Transition to Controller [Rocket League]

Switch to controller already!

Okay so, I'm finally doing it. I've been playing Rocket League since its release back in summer 2015 and I've been using my keyboard and mouse for input ever since. I was Gold in Season 1, Shooting Star in S2 and All-Star in S3, but my progress in this last season really took a halt. I began to notice the limitations of the hardware I was using and after a long time thinking about it, I decided to dust off my XBONE controller, reset my muscle memory and start again from the bottom of the leaderboards. I want to share what I've learnt and, if someone wanting to transition over to controller is reading this, show you what you'll probably have to go through.

Today I want to talk to you about my transition over to using a controller in Rocket League and tell you about my experience. Many times I've told myself that I would take the time to switch and relearn everything but I was too lazy and afraid of doing it and losing all the time I had already spent training. I want to show you from where I'm starting or current skill level with keyboard and what I've learned through 900h of playing with it, including some tiny aspects where the keyboard may actually be better than a controller. Then I will be protocoling my progress for about two months, highlighting the points where I struggled on my way up muscle memory mountain and detailing how I got around them, assuming I actually achieve that. If at this point I've already caught your attention to some degree, I would encourage you to keep reading this whole article instead of just jumping to the interesting part, because I think many of my decisions are highly contextual and I'll do my best to give you all the why's and because's. Read this while pooping or something, we all know you wouldn't need 20 minutes in there if you hadn't brought your phone with you...

Why don't you just use a controller?

I've heard that question way too often. The reason behind me sticking to keyboard is that I've been a PC player my whole life, playing mostly shooters and strategy games. The majority of the games that included vehicles, the main reason for using a controller I suppose, were mainly shooters as well, like Battlefield or GTA, where I wasn't going to switch input devices back and forth during gameplay. That's why I just got good with the keyboard, after so many years playing you just get used to it. On the other side, I've owned two consoles in my whole live, a Nintendo 64 and a Nintendo Wii U, which I play with like 5 times a year. For this reason my fingers have no idea what to do when holding a controller, it's not the feeling of I need to learn how to play this game, no, it's actually more like I need to learn how to use this new input device. It's a huge difference. You could probably compare it with going from driving a car to start using a motorbike for the first time.

I bought my XBONE controller some time during Season 2, around fall of 2015, with the intention of switching before I get too good at Rocket League, but by that time I've already had 200+ hours and after some exhibition matches I just put it aside. I was making progress with the keyboard so I didn't think it was necessary to switch. When Season 3 was around the corner, bringing a total MMR wipe with it, I thought now is the time, it would be perfect if I started now so I don't have to play against players in the blue star ranks yet, I still hated the controller and again stopped using it after one evening, and that's how it's been for the last seven years until Season 4 began.

By March 2017 I had 930h played with keyboard and mouse. During that time I learned how to control my car on the ground and got used to how ball-cam worked. Quite early I consistently achieved 100% in the All-Star goalie training which gradually made it more comfortable for me to get off the ground and start hitting balls in the air. Air-roll became something I couldn't ignore any more if I wanted to land correctly. I also began using the hand brake more and more often, learning how to power-slide and thus reacting faster to the last ball touch, later I combined this with half-flips to make even faster plays. During this time, my aerials were getting more accurate too, and I spent some time training upside-down aerials as well as jumping off the wall. I was fast, accurate and had a very strong positional awareness to keep up the pressure, but that's it. I began to stagnate and was losing that feeling of getting progressively better and improving my mechanical skills. I would spend hours training either redirects from the wall or air-dribbles just to learn how to control my car in the air correctly, but it just didn't work. It felt like when they taught us to play the flute when we were little. If I played the same piece over and over and over again, I would end up knowing the notes and play it from start to end, but as soon as you ask me to insert some kind of variable I wouldn't be able to play the song at all. Same happened in Rocket League; I was able to hit the trained shots from time to time but never got lucky when in an actual match.

