Rocket League First Man Role Guide
Keep in mind that my goal with guides like this is to simplify the decision-making process as much as possible by providing a set of rules that you can use as a foundation to build upon for yourselves. Everyone has different abilities and unique play styles and no advice is suited perfectly for everyone.
One more thing:
Discussing an entire role in one post, regardless of how long this may be, is never going to be perfect and will not cover every single scenario. I am aware that there are always exceptions. The goal here is to simplify the process down to a basic state that you can yourself build upon it and develop your own system. Most of the situations in this post will assume positioning in either the offensive or defensive quarter of the map. The middle – or the offensive or defensive ¾ of the map depending on the situation being discussed – are purposely not discussed in detail because they aren’t quite as complex, in my opinion. For example, the offensive role assumes you are close enough to the corner to warrant going for the boost if it is available. Obviously, if you were closer to mid-field, that would be a bad idea. Keep that in mind when reading through this.
How to play the 1st man role
This guide will be separated into 2 sections, each with 2 subsections of their own:
The active roles of the 1st man.
- The active offensive role.
- The active defensive role.
The transitional roles of the 1st man.
- The transitional offensive role.
- The transitional defensive role.
The active roles include offensive and defensive play where the player is either in control of the ball (offense) or is serving as the 1st line of defense. The player is active and in control of the play. The 2nd and 3rd man adapt to the 1st man in these roles.
In the active offensive role, the 1st man is in control of the ball. Moments where the 1st man is not in control of the ball will be considered under transitional roles.
The primary objective as the 1st man in the active offensive role is to ensure the continuation of the offensive play.
This can mean a lot of things: This can mean a direct pass; This can mean a cross; This can mean ensuring that contested balls are kept in play in play and in the offensive half.
This does not mean forcing shots or making unnecessary solo plays.
Let’s get one thing out of the way really quickly: you only want to take high probability shots.
How do you determine if a shot is worth taking?
- If you have a tight angle, or are unsure of whether or not you will be able to generate significant power – it’s probably not worth taking. Your rotation will be compromised by the loss of momentum you receive from forcing it.
- If you are far away from the goal and at least 1 opponent is set up to defend – it’s probably not worth taking.
- If there is more than 1 defender in goal – it’s probably not worth taking.
This is true for every position on the field.
So, what do you do if you don’t have a high probability shot?
There are 2 things to observe here:
- Are you being challenged?
- How many defenders are set up? And where?
Are you being challenged? (Or will you be challenged soon?)
If the answer is yes, then your goal becomes simple: keep the ball in play by making a controlled challenge that ensures the ball stays in play and in the offensive half.
When a defender challenges, they have effectively been lured out of position in order to disrupt your play. If you can’t get around them, this can still be a good thing. In team modes, mismatches are how you score. You don’t want to attack 3 prepared opponents head on; that doesn’t make sense. You have a much better chance of scoring on 2 defenders (or 1). So, when they challenge you, you want to set yourself up in a way that will keep the ball in the general area where the challenge took place. More specifically, you probably want to execute a soft block.
What is a soft block?
A soft block is a block that aims to cushion the impact of a challenge and better control the outcome. In volleyball, they use this strategy specifically for shorter players (though any player can do it) when blocking against powerful hitters. The blocker, instead of aggressively trying to get over the net and block the ball with the normal intention of deflecting it back down onto their side, opt to space themselves slightly away from the net and tilt their arms back, angling them slightly towards the ceiling. What this does is allow for the blocker to cover a greater area and soften the blow of the hit. Instead of risking missing the block entirely, or creating an unpredictable deflection by acting more aggressively, the ball is more likely bounce softly off of their arms and into the air on their own side so that their teammates can step in and easily start an attack.
