I’ve played something like 140 hours on Rocket League’s standard field: a rounded rectangle with sloping walls. That’s a Rocket League field to me, and it feels strange to play on any other—try as Psyonix does to introduce experimental new maps. It’s just not Rocket League to me when the map is a wacky circular track. Could the NBA add trapeze bars to the court so that Zach LaVine can swing into double backflip dunks? Yes. And it would be awesome. But it wouldn’t be NBA basketball anymore—it’s too radical a change to take seriously, and the game would lose meaning.
But the new ‘Rocket Labs’ maps like the circular one I mentioned aren’t the big Rocket League controversy of late—they’re sequestered in their own casual playlist so you don’t have to play them if you don’t want to. The Wasteland map, however, is now part of the competitive playlist, and that’s got some voices raised (or capslocked, I guess). It’s not all that different from the regular maps at first glance, but its gentle slopes do influence the ball quite a bit. The decision is so contested that Psyonix has had to prevent players from deleting the map to avoid it.
I was also against adding non-standard maps to the competitive playlist at first, but after some thought I’ve decided it’s not a crazy idea at all. It’s a good idea, even. Maybe Wasteland itself shouldn’t be in competitive play—I don’t particularly like the map—but slight variants should absolutely have a place.
If Rocket League is a simulacrum of physical team sports, why shouldn’t its fields vary a little? The Arizona Coyotes, for instance, have had a notoriously hard time maintaining good ice quality in the NHL’s hottest city, and you have to imagine they’re more prepared than visiting teams when things are a little slushy (though it’s better of late, I’ve heard). And because baseball is a weird sport that loves to defy consistency, ballparks can be all kinds of different shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, some of the most memorable NFL games have been played in inclement weather. What would the sport be without weird games like the 1967 ‘Ice Bowl,’ in which the turf heating system failed and the Cowboys and Packers played on frozen grass on a −15° F day?
Variations in the playing field are coded into sports: we talk about ‘home advantage’ and ‘hitter-friendly ballparks’ and turf and ice quality. And Rocket League does such a good job of digitizing all the goofy flailing and wild bounces of sports that I don’t see why it should leave out field variance, preferring strict computerized consistency. Imagine a Rocket League with a standard field, and, say, five or so slight variants. Maybe one has a couple bumpy patches, and another tilts a little to the side. Now you can introduce tournaments which allow teams to pick home fields, with the the top seeded team playing ‘at home’ first. As long as we’re not talking about tossing in loop-the-loops or anything extreme, I imagine it’d be a fun extra layer of strategy, and make the game even more interesting for spectators.
But no loop-the-loops, definitely. It’s funny: in shooters, the number of different maps is a feature—12 maps! Holy cow!—but in Rocket League, anything that deviates too far from the standard field just distracts me with the notion that I’m not practicing proper competitive skills. Given how long it took me to find a match in the Rocket Labs playlist today, I’d say the feeling is shared.
I feel bad, because Psyonix has put some good effort into the Tron-styled deviations, and two of them work really well. One is a circular track with the goals slicing a small section such that you can drive through in one goal and out the other in a second. It means that, after a failed attack, you can boost through the opponent’s goal, fly out of your own goal, and make a save. It’s a regular Rocket League game with a wormhole between both sides of the field, condensing the play by removing all the sprinting between ends, and it’s fun. Another is a traditional rectangular field, but each goal is divided down the middle into two, which mostly just means you have to tip the ball at different angles. The third, which I don’t care for as much, has standard goals but adds raised platforms running along the sides of the field—it makes things more awkward, but I can’t see yet what the intention behind it is.
Whether or not I like the Rocket Labs maps, though, playing on them just makes me itch for the competitive playlist and its standard maps. But as long as the competitive maps are roughly the same shape and size, and don’t throw in any skate parks—just subtle variations I can imagine real field having—I’m all for a little variety. It gives me another thing I can hope to master in Rocket League.