Dave Hagewood didn’t set out to create the next big thing in electronic sports. Ten years ago he simply envisioned a game in which cars did crazy things.
Cars with rockets on them.
The result was the breakout independent game of 2015, “Rocket League.”
The key to its success was one simple addition to Hagewood’s original vision: a giant, bouncy soccer ball. Thus, a zany game in which cars crashed into one another became something else entirely, a madcap sport.
“Rocket League” has now reached more than 12 million players, with revenue topping $70 million. In late February the game — already a hit on Sony’s PlayStation 4 and computing platform Steam — arrived on Microsoft’s Xbox One, where in less than a month it attracted more than 1 million players. On a recent midweek afternoon, 120,000 people were playing the game at once.
That’s a big deal for a midsize studio. Before “Rocket League,” Psyonix, based in downtown San Diego, was known largely for its contract work, helping bigger studios fine-tune production on “Mass Effect 3,” “Gears of War” and other titles.
“Rocket League” worked because Hagewood and the young Psyonix team were stubborn. A passion project, and one developed over a course of two years with a budget shy of $2 million, Team Psyonix for much of the past decade has wanted to play soccer with cars.
“It’s a great example of why the video game industry is so unique,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founder of e-sports organizer Major League Gaming.
“Psyonix is a decent-sized studio, but it’s not a major, by any stretch. This is not a title that was pegged to be a massive seller, but they came out with a well-crafted game that was entertaining to watch, fun as hell to play and very social. They became a significant chunk of the gaming zeitgeist for months and months.”
It’s more than just a populist game. “Rocket League” won the top independent prize at last December’s media-chosen the Game Awards, and the title is nominated for game of the year alongside name brands “Fall Out 4” and “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” at this month’s prestigious Game Developers Choice Awards.
The game is a sequel to 2008’s breathlessly titled “Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars.” But you’d be forgiven for never having heard of that one. It was released only on Sony’s PlayStation 3 and took two years to turn a profit.
What it succeeded in doing, however, was hook the Psyonix team on the idea that cars plus soccer equals video game magic.
At its core, the game is simple: Drive around a stadium with remote-controlled-looking cars and chase a larger-than-life, futuristically designed ball.
But spend a few minutes with it — or watch a couple of videos on YouTube or Twitch — and it’s clear that “Rocket League” can require deep mastery.
With a sports-arena-meets-rave look and tone, “Rocket League” can be crazily fast. At times it’s a match of car versus car; other moments it requires the perfect angle to slap the ball into the goal. And that’s if you can manage to properly drive around the rink and learn how to ride the walls.
“It’s unusual for a game to stick out in the way that ‘Rocket League’ did to us,” Hagewood said last month in the Psyonix headquarters on the 16th floor of a San Diego high-rise. Outside the conference room — the only one in the office — a kitchen was fully stocked with snacks and drinks. Nearby was a plush couch and a big-screen TV. Tinted windows keep the office twilight-dark, and staffers on a lunch break were enjoying a few rounds of Nintendo’s most recent take on “Super Smash Bros.”
“We felt like we were sitting on top of a hidden secret,” Hagewood said. “We’ve all worked on big games — ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Unreal Tournament’ and ‘Mass Effect.’ This is cool stuff. They’re great games, but there’s something very special about building something that’s completely off the wall.”
It hooked Blake “CloudFuel” Tull months before it was released. He caught a mention of the game on a Reddit forum and was able to play the beta version. Today, Tull, based in Houston, runs the online community Rocket League Central, which posts news on the game and its top players as well as hosts events and tournaments.
“I do think the game is very approachable,” said the 30-year-old, who works in logistics for the oil and gas industry. “It’s got a high skill ceiling, so there is the potential to be really competitive at it, but there’s also a low entry point. You can get in pretty easily. It’s not a hard concept. You hit the ball into the goal. It’s the simplest thing you can do. It’s taking it to the next level and the next level and the next level that keeps you going.”