If you can picture that scenario then the concept will make sense right away. Essentially, you want to take a cautious approach on the challenge and control the outcome. Because you’re likely in control of the ball prior to the challenge, the opponent is forced to come in hard (like the hitter), which means that you get to be in better control of how the ball reacts to the challenge. Using softer parts of your car, meaning just under the front, or perhaps using harder areas with a softer touch (angling them strategically to make your car big and direct the ball out of the challenge), you want to position yourself close to the ball, higher than the opponent’s point of contact, and let them hit it into you. Chances are the ball will stay close to you where your supporting teammate will be able to step in and continue the play without missing a beat – one less defender in the way to deal with. And because you chose the soft block, you are likely to recover near where the challenge took place, meaning you are in position to remain part of the offense.
When you execute a soft block, don’t flip into the challenge. This is incredibly important. If you flip into the challenge, you will add force to the ball, meaning whichever way it deflects, it will likely do so with great force, especially since the risk of a pinch is increases significantly. When you flip, you also commit to rotating your car, meaning each collision point – and there will likely be several – will be at different angles. Basically, if you flip into the challenge, you lose the ability to angle the outcome and while adding a whole lot of force to the ball (take note of the “soft” in “soft block”). This makes your challenge unpredictable and unlikely that your teammates will be able to step in and continue the attack.
Back to it.
If the answer is no (you are not being challenged), then your goal remains simple: create an offensive chance for your teammate, or lure a defender out by forcing them to commit to an uncomfortable challenge.
You have a few options:
- A direct pass.
- A high cross.
- A backboard pass.
What you do depends on what the defensive situation is and I’ll try to make the decision-making process as simple and painless as possible.
If you have a teammate cheating in mid-field and think you can hit them with a solid ground pass – shoot it at them. These are difficult to defend and often make for high-probability shots on net. These passes are more difficult to execute than one would think, so practice creating space away from the ball before you attempt the pass. A soft, poorly executed in-field pass is dangerous and easy to intercept and counter.
If an opponent isn’t defending the back wall, cross the ball high or shoot it off the backboard for a rebound if your position permits it. High balls force the defenders to attack it at a steep angle, making it difficult to clear. It also forces them to use a significant amount of boost in the process, drawing them out of net and making for a difficult recovery. Specifically, if the ball is shot off the backboard, the defender often won’t have time to get up for it in time and will be forced to either (a) make an incredibly difficult pre-jump read, or (b) defend the rebound, which requires some advanced camera work to ensure that they can challenge the ball while maintaining field awareness and recognizing where a challenge is coming from.
Why are these such effective scoring strategies?
Both of these strategies take advantage of situations where the defender is unable to intercept – too far away from the ground-pass; too risky to pre-jump a backboard read because the goal is left unprotected – while defending against an attacker approaching from a blind spot. Think about it. When you track a ball coming from right to left, you are taking your momentum and shadowing the ball until you can find an intercepting point somewhere in the future to make contact with it. There is a gap between your car and the ball that you are slowly closing. If something makes contact with the ball while the space between your car and the ball is too far, your momentum will continue to carry you and likely result in you getting beaten. If you can’t see where the attacker is going to make contact with the ball, it makes it difficult to put your car in the right spot to block from.
Back to it, again.
If there are multiple defenders and you don’t quite know what to do, consider their positions.
If someone is covering the back wall, try for a direct pass, or draw them out with a weak clear by keeping the ball stuck to the wall. If the ball is stuck to the wall, they can’t possibly clear it down field without using multiple touches to do so. You can attempt to soft block this as well, or intercept the ball after their first touch if they attempt a clear.
If no one is covering the wall, get a high cross to draw them out and make them uncomfortable. From a ground defender’s point of view, a high cross forces their perspective upwards and makes any sort of challenge impossible to clear down-field.
Remember to rotate back to a supporting position as quickly as possible when creating these chances for your teammates. You want to be able to defend if need be while also making yourself available for the rebound in order to keep offensive pressure.
