Overwatch is a popular game. As of October 2017, Blizzard has reported the game to have 35 million players and thanks to the introduction of Overwatch League (which had441,000 viewers at its peak during the opening matches), which is now in its second stage, there’s bound to be more new players incoming. What makes Overwatch different from other games in the same genre though? There are a number of other games with a similar playstyle and variety of unique heroes, yet Overwatch is the game that seems to have come out on top. Paladins, which came out around the same time as Overwatch, only boasts 15 million players. It is often compared to Overwatch both in terms of hero design and gameplay, yet based purely on statistics, Overwatch appears to have become the FPS MOBA of choice. Even non-players have latched onto the game–and perhaps this is where we should look to try to figure out the mass appeal of the game.
It’s not a new model to have canonical lore outside of the main medium. BioWare did this with their Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises in order to fill in the gaps between games and to give players more lore about some of the companions or important NPCs. Overwatch hasn’t published any books or full-length movies (yet) but they have created comics and top-notch cinematics that even non-fans of the game can enjoy thanks to their self-contained narratives. Prior to the release of Overwatch on May 24, 2016, Blizzard released Recall (March 2016), Alive (April 2016), Dragons (May 16, 2016), and Hero (May 22, 2016). Each one of these shorts revolved around the lore of major catalyst characters within the universe (Winston, Reaper, Widowmaker, Tracer, Genji, Hanzo, and Soldier: 76). Each short contains a full narrative arc and even without knowing anything about the universe or the game, the viewer can learn about some of the motivations behind the featured heroes. For instance, in Hero (which in my opinion is one of the least fruitful lore cinematics), the character of Soldier: 76 is introduced through the eyes of Alejandra. The short begins by describing Alejandra as a young girl at the “crossroads” of coming into her own as a person–choosing who she wants to become one day. We learn at this point that the world used to have heroes (i.e. Overwatch) but now things have fallen into corruption and decay. Her mother tells her the stories of the heroes to try to give her hope, but it becomes evident by Alejandra’s reaction to an Overwatch poster that she doesn’t really feel any hope, no matter how much she wants to. It’s not safe to walk the streets alone and there is rampant inequality and mistrust towards the AI beings, omnics. At the start of the short, Alejandra is given the choice of either standing up and helping an omnic, attacking the omnic, or running away (in essence making no choice). She tries to run away, stating that she doesn’t want to get involved, but eventually gets drawn into it after her money is stolen by the men beating up the omnic. It’s during her wild chase that she stumbles upon Soldier: 76 who is trying to stop the gang members she was chasing (for an entirely different reason). What’s notable about his introduction is that he’s not some gallant golden boy hero like the man on the poster anymore. He’s dark and brutal. He doesn’t use his gun at the start of the fight, but his fists, which is perceived as a more intimate violence (even if it’s presumably less fatal). This is a man who initiates a fight in the streets which does inevitably result in a gunfight–a gunfight mind you that he engages in with rockets at first rather than using his tactical visor to ensure precision. He then slowly walks up to a man attempting to crawl away before beating his head with a smoldering bit of debris. This is all observed by Alejandra, who flinches at each slam of Soldier: 76’s fist, further emphasizing the brutality of the action. He then stands over the crumbled, cowering form, looking more like a monster than a Captain America-esc hero. Alejandra finally makes her presence known and Solider: 76 looks up with a growl–not a gasp of surprise–a growl. After reinforcements come, he chooses to save Alejandra rather than give chase, but the editing indicates that it is a close decision.
We never get to play as Alejandra in Overwatch but we do get to learn more about the state of the world and Soldier: 76 through this interaction. He might not be a young person deciding who they want to become, but he is at a point where he has to decide who he wants to be now that his old life is over. He’s no longer a sanctioned hero of Overwatch, but rather a vigilante. While his intentions are seemingly noble and he does save Alejandra in the end, it’s clear by the hesitation that it was a decision, not a gut reaction, to help a civilian. He only has about 3 minutes of screentime during this almost 7-minute short, but his actions and the juxtaposition of Alejandra’s story give the player more information about Soldier 76 than most of the interactions within the actual game. This is a free to view cinematic released before the game’s launch–in essence, something that is inviting a broad, open audience to enjoy the story.
I mentioned BioWare using outside media to further advance the lore within their IPs. I feel like Blizzard took this concept a step further with Overwatch. The lore within Overwatch is sparse, mostly garnered through the observation of maps, character skins, and voice lines. There is no actual story mode other than the Uprising event, which is no longer playable. The actual play within the game is considered to be non-canotical as well, which seems like the complete opposite model of most games. The comics and cinematics are the only truly canonical pieces within the IP, which means that unlike most other games, fans can experience the story without ever having to play the game or watch a playthrough. Of course a fan’s understanding of the world and characters is enhanced by the gameplay, but in theory, they could only experience the external media and still get a fairly comprehensive understanding and love of the world.
Overwatch is a game with 27 heroes, all of which have complex stories and motivations. Even characters who have never had a cinematic or comic (such as Mercy, DVA, Zenyatta, and Lucio) still draw in fans. DVA, Zenyatta, and Lucio, in particular, are fan favorites when it comes to fan art and fanfiction despite the limitations in their lore. Perhaps that is the key to the fan fascination with Overwatch. Overwatch has a lush, presumably complex world that is still open enough for fan intervention. It’s easy for players and non-players alike to implement their own headcanons on the characters because what Blizzard has focused on isn’t necessarily the lore, but the characters themselves. Each character has a distinct personality that permeates every part of their design from their model to their voicelines. Look at McCree and Hanzo, arguably two of the most popular characters in Overwatch. Both of them have designs that tell us a lot about their characters. These presumed personalities are echoed in their respective cinematics and comic features. McCree is seen as sort of a roguish vigilante trying his best to be a good hero, regardless of what the world thinks of him. His class cowboy design reflects this sort of lone hero trope. We see that he isn’t as serious as his gruff, rough and tumble design suggests too thanks to his feature in the Ana origin short. In the photo of him from the short, he’s smiling for the camera with a goofy hat tilt–he knows he’s cheesy and plays into it. Everyone else in the picture is in uniform (besides Mercy and Pharah). Technically he is as well–you can see his uniform under his cowboy get up. A fan can presume a lot from just this one frame. Hanzo has a short which shows him as a grim, stubborn man filled with regret. His later comic feature during the 2016 Christmas comic highlights a change in Hanzo though. In his panel, we see that he’s changed his uniform, forsaking his old identity for something newer and edgier. He’s cut his hair and gotten a new piercing. This suggests an evolution in his character, a rebellion from his stiffer self, the one who stuck to the rules because that was what was expected of him. None of this information is found in the game. All of these speculations come from external media.
There’s something inviting about this sort of lore. It allows for a wide variety of fans and potentially draws in a wider audience who might have never played a FPS before. I personally picked up the Overwatch beta because of the cinematics. I’d never played Call of Duty, Halo, or any other FPS prior to Overwatch because they felt gritty and exclusive–and that’s completely fine. Call of Duty has a particular market and they are incredibly effective at selling to that market if the success of the franchise is anything to go by. Overwatch, it seems, wanted to draw in as many types of people as it could to enjoy the story that they created. They created a wide roster of characters with different mechanics that made it so everyone could find a hero that suited them if they chose to play the game. At the same time, they also made sure that even if someone didn’t play the game they could still access the story and potentially one day, play the game as well. With mottos like “The world could always use more heroes”, bright colors, and interesting characters, its easy to see why Overwatch has the mass draw that it does.