Rocket League: The Great Gig in the Sky

By Rich Stanton on at

There’s that awful moment, every so often, when you’re in your Steam library and go to click ‘Play’ on a favourite game. Your eye wanders a few millimetres off the light blue button and there it is. 600 hours played. Gaben is too merciful to spell it out. 25 days of your life, right there, spent playing Rocket League.

Still, it could be worse. Steam could include my PS4 total, I’ve probably topped a month of full immersion with that. Whatever, it’s a lot of time, and it’s a rare game that gets this much of my attention. I play an enormous range of videogames, but most will get anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. A few I’ll see through to the finish, let’s say a dozen hours or so. Then you get a Bayonetta, a Dark Souls or Bloodborne or Counter-Strike, and the sky’s the limit. For me these are the games that swallow time, where the Gabenclock ticks up and I barely even notice the rollover into three digits. These are the games I freely give my life to.

And prime among them is Rocket League. From my first hours I knew this was a classic. Now I’m even more deeply-invested, that judgement is only solidified – it’s simply one of the best games ever made. The reason it appeals so much is the controls. You’ll notice something about the kind of games I like which is that, singleplayer or multiplayer, they tend to have a skill element to them. I’m not saying I’m great at games, but the feeling of getting better at a game is what I’m chasing, and it’s why most of the games I invest in tend to have some multiplayer element. I love to feel my own skill push up in increments, to find myself doing things that once seemed impossible, and – yes, it is true – I love the feeling that you only get from competing against other humans.

This is, I suppose, because in games like Rocket League the skill ceiling is so high that in practical terms it’s infinite. I watch the pros play this game, at RLCS and other events, and it mainly takes place in the air – they’re unbelievable, and next to that my car has tires of clay. But I feel an improvement, almost every day, in a manner few other games can approach.

There is this aspect of Rocket League that tempts comparison with football, simply because both games share the aspect of learning about a particular ball's characteristics and momentum. Different types of ball, and different types of contact, but I remember playing football every day as a kid and how I'd gradually learn more and more about how to make contact with the ball or play a position - not that I was ever a particularly fantastic player. Improvement never happens in giant leaps: it was minor daily adjustments that over time added up to something more substantial.

In particular I remember when I moved to playing indoor 5-a-side, where the pitch is enclosed by walls - which introduces a whole new dimension to the game, and of course is how Rocket League is played. When I first started I couldn't handle the angles, and players would easily go past me by hitting the ball off the wall. A few games in and I was more or less able to handle it. A couple of months in, I was an expert.

Ah, the sepia-tinted days of 5-a-side in the North East. The rate of improvement in Rocket League would produce a similar kind of graph: you get slightly better all the time, in almost-imperceptible increments, until one day there's a giant leap. Take flying. My first months were spent mostly on the ground. Then I started to take off a little bit more, and do some falling with style. And now, yeah I'm no pro, but I can go for high balls and most of the time I'll hit them (where it ends up going still needs some work). Take bouncing the ball off the walls: at first I'd just smash it and chase, but now I plan the flightpath and move independently towards the earliest possible contact. Take teamplay. Rocket League for me is ranked doubles with randoms, where you're joining your fate to another for five beautiful minutes, and quickly learning their capabilities and playstyle in the opening moments is like a minigame unto itself — not to mention positioning, when to go and when to stay.

The less-obvious reason for Rocket League's success ties into this last point, which is that its skill-based matchmaking system is quite simply brilliant. I've played enormous amounts of competitive online games, and some are better than others at this, but if the goal is to get equally-matched games then Rocket League is one of the best. I feel like I'm constantly pitched against people who are my equals, and that every win is earned. Yeah every so often you win 8-1, or get a similarly-sized beating, but the vast majority of games take place against opponents where it could go either way.

Perhaps this is what drives the competitiveness. No-one likes getting beat all the time, and equally just riding roughshod over noobs is only entertaining for a minute or two. You want to feel pushed and, thanks to the combination of these endlessly deep controls and wonderful matchmaking, I always am pushed. Here's a strange thing, completely unscientific but what the hell. Last week I went to the pub with a good friend and probably had too many beers. I went home, played Rocket League for an hour or so, and dropped out of gold to silver. That's how sensitive this thing's matchmaking is: it basically breathalysed me.

It's hard to express the pleasure of being challenged like this, always straining at the leash to be just a millimetre better than you are. Forcing yourself to override conservative instincts and go full-bore into something, taking off for that ball you're not quite sure you can reach, and launching into a flip early because you need speed rather than control. Falling from great heights, and tapering your boost to land quickly and shoot off in the right direction.

My Steam ticker for Rocket League will continue to rise: soon enough I'll get official confirmation of that month spent, even if I don't notice, and in the years to come I'm sure it'll hit other dubious markers of distinction. Playing Rocket League is not a transferable skill. It's not a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that.