Here is where you very clearly start to see the limitations of the keyboard. After all these hours invested in Rocket League and driving in other games, accuracy when playing on the ground was absolutely no problem, the car and the ball always go exactly where I want them to. When it came to controlling my car in the air I always felt like the controls are just not intuitive enough. The first aspect of this is that on keyboard, you don't have separate keys for accelerating and pitch down on your steering axis; With the controller, you always hit the gas with your right trigger (by default) but on keyboard, and for practically every PC game out there, you move forward with the W-key. This creates the first problem. When you jump, you have to learn to get off the gas pedal, because as soon as you are in the air the WASD keys are used to steer or pilot your car mid flight. This means that, if you jump and keep accelerating by pressing W, you will immediately bury your cars nose into the ground. I personally overcame this by properly aiming for an airborne ball before jumping by braking slightly just before boosting in to the air, which makes me let loose of the W key with my middle finger to hit S right before the jump. Doing this for hours trained my brain to always stop accelerating before going for an aerial. This is one of the extra layers of training you have to go through compared to the controller.

Another absolute pain, staying on the topic of accelerating, is getting the control back of your car after a butchered landing or a bump. Since you are accelerating with W most of the time, as soon as one of your wheels stops touching the ground and your car goes into pilot-mode, if you don't stop accelerating you will again bury your nose into the ground. When you get bumped and lobbed into the air, that short time it takes for you to react is enough to completely lose control of your car, and then you either try to turn it around in the air as fast as possible in combination with Air-roll, or you just wait until your car slows down to recover control. Over time, you start to master this and you always let go of W in this scenarios, but there's a second phase to this; the landing. Obviously, as soon as you land from any kind of fun airborne activities, you want to immediately get back into action so you accelerate again. The problem is, the timing has to be perfect. If only one of your wheels has again not touched the ground yet, your nose goes down. I've had that so many times where I just tumble round the field in panic only because I hit W too soon, and after that repeatedly trying to get out of that situation as fast as possible, making matters worse. This doesn't happen with a controller, as long as you don't have to brake or drive backwards, just keep that right trigger pressed, no biggie. Another extra layer of training.

There are also things I really like about playing with keyboard and mouse, and I can start with the button layout. I like how I can separate movement from action and use one hand for each one of them. My key-bindings look like this:

Keyboard or Left hand

WASD - Movement
Space bar - Hand-brake / Air-roll

Mouse or Right hand

LMB - Boost
RMB - Jump
Thumb button - Toggle camera

In my opinion, this makes it very easy for the brain to assign a specific task to each hand. Everything that has to do with movement and direction is sent to the left hand, additional actions that have nothing to do with steering, to the right hand. For example my brain doesn't register boost as a way to move forward, if I want to move forward I press W, if I want to do it faster that's an additional action so that order gets send to the other hand. At this point you'll probably be asking yourself what the hell is this guy talking about and I totally understand your confusion. I'm talking about this because this is one of the reasons why the transition to controller was so difficult for me, I'll come back to this in just a moment.

Another tiny advantage within the many disadvantages of using a keyboard is that you always have the fastest possible turning time, let me explain. A key on a keyboard has only two states, On or Off, 0% or 100%, it doesn't have anything in between like a joystick or a trigger would have. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of the keyboard in Rocket League, but there's also something quite sweet about it. Lets say you want to make a sharp right turn with your joystick, for that you have to take into consideration the travel time of the stick itself and that you move it exactly to 3 o'clock, you will turn wider if you miss it by a little bit. On the keyboard I only have to hit the D-key and I'm instantly turning to the right as tight as possible (without using the hand-brake obviously). The travel time of the joystick won't make a difference in a match, but the fact that I'm a 100% accurate when trying to hit that 3 and 9 o'clock mark when turning is noticeable. Same goes for accelerating and braking; since I'm unable to accidentally do both actions at the same time (W and S are pressed with the middle finger) I will always go from full throttle to full on braking in an instant.

So yeah, those are some of the bigger things you notice after having played over 900h, the last paragraph can actually be applied to any game though. That said, I got my shit together and convinced myself that this new learning adventure would be worth while, since I have no intention to stop playing Rocket League so, why not begin to play it at my full potential?

Progress diary

One of the things that gave me the idea of documenting my progress at using a controller in Rocket League is that, with the launch of Season 4, they added an option to see your total time played. For a PC player like myself, it doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know since I can track my play-time through Steam. But this new statistic only tracks the time played since the v1.31 patch released, the one that brought us Dropshot, so it's ideal for me to check how long I've been playing with a controller. As mentioned earlier, I want to analyse and document my progress with the controller for about two months, and study the learning curve with as much detail as possible. You now know how proficient I am at the game, and how little experience I have with controllers, so let's take it from there.

