Australian Rules Football is a massively multiplayer role-playing game, with real-time strategy elements, produced and released by Tom Wills in 1858. Despite its name, it is played with feet and with hands.
This article was originally published 22/3/18 and has been republished to coincide with the AFL grand final.
Australian Rules Football, or more simply, 'Australian Football', ‘Aussie Rules’ or ‘Footy’, is definitely a Sport (noun). That is to say, it’s an activity in which a team of individuals exert energy and display physical skill against another team of individuals, for entertainment. Aussie Rules is played professionally in only one country – Australia - where it has been carefully, and sometimes curiously, updated for around 160 years.
While it has progressed, in some capacity, internationally, it’s still very much an Australian past time and for that reason, it’s nearly impossible to separate the sport of ‘Aussie Rules Football’ from the league and its governing body, the Australian Football League (AFL).
Aussie Rules is a hybrid game that blends the finesse and fine motor control of ball games, such as FIFA, with the physicality of UFC, the extreme endurance of long-distance running, the explosive burst running of sprinting and its own special formulation of verticality and ball-catching skills rarely seen in any other sport.
It’s a unique brand of dazzling and, for the uninitiated, a dazzling brand of uniquely confusing.
It’s one of the biggest sports in the world and it comes from a nation that only makes up 0.3 per cent of the global population. That's just math.
The AFL Grand Final, the final game of the year – similar to a Superbowl or the final game of The International - is the most attended league championship event in the world with over 100,000 spectators crammed into a stadium eating cold sausage rolls and spilling their beer all over each other. The beer is mid-strength!
Eat it, FA Cup.
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
"The best sport (played in only one country) ever!"
TYPE OF GAME
Massively Multiplayer RTS-RPG
Expertly designed over 150 years, great physics, unbelievable feats of athleticism, story mode is too real
Umpiring needs review, difficult to watch for new players, called football but also uses hands
Tom Wills, The AFL (1990-Now)
Kicked a ball around Adelaide for 25 years, attended over 50 matches, watched over 1000, AFL Gold Member, seen a losing Grand Final in 2017.
Aussie Rules is probably the greatest game in the world.
No, it is the greatest game in the world.
It’s a sport played in stadiums built like ancient coliseums. A game of mental fortitude and physical aptitude where rabid audiences are enraptured by gladiators that run, unprotected, directly at each other in pursuit of a ball. The fierce physicality fits into the coliseum narrative seamlessly, but it’s the moments of unrivalled deftness woven between death-defying leaps, dives and displays of pure acrobatics that make the sport play out like a one-night only showing of the Russian National Ballet in an automobile-free Destruction Derby.
In the strictest terms, the AFL is a team ball sport, one that involves passing a single oval-egg-shaped ball from player to player until that player is close enough to put the ball through a goal, earning their team a set amount of points.
You can look at an AFL match as a series of ‘rounds’ or ‘maps’, like you’d see in Overwatch.
Each ‘round’ begins with the ball being bounced in the centre of the field and players from both teams competing to grab the ball and hold onto it. At the bounce there are two humans, one from either team, that have been blessed with Genes For Incredible Height (GFIH) and stand at nearly two metres tall.
These two players have to swipe the ball out of the air and try to get it to a teammate.
The rest of the players are spread out across the ground, generally, six forwards, six backmen and six players in the midfield (including the players with GFIH). Once the ball has been swiped out of the air, it must be escorted across the field with a player’s body.
The team that grabs possession is on offence and it is their job to keep the ball and, ultimately, to score. The team without the ball are on defence and their objective is to win the ball back. They can do so by tackling players who have the ball to dislodge it, intercepting passes or receiving the ball when the offence kicks it over the boundary line.
Scoring is contingent on how close you can bring the ball to the four posts at your end of the field. Kicking the ball through the space between the two middle posts grants you a goal and six points. However, gravity and human physiology prevent the ball from travelling more than say, 80m, from a player’s foot at best, so ensuring that you can get within range of the goal is 100 percent necessary and the key to securing points. Thus, designing the ground so that it requires four or more kicks to traverse is a clever move.
