The Arena Discussion Archive: Rocket League Part II (10/31/19)

On this week’s episode of The Arena, Erik Kersting, Daniel Marques, and I played Rocket League. This began our playthrough of the different games featured at the 2020 Intel World Open. Next year, this tournament series will lead up to the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Nation-based Rocket League teams will compete for a $250,000 prize pool. While Erik and I played standard, duos, and 1v1 matches and Daniel asked a series of excellent questions, we had an extended conversation about the roles of enjoyment and toxicity in Rocket League and in other competitive gaming and eSports settings. 

Discussion Highlight 

The Role of Enjoyment in eSports and Competitive Gaming 

The question of enjoyment in competitive settings has come up a few times since we took it up during this episode of The Arena. While grappling with this idea, we discussed the Rocket League online community’s special brand of toxicity. Erik brought up the phenomenon of “1v1 me, bro,” wherein a disgruntled player challenges the teammate they believe cost them the match. Erik and I discussed the feeling that, in a standard match of two teams of three players, it often feels like a 1v5 match rather than a 3v3. In other words, in a competitive setting, there is a sense that you compete against your own teammates in addition to your opponents. At the very least, some players in the community actively feel that they’re competing against everyone else on the pitch to measure their own success, given the “1v1 me, bro” mentality. However, as Erik points out, this feeling does not manifest in friendly settings like our own on The Arena. For example, if Erik and I’s team was losing by 4 points (which we were, at one point), neither of us would blame each other because at the end of the day, in spite of the loss, we had fun playing. 

While talking about this strange toxicity in Rocket League online matches, Daniel suggested that the feeling that your own teammates compete against you to measure their personal success cannot truly take place in an eSports setting because not all eSports players play for fun (54:20). In response, Erik argued that regardless of a person’s motivation for playing a game professionally, there is still an element of fun or enjoyment. That can manifest as a desire to win if they find winning enjoyable, as improving themselves in response to competition, or simply through seeking recognition as “the best.” As the three of us discussed, these ideas of enjoyment and fun require a reconceptualization of what “fun” can mean. Daniel discussed the ethnographic work of a scholar he knows who was working on competitive Magic, highlighting one particular player he remembers from the ethnographic work who said they don’t compete for fun or to make friends, but to win. But, if winning is how a person has fun, then—whether they would say so or not—they are having fun. Through this conversation, we concurred that referring to this as “enjoyment” as opposed to “fun” would be more all-encompassing.

Other Discussion Points 

Rocket League as an Emulation of Traditional Sports 

Toward the end of the stream, we discussed the roles of affect and emulation in a game like Rocket League. As opposed to games like MLB: The Show, the FIFA franchise, or the NHL franchise, Rocket League emulates the experience of playing a sport as opposed to reflecting the team management experience of video games based on traditional sports. For example, in the traditional sports games listed above, a match involves the player controlling the entire team and playing as an entire team, whereas in Rocket League you have the experience of playing on a team. As fellow Serious Play member Dave Stanley pointed out in the chat, traditional sports games offer a “simulation of broadcast rather than a simulation of play.” Similarly, at the beginning of the stream, Daniel said that Rocket League and soccer clearly have a symbolic relationship and Erik agreed. The basics of soccer are there, but a lot remains absent. For example, there’s no element of possession. eSports casters will talk about “possession,” but they mean something else entirely. Rather than referring to the way a certain player or team control a ball throughout the pitch, “possession” in professional Rocket League broadcasts refers to the ball’s position—if the ball bounces on my team’s side of the pitch, my team has possession and vice versa. However, we can apply the language of soccer to Rocket League if we want to—if our team focuses on clearing the ball while the opposing team spends their energy trying to score or get the ball into scoring position, we can argue that they have “possession” in the definition used by soccer sportscasters. 

Rocket League’s Meta 

Rocket League has no balance patches. Just as soccer doesn’t really change (aside from minor developments), Rocket League tries to emulate traditional sports in that way. Few changes mean that strategy development in relation to game-wide, structural changes can’t happen. The game also encourages a constant rotation: if I try to center the ball near the goal so my teammates can follow-up, then I return to my team’s end of the pitch to gather boost and defend in case things go sour; that means my teammates and I constantly navigate the pitch by weaving in and out of scoring and defensive positions, as opposed to exclusively playing offense or defense.  

What metagame there is develops moment-to-moment in response to teammates and opponents’ individual gameplay and strengths. In the last 20 minutes of the stream, we watched some VODs of professional matches and discussed the game’s eSports broadcasting style and meta gameplay. 

Discussion Questions 

  • Given Rocket League’s position in the Intel World Open, do we see the game as simulating the experience of playing traditional sports more so than the FIFANHL, or Madden? 
  • What are the differences between “fun” and “enjoyment” in competitive settings and, moreover, is there a need to differentiate them?  
  • As eSports continues to professionalize, is there always a sense of fun/enjoyment in competitive settings, or does the process of professionalization complicate the original enjoyment in playing a game by turning into play traditional labor? 

Janelle Malagon

I am a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the English department’s Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies plan. My research in media is multifaceted, ranging from platform studies to game studies, but above all I am always interested in the relationship between media and the climate crisis.

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