First contact

So, what are the controls on this thing? I am very active on the Rocket League subreddit and one of the first tips for beginners that always gets mentioned is to remap Air-roll to the left shoulder button, so I did that and jumped right into free play. Something was still wrong, but after some testing I found the key bindings that probably will do the trick for me:

A - Boost
B - Jump
X - Toggle camera
Y - Scoreboard

LB - Hand-brake / Air-roll

I left the rest as default and went into the camera settings. I have been playing with the same slightly tweaked camera settings since release, like higher FOV and such, so now is the perfect time to adjust that; camera a bit further away from the car and a bit higher, that should give me some better view over what's happening behind the ball. I feel comfortable with these new settings since I'm now sitting further away from the screen compared to when I had to sit right at the desk to reach the keyboard. First things first, let's do the trainings. Finishing Striker on rookie difficulty with a 100% gives me a huge boost in confidence. Finishing Striker on normal difficulty with 20% immediately brings me back down to earth. I do it again, 30%... My smart brain attributes this to me just sucking at training and tells me that I should totally go and play ranked.

Starting to use a controller right after the ranked soft-reset that came with Season 4 is perfect, this way I can start with a low ranking by getting destroyed in the placement matches and then work my way up. I played those ten matches in one sitting. The first thing I learned is that I really need to forget everything I know about the handling of my car. Not only do I have to actively think about which button to press for every action I want to execute, I also have to rewire my brain when it comes to strategic decisions. I don't need to explain to you the in and outs of rotation, but as you progress in this game your positioning will be evolving according to you skill level, meaning, you are always trying to be in a position where you are able to get to the ball after the next touch. What is happening to me is that I'm still positioning myself as I did when playing on the keyboard, on which I was able to quickly and accurately react to what's happening on the field, or was able to catch a ball at a weird angle or something similar. With the controller I can't, yet I still position myself very aggressively and end up never catching the ball. I need to reset this and adjust it to my current skills.

Turns out, knowing what situations you can handle is very important, and I notice improvements in the flow of the game already. I landed Silver II in Doubles after my placement matches and, judging from the skills of the players I played against so far, I feel I'm being placed exactly right. At this point I'm still not comfortable with aerials, I try, but I miss most of them. To counter that I rotate and position myself in a way that makes it the easiest for me to catch and control the ball when it comes to me. Let me list up a few things I learned and my current skill level after the first 20 matches I played:

  • I know how to drive the car and have a basic understanding about its handling when driving forwards and when I'm using boost.
  • I'm slowly getting the hang of the hand-brake, I still drift for too long making me miss balls and boost pads, specially boost pads.
  • I can forward dodge without a problem, but hitting either a lateral or a diagonal dodge correctly is still a challenge because of the joystick.
  • Hitting the correct A B X Y key for every action still requires me to actively think what I need to press. It's not like I need to be super concentrated but I've noticed that when I'm talking in Teamspeak I start making mistakes like trying to boost with the camera-toggle.
  • Driving backwards and/or braking (i.e. using different fingers for forwards and backwards) is still a foreign concept for my brain and I always react like a second too late. Another side effect is that I try to pull my analog stick towards me when I want to drive backwards.

That last point is kind of fascinating when you think about how our brains work, remember what I said before about using one hand for directional input and the other for additional actions? On keyboard I have the WASD keys, a constellation of four buttons I use to move my car in the four cardinal directions. On the controller, the input for directional movement gets split not only onto two, but onto three different buttons; left and right in on the analog stick, forwards and backwards are each on one of the triggers. As simple as it may sound to an experienced player, for me that change is absolutely brutal, and I notice that every time I want to drive backwards. This is like when you put your car keys on the same shelve every day when you come home, but one day you buy a little bowl or plate for your keys and wallet or something, place it closer to the door, and for a week or two you will always walk towards the shelve first to get your keys even though you know exactly where they are. Your brain will always look for shortcuts to access information, sometimes that information changes but the brain still associates the access to it with that shortcut.

10 hours

I have played a little bit of everything this far. I have managed to get to the Gold ranks in doubles and after some lucky placement matches in standard I got placed Platinum I, yet dropped down to Gold immediately after. I probably wont be doing the placement matches for duels quite yet, not until I control my car a little better.

