Wednesday, January 9, 2019

GTMTM '18: Overwatch, the Party Cannon of Video Games


I've hitched my hype cart to a lot of games over the years, gushing my enthusiasm to everyone around me to try and get them on board. Some have worked out (Witcher 3, Metal Gear V), and others not so much (No Man's Sky, Fallout 4). After all of that, though, I think Overwatch is still my proudest bet. Right from the first time I saw that Pixar-looking trailer and explored the whole website that went up all at once in November 2014, I could feel that something special was happening. And from that first reveal all the way through launch in May 2016 to today, Overwatch has only grown more important to me. It became an even bigger deal in my life this year because of the launch of the Overwatch League, in more ways than I could have ever expected.

Overwatch has a lot going for it, obviously, but I think just one thing explains all its success: Overwatch presents a world you'd actually want to live in, full of people you'd actually want to meet. In a market full of apocalypses and dystopias--worlds of browns and blacks and rust and grime--Overwatch immediately stands out. This was especially true in November 2014, when Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Call of Duty, Tomb Raider, and Watch_Dogs were all still fresh on our minds. In that world, Overwatch exploded across your screen in colors you hadn't seen in years, and it felt like coming out into the light after years of living in a bunker. It was incredible. It was like Party Cannon:

How Overwatch feels in the world of videogames. Image credit @Alby

Seriously, though, it's not that much of an exaggeration:


While every other game was black, Overwatch was colorful. While every other game had a gruff, hardened, usually-dude-but-sometimes-lady who doesn't take prisoners, Overwatch had a bubbly lesbian who quips out "Cheers, love!" while she zip-zaps around the battlefield, and a whole cast of memorable, lovable characters behind her, each doing their own adorable thing. And instead of doing that thing in a dreary, society's-failed-boo-hoo wasteland, they're doing it in a vibrant, exciting future full of possibility and promise.

Games now are built to be lifestyles--something you stare at and interact with for hundreds if not thousands of hours. Is it any surprise that millions of people have chosen to spend those hours living in an optimistic, hopeful world rather than all the decaying dumps offered by other games? 

What's more, literally billions more people on this planet are better represented in this game than all those others. Who's a 14-year-old girl in China supposed to root for in Call of Duty Advanced Warfare or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive? Nobody looks or talks like her in those games. In Overwatch, Mei proudly hails from that girl's very own country, and is a scientist of extraordinary ability working to save the planet. I could do this same scenario for dozens of other hypothetical boys and girls, representing billions of real people all over this planet, who might literally have never seen someone that looks like them in a major videogame before Overwatch. (Of course, the Overwatch team hasn't done a perfect job of this. Notably, there still is not a playable black female character. However, Overwatch isn't done, and I think there's hope.)

But why am I telling you all this? Ray Gresko already said it all when he spoke accepting Overwatch's 2016 Game of the Year award at The Game Awards:

So, Overwatch is great, but I keep talking about 2014 and 2016. Why did Overwatch matter in 2018? Well, if you watched the video above and looked at the guy on the far left, that's Nate Nanzer wearing a t-shirt with the answer: the Overwatch League.

After taking their sweet time like they always do, Blizzard finally launched the Overwatch League on January 10, 2018. Sure, other games have their esports leagues, and this isn't the biggest one by far, but OWL was trying to do something different than League of Legends or DOTA 2 or the other esports titans: they were going for the US audience--not just self-identified gamers, but anyone and everyone in the US with even a passing interest in videogames. I can't speak to how effective they were overall (though it seems like things worked out just fine so far), but in my life, it moved mountains.

My sister-in-law who's always been a devoted Nintendo-ite suddenly converted heart and soul to the game, and I ended up taking my family several times to my brother's house to watch games with them throughout the season. My sons watched with me, and found characters to love and teams to get excited about.

Even my parents, who I can personally guarantee had heard about Overwatch on multiple occasions before, suddenly took new note of this game that we all couldn't stop talking about, and really learned what it was. Everywhere I looked, people who for two years had ignored or de-prioritized one of my favorite games of all time were suddenly as in love with it as I was. It honestly felt like magic.

At the peak of the season, Overwatch became the only thing my regular gaming group talked about and played together (sorry, Destiny 2), and we haven't ever really looked back. We still play every Tuesday night, and have taken to calling ourselves the Salt Lake Inversion because it sounds like a name that would fit in the league (but of course it's also a dig at the poor air quality in our fine state please someone help us). We even have a Twitter account for the team that one of our members manages where we share clips and updates.

On top of all that, Overwatch's attention to diversity seemed to pay off in whole new ways with the launch of the Overwatch League. Fans in the live audience and online were visibly a more diverse group than other esports events, especially in terms of gender. And while there was sadly only one female player in the league in the first season, I would not be surprised if Overwatch expanded their female professional base much quicker than other esports games.

In one of my college classes, our professor asked about gender equality in gaming and what we thought would happen in the future. I said I thought it was inevitable that gaming would come to have the same gender mix as the wider human population. One classmate turned to me and said, "Do you seriously think girls will be playing Call of Duty in the same numbers as guys?" I said, "Not Call of Duty, but a different kind of shooter, totally." I feel like Overwatch has proven me right even quicker than I thought possible when I said that in 2015.

Other games come and go, but for me, Overwatch feels like forever. I can't imagine a time where I won't want to come back to this world and hang out with these characters. I love it. In a recent interview, Jeff Kaplan explained that in Dungeons & Dragons terms, Blizzard aligns lawful good; they make heroes out of people. I don't think that comes through more in any of their other games than it does in Overwatch. While we'll always be curious and want to spend some time as the lawless, loyal-to-a-fault Joel from The Last of Us or the brutal, violent-but-disciplined Kratos from God of War, at the end of the day, I think most of us want to be lawful good too, and we'll find ourselves coming back to a place where we can hang out with other people like us. For me and millions of others, that place is Overwatch.

(Thanks for reading! This is the third post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)

1 comment:

  1. This game definitely makes my GTMTM 2018 list, too. Loved your insights on Overwatch's optimistic tone. So many great memories from the year because of this game and the League. Thanks for sharing. Go Salt Lake Inversion!