One last thing to note:
Most of these scenarios assume the player is in the offensive 3rd. That is obviously not always the case. In scenarios where the 1st man is controlling the ball around mid-field, or in their defensive half pushing forward, their primary goal should be to push the ball into the opposing 3rd without giving up possession. This means beating opponents any way they can: dribbling the ball up the wall, popping it over them, soft-blocking… All useful strategies that ensure the ball remains at least at the point of the challenge and aim to keep control and possession of the ball. If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t between the ball and the goal (e.g. dribbling on your hood), avoid the middle of the field at all costs because it’s dangerous if an opponent challenges you. You don’t have very much time to dribble in a Standard match.
In the active defensive role, the 1st man is the 1st line of defense against an attacking opponent.
The primary objective as the 1st man in the active defensive role is to force the opponent to make a decision by taking away 1 or more attacking options.
This doesn’t mean winning the challenge, though winning the challenge is generally the preferred outcome. It means forcing the opponent with the ball to make a move so that, if you don’t win it, your teammate behind you can predictably step in and make the high-probability challenge without having to guess what the opponent is going to do.
Imagine the opponent is dribbling the ball and you’re first up to defend. It’s hard to defend a dribbler at a distance. You can wait to get a better-quality challenge, but every moment you wait puts them closer to the goal and makes a direct shot, or a short-distance backboard pass more likely. So, whether or not your guess high or low is irrelevant. If you guess low and they flick the ball, your teammate has space and can go up and hit it. If you guess high and they stay low, your teammate can read that and step in to challenge before they can compose themselves. Taking away their options is the goal.
Similarly, you may be distanced away from an opponent going in to hit a ball. You don’t know if they’re going to slow it down, hit it in-field, roll it up the wall, clear it, take a long shot, etc., etc… But it doesn’t matter. If you’re too far to predictably commit to the ball then you shouldn’t, especially if the ball isn’t in a dangerous shooting position in the middle of the field. Instead, pick something to defend short range and stick to it.
If you angle your car to predict a dribble or in-field pass and they roll it up the wall instead – it’s okay. You rotate back and your teammate steps in.
If you angle yourself to defend the wall and they hit it in-field – it’s okay. You rotate back and your teammate steps in.
If whatever you do, the opponent ends up hitting it over you – it’s okay. Your job wasn’t to defend the long balls. If anything, you did a good job by forcing them to give up possession.
Keep in mind that you want generally want your challenges near a wall to be angled towards the opposite side of the field. Any force you apply towards a wall means that the outcome of a challenge will likely mean the ball deflecting off of the wall and into mid-field anyway. Disrupting is your job, but that’s not always an ideal way to go about it. Sometimes you may find you’re too far in-field and that it’s best just to rotate back because your teammate can step in and challenge from a better angle.
Also, we discussed soft blocks in the offensive role, but it’s equally as important in the defensive role, especially in your own corners. As I’ve said, attacking a challenge near a wall can be unpredictable and makes it difficult to control the game. If you find yourself challenging an opponent coming through your own corner, go up for a soft block so that the ball is more likely to stay in the corner area or close to the wall, which is a good thing because the ball is not a threat to the goal there, and you’ve essentially just taken a defender out of the play and opened up the potential for a 3v2 counter attack.
The defensive role of the 1st man is pretty simple when you think about it: Take at least one option away from the defender, preferably in a timely manner, in order to make defense easy for the next guy. But keep in mind that it’s probably a better idea to take away the more dangerous option. For example, an opponent could be dribbling the ball near the line and you could choose to either force them inside or outside. If you force them inside, you allow the option for an in-field pass or a dribbling attempt on goal. If you force them outside, you force them to cross the ball from the corner or back wall. Obviously forcing them outside for the cross is the better option because it puts them in a non-threatening position that is easier to predict and defend.
In general, the active first man role isn’t entirely complex . The more interesting and complicated decision-making comes from the transitional role.
The transitional roles include offensive and defensive play where the player is either no longer in control of the ball (offense) or is no longer the 1st line of defense. The 1st man adapts to the 2nd and 3rd man in these roles.
In the transitional offensive role, the 1st man is no longer in control of the ball for whatever reason: perhaps they were challenged by a defender; perhaps they shot or passed the ball; perhaps they simply lost control of the ball and are no longer in position to make a play on it.