At this point I am still not entirely comfortable with the controller, and by that I mean that I'm still not hitting the buttons I need for each action intuitively, and I'm still carrying old habits with me. One example is that I still automatically stop accelerating when I jump like I had to do with the keyboard in order to not dive my nose into the ground. It's not much of an actual problem but I can see how my brain has rewired the command for accelerating to a new finger, but still applies the variable of if ( fly == true ) { Accelerate == Off }. Something similar happens with the stick; I got used to use the triggers to drive forwards and backwards, but since the S key (backwards on keyboard) was also used to do a backflip, I still think that driving backwards is enough to do a backflip, forgetting to also pull the stick down.

20 hours

I got an orange Endo from Marsus crate which combined with the 20xx decal that dropped from another crate looks dope as hell, and will totally improve my skills, like for example my steering. I am still pushing the analog stick all the way to the sides whenever I make some kind of turn, instead of doing little adjustments when the situation calls for it, this habit is again carried over from the keyboard. Same goes for accelerating when trying to control or dribble the ball, but I'm always jumping into free play in between matches to try and carry the ball around on the roof of my car.

I am still playing in the Gold ranks on all playlists except doubles, and really getting frustrated at my team mates, Marsu and AceOne, who have also been playing since 2015. After 20 hours I am already at their mechanical skill level, but they refuse to learn about rotation. They are always in a bad mood shouting stuff like fuck this game and how lucky the opponents got and I'm just standing there thinking how it's obviously their own fault. I've stopped telling them where they made a mistake because they have begun thinking that I'm just making them responsible for the loss and that it's their fault, making me the asshole. After both having over 500h played they still drive around completely blind without ever checking where the other players stand on the field; Ball is Life, that's their motto. That basically makes a healthy rotation impossible, but I'm not going to dive deeper into this rant because it could make for a whole article by itself. What I'm trying to say is that, if you know how to rotate and have slightly below average mechanical skills like I do right now, the Gold ranks are more than achievable because you are actually contributing to your teams success. There are a few points where they could improve, and I'm applying these techniques as well since it helps me master the basics with the controller before trying to learn new tricks:

  • For heavens sake, and this is part of rotating properly, don't stand underneath an airborne ball waiting for it to come down. You are completely worthless in that position, nine out of ten times you will not be able to touch the ball at all, and the tenth time will probably just be a weak pass to the opponent who's waiting for you to fuck up. If you think you can fly straight up and twist dash free style it into goal, you can't. You're in Gold.
  • When going for a ball, either it being airborne or rolling on the ground, position yourself in such a way that makes it the easiest to hit it. I'm sorry to shit on my teammates but they are the perfect example for terrible positioning. A few examples; If the opponent is attacking the right corner and you are rushing back into goal, don't drive towards the right post of your goal and park your car facing the post expecting to be able to clear the ball sideways. Instead, drive towards the half of your goal that's farther away from the ball, in this case the left side, turn to your right and face the ball straight on. Much easier. If the ball is flying or rolling straight into your goal, if you can, always take the time to power drift your car around to face the ball instead of waiting facing your own goal just to do a mediocre backflip that either misses or passes the ball to the incoming opponent. Basically always, as long as you can, take your time to turn around and face the ball, specially when defending your goal.
  • Do you see yourself missing a lot of those balls that roll up the corners and bounce away from the wall just enough for you to fly underneath it, missing it, and conceding an easy goal? Wait. Really, it's that easy, just wait. Watch the ball, let it bounce off the wall, and as soon as it does you know its exact trajectory and you can play it away from your goal. Everything else is either a miss or just a sloppy double jump clear that goes nowhere.
  • Don't just touch the ball, control the ball, always have a plan when attacking it; Do you want a powerful clear? Touch it up the wall? Break the opponents axels? Learn how to hit the ball according to your next move, you can't just double jump into the ball just for the sake of it, hit it with the roof of your car and then tumble around trying to recover while the opponent then has an easy shot on goal.
 Positioning - Preparedness - Patience - Plan

I've drifted off a little bit there, sorry. What I'm trying to say is that it is important to acknowledge your weaknesses and go all the way back and relearn the basics before trying to do whatever moves I was able to execute on keyboard. This is what I am doing at this level. After 20h I am playing at Gold II and carefully following the above 4Ps (that actually sounds pretty cool, doesn't it? 4P). I make the game easier for myself by taking the time to position myself in such a way that gives me the easiest and most effective hit on the ball.

