in the gaming community, you’ve probably heard of Rocket League by now. If you haven’t, it is the most ridiculously fun thing. You are in a car, and there are rockets on the back of it. You’re part of a team comprised of somewhere from 1-4 (your choice), lined up on a soccer pitch (boxed in with invisible walls so the ball doesn’t go out of bounds) against a team of equal size. Players try to ram the gigantic ball with their cars and, of course, get it into the goal, at which point the ball explodes and sends anyone nearby flying… and then everyone does it all again. It’s really quite wonderful.
But having watched a fairly substantial amount of it on Twitch (and finding out after a couple matches of my own that my computer isn’t powerful enough to really handle Rocket League, forcing me into a commentator/pundit role like I’m doing now), I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite the livery, Rocket League isn’t really soccer.
[WARNING: If you don’t play video games or have never heard of Rocket League, this would be a good time to bow out. It’s not going to be a discussion you’re going to comprehend very well.]
This isn’t to say you can’t play soccer with cars. Top Gear has played it a couple times. (And hockey. And rugby.) All the elements appear to be there: teams, a ball, a pitch, goals on either side. What am I asking for that isn’t there? A couple things.
The first thing that’s immediately apparent is the lack of formal positions. All players, at the start of the game and after every goal, are placed a fair distance behind the ball and simply set off for it at top speed at the whistle, and since there’s experience points on offer for whoever gets to the ball first, most players go for it. But this isn’t a major concern: with a max of four players per side (another bit of a thing, but easily dismissed), positions will tend to break down. Sometimes, one member of a team will fall back and get into goal instead of joining the scrum at kickoff, but they can just as easily be drawn out of goal if they see an opportunity to get something accomplished upfield. And just as often, nobody will be in goal, with all players doing little more than running after the ball, like you’d see in the very lowest youth levels.
It’s what becomes apparent after that which is the big issue: dribbling is not a concept in Rocket League. Nor, to any appreciable extent, is passing.
Soccer is heavily dependent on both dribbling and passing as basic means to get anything accomplished. The basic challenge of soccer is that you can’t use your hands, which requires a player to be precise with their feet in order to control the ball, be it to thread it up the pitch or pass it to a teammate who can. You need to be able to touch the ball as many times as deemed necessary in order to do this; a controlled series of small boots or nudges before one large whump at the end that itself is expected to go where you want it to go. It’s such a critical and basic thing that EA Sports barely even bothers you personally with the details in a FIFA game. When you dribble the ball in FIFA, you can expect that EA won’t make it randomly roll away from you at some point. More advanced maneuvers, dekes, jukes, are handled with a single button or a simple button combo, and then the AI does the rest (unless the ball is stolen). You’re not asked to consider how this ball is getting from point A to point B except in the sense that a person in the other team’s uniform might be standing in the way.
None of this applies in Rocket League. When you hit the ball with your car, it goes soaring down the field far faster than you can catch up to it. The only way a ball might be hit lightly enough to chase is when the player has been recently spun around and is getting to the ball at a weird angle while just starting to get back up to speed. You get one point of contact with the ball, and then you’re off. Even the Top Gear matches showed drivers able to simply shove the ball down the field with their hood.
Let’s also mention that it’s not really possible to exert any kind of spin on the ball. The ball is too large and doesn’t slice through the air fast enough to exert a curve. If any is there, it’s microscopic. You boot in a direction, and it goes that direction. A sizable amount of skilled gameplay depends on reading an airborne ball’s flight path and making sure you’re the one underneath it when it hits the ground. This task is made easier through the lack of lateral movement in the air.
Does this make the game bad? Oh hell no. Rocket League is a great game. I just don’t think it’s actually soccer.
What do I think it is? High-speed, dynamic billiards.
Let me be the first to say that spin is a factor in billiards as well. Any trick-shot competition will make that abundantly clear. What is also clear is that billiards is something in which you can have a trick-shot competition. Sure, basketball does too, HORSE, a slam-dunk competition, but the thing about billiards is its level of precision. At its highest level, billards stops being a sport as we think of it (debates on whether billiards is a sport notwithstanding) and starts turning into a math problem. There’s even a paper linking billiards and geometry written by Serge Tabakhnikov of Penn State in 1991. And here’s an hour and a half of live-action proof, all of it demanding absolute perfection in setup and execution. One tiny slip in either respect, and the shot will fail, as is plainly apparent.
Why is that so? Why does this work? A pool player, sufficiently skilled, has complete knowledge of the conditions of the table before them: the position of the balls, their mass, what levels of shot force are needed to move a ball X distance and how much force will be imparted upon any other balls hit, what direction they will go when struck in specific places, what they’ll do when hitting the bumpers, where those bumpers are, how much friction the table itself imparts. If you hit the cue ball with this force in this place in this direction, a certain thing will happen. There’s no wind to worry about, there’s no continuous ‘dribbling’ of the cue ball down the table, and there’s no competitor attempting to block your shot (until it’s their turn). You hit it once, and the rest of the play takes care of itself.
I see Rocket League as derivative of this. There’s no wind in Rocket League, and even though there’s rain in some matches, it’s purely cosmetic. The field is boxed in, so even though the ball gets airborne, the dimensions in which it can do so are set. The condition of the field was once set to change over the course of the match, but that feature was scrapped in development. There are still pockets, though only two of them, and one assigned to each team. The abilities of the cars are known, if not by the players, at least in the game code. When you boost, it does a specific thing. When you hit the ball at a certain speed in a certain way, as the ball is itself going a certain speed a certain way, it will, every time you hit it in that exact way, take off towards a specific place and get there at a specific time… unless it is intercepted and redirected by another player. The small team sizes and chaotic nature of the game also make it very difficult to aim a shot where a teammate is known to be; most of the time, a player can only kick and run, hoping the next player to reach it is in their colors.
The questions are not, can you outmaneuver the other guy. It is a little bit, but not really. The effective questions are, can you aim your shot properly. Can you get in position to take that shot. Can you hit the ball in just the right place at the right speed. Can you track a ball’s flight path, through the air or off the walls or ceiling, and be ready at the landing spot. You’re still trying to solve a math problem; the only difference is that there are other people trying to solve the same problem… or invalidate it and replace it with a problem they’re better able to solve. In billiards, you can work on the problem uninterrupted, and trouble only comes if you get the answer wrong. In Rocket League, you’d better solve it before the other guy does, or alternatively, before the other guy rams into you and explodes your car.
It’s a math problem well worth 20 bucks on Steam.