The primary objective as the 1st man in the transitional offensive role is to quickly move into a supportive role away from the ball while disrupting any opponents in their natural rotational path.
Let’s address some common concerns:
When should you enter the transitional role?
The 1st man should enter the transitional role as soon as the ball becomes uncomfortable to challenge. If you pass or cross the ball – transition. If you get challenged and the ball is out of reach – transition. If you mess up a dribble and the ball falls to your back – transition.
If you lose control of the ball or if you are challenged in a way that results in the ball remaining close to you, consider how comfortable and efficient it would be for you to challenge the ball. If you have to turn at a significant angle (>90 degrees?) and/or have to sacrifice much of your current momentum to challenge the ball, you may want to consider entering the transitional role because it’s probably the right thing to do. Forcing challenges in these situations can slow down your team’s rotation and put you into a poor position to rotate back from while sacrificing your momentum.
It feels like the appropriate time to discuss one of the most important characteristics that a 1st man can encompass: predictability.
In this context, what I’m referring to is the ability for the 1st man’s actions to be predictable and easily readable by their teammates. Relevant for any position, but especially as the 1st man because they are visible to both teammates, it is more important to be decisive and predictable than it is to make the right or wrong decision. If you’re unsure of whether or not you should challenge a ball – make a decision. Even if you’re wrong, your decisiveness will give your teammates all of the information they need in order to make a decision of their own. Of course, it’s better if you make the right decision, but making the wrong decision and rotating out of a challenge that you should have made is way better than hesitating and waiting to go for the challenge late. Being decisive ensures that your team’s movement and rotation is quick and fluid, which is always a good thing. It also helps to avoid unnecessary double-commits and panic moments from the supporting players.
To bring this back to the discussion at hand: if the result of an opponent’s challenge drops near you but is somewhat uncomfortable to challenge, it’s okay to rotate out. Don’t question your decision. Turning in to these slightly uncomfortable challenges could do more harm than good because of the slow approach while your 2nd man is waiting to see whether or not they should step in. Make it easy for them.
Which path should you take when transitioning?
First of all, you should avoid turning back into the ball at all costs. It’s almost never a good idea. You need to rotate away from the ball, often meaning towards mid-field (unless the ball is moving in that direction) in order to ensure that you are not in the way.
Before I make this a rule, I want to quickly mention the exceptions that occur quite frequently and will certainly come up:
- You lose the ball near-side and your teammate quickly steps in and challenges over you. You should make a small circle towards the outside of the field and support from that side.
- You lose the ball behind you and your teammate quickly steps in and directs the ball in-field. Again, you should make a small circle directed outside of the field and support them from there.
But most of the time throughout the game and not just specific to the 1st man role, you want to rotate away from the ball.
Some additional benefits of this include:
Creating offensive shape: Rotating away from the ball means you are keeping your team’s triangle shape and not encouraging a cluster or a straight line. More of the field is covered by your team and it makes rotation easier and more organized.
Maintaining field awareness: Rotating away from the ball means creating space away from the ball. The further you are from the ball, the greater your vision of the field will be and of all its players, which makes it easier for you to read the game and make decisions. You can afford to create a little bit of extra space because you get to generate speed in the process.
Allowing good positioning to contribute both offensively and defensively: Rotating away from the ball means that you are covering a part of the field that is uncovered. It means that your team is covering a greater area of the field and won’t be in each other’s way. It means that you have enough space away from the ball to guarantee a comfortable approach no matter which direction it heads in – if it deflects back towards the defensive half, you have the room to turn and shadow the ball back; if it deflects towards the offensive half, you have the room to comfortable turn in and challenge the ball and keep the pressure.
Let’s try to simplify this:
You’ve just entered the transitional role from the 1st man position, meaning that you are no longer in a good position to continue making a play on the ball. The common scenario is that you are in, or are headed into, the opponent’s corner on the attack. You want to quickly transition into your supporting role, but there are many ways to do that.
