Everyone who plays Rocket League uses a controller, right? Well, almost everyone – at least at the professional level. It wasn't until the season three Rocket League Championship Series World Championship that we saw a single keyboard and mouse (KBM) player, Alpha Sydney's Daniel ‘Torsos’ Parsons (now with Chiefs Esports Club), and that wouldn't have happened without Oceania's addition to the league. He remained the only KBM finalist for two more seasons.
But that tally has surged this season: last weekend's Season 6 RLCS World Championship featured three KBM players, with a pair of European pros joining Torsos on the big stage. Granted, that's still just 10 percent of the Worlds pro pool, but it shows that skilled KBM players are on the rise, and can hold their own against the analogue stick-flicking heroes of the game.
Ahead of the World Championship in Las Vegas, we found out how those KBM pros got their start, and what – if anything – sets them apart from the vast majority of gamepad users.
Making the best of it
Rocket League was clearly designed to be played with analogue sticks. The fluid movements needed for high-level aerial play come most naturally via smooth strokes of the two sticks, and the game's predecessor – 2008's Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars – was a PlayStation 3 exclusive, making analogue sticks the natural control scheme. Rocket League, however, launched on PC at the same time as PS4, and the competitive community lives on PC, but nearly all of the pros still use a controller.
Why, then, did these three players opt to play with keyboard and mouse instead? Was it a concerted plan to disrupt the gamepad hierarchy, or had they somehow unearthed an unexpected advantage to using non-standard controls? No, of course not: it's simply that none of them actually owned a controller when they started playing.
"I didn't have a controller back then. There isn't really any other reason," says Paris Saint-Germain rookie Emil ‘Fruity’ Moselund, very matter-of-factly. Fruity didn't even realise that controller was the norm until he was at the game's peak Grand Champion rank, around the second or third in-game competitive season, and there was no reason to switch at that point. It's a familiar story echoed by one of his KBM counterparts.
"At first, I never had the intention to go pro in a game. I bought the game for fun and just played it on weekends for a few hours," explains Maurice ‘Yukeo’ Weihs of FlipSid3 Tactics. "I didn't have a controller at the time, so I basically was forced to play keyboard. After a few months, I started to play more and got better at the game until I did not feel the need to switch."
Yukeo knew he was in the minority as a KBM player, but as his skill started to ramp up, there was little incentive to disrupt his momentum and switch to a controller. "I had the feeling that if I just keep grinding, I could eventually catch up to others," he recalls. And having now just played in his first World Championship, an opportunity that he secured with an overtime series-winning goal against compLexity in the final week of RLCS league play, it's clear that he has accomplished just that.
KBM vs. controller
There are obvious physical differences between a controller and a keyboard and mouse set-up, and those used to playing with sticks and buttons might find the KBM set-up confounding – and vice versa. With default KBM controls, the WASD keys handle acceleration, braking, and steering, while the mouse buttons handle boost and jumping, respectively. It’s all customisable, but still, very different in form. Even so, when it comes to high-level play, does it really make a difference in the game?
"I don't believe so. Plenty of other players don't know that I play KBM, and when I tell them, they're slightly surprised because they thought that I was playing on a controller," says Fruity. "You can't really tell the difference between a KBM player and controller user. Most players believe there are some slight edges to using KBM over controller when it comes to fast aerials or half-flips, but honestly, it's identical and you wouldn't be able to identify the differences."
Fruity believes that using a controller does provide modest advantages, such as not being forced to do 1:1 inputs on KBM, which makes dribbling and hitting the edge of the car's hitbox easier. However, the advantages are "very minimal at the top level," he asserts.
Torsos, who played in his fourth-straight RLCS World Championship this past weekend and notched a career-best 4th-place finish, notes that you don't have as many directions in which to flip your car without an analog stick – but he likewise downplays the differences between controller and KBM. "Each offers small advantages, but they are pretty insignificant," he says. "It's really just preference."
Yukeo, who already exhibits impeccable car control (as seen above), even suggests that controller play feels better overall, but that his brain was already wired for KBM action by the time he gave it a shot. "I can't really tell if I would have learned things faster with controller, but I do have to say: playing with controller feels smoother, but my mind's muscle memory couldn't handle it," he admits. "I didn't want to waste my previous hours with keyboard, so I stuck with it. "
If fellow high-level players can't tell that someone like Fruity is using keyboard and mouse instead of a controller, then why would viewers be able to tell a difference? The visual difference was slightly more apparent a few seasons ago, but today pro players are so refined in their movements – regardless of input device – that it's no longer obvious.
"In a few select cases, you could maybe tell if a player was using KBM on an aerial or something. But overall, just over the past few seasons, I don't think I could really single out a KBM player over a controller player, at the highest level, just by watching them move around the pitch," says Michael ‘Achieves’ Williams, an RLCS caster and analyst.
As for any advantages or disadvantages to KBM over controller, Achieves pinpoints a few – but ultimately suggests that mechanical and input differences are just one part of what it takes to successfully compete at the highest level in Rocket League.
"It might be easier to teach yourself how to freestyle, as you have the option of just pressing air roll and then holding S [down] and D/A [right/left] and just twisting. Other than that, the lack of having full 360-degree radial input and only having binary on/off in four cardinal directions is a bit of a limitation," he says. "That being said, it's not so much of one that you aren't capable of playing at the highest level, as the game is far more about positioning and minimising mistakes than it is about a small input form factor difference."
A KBM uprising?
With triple the number of KBM players at the World Championship, it's fair to call it a significant uptick over past seasons – and yet we must consider the actual numbers. It's still just three players out of 30 starters at the World Championship. No, keyboard-wielding warriors aren't taking over Rocket League's pro scene, but it's a testament to each player's abilities that they've been able to hang with the much wider majority of gamepad-playing pros.
As Achieves points out, it's probably more about the respective teams and individuals rather than their input device of choice. Torsos' Chiefs have been dominant in Oceania for two years now, and still put up a strong 6-1 season even with a new third member this season. FlipSid3 Tactics found their form over the summer, following Yukeo's rookie season, and they caught fire with four straight wins to finish off league play. Fruity's PSG didn't look like they would make LAN, but his hot one-two tandem with captain Victor ‘Ferra’ Francal made all the difference in the end.
Despite being the first KBM player at Worlds and the only one to accomplish that feat over the previous three seasons, Torsos (seen in action above) doesn't feel like he's been influential at all. He's certainly not taking credit for this season's rising tide. "Not at all. If only one person at Worlds plays KBM, there is probably a reason," he jokes.
Ultimately, none of the players believe that this will be the beginning of a much larger trend. Both Fruity and Yukeo said they know of bubble KBM players on the rise, so there's hope for more in the coming seasons should they break into the RLCS ranks. "I'd love to see more high-level KBM pros compete at the highest level, but I doubt it," admits Fruity. "Most people who invest a decent amount of hours into the game would've switched over to controller already."
While the rare KBM players in the pro pool are a fun anomaly to hear about and examine, Achieves doesn't think it matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. The players who are skilled enough to compete in the RLCS have showed enough determination and skill to get there by any means – whether by keyboard or controller.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what input you use," he suggests. "If you put in the hours, and prove that you can compete at the highest level – such as Yukeo, Torsos, and Fruity – then you'll be on a top-level team. The learning curve is the same for all players: how you navigate it is up to you."