Overwatch was released to great acclaim on Tuesday. It's a big departure for Blizzard--a team-based first-person shooter with a vivid stable of characters and a business model that mixes a standard up-front cost with a robust system of micropayments.
Gamasutra's editorial staff has been playing the game nonstop during beta and after release. We sat down and talked through our thoughts on what we've seen so far.
What does the game mean for the "Hero Shooter" genre?
What exactly is it competing with? Battleborn? Dota? League of Legends? Destiny? Netflix?
What do we think of how micropayments work in the game?
And perhaps most importantly, does it have the potential to become an eSports mainstay to rival Blizzard's StarCraft?
KRIS GRAFT: My initial, most superficial impression is that this game looks so ridiculously polished. Blizzard just seems to be getting better and better with presentation, whether you’re talking about a card game in Hearthstone or a big team-based FPS like Overwatch. This definitely is a game meant to be ogled—nuanced animations inject every one of the characters with tons of personality, and opening lootboxes for new goodies looks and sounds like a Vegas casino and fills a lil’ part of my brain with that sweet sweet worrisome video game dopamine.
The game itself obviously owes a lot to Team Fortress 2—this is Blizzard’s version of that game, essentially. Of course in Overwatch, each class has multiple characters, so players have a lot of options when looking for a hero that matches their playstyle. Between the visual appeal of the game, the overall polish, and the accessibility provided by so many different characters, you just get the feeling that the game is going to live up to the hype as far as the average player is concerned. It’ll be even more interesting to see how Overwatch takes off as an eSport.
Competition-wise, in the consumer market, this game is competing with other shooters. From an eSports viability perspective, it’s competing against every popular eSports game.
Ok, you asked a lot of questions, and that’s AS MANY AS I’LL ANSWER.
Oh, and I’ve been playing it on console, not PC. That makes me some sort of lesser human being, right?
BRYANT FRANCIS: So many questions! Where to begin?
I think it’s been clear for a few months that Blizzard’s smashed the core combat interactions and the aesthetic design out of the park. There’s a lot of familiar shooter interactions, some entrenched by Team Fortress 2 but a few yanked over from Call of Duty, but even characters anchored in the traditional shooter roles (Widowmaker, Soldier 76, Pharah, Mercy), have a few mechanical quirks that give them firm play identities. And the new stuff is great! Zarya’s shielding mechanic is my favorite thing because it’s kind of a mix of helping oneself and helping others.
A few interactions that have definitely been pulled from MOBAS: Roadhog’s hook is something that’s been around since the first DOTA, and clearly translated here for shooting purposes. Lucio’s aura-driven gameplay feels like how League of Legends handles some of its support champs, and the concept of “Ultimates” is 100% MOBA in its feel and usage.
I think the biggest combat design win is that Blizzard’s gone out of their way to craft the various Heroes both with obvious strengths, but extremely glaring weaknesses that punish you if you step out of that class’s role and try to go solo. It’s less forgiving then Team Fortress 2, where I frequently would use solo Engineer runs in 2Fort to hold an entire enemy fortress without relying on backup from my team. Here, I’ve had a lot of experience being caught out in the open without any teammates, and unless you’re playing one of the few classes designed to sneak around and work through enemy teams from the back line, it’s generally a bad day.
Aesthetically, the silver-age-superhero design does a great job setting a lighter tone, and I think that’ll help building a new shooter audience, and maybe adding some appeal for younger players. I love Team Fortress 2, but even that blood-drenched black-humor cartoony taste seems more a niche design then something broadly appealing at this point. Much of the character-building being handled through external marketing and websites will forever feel unsatisfying to me as someone who enjoys getting story through games, but then again, I praised Team Fortress 2 for YEARS for doing all its story stuff in comics and patch updates, so maybe I’ll be more appeased when the story stops being ‘backstory’ and more ‘forward narrative.’