First thing’s first – if you’re close enough to the corner boost when you enter the transitional role and the corner boost is available, go ahead and grab it. Doing this means the opponent can’t have it and will likely mean that you will be able to transition quicker. If it’s out of the way, meaning you have to turn back into the play to get it, then ignore it and rotate out.
If you don’t have momentum and/or boost at this point, you should ignore the rest of this section and just focus on rotating back away from the ball, becoming a supporting option. That should be your initial reaction.
As you begin your defensive rotation, you should be reading and watching the play. Start your defensive rotation and when you’re about a quarter of the way back, you reach another decision point. If your team has an obvious advantage, it’s likely you will want to remain part of the play by picking up small boost pads and taking up position at the corner of the box to make yourself a cross-field option. If there is no obvious advantage to be observed, you should continue your rotation back to mid-field and take up position as last-man.
If you do have momentum and/or boost at this point, the next thing you should observe is how long it will be before someone makes contact with the ball and what the advantage will be.
If you can reach the opponent’s goal-line before anyone can make contact with the ball, or if you can see that the opponent will not have a clear opportunity to make a clear down field, you should rotate through the goal line and look for any opponents in the way that you can bump or demolish before rotating out. Often times this mean that the ball has been crossed high in the air, that the ball is stuck in the corner or near the opponent’s back wall, or that your team still has control of the play.
If you determine that contact will be made with the ball before you can reach the goal line or that the opponent will have a good chance at clearing the ball immediately (often the result of a low cross) then you should opt to rotate back immediately to mid-field – generally through mid-field. If the ball is sticking low and to the wall with a clear coming from the goal directed near side, you may want to consider defending the short option corner wall before rotating back.
If you do happen to make it to the goal-line, bump or not, your next decision should be determined, again, by watching the play and determining whether or not you have time before you absolutely need to get back into the 3rd man position. If you have time, you can choose to continue to the opponent’s opposite corner and steal their boost. Doing this can be an important step in starving the opponents of boost while your team continues to pressure them and can create a weakness in their defense. If they run out of boost, they likely won’t be able to defend the back wall, which is often the job of the player rotating in as 3rd man, whose boost you may have stolen. If you determine that you don’t have the time to grab that boost, you should turn back and rotate towards the opposite corner of the goal box.
Once you reach this point, you are in prime position to either contribute offensively as a cross-field option, making yourself available for the rebound as well as any cross-field clean-up to keep the play going, as well as being in prime position to track back through mid-field to clean up any potential clears or breakaways that may need defending.
In the transitional defensive role, the 1st man is no longer the 1st line of defense against an attacking opponent.
The primary objective as the 1st man in the transitional defensive role is to become either a passing/pressure option or to rotate into the last man role, depending on the advantage of the next touch.
To get one thing out of the way immediately, which has been previously discussed but cannot be overstated: You should never rotate into the ball; always rotate away from the ball. This is easily one of the most common mistakes that I see at all levels all of the way into the GC ranks. When you enter the transitional role, your immediate reaction should be to turn in the direction opposite of the ball. If the ball is directed down the side of the field you challenged from, you should be headed across the field to your opposing corner before circling in to the far post to relieve your last man. If the ball is directed towards the opposite side of the field, you should turn back towards the near post to relieve your last man.
Two of the most common mistakes I see people make are:
- Not rotating away from the ball.
- Not being patient enough when entering the transitional role (rotating too quickly without reading the play and being unavailable when a pass or clear comes their way).
We’ve already discussed mistake #1, so let’s address mistake #2.
As discussed earlier, the active defensive role of the 1st man is not to win the ball, but rather to eliminate options and force the opponent to take action. Often times this means the ball will get past you without you even touching the ball. But that’s okay. Because you are the 1st man, you presumably have at least 1 teammate supporting behind you and likely no opponents ahead of the player with the ball. What that means is that you don’t need to feel rushed to get immediately into a defensive position once you enter the transitional role.
