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Rocket League
Psyonix

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Rocket League: the 3-year review

Boost-fueled car soccer still maintains its magic after three years of shifts and evolution

Three years after word-of-mouth buzz and a PlayStation Plus promo launched Psyonix’s little-known indie game into millions of homes, Rocket League’s premise remains thankfully undiluted in its joyous, well-honed simplicity.

It’s still all about cars playing soccer (football), except the ball is enormous and the cars can cruise along the walls and briefly onto the ceiling. More excitingly, they can also boost into the air for acrobatic passes and sensational shots. And when the ball hits the net, it explodes with a dazzling array of color and sound… or a bevy of party balloons and cheering children, a field-soaking surge of fruit chunks and juice, or even a dabbing Grim Reaper.

Rocket League keeps steering harder into absurdity—there’s now a flaming T-Rex goal explosion from Jurassic World, by the way—but the core focus on a tight five minutes of frenzied, high-octane antics is luckily intact. What’s changed is the level and quality of play found within those minutes, as well as the ever-expanding variety of options built around the standard soccer-inspired experience.

We’ve seen highlights of stunning aerial freestyle shots since Rocket League’s earliest days, but the skill ceiling has risen dramatically over the last three years—both individually and in terms of coordinated team tactics. The vibrant esports scene, punctuated by Psyonix’s own Rocket League Championship Series, continues to set an aspirational example of what’s possible within this physics playground, as top-level players innovate, improve, and flaunt their abilities.

Young car-soccer phenoms like Cloud9’s Mariano “SquishyMuffinz” Arruda and NRG’s Justin “Jstn” Morales push the boundaries of what you can do with a rocket-powered car, showcasing new ways to maintain possession, guide the ball into the net, and look incredibly cool doing so. Pros and streamers have also invented moves by melding mechanics or turning weird quirks into actual maneuvers—like the flip reset, a move that gains you an additional midair flip or jump if you touch all four tires on the ball. For the average player (myself included), it seems downright impossible. For elite players, it’s just another tool in their arsenal.

Since the advent of the RLCS, team play has also improved by leaps and bounds as defensive tactics took hold, player rotations gained more polish, and dazzling passing plays became commonplace. For many, pro-level play is an unattainable standard: the result of thousands of hours of focused play and incomparable reflexes that many of us with jobs and responsibilities can’t hope to match.

Rocket League
Psyonix

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying, and the quality of play has grown across all skill levels. Nowadays, players halfway up the ranked ladder look sharper than the best pro teams from the first RLCS World Championship two years back. But what remains so beautifully appealing about Rocket League is that even entry-level fumbling is a blast. You might never be able to cherry-pick and redirect precise midair volleys for goals, but the thrill of winning close 50-50 matchups, demolishing foes, and scoring goals remains blissfully intact.

The rising profile of pro play has caused something of an identity crisis for Rocket League, however. Following the game’s release, Psyonix began rolling out “non-standard” maps that transformed the basic pitch in various ways. Wasteland, the first, went wider while curving the dirt floor and tweaking the angles. Neo Tokyo, then, added tall ridges along the sides for a multi-level experience, and Starbase ARC was an octagon instead of a rounded rectangle.

Atypical map designs split the community, as some players hated the inconsistency and others enjoyed the variety (I’m in the latter camp). But last fall, Psyonix declared that Rocket League had become “a digital sport,” and that standardization was needed to ensure consistent competitive play. With that, the odd maps were redesigned with the same dimensions as most other maps, and the original versions were banished from the online competitive playlists.

It seemed like Rocket League had sacrificed its nature as a silly, over-the-top game to appease pro and high-level players, but Psyonix isn’t completely done experimenting with maps. We just saw the release of Throwback Anniversary, a rebuilt arena with hockey-like standalone goals and play space behind the net—an homage to a similar map from Rocket League’s predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars. But that map exists in its own, limited-time playlist for now, and won’t be making the rounds in ranked or casual play.

Even if Psyonix has taken a firm stance on competitive map design, Rocket League packs in plenty of loose fun with its ancillary side modes. Snow Day is my favorite, swapping out the ball for an oversized hockey puck that glides smoothly along the iced walls and floors. Hoops is also fun, placing an enormous basketball hoop on either end of the court for a 2v2 dunk contest. Meanwhile, Rumble tosses weapons and power-ups into the standard mode; the end result is overwhelmingly chaotic, but good for a laugh.