The closer you get to your goal, the less likely it is that you will miss. If you miss and the ball travels through the space to the left and right of the middle posts, you only get a single point.
Basic maths, again, will tell you that six is bigger than one. You want to kick more goals.
If a team scores a point then the opposition team is given a ‘kick-out’ from the goal line – kind of like a goal kick in FIFA. If the offending team scores a goal, the ball is returned to the centre and players return to their spawn points.
A goal signals that the ‘round’ is over and the game resets, just like in Rocket League but less instantaneous.
The amount of ‘rounds’ is contingent entirely on how many goals are scored, but the objective is to accumulate more points than your opponent once time has expired. Games have 20 minute quarters, with time on. There are short breaks between the first and third quarters so observers can get drinks and hot chips and a large break at half time, so observers can go to the toilet, get drinks and hot chips.
The core design element that everything else in AFL revolves around is how effectively you can move, or ‘attack’, that oval-egg ball across the playing field. It is this oval-egg-shape that the sport’s titular ‘ball’ holds that is a defining design feature of the AFL. It’s made of cowhide and unique to the game. Unlike the ball in Madden, which tapers off to a harsh point, or a rugby ball, which is shaped like a cigar ate a soccer ball, it is indented at either end and provides a solid bounce.
We've spoken highly of maths in this review so far, but due to the ball's unusual shape, its bounces usually occur in a chaotic, maths-be-damned manner.
Bouncing an Aussie Rules football is like playing Poker with a cat: You can’t predict what it’s going to do next and when you think you’ve worked it out - it just decides to ruin the entire game anyway. The ball turns at angles that would make Pythagoras weep, and yet other times, it dribbles along the ground on its side, lolling about like an infant trying to chase a pigeon through a park.
It’s nearly untrackable on the ground.
An Aussie Rules football is a glitch that should have been stamped out in development but, somewhere along the way, became a critical part of the game. The ball is the AFL’s MissingNo.
This entirely memorable goal from Angus Monfries is a perfect example of how the ball is a glitch manifest. When it strikes the ground the right way, the ball can spin off, bouncing in the most unexpected way.
For all intents and purposes, this kick should carry on rolling forward and hitting the goal umpire in the leg. Instead, it hits the ground, glitches and turns at an almost-90 degree angle. The commentary team, consisting of one of the game’s most famous names - Dennis Cometti - remarked at the time “I haven’t seen anything like that. It’s gone at RIGHT ANGLES. RIGHT ANGLES, TIM.” Tim, his co-commentator, is equally astounded and retorts "I saw it, Dennis. I still can't believe it."
Newton rolled in his grave.
There are three ways that players can interact with the footy. Two ‘attacks’: They can kick it, which is why this particular sport still retains the name ‘football’ or they can punch it, which would lend itself to calling the game ‘handball’. There is also one other ability that provides a brief period of invincibility: Players can catch the ball in their hands after a kick. This would lend itself to calling the game ‘handball’, too, I guess.
Together, they form the holy trinity of Aussie Rules Football: Kicking, Punching and Catching.
Kicking The Ball
Over the years, players have learnt to use the shape of the ball to their advantage. You may be able to kick a soccer ball in a billion and a half meaningful ways but you can get two billion a half outcomes from five different kicks in Aussie Rules. Plus, you may be able to kick a soccer ball in all sorts of ways, but you can still predict its path because the flat pitch and round edges of the ball don’t mess with Newton’s laws of motion.
In Aussie Rules, the footy seems intent on playing havoc with physics.
If you consider that scoring a goal is the major way to ‘damage’ your opponent, then kicking the ball is the most effective way to attack. This attack can be manipulated in a variety of ways.
The typical way to kick the ball is known as a ‘drop punt’, the default ‘attack’. In this configuration, the ball is dropped vertically from about waist height, end down onto the boot, resulting in it spinning backwards, end-on-end as it travels through the air.
