I found the answer to that question at the recent Rocket League Championship Series at the YouTube Theater in Los Angeles. Rocket League, if you don’t already know it, is a video game where flying cars play football. When you attend a Rocket League game in person, this is what you see: Six human players – two teams of three players each – sit on stage in front of giant computers. Above the head are three giant screens on which players appear as their own flying car. The relationship between the player and the car is a bit like a puppet shadow puppeteer. The puppeteer is in full view, but disappears into the action.
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This event, which I attended with my teenage son (at his request), inspired me to re-examine many of my basic assumptions about sports. Notions that I thought were fundamental – what an athlete is, for example – suddenly came into question. But in a world where flying cars play football, suddenly anything is possible.
One of the pleasures of Rocket League is the way it leans into the improbable. Over the course of a day, as I sat in my comfy seat in the YouTube Theater, I watched Rocket League games played in a variety of funky settings: a rusty metal post-apocalyptic stadium (“Wasteland “); a glitzy stadium set in a Tokyo nightscape (“Neo Tokyo”); and an alternate stadium set against desert rocks seemingly colored by George O’Keeffe (“Deadeye Canyon”). I asked my son, a fan, what other stadiums we could see. “Maybe they’ll blow up the farm,” he replied. The farm stadium? I looked: “Farmstead” is a stadium located in a bucolic field, with a view of a giant oak tree and a swing. This setting is all the more joyful when you know what a Rocket League game looks like: giant robots brawling in a parking lot full of buzzing Lamborghinis.
Rocket League players choose their own nicknames, customize their own cars, and can control details like what happens when they score a goal. When a player named retals (Slater Thomas’s first name, spelled backwards) scored, the net exploded with flowers and butterflies. When Joyo (real name Joe Young) scored a goal, there was a rash of pink icicles that matched his dyed pink hair. When asked why, his answer was pleasantly devoid of any of the common hypermasculine postures. “I like the color pink,” he says simply.
Players wear noise canceling headphones so they can talk to teammates – communication is a crucial part of the game – and reduce crowd noise. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there hadn’t been a live Rocket League event for two years and the audience was particularly lively. “You don’t hear the audience, you feel the public,” Retals told a reporter, after his team, Spacestation Gaming, picked up a win.
If one of the reasons we go to see sports is to admire human physical prowess as it involves the aforementioned major muscle groups, Rocket League shatters that expectation. Instead of bodies spinning around each other in real space, the game’s flying cars can crash into each other and destroy each other, only to resurrect unscathed moments later. This is called “physical play”.
Professional players who have qualified for this event have logged thousands of training hours. Among their skills are verbal communication, hand-eye coordination and fine command of the gamepad. And of course, they also possess the mental qualities that all competitive athletes share: commitment, concentration and, for want of a best term, dynamism.
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Professional Rocket League players in this championship were mostly under the age of 22, with some as young as 15 or 16. The young audience was largely made up of their peers. Surrounded by young people, I found myself trying to see these questions through their eyes: What does it mean to play together? What does it mean to be on a team? What does a “real athlete” look like?
It has been widely reported that there is a juggernaut of money and effort being invested in ensuring that football, basketball and baseball fandom is passed on to young consumers. We’ll see how it goes. What I do know is that by the end of the weekend, I stopped assuming that I knew the answers to all the questions I had asked myself while watching. As a former athlete myself, as well as the author of a non-fiction book that is essentially a love letter to physical space, this was a game changer. But there was no denying that what I was experiencing in YouTube theater represents: the vibrant energy of fandom. If I wasn’t quite sure what to think of these games, the delighted audience had no such qualms. They looked at the flying cars and were delighted with what they saw: themselves.