Find A Group: The Social Evolution of Overwatch’s Matchmaking Tool
In the Summer of 2018, nearly two years after the game’s initial release, Overwatch, the massively-multiplayer online shooting game, unveiled its “Find a Group,” tool. At this point, a group-finding lobby was pretty much a staple in every online game. Teamwork, after all, is at the very heart of Overwatch and other games like it. Needless to say, I (like many players) was relieved. No longer would I have to endure the agonizing randomness of the automated matchmaking system. Now, I could properly screen my potential teammates, identifying their strengths and weaknesses prior to teaming up. Overwatch’s competitive ladder was saved.
As the competitive seasons went on, the “Find a Group” lobby began to show its true usefulness. Group titles like “Mics only,” or “Playing for fun,” demonstrated the specificity with which you could find like-minded players. And one day, to my delight, I found a group bravely titled, “LGTBQ+ Welcome.” I was mildly shocked. It’s not secret that homophobia and misogyny run deep in the gaming community. The fact that someone was brave enough to publicly offer a safe space within the game itself showed me just how progressive the community of players could be. I joined the group.
It took a few seconds to connect to the voice chat. Once I did, I heard the voices of my community coming from my headset. They weren’t the typical voices I had become accustomed to from years of online gaming with complete strangers. They were the voices of my queer family. My heart grew. I had joined the group mid-conversation. They were talking about life outside of the game, oddly enough; how their queerness and nerdiness intersected and what that meant to them. As I joined the conversation, I could hear my own voice shift. I wasn’t instinctively “deepening” my voice for fear of sounding “too gay.” Instead, I allowed myself to sound how I normally do without putting on any sort of “hetero-friendly” timbre. It was the first time in my two years of playing Overwatch that I knew I had a safe space within the game. We talked and played together for hours.
Since then, I have seen more and more of these groups in the “Find a Group,” lobby. Every weekend now, there are handfuls of these LGBTQ-friendly groups that emerge and offer a place for queer and ally gamers to not only play together, but find community. The rate of growth was somewhat shocking. And it was the rise of these queerly-titled groups that served as a green light for everyone else. Once the queer players had created their space, it gave everyone else permission to do the same. Soon, the list of titles began to show even more uniqueness: “Looking for a girlfriend,” “Girl players only,” “420-friendly/Chill.” But recently, a new type of group has started to emerge in Overwatch’s grouping tool. And this group completely challenged what I had thought possible in an online-gaming community.
The group was called “There Are Only 2 Genders, Change My Mind. Not Playing.” Did someone really make a group within Overwatch just to have this debate? I had to hear for myself. When my headset connected, I could hear several voices going back and forth about the science and philosophy of gender. I could hardly believe it; an educated, thoughtful discussion here amongst gamers. I offered my two cents and quickly took a sort-of-moderator role. Without visual cues, it was difficult to know when one person was done talking. So, I took my experience as a public-speaker to help facilitate this discussion. What ensued was an hour-and-a-half-long conversation about the differences between sex and gender and the fluidity of each. Once it was over, I sent a couple friend requests before logging off when it hit me: I had just spent two hours logged into Overwatch without even playing it. Is this how people are going to be spending their time here now? Indeed it was.
More groups like the ones I had joined began to pop up. Groups with names like, “Therapy Session,” “Philosophy Debate. Come w/ Topics,” are just some I’ve started to see regularly in the lobby. I was tickled pink when I joined a group titled, “Quick Play & Jazz. Taking Requests,” and was treated to a gamer who was playing Cole Porter on his keyboard. People had taken this relatively new tool and, within a few months, turned it into a means by which they could share ideas and do things other than play the game. To this day, I’m kind of humored by the fact that we’ve spent sixty dollars on a game to not even play it but, instead, just talk. Do we really need this? Aren’t there just message boards online that we can have these conversations for free? And while that may be true, what the Overwatch lobby has provided is something different: common ground.
In the gender-binary debate group, several people were voicing contrasting opinions. Much like the country at large, the views of these players reflected the wide variety of stances people have on all sorts of topics. But, unlike the debates that we see played out on social media and television, this debate felt civil. The voices of these players never got angry. No one hurled insults or slurs at each other. The overall tone of the debate was surprisingly respectful. And the same goes for the dozen or so other lobbies I joined. And the reason for this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s because, despite our contrasting views, we all share a common interest in this game. Whether you hold liberal or conservative views, we know in the backs of our minds that we’re all still game-loving nerds who like to play Overwatch. And it’s that commonality that grounds us in civility.
It’s been less than half a year since “Find a Group” became a means for like-minded players to find each other in the sea of millions. And in that short time it has evolved from being a tool for game-play efficiency to a place where you can have a thoughtful conversation with someone you’ve never met. And it’s a reflection of how our world has been functioning for the past couple decades since the internet. If you bring together vasts amount of people who, otherwise, would never have met, they will find ways to share their ideas and share their stories. We are a global community. And there is always a common ground.