If you let the ball hit the ground before kicking it, this is known as a ‘drop kick’. However, if you hold the ball slightly less vertically and angled horizontally you can kick a ‘torpedo’ or a ‘torp’. Because the ball travels through the air spinning on its side like a vortex, it gets more distance. The torp is a rarely used attack, because executing the attack has a high degree of difficulty.
BANG is the sound you make when you see the ball get kicked a long distance.
The best players can kick the ball around corners. By dropping the ball horizontally on the inside or outside of your foot, you can perform a ‘snap’, ‘banana’ or ‘checkside’. This sees the ball arc from its origin as much as 90 degrees or more. It’s like the best penalty kicks you’ve ever seen in FIFA, but with the verticality to match. The ‘banana’ is a ‘special attack’ – only the most exceptional players can use them.
Sometimes, players even use the shape of the ball, physics and the ground itself to determine where a ball will go. These kind of kicks can only be achieved in Aussie Rules.
Punching The Ball
Moving the ball across the field quickly is key to outflanking your opponents every ‘round’ and the best way to move the ball short distances is to punch it. In Aussie Rules, this is the only other legal way to dispose of the ball besides kicking it. The punch is known as a ‘handball’ - the ball is placed in the palm of one hand and knocked out of the palm with the closed fist of the opposite hand.
Handballs are super quick, twitch-reflex disposals that often get players out of trouble and congestion. They’re a melee attack and they deal less damage than a kick. Getting a handball out of a pack of players is like cooking inside of a phone booth. Except the kitchen is filled with last night’s dishes and the phone booth is 6-foot-tall meat sacks with biceps bigger than your head.
If you can handball effectively, you can punch football-shaped holes in the phone booth just big enough to get the ball into open space and escape.
Catching The Ball
In American football, if you catch the ball, the idea is to continue running with it. Taking possession of a soccer ball, a player will look to break a line or get off a pass before another player reaches them.
Aussie Rules is completely different.
The footy acts like a ‘star’ in the Super Mario series. If the footy is kicked over 15 metres and a player, from either team, catches it then that player becomes invincible for a few seconds – they cannot be touched and are able to kick freely without being tackled. Unlike a star, it does not make the player travel more quickly.
This is known as a ‘mark’.
Marking the ball doesn’t change the game from a real-time action RPG to a turn-based one, it operates more like ‘bullet time’. It gives the player who marked the ball time to assess everything that is happening (in real-time, so bear with the analogy) around them and try and hit another target. If you can successfully move the ball from one side of the ground to the other by kicking and marking it, it’s impossible for the defence to take it back from you.
The trade-off is that it is far slower than chaining handballs together, allowing the defence to set up behind the ball, giving them a chance to contest the ball while it’s in mid-air. This is the deep tactical real-time strategy reminiscent of Starcraft.
Teams don’t want to see players defending in this way but spectators do because it results in huge pack marks, where players literally jump on each others head like they’re trying to crowd surf at a death metal concert. Commentators have crowned these huge catches ‘spectacular marks’ or, using the time-honoured Australian tradition of shortening words, “Speccys”
Humans are not supposed to leave the ground. Gravity and physiology conspire to ensure that we stay firmly on the surface of the planet. Yet, we can jump. For a few brief seconds, we can tell gravity to eat shit. If we jump onto another person’s shoulders, we can get a second boost into the air.
That is the idea behind a speccy: Two middle fingers. One pointed directly at the laws of planet Earth and the other at the player beneath you.
One of the most famous speccys of all-time is Gary Moorcroft trying to leap into the upper atmosphere and pull down a satellite, off the back of Brad Johnson’s short, wide, desk-like shoulders. It’s an absolutely incredible leap and mark.
Speccys provide some of the most out-of-your-seats moments in the game.
To understand the strategy, you must first understand how a football field is traditionally set up. Unlike other traditional sports, Aussie Rules and the AFL have several different playing fields or ‘maps’. Although all must be oval-shaped, they can be of varying dimensions, which can affect the strategy, but players traditionally set up the same way no matter what ‘map’ they play on.
Each team takes 22 players into a match. At any one time, 18 of those players are on the field while four remain on the interchange bench.
