Overwatch: From Phenomenon to…Failure?


Source: The Daily Californian

Will Teare

To put it simply, the initial release of Overwatch was a phenomenon that we haven’t seen in a very long time in the gaming community. For anyone who knows a thing or two about video games and gaming culture, this isn’t a surprise to you. You know the memes, the Overwatch League, Jeff Kaplan, the Tracer controversy, High Noons, and endless Symmetra reworks. That’s all fun and that first year of release was unbelievable…but the farther and farther we get from release, we see cracks in Overwatch’s near-perfect formula. In this article, we will dive into the key factors for its astounding success and track it to where we are today. I want to focus on everything but the incredibly polished gameplay, as its other key strengths come from beyond being just a great video game that has amassed over 50 million players.

Overwatch is a team-based globe-trotting first-person shooter that boasted a colorful cast of 21 different characters(called heroes) on release. Here’s how you play; you’re on a team of six against another team of six in a near-future world. Your objective varies from map to map, but it typically consists of capturing an objective or moving a payload across a map or both. Each character falls into 3 classes you may choose from for your team (2 players of each class on your team), Tank, Damage, and Support. 

Source: Blizzard


Each hero is equipped with different weapons, abilities, lore, skins, voice lines, emotes, you name it. These characters were absolutely vital to the success of the game. Diversity, especially in gaming, is a massive thing to tackle. Few do as well as Overwatch in this department. Symmetra is an Indian architect on the autism spectrum who has the dream of creating the world’s first utopia…by any means necessary. Zenyatta is a super-advanced robot(called “Omnics” in Overwatch)and Nepalese monk devoted to finding peace and a higher understanding of life. Doomfist is a Nigerian terrorist who believes his actions can be used to strengthen humanity. These are only three characters who have their own backgrounds and motivations, and those were just parts of their story. I didn’t even mention Genji, the Japanese cyborg-ninja, Baptiste, the Haitian spec-ops combat medic. People of all walks of life came to Overwatch because all walks of life were represented. Unlike many other first-person shooters, this game brought in a sizable fanbase of women and the LGBTQ community. Even if characters like the aforementioned Doomfist, along with Reaper, Moira, and Widowmaker, are plain evil characters, there’s some charisma or a tragic backstory to connect to. 

Speaking of backstory, let’s look at another success of the game: animated shorts. The Overwatch animation team put out what they called “Cinematics” every few months. These were made to show some lore and feature a few characters. They had to give them a compelling story in just a few minutes. These Cinematics were immensely popular, gaining over 10 million views each, and even garnered critical acclaim from news publications and even The Webby Awards(the Oscars of online media). Many journalists have compared their best shorts like The Last Bastion and Dragons to the likes of Pixar, and fans have been asking for an Overwatch movie for as long as the Cinematics existed. But after looking at these reactions to the short and the amount of success they have…inadvertently was a catalyst for the decline of Overwatch’s popularity. 

Creating a fanbase purely on the story/characters and not the actual game left a lot of pressure on the dev team. Fans, me included, have criticized Overwatch for its lack of progressing its ongoing story since 2016. We’ve seen a significant drop in Cinematic production. For whatever reason, on the developer side, we’ve seen future plotlines like whatever Doomfist/Talon is getting up to with Null Sector or what Zayra has to do with Volskaya Industries left entirely untouched. Our last cinematic was in 2019. All these colorful heroes are a massive draw to the game, and we have always gotten 2-3 per year…but we haven’t gotten a new one since 2020. I didn’t even mention the lack of new maps, game modes, and the “stun meta.” Many people I know have stopped playing during this time for the feeling that the game is “dead” and the lack of new content/stories to sink their teeth into. 

From what I’ve gathered, this is for a few reasons: the pandemic, of course, Activision mergers and Microsoft acquisitions, and all that corporate nonsense that is bound to get in the way of creative management. Another is that it’s a six-year-old game, and people get bored. But two huge reasons are the massive sexual assault scandal within Blizzard Entertainment which led to significant ramifications internally, including walkouts, lawsuits from the state of California, and massive internal ramifications on the company (I highly suggest reading up on the subject). The other reason is that they were forced to create Overwatch 2

Although not officially stated, I believe that constantly updating the game wasn’t enough to bring back lost players and become culturally relevant again. They must’ve felt they had to rebrand Overwatch and, in doing so, had to move the team updating Overwatch into creating Overwatch 2 full time. Therefore, creating a severe lack of content for current players. Depending on the success of Overwatch 2, we’re about to see in real-time whether or not all that work over the past few years pay off. As a fan, it almost seems like the entire franchise hangs in the balance here after making us wait so long for what could very well be a massive flop. 

The point is that today (the time of publishing) marks the sixth anniversary of Overwatch. Since its release, it was the first game I played after saving up for my own computer. I used that to create my High School’s Esports team and even coached my own Overwatch team. Because of that, I made many friends and met some great people. I now am just a dedicated fan who’s loved the game and its story after all this time. After the Activision/Blizzard scandal, it was hard to open the game again. It was even harder to see the game’s fanbase crumble and lose the sense that everyone was having fun together. I just want people to love my game again, and I want to share that love with others. But for that to happen, the game needs to love its fans back.