Overwatch: Predesigned Fandom & a Culture of Niches

Ah, four years already?

Blizzard Entertainment released their new title Overwatch in May of 2016, and it took the industry by storm because it was the first time the company has unveiled a new IP in a considerable amount of time. It was also unprecedented because the company that was famously known for MMOs and real-time strategy games was developing an ambitious first-person-shooter. It caught the attention of almost everyone, including myself: I was there, awaiting the months prior to its launch. I spent hours a day digesting new information about the game, reviewing the same gameplay clips over and over, trying to catch a glimpse at anything that might entail hidden features or unrevealed content. There were many things about it that caught my interest: The excitement of a new franchise, the ambitiousness of its world, the incredible sense of streamlining, and how much it felt like a new horizon to walk blissfully into.

Out of all those qualities, the one that spoke the most to me was the overall look of the presentation. I’ve rarely participated in the genesis of new communities centered around a media property until this point. Since the earliest trailer back in November 2014, I was excited to see each bit of new content because it felt like I was enjoying each aspect of the game in bite-sized chunks up until the closed beta and inevitable release. Little known to myself at the time, there was a hint of disingenuousness to this participation. Sure, posting on the early subreddit about which characters I’d base my style around was certainly an involved process, but that was minuscule in the elaborate design that specified people at Blizzard were concocting. Excuse me for being such a slave to marketing, but I was blissfully aware of the fact that this fandom already had its boundaries laid out and that I’d soon be left in the dust when the stampede moved to the outer fences.

I spent my time conceptualizing my own heroes and listing my adjustments to the current concepts as I saw fit, seeing myself as a part of the game’s growth. I made fan art and contributed a ton of unnecessary theory-crafting on its purposefully incomplete lore as if I was part of something greater. I hypothesized what potential chemistry could be made between particular characters, I wondered what the locations shown could mean for plot implications, I wondered if any of the fan-art would entail future content. I had no previous idea of this idea of the near future that involved sentient robots called “Omnics” and how radically altered the geopolitical landscape of the world became

On my artistic side, I thought the game looked gorgeous: Using current technology to make an artistically appealing world full of color and vibrance: A perfect new beginning to the death of the gritty military shooter as the mainstay. The character designs were the most prominent part of the game, what with it being a class-based shooter, and the designs were so elegant and charming. Every character was as diverse as they were tropey in ways that made each of them feel like you’re getting a glimpse of the chemist outlining their materials for future use. I loved reading each of their bios and seeing the incoming deluge of fan-art depicting them as either badass or in funny scenarios.

All the praise I give this game are genuine retrospectives on what I felt at that time, and there was genuine optimism: It felt like there was some hope to the gaming industry going forward. All of the sleek characters, fancy effects, colorful maps, and interesting abilities had me hooked and I felt like I was a part of the game’s central mission. “The world could always use more heroes” is the slogan that Blizzard chose to encapsulate the game, and they mean that they need you. They need you to help turn Overwatch into something greater that the transcended concepts it came from and feel like you’ve contributed along the way.

The first impression of Overwatch I had was that it reminded me of the 2014 Disney film Big Hero 6, not only from an artistic perspective but also from a theming perspective. Both of the properties centered themselves around the appeal of shiny personalities and designs labelled as ‘heroes’ and a major aspect of both of them was an optimistic look into the near future. The streets of San Fransokyo with all their glisten and sheen reminded me of the maps first featured to begin building Overwatch’s world. The combination of major cultural influences from the West Coast of the U.S. and Japan created the impression if a new world order that seemingly cared about the people living in it and blended cultures with ease and prosperity. All other national conflicts had been ended and, for the sake of plot, the only antagonists left are threats to a globalized humanity as a whole rather than individual nations and people, whether it be Omnics or Robert Callaghan.

Promotion poster for Big Hero 6 in French.

Without second guessing, I thought to myself that this was also a good thing because I remembered the movie being quite decent. However, as time passed, and Overwatch began to show its flaws through its age, I started reconsidering. That’s when I decided to write this as all of my growing disconcerted feelings started to reside. I came to the opinion that, as an intellectual franchise, Overwatch was designed right off the bat to be heavily monetized with a predesigned fandom that Blizzard could reasonably estimate the size of and react accordingly. As much of a damning conclusion this was, it helped me to realize what exactly was influencing my initial opinions and why my personality ensured that I grew more dissatisfied with the product along with tons of other people.

Yes, what I’m saying is that the game’s sense of worth is one big illusion that was attempted to be orchestrated into reality by Blizzard’s doing. The game has such a pretty surface to it that enables you to assume there’s an entire trove of ideas there that hook you in deeper with how the developers mapped their webs of complexity. The radiance of its character designs are disappointingly superficial holes carved out to place niches in each of them: There’s less character there and more like a role being fulfilled with a shallow personality accompany it. And finally — my most damning accusation of all — the game has a parasitic relationship with its fandom in that the lack of content story-wise is deliberate. It’s deliberate in that, by refusing to give their universe and characters any kind of meaningful narrative, they’re admitting that they’re relying on fan input to compensate without ever rewarding them for doing so.

Now that a sequel for the game has been announced to commemorate its underwhelming 4-year lifespan, I want to attempt to define in time the feelings that many of us probably shared when it came to Overwatch’s anticipation and actual impact. Did the game that was hyped up to be the “killer” of the long-standing Team Fortress 2 actually accomplish this? Did it usurp this constructed throne and become the face of something new?

