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How Blizzard built the Overwatch hype train and rode it to success

A detailed look at how Blizzard crafted and executed a masterful PR campaign for Overwatch.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

June 6, 2016

13 Min Read

Please note: this is NOT A REVIEW of Overwatch. I will in no way attempt to discuss the overall value proposition that the game delivers either. This is an in-depth analysis of its promotional campaign from the eyes of a college educator and part-time game developer.

On the morning of the 7th of November in 2014, mere hours before the kickoff to BlizzCon 2014, press and media from dozens of international outlets were busy setting up their rigs in what looked like a server room on a star-ship from some of the best science fiction films and TV series. The massive press room in the Anaheim Convention Center was home to ethernet cables and routers and computer equipment as far as the eye could see. Amidst the pandemonium, some of the more savvy bloggers and journos were taking odds on potential announcements. World of Warcraft 2.0? Another Diablo III expansion? Blackthorne Returns? All good guesses, but no single person in attendance was prepared for what Blizzard was about to reveal.

2014 was the year Blizzard revealed Overwatch to the world and BlizzCon was jump-off for what would be one of the most brilliantly executed PR campaigns in gaming history. They say its hard to forget a first impression and Blizzard's opening move with Overwatch was one to remember. When Overwatch was first announced at BlizzCon 2014, it was playable. Any developer will tell you this is a bold move and the kind of thing that keeps everyone on a project awake at night. The possibility of things breaking or going wrong or spoiling a debut is often too high for even the most courageous of developers to consider.

Even more impressive is that the playable version of Overwatch at BlizzCon 2014 wasn't just a short vertical slice demo exclusively for members of the press in some secret room. It was on the show floor for every member in attendance to play. The buzz among attendees on the main convention floor transcended what most people experience at a gaming event. It was a new IP, one that looked fresh and fun, and it was right there for the playing. It was the star of the show. And in a year when Blizzard was ramping up its final expansion to their beloved Starcraft II and riding high on the wave of adulation Heroes of the Storm was receiving, this was a big deal.

Blizzard could have played it safe and did what just about any other developer would do with a new IP reveal: show a teaser and let social media do the rest. The hype would have been incredibly high if they had gone that route; the teaser was simply that good. There are still many fans today who can describe the Overwatch reveal trailer and how it made them feel when they first saw it. It was bright and happy and full of the very whimsy that Blizzard fans have come to cherish among the company's more playful cultural productions. Most importantly, it felt fresh because it visually stood out in a way that diverged from the company's existing catalog. Even now, weeks after its release, Overwatch is easily one of the most visually appealing and recognizable games on the market.

The cinematic trailer, with its bright-eyed kids and colorful characters, instilled a feeling of hope among viewers. That was undoubtedly its intention, but it also had an arguably more profound effect. The teaser instilled a sense of hope for the gaming industry. It reminded so many people of why they play video games in the first place: to embrace in the unique sense of wonder and playful fantasy that only an interactive fictional medium can provide. It reminded the world of the immense creative capital that Blizzard had among its ranks and reaffirmed its status as one of the world's premiere developers.

The cinematic trailer ran nearly six minutes and was in line with Blizzard's reputation for producing some of the best CG videos in the industry. But it didn't end there. Blizzard followed up with a six minute gameplay trailer that very same day. The initial gameplay trailer was instrumental in selling viewers on the moment-to-moment gameplay that Overwatch had to offer and it was the perfect accompaniment for fans who couldn't be at the show to play it themselves.

Blizzard was in a prime position. The press and media were giving Overwatch the best possible initial coverage imaginable: hype and praise from actual hands-on time with the game. Blizzard initially revealed fourteen characters; they were all playable. Blizzard showcased a large variety of maps; they were all playable. Blizzard revealed complete skill-sets for each character; they were all playable. Blizzard could have just gone all out and promised pure fun; they were delivering. This public play-test reveal of Overwatch was instrumental in setting up its legacy within the gaming community. It certainly goes a long way in revealing the rabid desire players had to sink their teeth into what many were already calling the best new reveal in years.

Fans and media were awestruck by what they were able to glean from playing countless matches of Overwatch at BlizzCon 2014. From the outset the game didn't feel like an alpha. Heck, it was more polished than most betas (and even full-fledged releases) that other developers have put out in recent years. The fact that the game was so playable and stable at such an early stage shows just how much care and passion Blizzard put into making sure Overwatch was the best game it could be at all levels of development. It set one heck of a good precedent and instilled a sense of trust and confidence on the part of fans around the world.

But it didn't stop there. Blizzard went even further down the line in reinforcing the hype train. It would be almost an entire year before members of the media and press got a closer look at Overwatch in the October 2015 limited beta. In the meantime, Blizzard encouraged all fans to visit the game's homepage and sign up for future updates. The name of the website? PlayOverwatch.com. Simple as that. With two words Blizzard was able to use simple word association in such a way that anyone interested in Overwatch would see the word “play” directly associated with it. It's simple and effective. People who were yearning for alpha access certainly wanted to “play Overwatch,” and people who were visiting for the first time might suddenly be compelled to “play Overwatch.” Blizzard followed up with a @PlayOverwatch Twitter account and a PlayOverwatch YouTube channel to boot.

It was a clever play and it worked big time. Social media exploded with fans wanting to play Overwatch. Since Blizzard set the stage by introducing Overwatch in a playable format at BlizzCon 2014, fans knew that it was only a matter of time before they'd get the chance to play Overwatch. The stage was set and the mental word association was in, but Blizzard didn't just sit back and bask in these opening moves. They followed up with a series of decisions that built the hype for Overwatch to critical mass.

