State of Play: What 'Overwatch' Got Right and Where It Needs to Go Next

State of Play: What 'Overwatch' Got Right and Where It Needs to Go Next

Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard's team shooter has gathered 25 million players in just nine months. The next challenge? Making it in esports.

Blizzard's team shooter has gathered 25 million players in just nine months. The next challenge? Making it in esports.

In 2016, Overwatch did something remarkable. Eight months out from its release, the latest masterpiece from Blizzard Entertainment has proven itself to be the rare title that transcends its identity as a game. Not only has Overwatch become the first "new" major esport in the last half decade, but the game has also given rise to its own distinct culture, which has in turn shaped internet culture as a whole. Between shitposting, dank memes, cosplaying, and even pornography, it’s hard to name any facet of the internet that hasn’t felt the influence of Overwatch. What other game would have ended up on an anti-Trump billboard? At less than a year old, Overwatch is more than itself. It’s a game, it’s an esport, and it’s a culture.

But long before it was any of those things, Overwatch was a failure. Amid the game’s runaway success, it’s easy to forget that Overwatch emerged from the remnants of Blizzard’s defunct next-gen MMO, Project Titan. "I look back to Titan," said creative director Chris Metzen in an interview with Gamerant, "and where we got a little squirly under the weight of this giant idea … we lost some connectivity to each other." Though Overwatch is ostensibly built from the ground up, it still carries some vestiges plucked from the ruins of Titan, most notably the now-iconic Tracer. Faced with an embarrassing failure, the pressure for Blizzard to deliver something special was enormous. Prior to the launch, game director Jeff Kaplan put it like this: "Overwatch, from its themes to its gameplay, is our story. It’s a redemption story. We needed this as people."

They need not have worried. On release, Overwatch was met with universal acclaim and instantly altered the landscape of multiplayer games. On the weekend of its release, Overwatch notched an astonishing seven million active players. Within two months, it had usurped League of Legends as the most-played game in South Korean PC Bangs – a leading indicator for gaming trends across the globe. Perhaps most impressively, and unlike nearly every other online game, Overwatch’s player base steadily grew in the months after its release. As of this writing, Overwatch can boast of close to 25 million active players.

There’s no one reason as to why Overwatch has resonated so strongly with players worldwide. But any credible argument will acknowledge that, whatever else Overwatch may be, it is, at heart, a fucking great game. The memes, the professional matches – none of that would happen if Overwatch didn’t consistently deliver .50 caliber slugs of dopamine. Just about everything in Overwatch – the maps, the characters, the art direction, the gameplay – puts its competitors to shame.

With Overwatch, Blizzard set out to resuscitate the class-based shooter, which languished through the first half of the 2010s. Games like Team Fortress 2 suggested an alternative to the slot-machine shooting of Call of Duty, but their potential remained unrealized. Overwatch turned the genre inside out, finding the beauty that had been there all along, but buried just out of sight. With its success, Overwatch has single-handedly made an entire category of games that had become stale feel magnetic and strange once more.

Since release, the game’s creative team has endeavored to make an already-complete experience feel even more so. Though the augmented reality game that accompanied the release of the newest character, Sombra, was a letdown, Overwatch has benefited from a steady flow of new maps, new heroes, and new features. 2017 promises more of the same; already, Blizzard has released a revamped, more expressive communication system, and a Capture the Flag game mode. Though details remain scarce, new characters, even more ways to play, and dedicated public servers for custom games supposedly are all in the pipeline for this year. It’s a testament to Overwatch’s quality that these kinds of changes to the game aren’t aimed at fixing past mistakes, but at building on and expanding the game’s success.

Still, to think of Overwatch merely as a particularly compelling amalgamation of rules and animation is to miss much of what makes the game a phenomenon. Impressive though it is, Overwatch’s player base is far from the largest (Hearthstone, for example, has around twice as many registered players). Yet in terms of its cultural significance, Overwatch punches above its weight; while there are plenty of in-jokes within Hearthstone, it’s rare that they spill out and into the wider world of internet culture. Overwatch, on the other hand, is seemingly everywhere. As I’m writing this, one of my favorite Twitter bots, Marxbot 3000 ("a bot that generates communist shitposts") tweeted: "[mcree voice: it’s high capitalism"]. Likewise, Overwatch became the 11th most popular search term in America on Pornhub in 2016, and the most popular of all in South Korea.

