Why Rocket League Isn’t Really Soccer

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.

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