It’s about 8:30am on Saturday and I’ve slipped out of bed to get a few games of Rocket League in. I end up in a doubles match on the retina-searingly bright Utopia Coliseum and paired with a random who comes to represent every reason why I tend to avoid online multiplayer. He berates me like a satanic hybrid of Alex Ferguson and R. Lee Emery every time I miss the ball, and when I miscue a clearance that sails into our plastic onion bag, he ponders in the chat if I’ve ever played the game before. Suffice to say, I didn’t hang around for the rematch.
It’s an attitude that has been horribly prevalent in the majority of online games I’ve become addicted to for far too long now. The first one I ever lost evenings to was Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Before it, online gaming had seemed like a pointless distraction, a detached way to play that lacked the blend of joviality and ferocious competition that I loved in splitscreen. Plus, I am usually pretty awful at whatever I play, so that doesn’t help. But Modern Warfare was a huge, unavoidable juggernaut, a game that everyone and their infants (opens in new tab) were playing. The intoxicating blend of fluid twitch shooting with a never-ending supply of objectives and stats meant that you came for the gameplay and stayed for the visual confirmation that you were a badass.
To say online gaming has its griefers, its flamers, and hormonally challenged teens screaming words that shouldn’t exist would be like saying that a day has 24 hours. And however much you love a game, there’s always a certain point where the addiction wanes just enough to make that element unforgivable. I would rather jump into the sea surrounding Amity Island, coated in blood, than have to hear a teammate screech about campers affecting his K/D ever again.
But Rocket League was different. It’s multiplayer is the fever dream of a five year old come to life. Smashing cars and football together, while avoiding the blokiness that smashing those two pastimes together could have delivered, it’s no surprise that it’s become something of a sleeper hit. Giving it away for free on PSN might also have played a rather big hand in that, but its quality is undoubtable.
What’s more, its community (on the whole) was generally welcoming, making the initial few matches a pleasant stroll through the game, getting to grips with the depth of the gameplay. The inclusion of quick chat phrases - a stream of “Great Pass, Nice Shot, Thanks!” tended to follow every goal - has been a major part of why the online mode usually felt like a blast of positivity amongst the chest-beating, aggressive nature that had coloured previous online experiences.
Now, without wanting to break out the tin foil and start noticing the all-seeing eye in the rims, I’m concerned the tide may be turning for Rocket League. Through a mixture of entry level bantz and a new sombre, win-at-all-costs mentality, there are signs that that breezy and endearing atmosphere is slowly morphing into one that can make venturing online a chore.
Here's a video (opens in new tab) of someone who forfeited two seconds into an online game against yours truly because I scored from kick off. That image above is the late-game highlights of a particularly erudite young man who proceeded to replace commas with swear words every time his team conceded a goal. I’ve been shunted out of the way by teammates so they can steal a goal, the game meekly offering me the assist for engineering their skullduggery in the first place. The list. It goes on.
It’s not just those little moment-to-moment griefings either. It’s the slow vanishing of etiquette, as players become happy using the quick chat function to mock rather than graciously congratulate. This isn’t to say I’ve been a model player - I have a message on my PS4 that reads RAAAAGGGG QUUIIIITTTT which I keep as a reminder to be better - but when all these instances start to add up for players, the experience tips heavily towards ‘not worth the hassle’.
So why do it? Could it be that, like Activision’s finest cash cow, players get sucked into constantly improving their positions on the leaderboard, to the point that they fail to see the forest through the trees, losing the ability to just enjoy the game for what it is? Call Of Duty is about guns going bang, which is (ahem) serious business, so comparing it to carball which lasts no more than five minutes (give or take some overtime) is perhaps a tad unfair… or perhaps not. Sam Roberts at PC Gamer wrote a fantastic piece about his need fo' speed (opens in new tab) (and goals) and certainly adds weight to the idea that the people who are sticking with the game are the ones who take it as seriously as possible. On top of that, a study was published last year that suggests game mechanics might be linked to the feeling of aggression. In a quote to the BBC (opens in new tab), Dr. Przybylski said “If players feel thwarted by the controls or the design of the game, they can wind up feeling aggressive.” In fact he goes onto say that the “need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material.”
Rocket League involves a lot of skill, but there’s also an element of luck involved as well. It’s certainly masterable, but even 120 games in I still find myself sailing over the ball more often than I like. And that’s fine. Rocket League doesn’t have to be about ensuring that I am the best at the game - because I won’t be - and that’s why there’s the ability not to be ranked on your performance. I know people who refuse to play the ranked matches for this reason, and you’re a crueler person than me if you blame them for it.
But it’s almost certainly going to get worse. If the feeling of ‘beating’ the game isn’t being achieved, then people lash out at the unfortunate sods who are stuck playing with them. With the ‘official’ rankings still in pre-season mode, what will happen when the community really get stuck into the leaderboards? Pysonix might as well replace “Nice Shot!” with “U R A Bellend!”
This isn’t to turn anyone off Rocket League. In fact, if you haven’t got it yet, I would say you probably won’t get a finer game this month (Metal Gear What Now?), because I don’t remember the last time when a game opened up and hooked me so hard into the wider world beyond my living room. It’s been refreshing to look forward to playing online with other people, rather than intentionally limiting myself because of the fear of not being good enough. And I really, really hope that doesn’t go away. It might not be every match that gets aggressive, but it would be a travesty to lose one of gaming’s finest online environments to people who take flying football cars a bit too seriously.