Like with FIFA, all players are free to roam around the field as they please though tradition and math dictate that the best field placement is to have players set up in six lines of three across the ground, allowing them to control various sections of the oval.
This design element allows for fluid attacking or defending, with dynamic, explosive changes when players are caught out of position. It results in a tug-of-war and metronomic back-and-forth where momentum shifts from side-to-side as coaches make small adjustments and move players around the field.
If you look back 30 years or so, Aussie Rules was more a series of individual, one-on-one battles across the ground. The ball would be kicked to a contest, a player would win that contest and continue to attack by kicking the ball further forward. Over the years, Aussie Rules has mutated as wily coaches have developed new strategies within the rules of the game.
Take coach Denis Pagan’s ‘three-quarter-ground concertina’ or the more alliterative Pagan’s Paddock. The strategy was designed to push all of the forwards ‘up the ground’ and in turn drag their defenders with them. This left a huge amount of empty space in the forward line. If Pagan’s team won possession, they could kick it over everybody’s heads and use their speed to get to the ball first. With no defenders in between the goal and the ball, it was easier to score.
Nowadays, players are required to stand within a ‘zone’ or patch of grass on the ground that helps to prevent the opposition from quickly moving the ball across the ground. Attacking teams then have to ensure accurate kicks and handballs to ‘break down the zone’. This strategy has developed as players have been given access to better training regimes and sports science. Fitness is absolutely critical, regardless of where you are positioned on the ground or your job class.
There are four major job classes: Forwards, Midfielders, Defenders and Rucks.
Coaches are able to switch their players from one class to another on-the-fly mid-game, deepening the strategic gameplay and challenging the opposition with real-time tactical changes.
All players can, in theory, be used in any position, but not all players can adequately play in all those positions. For instance, rucks are really tall players and because of that, the ball has to drop a long way down from their hands when they kick it. This causes more errors. Thus, really tall players are designated as rucks and most often handball the balls. You don't see too many rucks become midfielders. Generally, ruckmen also look like ostriches bounding down empty plains in slow-motion.
Defenders are psychic. They exist in orbit around the opposition’s goal square and a standard footy oval is up to 185 metres long. That means if a player wanted to lay down end to end, they’d need to clone themselves about 90 times - not that this would have any positive effect on them scoring any goals, because they’d be laying on the ground with all their clones. However, Defenders can also make handy Forwards because of their ability to ‘read the ball’, which doesn’t mean comprehend the characters inscribed on it, but rather, understand where the ball is going to end up BEFORE it even gets there.
‘Midfielder’ is the most diverse job in Aussie Rules, featuring the skills of traditional job titles such as Knight, Thief, Ninja, Priest, Monk and Lancer. Midfielders can either be built like 'brick shithouses', being impossible to knock over, or more like ‘hay shithouses’ in that they are much more easier to knock over, but infinitely more difficult to hold onto. On the flipside, they love a good tackle or bump. Midfielders are adept at bringing down other players due to their speed, insane bicep size and general bravado.
They’re a confident bunch.
Having a ‘classy’ midfield group is the key to success, as these players are responsible for moving the ball through the dangerous middle of the ground where it is most susceptible to turnover and counter attack. The better your midfielders are, the more likely you can get the ball from defense to attack successfully.
Forwards are a diverse range of tall, lanky, athletic superstars (Tall Forwards) and short, stumpy, athletic excellentstars (Small Forwards). The former have an excellent Marking stat and must compete against Defenders, the latter can, like a Mage, activate ‘Magic’ at will. Only 13 players in the history of the AFL have ever kicked goals at 70 percent over their careers. Kicking is such an integral part of being a Forward but there are too many that just can’t kick the football consistently enough.
This is one of the greatest designs in the sport - the fact that a football is so hard to kick means goals are so important. In FIFA, goals are the be-all, end-all and hard to achieve. In the AFL, scoring multiple times
Watching Aussie Rules
With the rise of live streaming, the act of watching games such as Aussie Rules is an important thing to consider in a review. As one of the most complex and unusual games on the planet, the act of watching the sport can be mentally perplexing for new players. Those streaming Aussie Rules to their eyeballs for the first time are always drowned by a blitzkrieg of questions (by their own brains) because the sport moves at such a pace and barely relents for thirty minute blocks.