The main thing I think Blizzard needs to work on is offering a bigger visual sense of what victory in different maps means, and not just stopping the game and calling “victory.” It’s a running joke among some friends of mine that for all of Overwatch’s “the world needs saving by heroes” narrative, the world is currently saved by “moving a car up the street.” Team Fortress 2 solved this over time essentially with big explosions, but I think those big explosions are necessary! League matches have zero narrative weight, and every match still feels like a long battle across a plain that ends with a big bang.
Also, to the hero shooter question: I’m going to let others jump in before seeing where the biz analysis goes, but I will say that Overwatch is very much in whatever this ‘3rd person champion/objective-driven’ genre is, and I don’t see direct competition with MOBAs or competitive FPS titles like CS:GO or Halo.
ALEX WAWRO: Mercy is great, no question!
I've been drawn to the brightly-colored characters and settings of Overwatch from the start. I'm not alone, either -- the game seems to have attracted a huge following in the months prior to launch, and Blizzard appears to be managing the hype remarkably well. I was getting into matches with no trouble on launch day, and I saw friends and colleagues who don't typically play team-based shooters playing (and raving about) Overwatch.
As far as what it's going up against, that's hard to say: Overwatch's design is heavily influenced by both Team Fortress 2 and MOBAs in general, but I don't think it's fair to say it directly competes with any of those games. Or rather, it's probably better to say it competes with all of them for players' time and money, but is potentially handicapped by its price tag -- at least on PC, where anyone who wants a deep, character-rich multiplayer team-based game has a plethora of well-designed, established, free MOBAs to choose from.
On console, I think it's a different story. Blizzard has managed to bring a competitive team-based FPS that matches or exceeds Team Fortress 2 in terms of design and just plain verve to contemporary consoles, where very few games like that exist. Battleborn may offer some competition, but I really think Overwatch stands in a league of its own on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It will be interesting to see how that develops -- Blizzard inspired a bit of a trend when it launched Hearthstone, and I wonder if Overwatch might have a similar effect on the industry.
My big concern is, how does Blizzard -- or any developer, for that matter -- keep an audience in 2016, when so many well-tuned multiplayer machines (League, Dota 2, CS:GO) are already chugging along with massive playerbases?
P.S. Mei is secretly the best, sorry.
CHRIS BAKER: Alex, I agree that Overwatch makes a very strong initial impression with its verve and smart design. After just a few days with it, I find it more inviting and engaging than any team-based shooter since TF2. I play the game with one eye on the cultural footprint it's likely to have. Ithink it seems destined to inspire as much cosplay and fanfic and fanart and icky NSFW fanart as a game with a huge devoted following like League. That bodes well for its sustaining a critical mass of players. The characters are distinctive in their appearance and body language and weaponry, and the pre-release videos did a great job of highlighting several of them. (And did a little world-building as well...just a pinch, thankfully.)
I must say that I'm finding it a bit harder to parse the onscreen action. The simple distinctive color palette and silhouettes of TF2 meant that I could peer at a scrum off in the distance and instantty distinguish Red Heavy, Red Medic, Blue Scout, Red Soldier, Blue Demoman, Blue Engineer. I don't know if it's just that the game is still so new to me, but I can't see being able to do that in the same way with Overwatch.
I don't see anything yet that suggests it's going to be a better eSports experience than any other shooter. What do you y'all think? Conventional wisdom is that this HAS to become an eSports juggernaut to make it worth the enormous investment from ActiBlivzion.
BRYANT FRANCIS: So it’s worth noting Blizzard did remove the ranked game mode from Overwatch before the open Beta began, and then didn’t add it back in immediately at launch, so it’s clear the company sees something off about its ranked game mode at this time and is working to fix it. Since I wasn’t in any of the earlier betas, I have no clue what precisely wasn’t quite right with that mode, and wonder what problems Blizzard is working to solve before it launches.
My personal opinion is that at this point, the question of “will it be eSport” boils down to money. Professional players have shown interest in the game, tournaments have already been held both at PAX and ad-hoc style in the beta, and Activision’s going all-in in the eSports business elsewhere. Considering that Heroes of the Storm was turned into an ESPN broadcast within a year of its release, I think the company has a model for just getting competitive games in front of people and arranging organized hype around it.
