'Overwatch' Director Jeff Kaplan is Famous and It Freaks Him Out

'Overwatch' Director Jeff Kaplan is Famous and It Freaks Him Out

Jeff Kaplan wasn't prepared for the level of 'video game fame' he achieved as a spokesperson for 'Overwatch' Blizzard Entertainment/Glixel

He never asked to be the spokesperson for what's probably the biggest game out there, but he's doing a pretty good job at it

He never asked to be the spokesperson for what's probably the biggest game out there, but he's doing a pretty good job at it

Jeff Kaplan is cooler than he thinks he is. Yes, he looks like a game developer. Aggressively so, with that thinning patch of frizzy black hair and those thick-framed glasses guarding his trademark glossy stare. His on-camera wardrobe is mostly starched t-shirts or black, pillowy hoodies, usually adorned with the Overwatch seal. Today, on a sweltering New York afternoon, he's keeping it casual (he always keeps it casual) in sneakers and jeans.

It's been one year since Overwatch officially launched, which means it's been one year since Jeff Kaplan became famous. Earlier this week, when he touched down at JFK for to meet with the press ahead of Overwatch's anniversary, he was immediately flagged down by a breathless airport employee. "I walked down the ramp and there was a guy standing there and he just said 'I'm the biggest fan of Overwatch, I'm so sorry to do this to you, but could I get a picture?" says Kaplan. "I'm thinking 'why do you want a picture of me, I'm the dorkiest fucking dude on the planet.' So I take a picture with this guy, and I think he worked at one of the restaurants there, and he's like 'do you want any food, anything from here?' I'm like 'dude! Don't get fired!'"

To be clear, Jeff Kaplan does not belong to that very specific class of celebrity game designers – at least not yet. He does not wear Metallica shirts and conduct interviews on Jimmy Fallon like Cliff Bleszinski, he does not dress in runway-ready leather jackets like Tomonobu Itagaki, and he does not offer the calamitous hubris of Peter Molyneux. Developers, like brain surgeons and makeup artists, usually earn their prestige within their own community. Kaplan himself has not changed, and Overwatch – which now boasts some 30 million playersis not the first ultra-popular game he's worked on. A decade ago, during the height of World of Warcraft, he built the zones, quests, dungeons, and raids that made up Azeroth. You could regularly catch him posting on the official forums under his longtime handle, "Tigole." But that was a different kind of fame – his visage was hidden behind a username and an obsidian drake. Today, he routinely updates the Overwatch community with rambling 10-minute YouTube videos. It's standard designer work – regaling your community with upcoming content patches and balance decisions – but it wasn't exactly common in the mid-2000s, before the YouTube and Twitch era. Each of those videos earns millions of views, and for many, they were the introduction to the man they know now as Papa Jeff. Kaplan is, of course, not a performer, or even a slick PR professional, but he's still the face of one of the most popular games in the world.

"I'm super not used to it. I don't relate to it. I'm in my mid-forties, I'm weird and awkward. I'm basically an introvert. I'm very socially contained in my own world," he says. "Video game fame is very different from 'real' fame. You're only recognized by a very small percentage of people in video game fame, but the people who do recognize you have this huge passion. Like, I think Brad Pitt knows that as soon as he walks out the door, he's fucked. He's either gonna be Brad Pitt or he's gonna stay inside. But video game fame lures you into this false sense of security where you're like, 'Nobody cares who I am!' – until you walk out of an airplane at JFK."

Kaplan's decision to get in front of the camera was inspired by Hearthstone's flannel-wearing lead designer Ben Brode. Brode is a natural, blessed with a booming voice and an infectious, instantly-memeable cackle. He has cosplayed as a Victorian explorer for an announcement teaser, and he's home-recorded an impromptu, surprisingly competent rap. His ascendance as a public figure was the beginning of a culture shift for Blizzard. In the past, the company emphasized their prodigious brand sover individual personalities that made up their staff. But the gaming landscape has changed, and now developers routinely appear on Twitch streams with their prime influencers and host live townhalls with the unruly masses.

But Kaplan hates watching himself on camera. "I think I'm goofy-looking, I think the way I talk is weird. I hate the sound of my voice. All this shit creeps me out," he says. "I don't watch the dev updates. Right after we record it, they send it to me I have to watch it to make sure all the information is correct, but after that one time, I never watch it again. I don't go back." It's not as bad as he makes it out to be. Jeff Kaplan might not have Brode's effortless affability, but there's something to be said for his approachable, scruffy charm. His devotion to Overwatch is palpable, and he perpetually looks like he's just finished a 12-hour shift in the server bay.

Despite his personal reservations, the Overwatch community has canonized Jeff Kaplan as a combination avatar and mascot. YouTube user Dinoflask supercuts his dev update videos into the Overwatch version of Mad Libs. They're a consistent hit on the subreddit, and they're getting zanier by the day. Recently he made Kaplan sing Smash Mouth's "All Star." On the forums, he's either referred to as a consecrated deity or a doting father. "Does Papa Jeff read the entire forums?" reads a recent thread. "Jeff is omnipotent and omnipresent. He knows every word in every post and your deepest, darkest desires. But he is not benevolent." It's all tongue-in-cheek, but you do sense some genuine affection. Jeff Kaplan has become synonymous with Overwatch. He's loved in the same way Tracer is loved. Sometimes, that freaks him out.

"Weirdly, I haven't quite come to terms with where I fit into the Overwatch community. I think of myself as a forum lurker or a Reddit lurker. I read literally every gaming site. I think the same shit is funny that they do, I'm upset about the things that they're upset about, so sometimes, it trips me out, where I'm like 'Oh, they're making fun of me... but it's funny,'" he says. "It's almost like watching my evil twin brother."

Before Overwatch was released, there was a poll on the Subreddit asking how old everyone was. Kaplan, who's 44 with two step-kids, browsed the results, and found that nobody was in his age bracket. It was a watershed moment. The first time a lifelong gamer realized that yes, he is in fact old enough to be the dad of the community he designs for.

There's a couple things that peeve me – I hate it when anyone calls a game a 'product,' and I hate it when people talk about gamers as 'users' or 'consumers.

Again, this isn't something that Kaplan asked for. There are a lot of ways to get famous, and releasing developer update videos certainly isn't one of them. But he's happy. He's taking it all in stride. The only concern he has is that his newfound "video game fame" might overshadow his team's hard work. There are a hundred people working on Overwatch, and Kaplan certainly doesn't want to be recognized as the game's sole author. "Any member of my team could've been the person doing those developer updates," he says. "Everyone worked equally as hard. So I have these moments of, 'Why me?'"

Still, if there's a lesson the rest of the gaming business can take from Kaplan's success, it's that you don't need to gussy up your marketing squad with professional hosts and teleprompters. There's this attitude in the industry that the talent behind the scenes isn't credible enough to sell their game on their own. That's why EA brings in Drake to hawk their soccer game, or why Ubisoft hires Aisha Tyler or the reviled Mr. Caffeine to host their E3 press conferences. "I think people don't give gamers enough credit," Kaplan says. "There's a couple things that peeve me – I hate it when anyone calls a game a 'product,' and I hate it when people talk about gamers as 'users' or 'consumers.'

"They're gamers or they're players. They're a highly intelligent, communicative group of people. They're in love with technology and what we do. They understand the art and the craftsmanship behind it. They're not dumb about it, and it triggers me when we treat them like they're dumb about it. They can see right through it. So who are you fooling, at that point?"

Jeff Kaplan is a little awkward. Sometimes he talks too much, and someone should probably buy him another hoodie. But there was absolutely no doubt that he was the right person for the job.