How Overwatch Got It Right

(And wow, do we want more!)

Written with contributions from Dana Reback.

Blizzard Entertainment’s latest game, Overwatch, is a smash hit. The game attracted over ten million players worldwide in the first month after its launch, and is considered the next big eSport. It has already overtaken League of Legends in Korean net cafés. And that was before they released a summer event corresponding with the 2016 Olympics.

Compete at Rio with none of the pesky, you know, exercise!

Recently, a 17-year-old girl who plays competitively under the name Geguri was accused of cheating (and subsequently cleared by Blizzard). Geguri’s nothing like the stereotypical broseph eSports champ, yet she’s risen through the ranks to become the 5th ranked Zarya player in the world. She’s a prime example of how Overwatch’s broad appeal has allowed it to reach demographics that aren’t usually drawn to online first person shooters. So what exactly has Overwatch done right?

Overwatch probably has a hero that will appeal to you.

Overwatch boasts 22 playable characters. Its closest relative, Team Fortress 2, only has nine characters, and most of those are white men.

Who wouldn’t want to play as this guy?

But Overwatch’s 22 heroes come from all over the world, and include men, women (with different body types!), a cyborg, two robots, and a sentient gorilla. Each of them has a unique skill set and play style, allowing players to experiment and decide which hero or heroes they like to play best. Whatever your preference, Overwatch probably has a hero that will appeal to you.

While diversity is not the only factor contributing to Overwatch’s success, it’s an important one. Character diversity helps the game break ground with audiences who don’t usually see themselves represented in games. On Tumblr, where fandom generally skews female, Overwatch has been the most talked about video game since its release. And there’s also plenty of fanart to go around.

Transmedia may be a buzzword… but Overwatch proves that it works.

Right now, Overwatch doesn’t have any kind of story mode, just quick and competitive play modes. But the first taste of the game that Blizzard gave fans was pure story: a cinematic trailer which not only showed four of the heroes battling it out in a museum, but also explained how the organization Overwatch came to be — and fell apart. The trailer was compelling, with Pixar-quality animation and an elaborately choreographed fight scene, and it left enough unanswered questions that fans were chomping at the bit to learn more about the world.

In the lead-up to the game’s launch, Blizzard released four equally good and compelling animated shorts and six digital comics set in a fleshed out near-future world of Overwatch. Each playable hero was given a backstory deeply rooted in this world that informs their in-game abilities. The story doesn’t affect individual matches, and matches don’t affect the story, but people who wouldn’t normally take a chance on an FPS couldn’t resist the adorable shorts and characters. They were driven to the game by a compelling story-world highlighted in the easy to consume and share digital space.

From “A Moment in Crime,” the campaign that introduced the characters Roadhog and Junkrat.

To keep fans engaged with this story-world, Blizzard continues to release transmedia material. A short video and digital comic introduced a new playable hero, Ana, and another comic detailed a confrontation between three of the game’s characters. An alternate reality game hidden in Overwatch videos builds interest in the mysterious, as-yet-unreleased hero Sombra. And in April 2017, Dark Horse Comics will release a 100-page graphic novel that follows the story of the original Overwatch strike team. With Overwatch, Blizzard seems to understand that slowly building out the story-world through the incremental release of transmedia material helps keep fans’ attention long after a game’s launch.

Short matches make Overwatch appealing to everyone.

According to numbers Blizzard released after the Overwatch open beta in early May, the average game length is between six and nine minutes, depending on the game mode. That means it’s possible for players to log on after a busy day at work, play a few quick play games in half an hour, and log off feeling satisfied before tackling their other responsibilities. Short matches make Overwatch feel less hardcore (even though gameplay can be very intense) and therefore it’s more appealing to the immense and diverse mainstream gaming market. Compared to League of Legends, where single matches can and often do last way over half an hour, it’s easy to see why Overwatch is a breath of fresh air.

Of course, because players are automatically re-queued for matches, it’s also easy to experience the Netflix binge effect where you swear you’re going to leave after the next match, then the next one, and suddenly it’s four hours later and you’re still trying to escort the payload on King’s Row. But the next game is the last one for the night. Promise.

I can quit anytime I want!

Overwatch is a success because it reaches new audiences through other platforms and paints a rich world with inclusive design. All that and great gameplay too.

It’s impossible to know whether Overwatch will continue to stomp the competition. We think it will, but the game is still young, and while the developers have been very responsive to community concerns, they face the challenge of keeping this massive audience interested for more than just a couple of months. Future content will have to live up to the high standards Blizzard has already set.

But so far, the Overwatch team has done almost everything right. They’ve created a cast of diverse playable characters, told an intriguing story through high-quality out-of-game shorts and comics, and ensured short matches will satisfy both mainstream and hardcore gamers. Overwatch is a success because it proves that it actually is possible to make a game with something for everyone—and we can’t wait to see more!

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