Overwatch is a good game. A mixture of Team Fortress 2, Street Fighter, DOTA, with a bit of Call of Duty that hits an atmospheric sweet spot. It’s backed by a triple-A developer with a long term plan, and an adoring community that has latched on and not let go. The Overwatch community has grown by leaps and bounds, and still has new peaks to come. But I have a few niggling doubts about its form and presentation. Overwatch is great to play now, but internal structural issues could hollow out the player base over the next few years. What factors keep a FPS title going beyond its expiration date, like Team Fortress 2, or falling into obscurity after a bright but brief flicker, like Titanfall or Battleborn? Here’s some things to consider in whether Overwatch will be worth coming back to down the line.
Ana, the most recent addition to the Overwatch cast, is an absolutely amazing and innovative addition. A support sniper who can heal allies while poisoning enemies, there hasn’t been many equivalents in recent big shooters. She adds a much needed twist on an old formula, rounds out the roster of heroes well, and has become a personal favorite to play. If Blizzard can keep up with similarly innovative takes on the old Holy Trinity of classes (Tank/DPS/Support), then we should be in for some fun mix-and-matches to come. Much like the class updates for Team Fortress 2, staggering the release of new heroes will ensure an influx of lapsed players coming back to the game, while giving die-hards something fresh to play with. It’s good to see Blizzard are already having some fun with their updates, as the recent madness over the Sombra ARG has shown. By keeping the relations of their characters close (Ana is Pharah’s mother, maybe by the way of Solider 76, and is a rival to Reaper), Blizzard are enriching their universe in a way Team Fortress 2 couldn’t. Which brings us to…
You can’t underestimate how far an active and adoring community can take your game. A community that doesn’t just play and enjoy the game, but engages with its universe and hemorrhages new stuff out into the world is one that will keep the whole going for years beyond its due date. Even before release, the Overwatch community latched onto the cast of characters and completely morphed them into something new, something Blizzard could never have expected. The cute pro-gamer girl is now a Dorito-munching gremlin. The war-weary soldier is now everyone’s favorite dad. And just about everyone is gay for each other.
(credit to markraas)
It helps that the Overwatch characters seem so designed for this effect. The variety of personalities on display means there’s lots of fun little cross-overs and mix-ups to be had. The memes multiply and evolve into inside jokes, add crazy new layers to the game world. They also do a lot of the work for Blizzard, slapping on new quirks and insights onto many of the as-yet-officially-unexplored relationships. Really, the tough question for Blizzard at this point is- do you even try to go along with your original vision, or do you ride this train and follow the memes where they may?
Guess that answers that.
Pick-up & Play
The combination of positive tone, engaging characters, colorful palette, and easy-to-learn mechanics has made Overwatch a massive success uniting a large swathe of both die-hard gamers and more casual players. The fact is that Team Based First Person Shooters have never been the most welcoming environment- they can be oozing cesspits of salty teammates, class-based pressure, and spectator expectations. There’s many small things, like feeling like you have to keep up with your team or keep track of multiple ongoing objectives while batting away much more experienced opponents, that can be huge turn-offs for all sorts of people. But Overwatch whittles those things down as much as any game I’ve seen. The varied playstyle across classes means there’s something for everyone, the lack of a scoreboard means you don’t feel so bad when you don’t do so hot (and can just feel the rest of your team holding, or not holding back, their comments), and the endgame system of giving props to those who contribute in their own way means you can feel the love even if you’re not a triple gold earner. The causal jump in experience is helped along by a smooth match-making experience that requires no fuss at all. The short, rapid-fire nature of rounds means you’re never committed to something for too long, and extended play sessions of map-after-map can wiz by as you build up XP. All in all, when I need a decent shooter to settle into for a few rounds or wind down my night, Overwatch is more and more my goto.
Limited Social Space
That ease of entry may also be working against the game in the long run, however. Errant Signal has a great video exploring the difference of the social space between Overwatch and its close cousin, Team Fortress 2. His conclusion is that TF2, with its custom servers and longer round times, was a place for you to go and meet friends, new or old. While Overwatch, being a more jump-in-and-play style with shorter round timers, is a place you go with your friends already in tow. You never spend too long on a single map or round in Overwatch, whereas capturing an objective or pushing a payload in Team Fortress 2 could extend from half an hour to a fifty minute ordeal, with lots of downtime around that. This breathing space allows a camaraderie to form with your fellow players on the server, and there’s plenty of little Hole-in-the-Wall servers where regulars come together to shoot the shit while shooting shit. From my experience, I can count on a hand how many times I’ve interacted with fellow Overwatch players about non-game objectives, whereas I’ve had years of fun chatter and general rough-housing with some TF2 players I only ever knew by their handle and class preferences. The issue just isn’t with the limited social space itself- if Overwatch is designed for groups of friends to enjoy together, then it’s inevitable, as these things go, that new games will attract their attention and they will move, as a group, away from the game to enjoy something new together. A few may come back for the occasional Overwatch match they enjoy, but they won’t be engaging with the people they play with in the same manner. Instead of having games with DeathRipper690, MegaCat, and the loveable GoombaCrusher, instead you’re mainly chugging along with That Guy Playing Reaper, That Person Playing Mei, and That Person Who Keeps Switching From Hanzo And Widowmaker Please Just Stick With One Already For God’s Sake.