The speed of the game is almost unheard of. Think of the Madden and its stop-start plays. Think of FIFA, which is punctuated by moments of incredible brilliance and long stretches of strategic emptiness for viewers. Take basketball, which does move incredibly fast, but is all about setting up in one half of the court - nothing interesting happens in the middle of the court. How about tennis? It stops every ten hits or so.
AFL only relents for capitalism, where after a goal is scored, its broadcast network takes you to ads about the next big TV show. However, until a goal is scored, taking your eyes away from the game, even for a few seconds, will result in you missing some sort of interesting play, maneuvre, strategy or change. It’s incredibly difficult to look away.
It’s the Dark Souls of watching sports.
Okay, I am kidding. It’s more like the Final Fantasy of watching sports, where every iteration retains some elements of what came before it and at the same time is completely different. Like Final Fantasy, footy tells a grand tale that spans not just hours, but days and decades. A story mode that affects every person that watches it.
The story mode of Aussie Rules is intrinsically tied to the AFL, the official league, which has been in existence since 1897.
Though the game is immaculately designed from the ground up so that anyone who picks up a footy can learn to kick it or handball it or chase someone down for it, the story mode is deeply personal.
I was born in Adelaide in 1989. 92 years after the AFL first began.
In 1991, South Australia’s first AFL team, the Adelaide Crows, entered the competition. If not for a decent background and fundamental understanding of basic biological science, I’d say that my love for the Adelaide Crows was coded into my DNA. A dominant genetic trait passed down to me at birth. As real as eye colour.
My earliest memories of going to the footy revolve around members of our family sitting in the seats adjacent to me and the one constant at every game. As sure as night followed day, my grandparents would be at an Adelaide Crows match.
Since the beginning, the two of them fully invested in 'the boys', sometimes waiting for hours at the Member’s Gate before a match just to get their regular seats up in the old stand at Adelaide's Footy Park.
They’d be decked out in a suit of armour, patched together from team merchandise.
Along the way, their passion turned into hometown fame. My grandmother's - Nan’s - home made apricot slice became front page news in an article about Crows fans. That's how entrenched football is in Australian culture - it makes the front page of the daily newspaper.
Nan would put together the baked fruit slice and bring it down to the footy while we watched The Boys, sharing it at quarter-time and half-time. It didn't survive until three-quarter time.
The slice became an Adelaide legend and a sticking point for cross-town rivals the Port Adelaide Power, who still make snide remarks about Crows fans eating apricot slice and drinking champagne to this day. Poor bastards never knew what they were missing out on.
I must have been going to the footy, and sharing apricot slice, for at least 20 years. When the Crows moved to a new stadium, the Adelaide Oval, back in 2014, I took up the membership that my uncle used to use and started going to every home game, with my two grandparents and my aunty.
Our four seats were up in the Max Basheer Stand, Section 537, Row B. They still are.
My grandparents and my aunty would sit to my right and I would be close enough to the aisle to jump out of my seat at every goal or big tackle or terrible umpiring decision. For two seasons and a half, I went to every home game and two people were always. Then I moved to Sydney in 2016.
In that same year, the Crows made the finals resulting in a match against the Sydney Swans in September. With my grandparents unable to travel, I went with a friend who had no interest in the AFL. I still shouted, a lot.
The Crows lost.
In 2017, the Adelaide Crows started the season 6-0 (and in some cruel, universal irony, Sydney started 0-6). They weren’t just winning, they were obliterating opponents with their run, their speed through the middle of the ground and elite ball movement. In 2017, I saw two games. The first was against the Richmond Tigers on April 30 when the Crows won by 76 points.
Those same four seats in Section 537, Row B cheered and scolded and booed and laughed. I was there. I was back.
It was the last time I went to a football game with Nan.
On June 15th last year, Nan passed away.
The last football game the Crows played before her death, they won, beating the Saints.
