Rocket League, a popular game that lets users play soccer with cars, sparked controversy Tuesday when developer Psyonix announced that it will end the ability for players to trade their items. It’s the latest example of how closed gaming ecosystems can limit players’ ability to handle and benefit from their in-game assets—issues that NFTs purportedly fix.
Psyonix said that Rocket League will remove in-game trading on December 5 across all platforms, including PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles, and the Nintendo Switch.
Rocket League launched in 2015 and allows players to purchase items—like different car models, designs, and accessories—using one of multiple in-game currencies, along with bundles denominated in fiat currency. Some longtime players even have limited edition items that were given out during pre-release testing periods. Publisher Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, acquired Psyonix and the Rocket League IP in 2019.
How far up the chain did this idea originate from?
Like genuinely how disconnected from your community do you have to be to think this was a good idea?? https://t.co/pDUtc6MeXw
— KCP Kronovi (@KronoviRL) October 10, 2023
“We’re making this change to align with Epic’s overall approach to game cosmetics and item shop policies, where items aren’t tradable, transferrable, or sellable,” Psyonix wrote in the announcement. “This opens up future plans for some Rocket League vehicles to come to other Epic games over time, supporting cross-game ownership.”
Decrypt’s GG reached out to Psyonix for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Players have shared mostly negative responses to the news via social media, calling out Psyonix for abandoning an in-game economy that has flourished for several years. Some players have called for a boycott, and a Change.org petition to keep item trading in the game has already amassed over 6,700 signatures in less than a day.
Some players have spent potentially thousands of dollars’ worth of real money on in-game credits to acquire rare items like Alpha Boost, which was only available to very early players who helped test the game before release. Other players, including content creators, chimed in to say they’ve used in-game trading as a way to reward fans with items for participating in tournaments.
“How far up the chain did this idea originate from?” questioned Cameron “Kronovi” Bills, who won the first Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) World Championship in 2016. “Like genuinely, how disconnected from your community do you have to be to think this was a good idea??”
“Are y’all removing the ball next?” quipped pseudonymous video editor Chipy on Twitter.
Rocket League has a sizable audience, with the free-to-play game reportedly drawing some 91.5 million players across all platforms over the past 30 days, per data from ActivePlayer. While shy of games like Fortnite (223.5 million) and Roblox (200.8 million), that’s still a substantial player base that owns in-game items and has potentially spent money within the game.
Are NFTs the answer?
The promise of “cross-game ownership” with this new model suggests interoperability, or the ability to own a video game item and ultimately use it across multiple games. That would likely be tied to a user’s Epic Games account, which is used to also play Fortnite and access various other games via the Epic Games Store marketplace.
However, the fact that Epic Games and Psyonix can unilaterally decide to limit players’ ability to trade such items between themselves throws the whole idea of digital “ownership” in Rocket League into question.
Fortnite is already seen as a key example of how traditional games can rake in billions of dollars from in-game items sales while locking those assets to its own closed ecosystem.
Blockchain advocates would argue that users don’t truly own anything in a digital ecosystem that is closed off from other platforms—the “walled garden” model favored by tech giants far and wide, ranging from Apple to Sony’s PlayStation and, indeed, Epic Games.
Under the current model, Rocket League players can trade their owned items between each other, potentially using external transactions (such as cash payments) alongside to profit from the sale of high-value or rare items. There are already some restrictions around which items can be traded, but the current model has still enabled rare items to gain substantial value.
But with its a closed ecosystem, Psyonix can decide to take away that ability, effectively killing the in-game secondary market in one action. There’s no way to trade items externally within this type of closed approach.
The move echoes another recent situation in which game publisher Valve—the company behind leading PC gaming marketplace Steam, a key rival to the Epic Games Store—decided to ban Counter-Strike: Global Offensive game accounts that held in-game items collectively valued above $2 million. Those players can no longer benefit from those “owned” items.
If those games used NFTs—a type of blockchain token that can represent unique items—to signify ownership of in-game assets, then players would be able to take them to third-party marketplaces and still freely trade and sell them, even if their game account was banned.
Even if Rocket League removed an in-game trading feature, players could trade the items elsewhere if they were NFTs minted on a public blockchain. Such tokens can also be used to fuel interoperability across games, allowing players to connect a crypto wallet and bring over their NFT items, which can serve different purposes across games.
Granted, NFTs aren’t a silver-bullet solution, and many gamers are vocally against the use of crypto and tokens in video games. Epic Games could still, for example, ban a certain token ID and make the corresponding item unusable in a particular game. But at least players would still have custody of the assets and could handle them as they see fit, or potentially use them in other games.
Epic Games remains intent on building out the metaverse, despite the company’s recent layoffs and broader flagging interest in the concept, and CEO and founder Tim Sweeney has said that Epic wants to build an open metaverse that can’t be owned by a single company.
However, while Epic Games has been open to NFTs and other emerging technology like generative AI and allows games built with those technologies to be sold via its store, the company itself hasn’t embraced Web3 tech for its own games. And Rocket League players may soon pay the price for investing in an ecosystem that can be constrained at any time.