Rocket League has had such an impact on sports games and soccer that it’s hard to really sum up everything that has happened with the game since it was first released back in 2015. Beyond that, part of being a sports game of the decade is the legacy you leave behind. Rocket League‘s legacy is meaningful, and it’s important for good reasons. I understand if some sim-heads won’t like the pick here because it’s not a “traditional” sports game, but Rocket League has earned the support of the community and staff to be ranked the second best sports game of the decade.
On top of superlative gameplay and the way RL makes you feel like more of a soccer star than PES or FIFA has at any point in the last 10 years, Rocket League also checks in here because of so many important trends it’s been at the forefront of in recent years.
- It has a great spectator mode, which has become increasingly more important as more and more people share their games.
- It’s the most watchable “sports” eSport by far in my book.
- It has crossplay between console and PC.
- It’s been supported across multiple generations.
- It was an influential game in the early days of PlayStation Plus.
- Any paid DLC in the game has been purely cosmetic and never changes gameplay. If anything gameplay-related happens in the game, or a new rule set is put in the game, it is free.
Even here at Operation Sports, where I think we have a deserved reputation as being very much into simulation sports games, Rocket League had a massive impact for many, many months. We generally don’t create new forums for new “alternative” sports games coming out, especially one like Rocket League. After all, if you don’t know about it, you sum it up as a fun change of pace that will be cute for a week before moving on to something else. However, there was such demand at the time, and such a great community going for it, that we had to create a new forum just for Rocket League.
That community has fizzled out in recent times, but that’s understandable as our audience is also always about the next release season. Older titles (like College Hoops 2K8 and NCAA Football 14) generally have legs when it’s about updating rosters and other customization options. Rocket League thrives more on sharing awesome goals and new tips, and that sort of stuff is better consumed and shared via social media or YouTube.
I explain all of this because I think it provides one of the many reasons Rocket League has been important both here at OS and in the grand scheme of sports games as a whole.
I was lucky enough to play RL at E3 before it came out, and I still remember that experience because I was immediately psyched for its release. Fast forward to today, and I’ve now played it across two console generations, and I have it on PC as well. It’s been in my library and a staple of the sports genre for five-plus years, and it’s arguably stronger today than it ever has been. You just don’t see that with sports games. Rocket League is everything many of us wish sports games were about. It has long-term support from developers, and it doesn’t feel like a money grab. The patches that come to the game are to balance gameplay and further refine things — rather than put bandages on a franchise mode that is going to remain busted either way.
The success of Rocket League — and even Super Mega Baseball — I would hope has opened the eyes of more developers that these sorts of sports games are worth making. Games don’t have to just be NBA Jam or NFL Blitz if they want to find success as an “arcade” title. There are so many more avenues to go down, and sports and video games are a great match in a vacuum. Video games can be about anything, but they are many times about competition, which is a part of every sport.
I would argue sports and video games can be an even better match at times when the simulation aspect is taken out of it. You don’t have to worry as much about figuring out how how to balance five idiots playing together on MyPark who all want to be superstars. You don’t have to perfectly balance progression systems in franchise mode so the mode doesn’t implode on itself 4-5 years down the line. And you also don’t have to be just “over the top” with the action for it to be a good arcade sports game.
Now, obviously part of the appeal of regular sports games is pretending you’re James Harden, or you’re in the MLB as a superstar, or you’re just playing with your favorite team in a sport you watch on TV every week. Rocket League can’t tap into that, and again, I get why that will be a turn off for some people since it is abstract on some level. Regardless, Rocket League taps into what it means to play soccer both as an individual and as part of a team.
It’s based on teamwork. It’s based on your skills, not the player ratings. If you don’t have Messi, you’re not at an inherent disadvantage. Instead, you may run into someone who plays as well as Messi might in rocket car form, but at least then you feel like you just lost to the better player rather than a person who just picked the higher-rated team.
To put it another way, if you don’t have a particular badge, you’re not screwed. You can be anything you want to be as long as you’re good enough to get there. And if you’re not good enough, then oh well, it’s still fun to play. There’s explosions, an XFL-style coin toss when rushing out to get the ball after a goal, and you can just mess around with some friends and try to score some goals. The skill gap that has been created in this game means you can always find someone as good as you and someone who is way better than you.
There’s also physics, creativity, no canned animations, and so you can do whatever you’re good enough to do on the sticks. You can score from 100 feet away, soar across the entire field while volleying a ball, or just ride across the ceiling and dive down for a perfectly timed cross. There are flicks, spins, aerials, and all of this relates to the same soccer concepts of flicks, volleys, bicycle kicks and so on.
Now, there isn’t any franchise mode or long-term mode equivalents here, so this game is mostly about playing bots or going online to compete. I understand that means it won’t be for everyone because some people don’t like online play, but this is why it’s more a new-age NBA Jam than a new-age FIFA or NBA 2K. Rocket League knows the audience it is catering to, and it does everything it can to nail down that audience.
The final thing I want to say about Rocket League is that, beyond all the important trends and its longevity, it also nails one last final aspect of a good sports game: there’s no intimidation factor. You can play Rocket League for five minutes and feel like you had a good time. You can figure out the basic rules, the controls and have a blast the first time you play the game. But the simplicity is also the complexity because it’s one thing to score a basic goal the first time you play the game, and another thing entirely to score a bunch of goals like these after you’ve been playing for hundreds of hours.
It may take a long time to get to the equivalent of the Premier League in Rocket League, but the ideals of soccer are retained at all levels. Soccer is about creativity, teamwork, trust and development. You can see more incredible feats of skill, precise timing and individual flair in one Rocket League highlight video than you can see watching game after game of FIFA or PES. This does not serve as a direct indictment of those games. However, it does show that when tied to canned animations and living just within the rules of the sport in terms of how the developers have decided to approach it, means those games struggle to tap into what makes soccer the amazing sport that it is in a way Rocket League does not.