Rocket League: Psyonix’s timeless masterpiece

Four years since Rocket League’s launch and the community is growing faster than ever.

Julian-Sims by Julian Sims

Rocket League is the driving game that exists at the intersection of football, combat sports and rocket science. Imagine football being played by insanely fast, flight-capable cars and you pretty much get the idea.

Rocket League is in many ways the perfect video game. It arrived fully-formed in July 2015, serving as a sequel to Psyonix’s ‘Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars’ – a game released in 2008 which received mixed reviews but gained an extremely loyal fan base.

This piece offers an overview of the game’s decade-long development, the avenues that it has explored over the past 4 years, and a glimpse into the future now that the community has surpassed the 50 million milestone.

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Launch

Rocket League initially launched in the summer of 2015, just over 4 years ago

Following alpha and beta periods, Rocket League launched in July 2015 on PC, and launched for free on PS4 with Sony’s ‘PS+’ service. Psyonix’s gamble to jump-start a console player-base paid off, as the servers initially crashed thanks to player numbers being so high. 

These launch day crashes had Psyonix’s vice President Jeremy Dunham worried, as he expected it to affect people’s perception of the game, but the community liked it so much they were actually supportive (unlike a lot of other game launches that have run into similar issues).

Overnight, it seemed like Psyonix had transitioned from a small studio doing contract work into one that supported its own online giant.

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Gameplay

The crisp graphics and clunky aesthetic makes this game a dream to play

While some games take time to appreciate and grow into, Rocket League hits you like a tonne of bricks. The gameplay is largely the same as that of it’s predecessor, albeit improvements to the game’s physics engine, graphics, and presentation. It’s a game that pulls you in within seconds and, hundreds of hours later, just keeps getting better. 

Psyonix renewed their focus on things like online infrastructure, and threw out the obstacle courses and mini-games in favour of putting multiplayer front and centre, with a chunky, vibrant, futuristic aesthetic.

The design team also focused more emphasis on team-play, making the game more accessible for all skill levels; a downside of Battle-Cars was if you’re not very good, you will likely never touch the ball if someone better than you is playing.

It is easy to gloss over the fact that this process of refinement took longer than 7 years, with Psyonix doing a load of work-for-hire throughout this time to pay the bills. But Psyonix’s CEO and Studio Director Dave Hagewood believed this work played a key role in influencing Rocket League’s exceptional visual style, as the contract work allowed them to train their team on “reaching the highest of standards. For example, they got to see Epic’s processes and standards of quality for Gears of War, as well as working with Firaxis and numerous other renowned studios.

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Game modes

Choose from a multitude of online multiplayer options, or just hone your skills in the free play arena

You can choose from a list of game modes depending on what you’re feeling, but most of them revolve around a 5 minute football game. The highest score wins, and you can do ANYTHING to get there – there are no rules!

  • 1v1 games allow for more opportunities for players to hone their dribbling and ball control (vital skills if you want to succeed at rocket league). This mode prepares you for occasions where you find yourself with only 1 defender left to beat in a traditional game.
  • 2v2 games help players to mitigate risk, as an extra player on the pitch means you can play with less reservations. With another player to fire passes at and rely on in defence, you can commit to attacks more often without the fear of getting caught out.
  • 3v3 games stress the importance of spacing and anticipation. You’ll want to be rotating off the ball with your teammates as this game mode gives you the least time on the ball. This mode is best for practicing your split-second decision making.

You can also play the Seasons game mode, where you battle computer controlled teams with a computer controlled teammate of your own to win the championship.

The game has earned a number of industry awards (such PlayStation Universe’s “Best Sports Game of E3” and Gaming Trend’s “Best Multiplayer Game of E3” in 2015) and has since been adopted as an esport, with professional players participating through Psyonix’s very own Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) as well as ESL and Major League Gaming.

Pros and streamers have also invented a vast array of moves by experimenting with mechanics and turning weird quirks into helpful manoeuvres – such as the half flip, a move that allows you to turn 180 degrees in one move. For the average player it presents a real challenge, but it’s more natural than walking for the elite players.

My advice is to use the free-play mode or utilise the training packs to practice specific skills and set plays. But before you go wild, try mastering these five lower level mechanics:

  • Power hits
  • Wall play
  • Aerial hits
  • Dribbling
  • Half flips

Once you have these on lock, you’ll be able to take on anyone.

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Community

The community is now growing faster than ever before

Psyonix do things differently to other studios – they were never big on doing what many others do, which is sell pretty much everything post-release, as that kind of thing divides the audience after every release. 

Ultimately, the numbers show that Psyonix did something right. Rocket League has stuck since it’s inception in 2015, and lends itself well to short collages of amazing goals and saves, which are easily shared around social media, gaming networks, and platforms like Youtube, Reddit and Twitch.

All of this in addition to the high-quality designs make a formula for sales and popularity over an extended period of time, rather than a spike in both after release and a few months of gradual decline.

While most of the success may seem effortless, Psyonix took the best part of a decade to transform Battle-Cars into the timeless masterpiece that Rocket League has become. The studio continues to innovate on popular ideas and engage with the community with the same vigour that it started with.

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Esports

The pinnacle of competitive Rocket League – the Rocket League Championship Series

Since the creation of the Rocket League Championship Series, team play has also improved by leaps and bounds. Pro-level play is the result of thousands of hours of focus and incomparable reflexes – an unattainable standard for many. They really do push the boundaries of what can be done in a rocket-powered car.

At the most recent Rocket League World Championship in July, European team Renault Vitality set their sights on the best teams on the planet. They turned on the afterburners on Day 3, tearing through both the Quarterfinals and the Semifinals with a 3-1 win over NRG and a clean sweep over defending World Champions Cloud9.

A last-second goal by Kyle “Scrub Killa” Robertson in Game 1 of the Finals sent the stadium into a frenzy, and propelled Europe’s best to a 4-1 victory over a hungry G2 squad. It was a magical ending to a campaign that Renault Vitality had been fighting through for months.

The Rocket League community and fan base in the crowd made it one of the most-watched events in the game’s history. To get a taste of the action, check out some of the highlights from the finals.

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Julian Sims