Let’s try to simplify this:
When entering the transitional role, the ball has passed you. You can generally tell immediately which player is likely to have the advantage – your supporting teammate (usually the 2nd man; sometimes the 3rd) or the opponent who knocked the ball around you – by the trajectory of the ball when it passes you. If the ball is close to the opponent, they will likely have the advantage. If the ball is hit with additional force in front of them and will require time for them to catch up to it, your teammate likely has the advantage. This is important.
How do we measure advantage in this situation? Simple. If your teammate has an uncontested first touch, then the advantage is theirs. Anything other than that should be considered to be the opponent’s advantage.
If you think the advantage is going to be the opponent’s, transition across the field and open up space. You should do this by driving horizontally across the field, but not immediately committing back to a 3rd man defensive role. This is important because it allows you both an offensive and defensive position. In general, rotating through the far post should be thought of in terms of driving towards the opposite corner rather than the opposite post so that you have some space to turn in to net by the time you get even with the post.
At this point, you don’t know whether your role will be to transition in the 2nd or 3rd man position so, again, your job is to read the play. Just because the opponent had the advantage on the play, it doesn’t mean that your supporting teammate won’t gain that advantage back from them. So, once you transition and get to around mid-field, you should be patient. If your teammate wins the challenge from the opponent and your team regains the advantage, you become the 2nd man and can turn up-field to become a passing option. If your teammate loses the challenge, or perhaps wins the challenge but your team doesn’t gain the advantage, you become the last man by simply turning back and rotating in through the far post while allowing for your current last man to step in and make the next challenge.
One thing to consider here is the temptation to grab the corner boost as you drive across the field. Avoid this temptation unless it’s absolutely safe to do so. For example, if you transitioned across the field and your teammate won the challenge and gained the advantage and you see that your last man is pressing up with them, you may have time to grab it before pressing up as the last man option through center field. Similarly, if your teammate challenges the ball but doesn’t gain the advantage and the ball is lingering in your own corner but won’t be challenged soon by an opponent, you may have time to use your momentum and quickly grab the corner boost before rotating into goal.
If you think the advantage is going to be your teammate’s, open up for a pass on the line or transition to 3rd man and allow your 2 teammates to attack together. Read the play. Your first instinct can be to open wide, either on the line or on the wall nearest you, and to wait for your teammate’s first touch (remember: you should only open up for a pass if your teammate will have an uncontested first hit – otherwise assume your teammate will lose the challenge and transition across field to allow yourself the positioning to fill in as 3rd man if need be). You want to open up wide like this to allow yourself to be a passing option for them, or a pressure option to immediately go up and touch the ball to help initiate offensive pressure, or simply to relieve defensive pressure. If your teammate’s first touch is not a pass to you, or a clear that you can intercept immediately, you should immediately transition horizontally across the field; out of the way. What this does is ensure that you aren’t in your teammates’ way while you simultaneously open up the field and become the cross-field option. Your 2 teammates are in better position to attack than you are, so you should let them do so while you support them as last man.
One last note: If you insist on driving up the side wall to cheat for a pass, which is perfectly fine to do, the moment you see the ball stick to the wall as it comes towards you, do your team a favor and get out of there. Don’t try to make a ridiculous forced touch. If you don’t have a good redirect to make from that position then don’t make one at all.
List of resources
These resources aren’t perfect, but they may help to better visualize what my very long post attempted to describe.
Those of you who managed to make it this far, I appreciate your support. Once again, if you have any questions about anything you’ve read here, I’m more than happy to answer them for you if I’m able to do so. And if you don’t like something you saw, think I missed something important, or think that I was just plain wrong about something, I welcome the criticism as well; I’m far from perfect and this type of guide is not easy for me to create. If I like what you’re saying – I’ll gladly add it to my post. If I disagree, then that’s okay, too, because everyone has different opinions and conflicting points of view are an important part of the process.
Thank you everyone for reading! I appreciate you. And I hope you have a Happy New Year!