Why is that? Again, there’s no simple answer beyond the fact that Overwatch’s cast of characters is among the finest and most personable in recent memory. Overwatch’s 23 heroes effortlessly capture the diversity of humankind in both appearance and personality, ensuring that just about anyone can identify with at least one of the game’s characters, from the coquettish Tracer to the curmudgeonly Soldier 76. Throughout 2016, Blizzard supplemented Overwatch’s scant lore with a series of short CGI movies, comics, and artwork, offering backstories and insight into the relationships – familial, romantic, and otherwise – among the game’s heroes. But even before the game’s release, Blizzard encouraged players to create their own stories, going so far as to make the game’s hero reference kit (mostly detailed artwork) available at launch. So now there's cosplay, digital drawings, source filmmaker shorts, and yes, porn too. There’s no reason to expect that 2017 won’t bring more of the same, filling out a canon (both officially and unofficially) whose contours have only now begun to be drawn.

Overwatch isn’t an escape from our world as much as it is a funhouse reflection of it, which is perhaps why players feel so invested in the game’s characters. The boundaries between our own world and the world of Overwatch are thinner than many would like to admit, an observation underlined by the just announced Chinese New Year event in game. Without necessarily intending to, Overwatch has provoked discussion about ongoing social issues in gaming, including everything from the depiction of differently-abled characters to ageism (What other game could pull off the Arab, heal-sniping grandmother, Ana?). Many fans feel like they have a claim to what happens in the world of Overwatch, and clashes arise when their sense of Overwatch and the "official" version laid out by Blizzard diverge. Oftentimes, these dust ups are embarrassing – would any other fandom would be driven into conniptions by the revelation that one of its female characters has a girlfriend? – but elsewhere has also been heartening. At the International Women’s March in Seoul, the National D.Va Organization – a feminist gamer group based in South Korea dedicated to the Korean Overwatch hero – carried a flag emblazoned with D.Va’s iconic logo. Asked to explain their choice, the group’s leaders responded in an interview with Polygon that "we decided to act for feminism under [D.Va’s] emblem, so that in 2060, someone like D.Va could actually appear."

Strangely, the one area where Overwatch might be stumbling is esports. Though Overwatch is among the most-played competitive games in the world, its professional scene is modest. Some of this dissonance is to be expected: Overwatch is still young, and so it doesn’t enjoy the same kind of long-term, grassroots support that props up other esports. Team rivalries, player personalities, and competitive storylines have yet to take root, and it’s up to esports fans and writers to create the kind of mythology professional Overwatch will need in 2017.

But the challenges Overwatch as an esport faces are significant, and long term success is by no means inevitable. At one point last week, when I tuned in at least, no fewer than three Overwatch streamers had a larger audience than the group stage of the Overwatch Winter Premier. Simply put, there’s a gap between Overwatch’s popularity as a game and its popularity as an esport. Blizzard has the challenge of not only attracting new players to the game, but also of convincing current players that Overwatch esports is worth following.

The much-heralded Overwatch League – a persistent global tournament that looks like a juiced-up League Championship Series – is Blizzard’s best bet at doing that. Details are scarce as yet, but Overwatch League is expected to launch this year in partnership with existing professional Overwatch teams, and expand globally from there.

Building this infrastructure will do much to legitimize professional Overwatch, but problems remain in the game itself. Overwatch’s much-maligned spectating interface needs a serious overhaul. Between short respawns, chaotic fights, and the huge number of skills and heroes, the game puts a high burden of knowledge on the viewer that the interface does little to address. The game is also lacking in features professional players often desire. Speaking with Glixel, Jake "TorkLPF" Lepoff of CompLexity Gaming notes that Overwatch is "missing key features other competitive games have – a demo system, the tracking of team and player stats, and a 'resume from replay' feature." Likewise, he suggests that Overwatch’s "meta" – the prevalent tactics and strategies used by pro teams – goes stale quickly compared to its competitors: "Most teams are running three or four tank comps with Ana and Lucio. In the current meta, I don’t think there is enough variation to keep it enjoyable."

This week’s balance patch, which neuters the potency of tank-heavy team compositions, will help move the game in a more positive direction, but there’s still a long way to go. Put bluntly, Overwatch is incredibly fun to play, but can sometimes be a chore to watch. If it wants to end 2017 as a credible esport with a global future, Blizzard has a lot to do both in and out of the game to make it as compelling to spectate as it is to join in.

All of which is to say that Overwatch enters 2017 with grand designs on many fronts. Video games, no less than the people who play them, contain multitudes and Overwatch means different things to different people. For cosplayers, it’s a chance to get into new characters, for pro gamers, it’s a new chance to prove their mettle. For millions of fans, it’s a beloved hobby, and for Blizzard, it’s a chance to put themselves squarely at the center of a new age of esports. In 2016, Overwatch put itself on many paths. This year, it’s time to see where they lead.