For as long as I have been alive, spectator sports have worked like this: You go to Ye Olde Stadium, you sit down in your seat, and you watch the human players below as they vigorously move their major muscle groups. I’ve never questioned this structure, which is, I now realize, an indication of how old I am. Now, here is a good question that could only be asked by a person who hasn’t been on the planet long: How great would soccer be if the players were instead … flying cars?
I found the answer to this 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 computer game where flying cars play soccer. When you go to a Rocket League game in person, here is what you see: Six human players — two teams of three players each — sitting onstage at giant computers. Overhead are three huge screens where the players appear as their flying-car selves. The relationship between player and car is a bit like a shadow puppeteer to puppet. The puppeteer is in plain view, but disappears into the action.
This event, which I attended with my teenage son (at his urging), inspired me to reexamine many of my basic assumptions about sports. Notions I thought were foundational — what an athlete is, for instance — were suddenly called into question. But in a world where flying cars play soccer, suddenly anything is possible.
One of the pleasures of Rocket League is the way it leans into the improbable. Over the span of a day, as I sat in my cushy seat at the YouTube Theater, I watched Rocket League games played in a variety of funky settings: a post-apocalyptic stadium made of a rusted metal (“Wasteland”); a glitzy stadium set in a Tokyo nightscape (“Neo Tokyo”); and a spare stadium set against desert rocks seemingly colored by George O’Keeffe (“Deadeye Canyon”). I asked my son, a fan, what other stadiums we might see. “Maybe they’ll bust out the farm,” he replied. The farm stadium? I looked it up: “Farmstead” is a stadium set in a bucolic field, with views of a giant oak tree and a tire swing. This setting is all the more joyfully bonkers when you know what a Rocket League game sounds like: giant robots brawling in a parking lot full of revving Lamborghinis.
Rocket League players choose their own monikers, customize their own cars and can control details like what happens when they make a goal. When a player named retals (the given name of Slater Thomas, spelled backward) scored, the net exploded with flowers and butterflies. When Joyo (real name, Joe Young) shot a goal, there was an eruption of pink icicles that matched his dyed-pink hair. When asked why, his answer was refreshingly devoid of any of the common, hypermasculine posturing. “I like the color pink,” he said simply.
Players wear noise-canceling headsets so they can talk to their teammates — communication is a crucial part of the game — and reduce the sound of the crowd. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there hadn’t been a live Rocket League event in two years and the audience was particularly animated. “You don’t hear the audience, you feel the audience,” retals said to a journalist, after his team, Spacestation Gaming, earned 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 dashes that expectation. Instead of bodies pirouetting around each other in real space, the game’s flying cars can crash into, and destroy, each other, only to resurrect unscathed moments later. This is called “physical play.”
The pro players who qualified for this event have logged thousands of hours of practice. Among their skills are verbal communication, hand-eye coordination, and a fine-tuned mastery of the gaming controller. And of course, they also boast the mental qualities that all competitive athletes share: commitment, focus, and, for lack of a better term, drive.
The professional Rocket League players at this championship were mostly younger than age 22, with some only 15 or 16. The young-skewing audience was largely made up of their peers. Surrounded by young people, I found myself trying to view 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’s been widely reported that there is a juggernaut of money and effort being invested in making sure that football, basketball and baseball fandom is passed down to young consumers. We’ll see how that goes. What I do know is that by the end of the weekend, I stopped assuming I knew the answers to any of the questions I’d asked myself as I watched. As a former athlete myself, as well as the author of a book of nonfiction that is essentially a love letter to physical space, this was a shift. But there was no denying that what I was experiencing in the YouTube theater stands: the vibrant energy of fandom. If I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of these games, the delighted audience had no such qualms. They looked at the flying cars and were ecstatic at what they saw there: themselves.