And then there’s Dropshot, the one Rocket League mode that is a completely original creation devoid of traditional sports influence. Rather than aim for a goal, each team attempts to gain possession of the ball and smash it through the solid ground on the rival’s half, thus creating a hole to slam in a shot. Dropshot is clever and inventive—but it draws few players online. It’s been nearly a year and a half since Dropshot released, and sadly, it might be the last big riff we see on the core Rocket League theme, given the change in focus towards competitive play.

Rocket League
Psyonix

Psyonix’s other big shift has been the deluge of crates and promotional events, both of which offer up loads of unlockable items: new cars, dazzling skins, fresh boost trails and wheels, goal explosions, and more. They’re all strictly cosmetic bits, thankfully; the paid game’s competitive balance has not been sullied by in-game purchases. But paying real money for keys to unlock the crates can be an exercise in frustration, given that the crates pump out a lot of car-specific skins and duplicate items.

Occasionally, you’ll get real gems in the process: recently, I couldn’t help but scream for joy upon unlocking a rare, universal animated decal that works across all cars. But that emotional outburst was partially fueled by the frustration of spending hundreds of dollars on keys over the last couple years, and feeling like I’m gradually getting less and less stuff I’ll actually use in the process. It’s a gamble, and it’s one that’s wearing thin over time.

Changes are underway, however. Psyonix has been offering up free “decryptors” (keys that unlock untradeable items) and crates during special events. More significantly, a Rocket Pass system will soon launch with both free and paid tiers, both of which yield in-game items and decryptors as you play. They’ll arrive in Fortnite/Dota 2-esque seasons, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the Rocket Pass provides a meaningful upgrade to the game’s item economy.

Otherwise, beyond occasional bugs and glitches, Rocket League’s most persistent nagging issue is server performance. Slowdown of any sort absolutely wrecks a game as fast and precise as this, and lag has been a recurring complaint over the game’s lifespan. In April, a game update caused such ruinous, widespread lag that it affected vast swathes of players, and even cropped up during online RLCS matches. That particular problem was eventually resolved, but the perception of connectivity woes continues to haunt Rocket League after three full years.

Even so, despite community grumbles and nitpicks, Rocket League continues to grow at a rapid pace. Last fall’s very solid Nintendo Switch port brought even more players into the fold, with a total cross-platform tally of 46 million to date, although the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One remain the most popular platforms by far. No matter your device, there’s always plenty of competition available in the standard casual and ranked playlists, and the ever-expanding player pool means newcomers shouldn’t struggle to find like-skilled players in their early matchups.

Rocket League
Psyonix

What keeps millions of players coming back after three years? It’s not hard to figure out. Rocket League is incredibly easy to learn, yet boasts a tremendous skill ceiling. You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes of your day to have fun, although it can be difficult to pull yourself away. It’s raucous and hilarious, zany and ridiculous—and yet it rewards precise play and practice, and affords amazing opportunities to top-skilled players. It’s the best of all worlds.

For so many of those players, Rocket League hasn’t lost its appeal over time. There’s no beating or even mastering Rocket League. It continues to grow and scale with your ability, continually entertaining all the way from sloppy first goals to aerial laser shots hundreds of hours later.

I’ll probably never be truly great at Rocket League. I’ve poured those hundreds of hours in and sometimes luck into an aerial goal, albeit without much clear intent. But I’m better than I was six months ago, or a year ago. Rocket League appeals to me the same way the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games did all those years back, when I’d lose hours of my day tooling around half-pipes and chaining together epic trick lines. The sense of gradual self-improvement is palpable, and that rewarding sensation still hasn’t subsided.

Just the other day, I hit one of my most spectacular-looking shots to date while haphazardly messing around in training mode on Switch. It lacked any sort of finesse, but it still felt special. Immediately, I perked up and my eyes widened—and then I saved the highlight. I’ll never share the clip; quite likely, I’ll never even watch it back. But that random moment generated such instant joy and excitement that I couldn’t help myself. After two and a half years of steady play, it’s those little thrills that keep me coming back.

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