Sports video games are immensely shitty replications of sports. Sure, every single play you could ever think of is represented in Madden and, at a glance, you wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking a match of FIFA for the real thing. When it comes to the technical sides of professional sports, video games have it all figured out, almost to an overcomplicated fault. But do you watch football because you love seeing the perfect trap block executed? Not unless you’re a fucking weirdo, no you don’t. You watch it because holy shit was this play one of the most absurdly intense moments in recent memory. That play, and sports in general, are exciting not because of the technical aspects of what happened, but because of the unlikelihood of it all. Because of the thrill or horror you felt when you watched it happen live. Because of the emotions that sports video games fail to capture. Which is why Rocket League, a game about rocket-powered flying cars playing future soccer, is the best sports game ever made.
Rocket League is actually an incredibly simple game. The vast majority of matches pit three players verse three other players in a soccer-analogue that doesn’t last more than a few minutes. You control any one of a number of absurd looking cars with rockets strapped to the back that can jump, fly short distances, and flip around with incredible dexterity. There is a giant metal ball that you try to get it into a goal at the other end. There’s no selecting plays, complicated controls for passing to different players, or measured defensive strategies. There’s just you smashing into the ball fifty feet into the air and hoping to Sweet Baby Jesus that your teammate anticipated the move enough to hurry into position and nudge the ball in for a goal. By getting rid of the bloat on most sports games, Rocket League makes the experience about the excitement and ridiculous feats that we remember when we think about our favorite sports memories.
It’s actually a pretty great facsimile of the experience of playing sports, too. When you think back to your first time playing touch football, did someone sit you down and teach you what a cover 2 was or how you need to take five steps before immediately turning around for a hitch route? No, of course not. My first experience with football was, like many I suspect, at a Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl with some cousins. I was easily the youngest person, and I had no idea what I was doing. But my cousin told me to run where the other team wasn’t and try to watch for the ball. Most of the time I fell down or had the ball bounce off my chest, but I did manage to catch a few passes, and it was thrilling. Similarly, even in the newest Rocket League players can figure out what they are supposed to do in broad strokes and how to do it. Accelerate. Steer. Hopefully in the direction of the ball. In my first game, I managed to bank a shot off an opposing car, that happened to be flying through the air, for a goal. Did I mean to do that? No, but I also didn’t expect my horrible ‘pass’ to completely miss my buddy and go in for a basket in my first grade YMCA basketball league. That’s not to say that Rocket League is an easy game with no room for strategy and experience. I accidentally found my way into a high ranking match once and was completely embarrassed as the players around me gracefully glided through the air, bouncing the ball off the ceiling to each other and scoring goals from absurd angles. But it’s a game that feels rewarding from the very first time you play it. Easy to learn, difficult to master and all that.
I’m not saying that Rocket League is the only worthwhile sports game and all others are complete garbage. I used to have a great time playing Madden, and I happen to enjoy baseball management sims even though I hate baseball. But none of those games feel like watching or playing sports. They are their own unique thing that use pro sports as a jumping off point for something completely different. What I am saying, however, is that Rocket League is the closest I’ve gotten in a video game to the emotional experience of playing or watching sports and it’s not close.
If you want more detail on Rocket League check out their website at www.rocketleaguegame.com. Available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC platforms.