The day before her funeral service, the Crows played the Hawthorn Hawks. Most commentators considered the Crows hot favourites to run over the Hawks who, despite their success in recent seasons, had struggled to play Good Football in 2017.
I went to the game, but my aunt and ‘Pop’ weren’t there. Nan couldn’t be.
The seats sat unfilled.
The Crows played poorly, as if the players themselves were in mourning, and eventually they lost.
The next day I read a eulogy for The Great Lady, Crows beanie on my head. I gave one last “Carn the Crows” and, it seemed the universe was willing the Crows on. They marched into the Finals series, dropping only two matches before reaching the AFL Grand Final.
It was the first time in 19 years that they’d made it back to the ‘Big Dance’.
On the back page of Adelaide’s local newspaper, on the day we had Nan’s obituary printed, a grizzled, balding face is frozen in half-smile. On his left, the words MESSIAH and LEGEND are printed in capital letters. His name is Malcolm Blight. He coached the Crows to their first and second premierships in 1997 and 1998.
That paper is still sitting on Pop’s table, back page face up, untouched but for some letters that have piled up on top of it, like lichen on old ruins.
On September 30, 2017, I attended the AFL Grand Final. 20 years had passed since Nan was in that same arena, watching a similar group of men in a similar tri-colour uniform play the very same game. In another cruel, universal irony, the Adelaide Crows played the Richmond Tigers - the exact same opponent as the last match Nan and I ever watched together.
The Adelaide Crows lost.
You may be thinking “what kind of story is that, how is that an Aussie Rules story?”
The over-arching narratives of the AFL follow tried and true plot lines – the underdog that worked their way up the ranks to win the title, the Christian boy who prays before every game, the player, once cast out by their peers, who turned their life around with football, the untouchable superstar. Those are the easiest stories to write.
The lowest-hanging fruit.
Other plots arc not just across a human lifetime, but across the lifetime of the AFL. How often one team beats another is documented and mentioned whenever they’re about to meet and their likelihood of success and their victories are constantly scrutinised against every other successful team in the history of the game. The best teams of all-time get ranked and debated and scoffed at. It happens over a year, over a season and over decades.
The subscription TV service plays Last Time They Met as if past performance is an indicator of future performance.
These plot arcs are the most interesting, for although the game changes as rules are introduced and players and coaches get smarter, rewriting history evokes a sense of nostalgia for a different time.
In this way, teams that aren’t currently playing all that well still have Hope.
Times change. Football teams get better. Football teams get worse.
But Aussie Rules, like all great sport, transcends the storylines written by the mere act of playing the game and recording wins and losses in the top professional league. It’s bigger than the injuries, the scandals, the week to week debates about which team or player is the best, the constant commentary in the papers or the round-the-clock news cycle on TV.
Aussie Rules weaves its narrative not parallel to Australian life, but through every aspect of it.
Consider this: In 2002, a bomb ripped through the Sari Club in Bali, killing 88 Australians and a total of 202 people. Jason McCartney who, at the time, played for the North Melbourne Kangaroos, was at a nearby pub when the bomb went off and he suffered second degree burns to over 50% of his body. Nobody expected that he would play AFL again.
In June, 2003, after a long rehabilitation process McCartney returned to the AFL in a match between the Kangaroos and Richmond. He barely touched the ball the whole game, but for a few kicks. One of those kicks was a goal that gave the Kangaroos a real chance of winning, while the other dribbled into the hands of his teammate, Leigh Harding, who helped the Kangaroos kick a goal in the final seconds of the game.
Immediately after, McCartney announced his retirement over the PA system in a post-match interview. This wasn’t a story about AFL or its players. This was a story about people. The people that helped McCartney off the ground in Bali, the people that got him through his rehabilitation, the group of men that surrounded him as he walked out to play his last game of football, the coaches and every person that turned up to the MCG, regardless of the team colours they wore.
With a dynamic, fluid story mode like that, Aussie Rules perfectly replicates the story that is human life. It goes beyond the week to week data analysis, the numbers, the statistics. It's a game about Australia. It's a game about people.
It is the best game in the world.