It’s Okay to Suck if You’re a Team Player – My Lessons from Rocket League

                                My Guilty Pleasure – Rocket League

Happy Week 21! How’s your Summer? It just got started, so of course, when the sun comes out, I close the blinds and do the same thing I always do (when not writing) – play a team-based car soccer video game with my sons, aka Rocket League!

For those not familiar with this video game, first off, shame on you. It’s amazing, and if I’m going to be obsessed with it, you should be too. If you decide to try it, know that initially, you’re going to suck at this game. It’s  compared mostly to soccer with cars (football for everyone not in USA) but those in the know would say it’s gameplay is more similar to hockey. It’s cars hitting a giant ball trying to score goals. Very special cars.

There are no guns, no shooting, very little more than soccer with cars that have rockets. The cars are invulnerable save the opponents supersonic demolition attack. They can be endlessly customized with items that are earned or purchased. The most fun is flying. It’s very difficult to do effectively, but some can fly across the soccer field and handle the ball with astonishing grace. Gentle Readers, this sort of game is the future, if not this game specifically. Check out this trailer and tell me it doesn’t give you chills.

The amount of skill and practice that goes into that should forever banish the concept of “just a video game”.  Rocket League, like all e-sports games, has a robust ranking system, going from Bronze I to Grand Champion.  Those at the top of the ranks do this professionally, for money, and earn a good amount of fame to boot. I am not one of those people.

You see, with middle-aged eye-hand coordination and limited practice time, I struggle. I’m still a bottom-rung Bronze I when I play one-on-one matches.  However, this game gives separate rankings when you’re in a team, and when I team with my two sons, I become a Silver-tier, currently Silver III.  Silver III’s would destroy me when I’m alone.  But with my boys, who are far better than me, I’m better. But here’s the surprising part – when my sons team with others who are better than me but terrible teammates, they do worse.

I heard this the other day: ” I’d rather play with Dad than that guy any day….”  This is not the norm. Most days my boys are roasting me for missing a shot or an easy save. Eventually, you’ll be able to see all the awesomeness on our shared channel, where they’ll be a segment on older gamers trying to play complex video games. For now, take my word for it – I am not good, and very often my sons have to carry me. Yet, we frequently beat teams with players much higher rank than I. Why?

We play higher than we should because Rocket League is truly a team sport. Unlike other endeavors, say golf, or even other video games such as Call of Duty, it’s more about your individual excellence.

In the modern era, most of our endeavors are team based. We are hopelessly interdependent. At work, we depend on our teammates to do the things we’re collectively committed to, but we also depend on the support folks, e.g. the accountants in payroll, the security guys blocking the hackers, the sales guys landing that next big account. One of the natural responses to an increasingly complex reality is to gather in groups allowing individuals to specialize. Yet, specialization comes at a cost – it means that we generally suck at most other things.

II. We Suck at Most Things

Now, many of those folks might have the 10k hours and natural disposition for their chosen path ( I, for one, think both play a part). Recognizing specialization and building complementary abilities is a skill that those who aspire to lead should work on developing. I’ve known many developers that have the most cantankerous personalities you wonder how they’ve progressed through life without being fitted with cement shoes. There’s the too-directive project manager, the always-late Larry that misses the daily stand-up, or the forgetful database guy who neglects to load your schema changes during a deployment to production.

This weakness shows up as well in the family domain, which can be worse. If a parent doesn’t pay a bill, feed the family healthy food, or a thousand other things that adults do, things break.

Who is good at all the stuff that adults/parents have to do in our complex world? Nobody. Therefore, since we have to deal with our human weaknesses the best way to do that is to be part of a team with complimentary strengths.

In the book Group Genius, Kieth Sawyer talks about the W.L Gore & Associates company, creators of the innovation Gore-Tex that keeps us warm in the winter, who organized the company into small tasks forces that constantly self-organized and regroup in response to changing needs. Morse, the guy who created Morse code, required many iterations, and the Internet itself was the collaboration of many ideas and a confluence of countless people’s efforts, from creation of computers to  HTML, to the database, fiber-optics, and the foresight of government officials to make way for it to flourish (or to at least get out of the way while it happened).

Final example – As you might know, I’m working on my first work of fiction. I am working closely with an editor who sees things I did not and has skills I am still learning. Read any acknowledgments section from any author. Even writing, one of the most solitary tasks out there, requires teaming.

III. Tips for Sucking Less

There are many conditions that are required for this to work. One, and the one I use in Rocket league to best my betters is Knowing Your Place. I have a keen understanding of where I am in the food chain as  I play this game. I know I can’t dribble or juke like these other players. This means I stay back more, play more goalie, and wait for the more open shots. I see myself as a support role for my two sons, who have incredible synergy and teamwork.

You could say that I’m just being carried along and I’m “dead weight” – and on certain days my boys would agree!  It is true that they have to play on their own to get better, as do I at my level. I’m not saying that a better player wouldn’t make the team better. I am saying that I am better at teamwork than many, which enables me to play above my own station and win.

Right now our team is nearly Silver III, which is astonishing really considering how low I rank on my own. I have no idea how far we can go. I imagine they’ll need someone at their own skill level if they want to get serious about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that with teamwork you can get much farther than individual skill and no teamwork. 

Knowing Your Role  –  Try to find your place in your team, if it’s at work or in your family or on your team. Don’t try to be Tom Brady if you’re a Big Ben – both excellent, just add different things. They know what they can, and cannot do. Steve Largent knew he was a better route runner than blazingly fast like other wide receivers. Know your place and your unique value.  In Rocket League, I’m far more willing than my sons to play goalie. This makes us better.

Find complimentary skills and players – one of my sons is fabulous at passing, the other can score like crazy. I try to enable that interaction with both my passing and defense. They feed off of each other’s excellence, as do I.

Grow – if I’m the guy who does defense, then my job is to get better at that. Yes, we’ll need to be generalists, but think about the T-shaped person – deep in one area, wide in the rest. And yes, I’ll need to actually score on occasion.

IV. Summary

  • You’re going to suck at a LOT of things, but you have to be good at something or at least have the potential to be so.
  • Think about the 10,000 hours concept, which has not been proven, BTW, but carries a lot of cultural weight.  If we have 10k hours, we will not merely be good, we’ll be in the top 1%, a master, a virtuoso, world class. Of course, that’s about five years of nearly constant practice, which means we have to be very selective about what we do in that domain. What we’re going to be world class at probably can be counted on one hand, but reading this counter position might be useful (TL;DR  – The 10k hours thing is domain specific.)
  • For everything else in your life, you will possess a varying degree of suckiness unless you’ve got a great team around you. However, if you can sense your position in the system and exploit what you’re good at, then you can change Bronze into Gold.


Author’s note: in chatting with my twelve-year-old son about this article, he had several things to say, so instead of just telling me, I had him write his feedback below. Ladies and Gentlemen, my son Ryan, edited only for grammar. 🙂

Extra notes by Ryan

So there are a few points I want to make clear.

One: that we are just as willing to be goalie as he is. He said that he is much more willing to be goalie than we are. This is false. We have a rotation that we follow to make all of us passing, defending, and shooting equal amounts of time. And we actually tell him to go up to attack if it’s our turn to defend, and occasionally we bump him up. 

Two: [Regarding] that my brother is better at passing than me and I’m better at shooting- this statement is false. The basis for this is that I have a higher percentage of goals than assists. This information is true but only because I play more 1-v-1s than my brother does. This makes it so that I have an inflation of goals and a deflation of assists. My brother is even on goals, saves, and assists because he mainly plays 3-v-3s. 

That’s it for my notes. PEACE M8s!


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