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Seen from behind, a player winds up a dodgeball shot, aiming for an opponent across a rooftop in the distance in Knockout City
“The best is when you see a player catch the Sniper Ball [charging up, above],” said Velan Studios co-founder Guha Bala. “Then you’re like, you know, ‘Get me away from this guy.’”
Image: Velan Studios/Electronic Arts

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Knockout City is perfect for supporting players, since everyone’s new to the game

Either have the ball in your hand, or get one into your teammate’s

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Messing around in a single-player sports title, sure, I’m the superstar all the time. Multiplayer, when my skills, or lack thereof, are out there in real time with no do-overs, I drop back into a support role. You’d be surprised what kind of a teammate grade you can rack up in NBA 2K21 just by rebounding and setting picks. And I don’t do such things grudgingly; I’m grateful they’re there to give me a job.

This is why I’m fired up for Knockout City’s launch next month. Velan Studios’ dodgeball derby — the schoolyard staple as sport-of-the-future — seems to have been made with support-minded folks in mind. There’s always something I can be doing to help my squad, even if I’m not holding a ball, and none are spawning within sight.

“We see this sort of interesting progression: Players are playing on their own, just learning how to throw and catch,” Velan co-founder Karthik Bala said after Knockout City wrapped up its multi-platform beta at the beginning of this month. “And then, they learn how to pass.

“Just that takes them to a whole new tier, in terms of team-based dynamics,” Bala said.

A tutorial encourages you to pass, because it charges up the shot, and can even lead to a one-hit elimination (three standard hits are necessary to eliminate an opponent). Players really have to see that in action to get it. More precisely, you have to see another team working with passing, swarming your side, eliminating you or your teammates before anyone can collect their thoughts, to understand its importance.

A futuristic-looking player knocks someone backward with a punch, sending a dodgeball flying up into the air
Melee attacks don’t cause eliminations, but they do separate an opponent from their ball
Image: Velan Studios/Electronic Arts

Passing doesn’t require any accuracy, just tap the left bumper, and it’s going to the nearest teammate. You’re rewarded as much for making the extra pass as you are for following the play and being in position to take it (rather than going off, alone, to hunt for a ball spawn).

With its weapon spawns, and deathmatch-style playlists, Knockout City resembles a multiplayer shooter as much as it might a sports title. But Karthik Bala and his brother, Velan co-founder Guha Bala, knew in their earliest designs that dodgeball would be obliged to use the ball as something to be passed and caught, not just thrown as a projectile weapon.

“With that, we could actually open up a new kind of team play,” Guha Bala said. “And then people could really explore it.”

Knockout City’s other staple of support play is less intuitive. In my first few hours with the game, during a press preview and then a closed beta five weeks prior, I didn’t really understand rolling myself up into a ball. I thought it would be some kind of edge-case advanced tactic that was best dabbled with after I locked down other basics.

Wrong, it is a basic of winning play. Throwing a rolled-up teammate into an opponent is always a one-hit elimination — with credit to thrower and throw-ee. It’s also a critical option for a sport played on a large map, where opposing teams can engage each other far from sight of a ball spawn. In basketball, my constant objective on offense is either to get open or get a teammate open. In Knockout City, my constant objective is either have a ball in my hand or get one into my teammates’ hands. Anything in between, I can’t help the team score.

This is the a-ha moment I was looking for, and didn’t really find, in a hurried press preview where I was more concerned with looking like I knew what I was doing, rather than doing it. But as players discover the fundamentals to an all-new sport, the Balas have seen truly advanced tactics emerge — playmaking that they hadn’t conceived of in their original design.

“I saw moves in the game that I never saw in four years in development,” Karthik Bala said. “Players doing stuff that I have never seen before. And that was thrilling.”

Pressed for an example, Karthik Bala gave this: In 3-on-3 Team KO (team deathmatch, basically), he saw Player A for one side use an “ultimate throw” with Player B. Ultimates take a while to charge up, and launch the rolled up player high into the air, to make a kind of orbital strike on any foes below.

Except, at the apex of the throw, Player B broke out into glider mode (players can open a glider after jumping, for fast-travel purposes). Now they hovered above a nearly full view of the map.

Then Player C rolled up, and Player A passed them to the gliding Player B. Passing one rolled-up teammate to another automatically charges them into the Ultimate state — no waiting.

“Then they took out, you know, double KO, or it was even a triple KO. They wiped out the whole team,” Karthik Bala said. “They were able to take command of the map. I’m like, ‘Well, that’s a new move.’ We have physics in the game that lead to emergent play, and in combination with the moveset, these combinations can have some really unique outcomes.”

Players run across a makeshift, destructible bridge spanning two rooftops in Knockout City
Getting as high as possible — to view the map, smart guy, and find opponents — is key to winning team play in Knockout City
Image: Velan Studios/Electronic Arts

Players shouldn’t worry about how they can coordinate, especially among strangers, these kinds of sophisticated attacks. The action is so fast-paced in Knockout City, such stunts usually come together in a very happenstance, opportunistic way. This team may not have even intended to pull off this move at the outset.

But players won’t need a headset or voice chat to deploy basic teamwork, either. Without a ball in hand, the left bumper makes you shout for a pass; rolled up, it calls out for a teammate to throw you. Passing to others is automatic (like the throw attack, it’s aim-assisted within a cone of view from the player), and you can always roll yourself into a teammate’s hands, replacing whatever they were holding, because a rolled teammate is always the superior shot.

Other touches in the game’s design show how players are encouraged to take an extra step. The flip and spin moves by themselves don’t do much; paired with a shot, though, you get a lob or a weaving curve shot that disrupts your target’s timing, if they’re trying to catch your throw. (All attacks can be caught with proper timing — even the special Sniper Ball. “The best is when you see a player catch the Sniper Ball,” laughed Guha Bala. “Then you’re like, you know, ‘Get me away from this guy.’”)

“Because this was a very different type of play style, we wanted to return to the very basics, and look at that throw, pass, catch loop. It required us to ask players to behave a little differently, and very early, to make sure that the payoff is there for passing,” Guha Bala explained. This is why passing is aim-assisted, and nearly automatic. “So we made it more about position and timing. We also realize that position is not just about your player position, but where your teammates are positioned. So if your teammate’s rolled up, it’s not only to use them as a weapon, but also maybe to toss them to a spot where they need to be positioned, or to get into position to flank, and then pass them another ball.

“It’s a matter of balancing these sorts of things, but also giving subtle incentives to say ‘Take the riskier route,” Guha Bala said. “It has a tactical payout.’”

Thinking about Knockout City for the last couple of hours it took to write this, I’m kind of frustrated I can’t go down and play it, to try out some of the things the Balas described and see how my teammates respond, or just to see if sticking to these fundamentals gives my team any advantage over those who haven’t discovered them yet. It’s hard to tell what the experience level is after two betas. The first was closed on PC only; the second was fully open across all platforms, seeing a million downloads and 116 million minutes played, so, an average of two hours per player, roughly.

Knockout City, published by Electronic Arts under its Originals label, launches May 21, on everything — Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC (via Epic Games Store, Origin, and Steam), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game supports cross-platform play and progression. Players will get a free trial with the full game, with any progression they earn carrying over if they choose to buy.