Game review: Rocket League blasts into the pantheon of great electronic sports

It’s reached more than 12 million players and taken revenues of US$70 million – not bad for a soccer sim featuring rocket-powered cars

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 10:55am

Rocket League

Psyonix

4.5/5 stars

Dave Hagewood didn’t set out to create the next big thing in electronic sports. Ten years ago he simply envisioned a game in which cars did crazy things. Cars with rockets on them.

The result was the breakout independent game of 2015, Rocket League.

The key to its success was one simple addition to Hagewood’s original vision: a giant, bouncy soccer ball. Thus, a zany game in which cars crashed into one another became something else entirely, a madcap sport.

Rocket League has now reached more than 12 million players, with revenue topping US$70 million. In late February the game – already a hit on Sony’s PlayStation 4 and computing platform Steam – arrived on Microsoft’s Xbox One, where in less than a month it attracted more than 1 million players. On a recent midweek afternoon, 120,000 people were playing the game at once.

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That’s a big deal for a midsize studio. Before Rocket League, Psyonix was known largely for its contract work, helping bigger studios fine-tune production on such titles as Mass Effect 3 and Gears of War.

Rocket League worked because Hagewood and the young Psyonix team were stubborn. The game is a passion project, developed over a course of two years with a budget just shy of US$2 million.

“It’s a great example of why the video game industry is so unique,” says Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founder of e-sports organiser Major League Gaming.

“Psyonix is a decent-sized studio, but it’s not a major, by any stretch. This is not a title that was pegged to be a massive seller, but they came out with a well-crafted game that was entertaining to watch, fun to play and very social. They became a significant chunk of the gaming zeitgeist for months and months.”

It’s more than just a popular game. Rocket League (available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Linux and OS) won the top independent prize at last December’s media-chosen Game Awards, and the title was nominated for game of the year alongside Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain at this month’s prestigious Game Developers Choice Awards. (The Witcher 3 was the eventual winner.)

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The game is a sequel to 2008’s breathlessly titled Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. But you’d be forgiven for never having heard of that one. It was released only on Sony’s PlayStation 3 and took two years to turn a profit.

What it succeeded in doing, however, was hook the Psyonix team on the idea that cars plus soccer equals gaming magic.

At its core, the game is simple: drive around a stadium with remote-controlled cars and chase a larger-than-life, futuristically designed ball.

But spend a few minutes with it – or watch a couple of videos online – and it’s clear that Rocket League can require deep mastery.

With a sports-arena-meets-rave look and tone, Rocket League can be crazily fast. At times it’s a match of car versus car; other moments it requires the perfect angle to slap the ball into the goal. And that’s if you can manage to properly drive around the rink and learn how to ride the walls.

“It’s unusual for a game to stick out in the way that Rocket League did to us,” Hagewood says in the Psyonix headquarters. “We felt like we were sitting on top of a hidden secret.”

Thomas Silloway, Psyonix’s director of development, remembers Hagewood and another developer tinkering with an early version of what would become Rocket League.

“They were working on a car prototype that they called Track Addict,” Silloway says. “It was a rocket powered car just like you’d see in Rocket League. This was in 2006. It was a time-trial platforming game. It was in space, and there were floating platforms with curved banks. You had to conserve your boosts and jump and fly from platform to platform to see how fast you could complete a course. It was really them just tinkering with vehicle physics.”

The Track Addict tinkering would lead into what would ultimately become Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. Hagewood says he was partly inspired by extreme sports games like Tony Hawk or snowboarding title SSX. He wanted cars to engage in combat but also do absurd jumps and flips.

Though the game didn’t immediately click with a large audience, it found its champions – enough of them that Hagewood decided if Psyonix would make another game it would be a sequel. While the bulk of Psyonix, which now numbers about 50 people, worked on contract projects, Hagewood kept a couple of employees tinkering on what became Rocket League.

That Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars built its audience slowly turned out to work in Psyonix’s favor. By the time the sequel was ready, the game landscape would have changed dramatically.

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Today, e-sports are big business and can sell out the Staples Center. And video sites such as YouTube and Twitch have turned gaming into a spectator sport. Knowing that it “was difficult to get people to understand that it’s worth sitting down and playing a game about rocket cars”, Hagewood and Psyonix made it a priority to get alpha and beta versions of the game in the hands of well-known video-game streamers.

Also in Rocket League’s favour: when the US$19.99 game was released on the PlayStation 4, it was free to subscribers of Sony’s US$50-per-year PlayStation Plus membership programme.

“The game is really good for streaming,” says Patrick Walker, vice president of insights at video game industry consultancy EEDAR. “It creates a lot of really exciting moments in a match, like the demolition of cars. It really took advantage of the Twitch service in creating really cool streaming video, which is something that’s getting more and more important.”

If the original took two years to turn a profit, for the sequel it was a matter of days. Part of the hook, theorises Hagewood, is that it’s a team sport. In most sport simulation games such as the Fifa or Madden series, the player manages a full squad. In Rocket League, the player controls just one car on the field, further highlighting the importance of your own skills.

“It is more like a sport than other games,” Hagewood says. “It addicts you like a sport. Basketball. Football. Baseball. Those games are timeless. Video games usually aren’t like that, but this one feels more like it can be. In the future, maybe we upgrade the graphics, but do we change it? That doesn’t make sense.”

Los Angeles Times