On the 9th of December in 2014, just one month after the flurry of a raucous BlizzCon event, Blizzard released an entire series of videos on the official PlayOverwatch YouTube channel showcasing the ability and skill-set of each character announced at the time. Starting in May 2015, Blizzard released new videos showcasing in-depth individual character gameplay and match footage every Wednesday and Thursday on a weekly basis. They followed up with new map reveals, character announcements, and gameplay features on a frequent basis.

These extended gameplay videos are key to understanding why the hype behind Overwatch reached the levels it did. It's uncommon for any developer to give such extensive footage of gameplay before a game is released. In a world where CG trailers are used to sell players on an interactive gaming experience, players have come to love any developer and publisher with the guts to actually show their game. Overwatch didn't just trickle out CG teasers or splash screens or character art leaks. They gave the world full-sized chunks of pure gameplay.

These videos were chock-full of goodness, with each clocking in around ten minutes in length and providing exclusive peeks into a single character, giving potential players a deep look at the mechanics of how to play a character. Everything from movement to attack prowess to special ability usage was on full display. The videos gave players an early look into what heroes might fit their play style. More importantly, these character videos showcased a full-single match, meaning they are not simply vertical slices of gameplay or pieced-together choreographed snippets in the form of a highlight reel. Best of all, the footage didn't play it safe. Each video showcased some truly aberrant play and clever tactics to help highlight the versatility of each character. It helps that each character spotlight took place on a different game map to show how map objectives work in the frantic heat of a competitive match.

The fact that there were eleven other characters on the map aside from the player character means that viewers received a very good look at how a large stable of selectable characters move and fight. It also gave viewers and idea of how they might have to deal with these match ups in the future. Since Blizzard was serious about positioning Overwatch as a competitive eSport game from the get go, it was paramount to be as transparent and open about how the game plays as early as possible to court interest in the competitive community. These videos gave high-level players an early glimpse at match ups and potential team compositions that they would eventual dive into.

On the 30th of June in 2015, Blizzard officially added Overwatch to its Battle.net client. The game itself wasn't playable, but it did provide a portal for the game's social media outlets. Battle.net was also home to Blizzard's own internal news feed for the game. It combined real-world news on the game's development, beta info, and dates for showings at gaming conventions around the world with fictional news stories within the game's narrative to flesh out the universe of Overwatch.

When the PC exclusive limited media and press beta hit in October 2015, it was the talk of the industry. More importantly, it was the talk of the industry during a peak holiday gaming season full of new releases. That a limited beta of a few hundred players was able to grab so much industry and fan attention was a testament to Blizzard's PR and marketing campaign up until that point. The limited beta gave fans a closer peek at the game via Twitch streams and YouTube feeds, just in time for the game's one year anniversary at BlizzCon 2015. By then, fans knew that BlizzCon would likely be their best bet at actually getting their hands on the game and, once again, Overwatch was able to steal the show. Even when the limited beta officially upgraded to a closed beta and expanded to thousands of players in the following months, there was still an unquenchable demand from the gaming public. Online forums and message boards were filled with threads discussing Overwatch, particularly addressing how to increase one's odds at getting a beta invite.

Blizzard decided to go one step further to increase the demand for beta access. The official Developer Updates on the PlayOverwatch YouTube channel were arguably the perfect compliment to one of the most talked about betas in years. In addition to providing a behind-the-scenes look at a lot of the design decisions that went into Overwatch, the Developer Updates primarily addressed areas of concern from both the players and the developer. Blizzard took a very candid approach in openly revealing how they planned to make the game better at each interval. Even better, the developer didn't just wait for problems to arise before fixing them, the team anticipated potential problems and pro-actively addressed sub-optimal design decisions before they became issues.

The Developer Updates displayed a sense of humility and honest self-reflection that many top-tier developers in the industry could learn from. The videos revealed that Blizzard wasn't afraid to scrap bad ideas, to overhaul parts of the game, and to put in the work in redesigning elements that didn't work. Makes sense, too, since Overwatch was born from the ashes of a game (Titan) that Blizzard had the guts to scrap in the first place. These persistent quality-of-play improvements became a commonplace to those fortunate enough to gain entry into the limited beta. Fans who were playing the beta felt like their voices were heard. They felt like they mattered. It let fans who had yet to get into the beta know that they would matter too and that made their desire to play the game all the more fervent.

In the spring of 2016, Battle.net became the portal for various animated shorts showcasing back-stories for a number of characters. Each of these shorts featured the same studio-level quality of the debut teaser and revealed a concerted effort on the part of Blizzard to sell Overwatch as a fully realized universe rather than simply a run-of-the-mill objective based arena shooter. These followed with digital comics to detail the rest of the roster. Blizzard wanted each character to have personality and for each character to have motivations that mattered to them, because if it mattered to the individual character, it could very well matter to the player assuming the role of the character. It helped solidify the idea of the unique individual spirit that Blizzard was trying so hard to communicate with each of its characters in Overwatch.

When Blizzard announced a Taco Bell cross-promotional partnership weeks before the game's launch, it didn't feel like a cheap gimmick. The developer had been as sincere as it could in revealing and promoting the game that it felt like Blizzard could do no wrong. When giant-sized Colossal Collectibles action figures showed up on display in Hollywood, Paris, and Busan, the playful grandeur of Overwatch was already in the bloodstream of the gaming public. By the time the multi-platform open beta hit, fans already had an intimate idea of what they could expect from Overwatch. Yet again, players desperately wanted in. The overall metrics that Blizzard gathered from its open beta in early May 2016 come as little surprise. Nearly ten million players from 190 different countries was to be expected and its incredibly positive reception upon release is a prime example of a game that actually delivered on the lofty expectations fans had placed in it. It's the ultimate realization of an immaculate road map designed to capture the attention and adoration of the gaming public at large. With Overwatch, Blizzard built the hype train to perfection and rode it all the way to the finish line.

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