Update: The author has posted a new piece in response to community feedback on this article.
There’s no way to expect games like Rocket League. Nobody asked for race car-powered soccer, and nobody knew they wanted it until, with white knuckles and a wide grin, they scored their first goal. The game exemplifies creativity, which is only more impressive considering it’s technically a sports game, easily the most predictable of genres. Rocket League is a thrilling series of paradoxes: chaotic but structured, random but skill-based, and simple but complex. But it is not perfect. Not yet, anyway.
Anyone who’s played the game will tell you how difficult it can be to score a goal. This is no accident; the game’s physics and oversized ball lend themselves to wild outcomes, which aren’t conducive to accuracy. The fiddly nature of scoring is the main reason Rocket League is so fun. You and your team often have to go to Hell and back just to get the ball set up correctly, all the while playing the field. But the sheer adrenaline and promise in the opportunity to slam the ball and hear that hypnotic buzzer one more time makes it all worthwhile. Unless some squatter effortlessly swats your shot away, that is.
That’s the sticking point with Rocket League’s current model of defensive play: it’s anti-fun. Now, if the ball is heading toward your team’s net, you should be doing everything in your power to protect it. That’s the core of defending, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it spawns some of the most breathtaking saves ever to appear in a sports game.
Unfortunately, the absolute solution of sitting inside a net undermines this tactic, because it is nigh-on impossible to get a shot past a goalie that is literally in the net. Rather than defense, it reminds me more of the one kid who would camp the safe zone in hide-and-seek, the lazy git. Of course, defending your goal in the same manner is just as effective, but being equal doesn’t mean being fun.
The issue stems from Rocket League’s differences from traditional soccer—besides, you know, the rocket part. Ordinarily, players fight over a ball that is incredibly small relative to both the nets and the players themselves. The reverse is true for Rocket League: the ball is the biggest object on the field, and the net is maybe a meager 10 times its size. This is a necessary design decision for offense, as it allows players to accurately handle and shoot the ball despite being in race cars, which aren’t known for their nimbleness. And Psyonix clearly couldn’t keep the same net proportion; it would take up half the wall.
For defense, this creates an imbalance. When you’re playing goalie, you have a natural bottleneck to your advantage. You know the ball is going to come your way; all you have to do is block it. In conventional soccer, the cocktail of a small ball, large net and high speeds makes playing goalie difficult despite this. But due to Rocket League’s inverted design, sitting in the net all but guarantees a block. The ball takes up so much space that only aerial or bounce shots have a real chance at scoring on net-goalies, and even they can be shut down with a well-timed jump. This is never more annoying than in 3v3 and 4v4 matches, where teams can relegate a player to their net but still maintain a presence on the field.
The problem here is that it’s infinitely easier to block a shot in this way than it is to take one. Strikers have to fly to get where net-goalies can walk. And no game, especially one striving to become an eSport, can have a blatantly more effective but less skill-dependent tactic. That’s the polar opposite to healthy competitive play. It’s the stuff that card game ban lists and FPS patches salivate over, eager to nerf them into line. And that’s really what’s called for here.
Net-goalies obviate proper defensive play and render offensive play, an otherwise visceral tug-of-war, all but futile. To fix this, after much deliberation, I have prepared an elaborate and college-educated proposal: a wall. Put a wall in front of each team’s net that only they cannot pass through. The enemy team and the ball can fly through just fine. However, it would need to be slightly offset. If the wall were flush with the field, defending teams wouldn’t be able to join in the brawl over slow-rolling balls.
This could push goalies forward, thereby creating more openings for the attacking team to exploit while still allowing players to closely defend their net. It could promote fighting for the ball, which is what Rocket League is all about. Now, if we can just figure out a way to get people to stop quitting.