This one’s a tough call. Overwatch‘s current competitive community is healthy and vibrant- there’s a shifting meta, lots of pro-team interest, and plenty of freshmeat looking to grind their chops on the ranked ladder. Obviously Blizzard wants to push at least some aspect of their game as a competitive shooter, and see it blossom into a viable eSport, as that will give the game longevity and keep the money and interest rolling in. But out of the many great titles that have come out to try and capture that status, Overwatch may be the least viable among them. “But it’s filled with great class symmetry and teamwork possibility!” you say. Yes, Overwatch takes after successful predecessors, like DOTA, in how vital team roster, coordinated ultimate use, and character assassination are to the ebb and flow of the game. But Overwatch may be a victim of its form from the get-go. For starters, the FPS perspective has not been overly successful in the eSports scene. The trouble comes from translating the spectating experience into one that a minimally informed audience can understand. Many of the dominant eSports titles- DOTA, LoL, Street Fighter, hell lets throw in Rocket League too, use an isometric, top-down perspective, making it easier to discern who is with what team, where everyone is in relation to each other – and when a fight goes down – it’s overall easier understand the action from that omniscient viewpoint. FPS titles are locked in the perspective of a single actor on a big stage with lots of moving parts. You need good observers who won’t miss the action as it happens, and who know what perspectives to jump to at what time. Even then, the true excitement and beauty of teamplay FPS games like Counter-Strike or Overwatch lie in the coordination and planning going on behind-the-scenes, something not so easy to translate to the viewer. The big daddy of pro-shooters, Counter-Strike, is aided by its long history on the scene, simple gameplay, and clean visuals. Alongside that, Valve introduced many basic improvements like grenade trails, weapon icons during buy periods, and flash indicators to help smooth out the spectating experience. Anybody with an idea of “shooter games” can translate the basics of what’s occurring in a Counter-Strike match after a few minutes. Overwatch struggles here by requiring in-depth knowledge of each character, and not just what their abilities do but how they look from an outside perspective. It has all the barriers to entry of Street Fighter or DOTA, then is stuck with a perspective that makes discerning key differences and traits extremely difficult. In a big teamfight – with a Lucio AOE going off, Genji flying over everything, Zendaya shooting orbs around, and a massive glowing gorilla rampaging across the screen – it can be hard to figure out what ability or skillful play by one or more players resulted in them gaining the upper-hand or losing outright. Other FPS titles have enjoyed some success, found their niche audience, but ultimately petered out- Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2, Tribes: Ascend, Quake Live, etc. For now, there isn’t much bringing Overwatch closer to the successful spectating experience of Counter-Strike than to the pile of past shooters that have tried and failed.
No custom content
The verdict is out on this as well, but from current standing, it looks like user-generated mods and content are a complete no-go for Overwatch. Blizzard seem happy with owning the experience for now, doling out new skins, sprays, and poses with regular updates. That can work, but it can really only go so far. The cosmetic content starts to have a hand-me-down feel, and your choice of skin doesn’t really set you apart from the crowd when sombrero-wearing Reapers are a dime a dozen. At least for completionists, it provides a lengthy, set list of content to unlock for the game’s growing roster of heroes. And Blizzard seem to be on top of keeping the content coming, such as with their recent Olympics-themed sets. But the question then becomes how long can you keep it up, and – as Valve learned with their “annual” Diretide event – how do you manage your fan base’s expectations, least they turn on you. Opening up the flood-gates for custom content generation by the fans relieves a lot of these pressures. You let the kids “play among themselves” so to speak while handing more top-tier issues than what new theme skins you need to make next month. It also lets fans feel like they have some skin in the game, as Valve discovered with their item workshop system for Team Fortress 2. That community involvement has kept the game fresh with new content for the past several years when content from the actual developer slowed. In some ways the community has now taken upon itself to update the game and keep it alive, like with the recent Frontline update. Overwatch could still end up here, after the hero roster has been completed and Blizzard moves onto new projects, with mod tools passed on down by the developer. But there hasn’t been any word yet, and looking at Blizzard’s back catalogue and their support for custom content, I wouldn’t get my hopes up just yet.