In 2016, Blizzard Entertainment graced the world with “Overwatch,” an exceptional multiplayer first-person shooter that dubbed itself a hero shooter due to its large roster of characters and emphasis on teamwork. As a fan of other such games – most notably Valve’s “Team Fortress” – I was pleasantly surprised to see another big publisher take up the mantle since Valve hadn’t released such a title in nearly a decade. “Overwatch” was well-balanced, with quirky characters and jam-packed with imaginative abilities, and I was hooked right away.
Since then, I’ve sunk well over 1,000 hours into the game. It’s one of the few games I could get my wife to play with me for hours at a time. For my journalism internship in college, I worked for DBLTAP, an online esports publication – I penned hundreds of short-form articles about “Overwatch,” and I took great pride in being an expert who knew absolutely every minute detail about the game.
I say all this not to brag, but to say that even as a massive fan, I’m not optimistic about the game’s sequel, which is slated to release sometime in 2022. After three years of consistently good content updates, Blizzard chose to focus work primarily on “Overwatch 2,” leaving players of the original with fewer and fewer new heroes, maps and game modes to explore. While the eSports scene has continued to attract spectators, it’s no secret that boatloads of casual players have been dropping the game in favor of online games with more consistent updates.
This could be seen as the average life and death cycle of a multiplayer video game, but Blizzard’s goal has always been for “Overwatch” to use the “games as a service” model – that is, an online game with frequent updates designed to keep gamers consistently invested. When you advertise your game as such, people don’t take kindly to two years of nothing, save for a few new “skins” and other cosmetics.
As of May, details regarding “Overwatch 2” have finally been drip-fed to fans chomping at the bit for more information. It’s too early to say for certain, but the features shown so far don’t seem to justify the long silence. They’ve shown off some extensive changes to existing heroes, a new competitive game mode called “Push” and a heavily expanded “player vs. environment” mode where gamers team up and face off against hordes of AI-controlled opponents – think “Destiny” or “Borderlands.”
These are noteworthy additions to “Overwatch,” but nothing about them screams “sequel material.” It’s likely for this reason that Blizzard has promised to make the traditional player vs. player component of “Overwatch” compatible with that side of “Overwatch 2.” It’s a commendable decision – Activision-Blizzard would likely make more money if it elected to abandon the original game – but it will ruin the legacy of “Overwatch.” In 2022, “Overwatch” ecosystem will change drastically, and it will scarcely resemble that magical game that 60 million people have experienced to date.
It’s ironic that “Overwatch” might devolve the same way as “Team Fortress 2,” the very title Blizzard sought to replace. Released in 2007, “Team Fortress 2” is occasionally updated to this day, and it scarcely even resembles what it once was. Where there was once fine-tuned balance between character classes, there exists instead an amalgamation of zany weapons and abilities that break the rules of the original game a dozen times over.
That sounds fun on paper, but when you’re facing off against other gamers with all of the same ridiculous, unpredictable powers, it can quickly become frustrating. A competitive game needs to have a few rules, and “Overwatch” and “Team Fortress 2” have struggled to find where unbalanced mechanics begin and the over-the-top fun ends.
In light of “Overwatch League” continuing to be a successful eSport, it seems Blizzard has decided to balance the game’s competitive modes with professional players in mind first and foremost. The story missions of “Overwatch 2,” then, are set to be the new standard for casual gamers. At the same time, the recently announced decision to shift the competitive format from 6 vs. 6 to 5 on 5 has left the player base flabbergasted, but the pros most of all – their jobs are in jeopardy.
In attempting to appease everyone, Blizzard is already managing to appease no one, and the game isn’t even out yet. The director of “Overwatch,” Jeff Kaplan, whose 19-year history with the company dates all the way back to early “World of Warcraft” days, quit the company in April. Not long after, Kat Bailey of IGN released a detailed report on the internal state of Blizzard, describing why a multitude of high-profile employees have been leaving in droves since 2018. The company is at a crossroads, and the quality of “Overwatch 2” and “Diablo IV” in 2022 will either reinvigorate Blizzard or bring it to its knees.
I’m not optimistic.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.