Can Blizzard take eSports to console gamers?

overwatchBuilding a multiplayer game isn’t cool any more. You know what’s cool? Building an eSport.

With its newest game, Overwatch, super-developer Blizzard isn’t just trying to build an eSport that rivals the leaders: it’s trying to beat them at their own game.

The recipe is clear: take the class-based combat of multiplayer online battle arena (Moba) games, mash it together with the universally popular and accessible first person shooter, and make the finished product available not just to the PC hardcore, but also to the wider market of console gamers, who are typically excluded from the world of esports altogether.

Superficially, then, Overwatch plays like a competitive first person shooter. Two teams of six compete to either escort a payload along a fixed track, capture two target points on a map, or capture and maintain a control point. They do this, largely, by killing the opposing team.

But each player on each team is offered the choice of 21 heroes with which to contribute, and the game feels vastly different depending on who is involved. Loosely grouped into four categories – offence, defence, tank and support – the interplay of powers and abilities is key to the appeal of the game, and provides the depth that’s necessary for Overwatch to get taken seriously as an eSport.

D.Va, for instance, is a 19-year-old Korean woman who pilots a gigantic pink mech. As one of the tank classes, her job is to protect allies, while absorbing most of the enemy fire by being the biggest, most threatening target on the field. But the way she approaches that goal, with a massive pair of cannons that let her lay down covering fire and the ability to literally fly for a couple of seconds to reposition herself on the battlefield, is unique.

Reinhardt, another tank, takes a completely different approach: the enormous hammer he carries can project a shield, behind which allies are completely protected. He slowly walks forward, his allies follow, and when the shield is eventually dropped, all hell breaks loose.

Unlike Overwatch’s most obvious predecessor, Team Fortress 2, these characters aren’t generic archetypes with a personality bolted on after the fact. That’s because the game’s origins lie in a completely different game: Titan, the would-be successor to World of Warcraft. First revealed in 2007, the game was to have been a massively multiplayer online game, set on a futuristic earth. But the market changed quicker than the game could be created, and by 2013 it was clear that the days of the subscription based mmorpg were over. Development was rebooted, and ultimately cancelled completely in 2014.

But the world that was created lived on in Overwatch. A series of animated shorts flesh out the setting, with novels and comics forthcoming, while everything else in the game, from the maps to the characters, hints at the depth of the setting behind the gameplay.

In a way, it’s heartbreaking: the world is so wonderfully realised, the characters so interesting, that it hurts to know that you’ll never see more than the barest minimum shine through. This is not a story-based game; it’s a game about shooting strangers in the face over the internet.

And that discrepancy is just one of the reasons why setting out to build an eSport is hard to do. You not only have to build a game that’s fun to play, with a skill curve that extends to the very top of competitive play: it also has to be fun to watch, and have a player-base big enough to support its own life as a spectator sport.

But the rewards, if you pull it off, are huge. Games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends (LoL) provide their publishers with a licence to print money, in the form of sponsorship, events, and competitions. So much money, in fact, that the actual games themselves are free to play; Dota 2, in particular, doesn’t charge for a single thing that affects gameplay.

Blizzard has already tried its hand at eSports. Its real-time strategy game Starcraft 2 is hugely popular in Korea; Hearthstone, a collectible card battler, is played by 30 million; and Moba game Heroes of the Storm is an attempt to take on LoL and Dota 2 in their own turf.

But Overwatch feels like a step up in its ambition. It’s not bolted on to a single-player game, or a rehash of a previous IP, and it’s certainly not intended to make most of its money from casual gamers on mobile phones. It’s a whole new franchise, coming out on three platforms simultaneously, and in a genre they’ve never played in before which already has mainstream appeal.

For some, the opportunity to shoot strangers in the face over the internet is already enough motivation to do so. But most online first person shooters offer some other form of progression, be that Destiny’s wider game of loot collecting and upgrading, or just Call of Duty’s XP and perk system, designed to get you caring about whether you win or lose. Overwatch will have something similar, offering XP for performing well in game. But the rewards, Blizzard promises, will only ever be cosmetic. Any gameplay changes after launch will be made available for free, to every owner of the game.

Team Fortress 2, with its fabled hat-based economy, showed that cosmetic rewards can motivate players. But that game still features unlockable weapons and items which affect gameplay.

Instead, Overwatch seems to rely on two very different motivators to encourage you to stick with the game through thick and thin. For the hardcore, there’s the desire to get good. Join a clan, practice a lot, enter tournaments, and maybe you too could win the cash prizes that will inevitably be on offer for the best of the best. But for everyone else, there’s only one real motivator: have fun.

And the game is very, very fun. At the console hands-on, I had to be torn away from the game after two hours straight of playing – even though, in those two hours, I wasn’t on the winning team for a single game. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The Overwatch open beta, which begins 5 May, will let you decide for yourself whether it’s fun enough to hook you.

via The Guardian

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