A lot of things in the game feel quite artificial. Originally, the incredibly sleek quality and presentation of the character designs and world made it feel as if a Disney movie was transferred onto a digital environment, but then I had to remember that Disney is a soulless corporate monopoly and thus turns anything that resembles it into such. The sleekness and presentability that I praised earlier are the same qualities that make it feel so hollow, as if beyond the pretty visuals and aesthetic direction, there was nothing of substance. Raw, distilled optimism influenced the form of the glass, but inside there was no liquid, so it painfully feels that only in concept and anticipation was there a sense of genuineness.

as if every character was designed to fill a demographic rather than create something original

“aesthetically overwatch kinda makes me unhappy
too sleek and smooth” The background of reflective abstractions were common in the beginning of the game, and they had slowly gone out of fashion as the game developed more of a world. But, this abstraction is what I remember the game best as.

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Overwatch has a low skill-ceiling because they approached being accessible in the wrong way.
And having a low skill-ceiling isn’t bad as long as the simple options there can be made complex enough to warrant continue playing the game and become better.
Overwatch has simple options, but it has low technicality.
And that’s its downfall because being able to operate well is very easy and intuitive to do, but there’s nowhere to go other than continue to operate well, and when you lose, there isn’t much for you learn other than rely more on teammates.
Paladins is very intuitive to play, but it has the technicality there to warrant getting really into it and refining.
Overwatch is just a lot of good concepts, but it never takes those anywhere because it fears eliminating people, but I don’t think opening up the room for more technicality would eliminate people: It’d make the game more rewarding for all players.
If the game had more mod support, maybe the fans could make it a more technical experience.
Or maybe making it focused more on PvE would vastly improve the experience.

Like, they had to redesign their builder heroes because the way they constructed the game makes them unviable.

Forgive me if it sounds like I’m parroting the overly Marxian analysis where I perceive regular people as being “mindless consumers” but that’s not what I’m trying to get across.

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I do really like the character designs though: They’re all designed so neatly to fulfill a particular niche, but the problem is that their design-philosophy also reflects the niche model to the point where you feel like you play a role more than you play a character.
And it’s fine to play a role, but you need to also feel like you’re playing a character.

— — — — —

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/02/how-blizzard-distilled-overwatchs-hope-from-project-titans-failure/ Blizzard managed to recycle the wasted potential of Project Titan and distill it into a finely crafted specimen that they had all the prep-time to route its future. The hopeful aura of Overwatch wasn’t just because of its time in the context of gaming but something that was predesigned, like a political election, to rally the people and make excitement not out of spontaneity but out of preparedness. It knew how to present each of its stages of evolution to the public and make itself a more pristine pagent dog for Blizzard’s reputation [by harnessing the hope it created, not just out of the announcing and fall of Project Titan, but also from the zeitgeist of excitement that luckily accommodated it: The uncertainty of Blizzard making a new IP with a new genre, the push for video-games as a whole to become more diverse and marketable,

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Culture of Niches

But in a PvE environment, they’re exceptional.

“i have a friend who played overwatch comp, and he explained to me that basically every patch a character got mega broken or mega unviable
and atm the game is so stale all they can do now is just wait and hope overwatch 2 saves their community”

I do really like the character designs though: They’re all designed so neatly to fulfill a particular niche, but the problem is that their design-philosophy also reflects the niche model to the point where you feel like you play a role more than you play a character.
And it’s fine to play a role, but you need to also feel like you’re playing a character.

I like the art a lot though: It’s what drew me in originally.
But it’s become so commercialized that it’s lost its appeal.

“it was always really commercial looking to me
its got this mass appeal look to it”

Yeah, and I liked the mass appeal look because conceptually it felt self-aware of it. But I soon realized that’s not what capitalism will do regardless. I compared the game’s artstyle a lot to Big Hero Six.

I remember Rivvy saying it was called “hopecore.”
And that’s a constructed word that basically refers to something that gives you great optimism in conception. Specifically it refers to the aesthetics of hope.
But Overwatch came out right at the end of the Obama presidency, so the hope had significantly been lost culturally.

“tbh its just kinda gut thing. when it looks like hopecore stuff it just screams design by committee to be the most appealing to me and it feels gross. this kind of stuff is mostly in my head though, im very biased”

The game just had a completely different vibe back then because it was merely conception.
I can still find appeal in that which was constructed solely for capital, but it’s only in the realm of hope.
Overwatch wants to replicate TF2, but it can’t do that because it doesn’t have the culture and zeitgeist of TF2.
It’s a follower; not an originator.
And it doesn’t even wanna be TF2, really.
It wants to fill yet another niche: Be Blizzard’s FPS title.
Now it’ll set the standard for many other companies to follow where they’ll create their own FPS games purely so they can say they have them: e.g. Riot Games.

“i remember when overwatch was the biggest deal all of the random team based shooters that showed up
and then disappeared”

Overwatch is about fulfilling more niches for something larger, and it feels perfectly corporate in that way. It’s another catalogue for Blizzard and it tries so hard to be a love letter to FPS games that it has to rely on that company presence to fulfill what’s left. [,] Overwatch had predesigned its fandom from the beginning, and every decision it made was to facilitate the achievement of this. However, it was sticking to this regiment and mandating the process of blossoming that ultimately led to its downfall.

Comic artist, metamodern philosopher, anti-schooling advocate, Cajun, color fanatic, & freelance astrologist. I write about your virtues and their aesthetics.