Like any sane gaming consumer with a decent internet connection, I love Overwatch. In classic Blizzard style, the developers produced a polished game that feels relatively balanced, has some of the most beautiful visuals we’ve seen from a team-FPS, and encourages a line of cosmetics that suggest a long-shelf life and bright future. Plus, competition like Battleborn, which released... May 3rd (I had to look it up), is having a hard time making waves in a scene so far dominated by Jeff Kaplan and crew. To top it off, Blizzard announced the introduction of competitive play as ‘a work in progress’ and set to release sometime in late June.
However, it’s this last bit that raises more than a few questions for me.
Against the backdrop of impressive visuals and fluid hero switching, what draws me to Overwatch is the community. During the Beta, I only ever came across genuinely helpful and pleasant players, both as teammates and enemies. Even post-Beta, I’ve been hard pressed to find significant flaming and trolling, at least comparable to other team PvP games.
I think the $40 barrier to entry helps this in some ways and I also feel Blizzard’s commitment to address and ban cheaters immediately has resulted in a ‘reduced-sodium’ community. With details coming forward about the 1-100 ranking system, average team level, and partied vs solo indicator in competitive play, though, I’m concerned we may see this oasis of good nature fall apart.
My concerns about the rise of a competitive side to Overwatch are many and varied. As I’m sure all of you are aware, there is a general consensus that if it nets you the victory, all’s fair in love and war. The proposed individual and team numeric ratings will be the first targets in the ensuing psychological battleground of the ranked scene.
Not only will this turn the current trend of pre-game “Hi” spam into a tirade of trashtalk, but it only leads the way to flaming, specifically new players. I do know the mute button exists, but one would hope that in a competitive team-based game, communication would actually have an even more useful and productive role. Instead, it will be filled with players either insulting the enemy, or their own teammates, for their supposed lack of experience.
This in turn produces disgruntled, disillusioned players that either take out their frustrations in the quick-play servers or leave the game altogether, especially if they are relatively new to Overwatch. And may the gods help us all when the first golden guns start to filter back into the casual servers. That all Reinhardt team you thought would be fun? Enjoy pushing the cart solo while the other 5 circle up to taunt with their new golden hammers.
I say this as someone who has lived on the LoL and Starcraft2 ladders, and played on several Highlander groups during Team Fortress 2 - competitive play brings out the assholes. Don’t get me wrong, jerks are as much a part of online gaming as elves are of high-fantasy: most of the time, they just show up without warning and we have to accommodate them. But Overwatch isn’t built for the competitive avenue, in my opinion.
What it does very successfully is stick players 6v6 in an arcade-y brawl with minimal stakes and heroes that feel individually powerful and not overly reliant on team composition. It’s a game that is able to both encourage a 6 Mei or 3 Tracer 3 Genji line-up and reward the balanced team that opposes them, all the while preserving a fun and relaxed atmosphere. In other words, the inherent absurdity of the match absorbs most trolling and prevents most rage.
Team Fortress 2 recognized this model as well. In fact, they bolstered it with strings of cosmetic releases, player-operated servers, and themed game-modes. Their F2P model of course invited in a fair amount of trolls, but they compensated by going wide, offering multiple modes and hundreds of servers, as well as in-game trading. Though their competitive scene was a little lackluster, it was because they spent the majority of their efforts on making the casual and kooky great.
Overwatch isn't as fortunate. Their limited item pool as well as lack of in-game trading hurts their ability to emphasize micro-transactions and item economy. The reward of golden guns that Kaplan mentioned sounds good, but ultimately difficult to replicate in the long-term. I’m sure there will be follow-up skins/sprays/voice packs over the seasons to reward players, but there are already a number of impressive items available to anyone in a quick-play lobby (ie: Commander 76 looks like it would be an end of season award, but it is readily available in loot crates).
Rapid games, Assault lasting 6 minutes on average, with currently unlimited respawns and the ability to switch heroes at the drop of a hat complicate any sort of professional gameplay. Does Overwatch abandon those features in competitive play, the ones that made them great, in order to make the mode work or do they try to preserve the spirit of the game at the cost of a compelling pro-scene?
I want Overwatch to succeed, but I’m worried it’s at a crossroads, and neither option is great. It can either fully-embrace its original aesthetic as a chaotic, flex switch casual team shooter and hope that it can update often enough to keep the player base fresh and interested, or it can devote its energy into making competitive play the reality, sacrificing its unique community and mechanics for long-term playability. The upcoming competitive scene is an avenue toward dissension though, as it prioritizes victory over community and will fill the quick-play servers with its rejected, enraged offspring. I don’t want to take away too much from Blizzard, as I generally do trust them to pull off some impressive stuff, but I’m already having nightmares about that kid that plays ranked just long enough to get put in the #69 bracket.