30 hours

I just had one of the best sessions playing with KingB00. Fast and accurate plays, staying focused on playing according to your skill level instead of trying crazy tricks, still following the above mentioned rules to make the game easier. I've noticed that my skill controlling the car fits perfectly into the Gold ranks I currently fin myself in, but my somehow advanced positional/situational awareness and knowledge about strategy, which would fit into at least diamond ranks, is nowhere to be seen. Ball chasers, boost hoggers, all players jumping for the same clear, etc. It's all there, but you need to use that to your advantage, specially if it's your teammates who do that, you need to become the backbone of the team, always assuming they will fuck your plan up, and driving accordingly.

At this point I'm very comfortable with the controller since I don't need to actively think about which buttons to press any more, the basic stuff comes automatically. Power-sliding is getting better and better, the timing is good, and it allows me to make speedy recoveries and to save up boost. After watching the RLCS last weekend I really really need to train double-jump aerials, which is something I never did when playing on the keyboard. I have tried to do it sometimes but I nearly always overfly the ball, meaning that I really need train that outside of actual matches. Funny thing is that I rarely backflip accidentally, since from the beginning I've gotten used to let go completely off the analog stick in between jumps.

Everything that involves quick driving backwards is still a pain, for the moment I prefer to position myself in such a way that I don't need to drive backwards at all or just power-slide and turn around. Half-flips are still as difficult as the first day I tried learning them, but someday I'll get the hang of it if I keep training it. Between matches I still like to quickly jump into free play and try to get and carry the ball on top of my car. I'm slowly but steadily learning how to only press the trigger halfway down to control my speed, compared to keyboard where you had to tap W to maintain your car at half throttle for example. Even though I'm still worse at controlling the ball compared to before I began with the transition, I clearly recognize how much easier it is with a trigger and a stick.

42 hours*

This is my last update for this presumably never ending quest for controller mastery. I've put a little asterisk on the title because I recently noticed something with the new "Time Played" counter I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Currently on Steam, it tells me that I've played Rocket League for 1012h, and I began using the controller at the 930h mark. The in-game counter tells me that I'm at 42 hours played. A quick check on the Rocket League Tracker website tells me that I've played 480 ranked matches in total this season, which times 5min each amount to exactly 40h. Adding the few casual and private matches I've played would result in those 42h, meaning that he counter only calculates the actual playtime, excluding replays, training and time spent in the menus. This is how far in ranked I've made it until the end of May:

I'm not going into the different points or difficulties of this transition again, but I can compare my current skills against the skills at my highest point with the keyboard. I obviously can control my car fairly well on the ground, I would say above average because I think I got pretty good at controlling the power-drifts. I can hit aerials without much of a hiccup, but I still need to train hard on the double-jump aerials, but since I never did those on keyboard, I think I'm already ahead on this one. General backwards driving has gotten better, but I still can't half flip correctly, a move I used many times during a match back then. Flying backwards or upside-down is still a thing where I'm not at quite yet. Dribbling is not a thing I use much since I've never been good at it, I know it brings a ton of advantages, but I pretty much have evolved my play-style around not having to dribble, I'll get the hang of it some day.


It is very clear why the controller is the input device of choice for this game, for any racing game for that matter. The ergonomics, the 360° turn radius with your joystick, the trigger for accelerating at different speeds, the amount of free space on your desk when you don't need the keyboard, etc. Changing over to the controller also gave me a blow of fresh air since I'm now learning part of the game again and noticeably getting better, a feeling I was starting to miss after 900h on keyboard. To everybody that is thinking about making the change but are worried about having wasted all that time using another device, this is one of the reasons why I can only recommend going through the few hours of pain until you get used to it. It took me between 10-15 real-time hours to reach that, that point where you are in control of your car and you can start trying out new things, that's the line those people should be looking to reach. Once you're there you forget the need of playing with keyboard for once just for an easy win. The only thing you now want is to get better, jump higher, turn faster, read rebounds, dribble or fake out your opponent, push into the next ranks, and my hands are slowly getting there, and I would never go back.




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