The only question that leaves me with is what’s the difference between an eSport and other new multiplayer games these days? Can you launch a multiplayer game without some kind of esports business plan? These questions will never be answered, and likely some kind of MARKET MOVEMENT will change them entirely but they are what’s on my mind right now!
ALEX WAWRO: I think the big difference between a multiplayer game and a bona fide eSport is the community of players, and Overwatch is no exception.
I'm sure most multiplayer games launch these days with a plan for supporting a professional playerbase, if it coalesces, and you better believe Overwatch is among them. But I think Blizzard made a smart move in not talking up the game as an eSport prior to launch. I doubt you can really force an eSport, as a developer, and those that have tried (I'm looking at you, Evolve) have so far failed to climb into the upper echelons of the market.
KRISTIAN GRAFT: I’ve not played enough of the game, nor do I play at a high enough level, to say for sure that Overwatch will be a game that will be a commercially-viable eSport business. But I do watch regular sports and one can think about what games need in order to be an esports success. THIS IS NOT A COMPREHENSIVE LIST:
1: They need to be relatively easy to learn, hard to master. Look at how many levels of play there are in soccer. You’ve got 5-year-olds that play, and you’ve got FIFA. You’ve also got structures that pit people of similar skills against each other (peewee soccer leagues and pro soccer leagues). It seems that Overwatch has the accessibility down, but we’ll see if it’s tactical enough to meet demands of high-level players who’ll actually be bringing in the spectators. There’s a reason people will play thousands of dollars to watch the Super Bowl, and not your kid’s peewee football game. (I’ll also not pay any money at all to watch anyone in this thread play Overwatch.)
2: Speaking of spectators, sports needs to be fun to watch. Overwatch has room to evolve here, and I’m sure it will. Fans will be the ones providing revenue in some shape or form, so you need to facilitate their ability to spectate and understand what’s going on. Right now, there’s some readability issues when watching Overwatch, i.e., it’s hard to see what people are doing as a team, what their tactics are, etc. A strong announcer can compensate for some of this, but readability and lots of focus on spectatorship is necessary.
3: Support from leagues and…dammit can someone else help me out here? One of my kids had a bathroom incident. Not help me with the bathroom incident, but with finishing up the question of “what games need to be an esports success?" kthx
(Oh and I totally agree with Alex, I don’t think you can force an eSport, it really is up to the players. But if someone were able to at least attempt to bruteforce their way in, it’s definitely Activision Blizzard. They definitely have the resources. Ok, really gotta go.)
ALEX WAWRO: Err, right! What Kris said -- you need to have great support for teams and leagues if you want your game to have legs as an eSport. Overwatch already does a good job of encouraging team balance during public matches by displaying notifications about where your team is deficient (not enough support heroes!) on the character select screen. Going forward, I think it needs some sort of management system for teams/clans and a means of ranking and tracking performance at both player and team levels. Bryant, you alluded to Blizzard's stated plan to reintroduce some sort of "Ranked Mode" in the future, and I suspect we'll see expanded support on this front rolled out when that update hits.
BRYANT FRANCIS: A quick weigh-in based on my Moba experience: much of the pro-play ranking/performance tracking doesn’t actually happen in the League of Legends client, (though you can make ranked teams, check your map history, etc), it tends to happen through Riot’s LCS management, and players using external sites that have access to the League API to track game-by-game performance.
But I wonder if the rollout of Ranked mode may include advanced UI options that other games aren’t using! I only back this theory up on the grounds that much of Overwatch’s PvP UI is stuff that other games don’t have. The aforementioned team notifications, the endgame medal system is a bit more advanced then other match result stuff. Maybe Blizzard’s ranked mode will include some extra UI stuff to help players keep all their competitive progress in Overwatch without relying on those external sites.
CHRIS BAKER: I'm the one who's collating this email exchange, which means that I get the last word. So there. In your face, all of you.