Overwatch isn’t perfect, but its esports potential is real

On Friday, Blizzard unveiled its first new franchise in 17 years, a cartoony, team-based shooter called Overwatch

Image via Blizzard Entertainment

On Friday, Blizzard unveiled its first new franchise in 17 years, a cartoony, team-based shooter called Overwatch. When hardcore shooter fans saw the trailer—a cinematic vignette that could have come from Pixar—a question immediately flashed in our minds.

Will Overwatch finally fill the esports void?

As the former captain of the world’s best Team Fortress 2 team, Pandemic, watching the first gameplay reveal of Overwatch made me a little giddy with anticipation. Overwatch looks like a shooter filled with creative mechanics, more interesting abilities and interactions than any previously released.

Esports started with twitch shooters like Doom and Quake, fast-paced games that require a different skillset than “military shooters,” as Overwatch lead designer Jeff Kaplan calls them—games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty that are relatively slower, with methodical, squad-based gameplay. Those games don’t appeal to guys like me, who like nailing someone in midair with a rocket, flying through the air while raining bullets below, and running around corners, not leaning around them. Since the fall of the deathmatch shooter and the rise of military styled games, nothing has truly filled that void.

No company has cracked the formula required to bring that kind of shooter gameplay to a wide audience, despite many attempts. Games like Monday Night Combat and Tribes: Ascend made it partway there, but couldn’t figure out how to sustain themselves. Team Fortress 2 made it, as a commercial success at any rate.

Team Fortress 2 had everything going for it towards becoming a big esport except one important thing—the developer. Valve never backed the game’s competitive side, instead pouring resources into a different vision that increasingly alienated the hardcore fans.

Backed by a company like Blizzard, one of esports’ greatest allies among developers, Overwatch offers hope that finally someone will get it all right: Hope to players who Blizzard hopes to pull into the genre for the first time, thanks to the lower barrier of entry. But also hope for those competitive shooter players who don’t like waiting a full minute to respawn.

But does the game deliver?

I spent a few hours playing the game at BlizzCon to find out, putting in a dozen or so games of Overwatch to see how it played, from the perspective of a hardcore player like me.

When you look at a shooter, shooting isn’t the first thing to discuss. When I met up with my friend after he got his hands on the game, the first thing he talked about was the movement.

Movement defines the shooter experience more than anything else. Most of your time in game is spent moving, not shooting.

“It feels slow,” my friend said after playing three games.

I agreed.

Moving felt like an awkward crawl with many characters, especially in comparison to other characters. There’s an odd disconnect when one character can teleport instantly, another can fly with a jetpack, or another can scale skyscrapers in seconds—only to feel like you’re stuck in molasses when you play anyone else.

The speedy archer character Hanzo in particular exposed some problems—basic movement is very limiting. With Hanzo, you’ll climb up a high wall only to reach some ledge with a random bit of map geometry blocking you. You won’t be able to make a small adjustment to avoid plummeting to the ground. It’s jarring to be some kind of ninja samurai, only to be thwarted by an odd shaped rock that sticks out a bit too much.

It’s a problem that can be fixed in a number of ways. Jeff Kaplan mentioned the game’s textures make default movement feel slower, and that could be the case. But right now it’s a pretty basic system with little room to really showcase skill. There isn’t even the option to crouch to manipulate your physics while in midair like Team Fortress 2. In fact, the base movement is very similar to Team Fortress 2, just without the Scout’s double jump, the Soldier’s rocket jump.

Overwatch replaces these things with abilities that serve similar purpose, but seem to lack a little of the depth in Team Fortress 2’s deceptively simplistic design. For example, Pharah, the jet-packing Soldier-style character, features a rocket that does boost her a little bit, but her shift ability launches her twice as high into the air. That lets her do similar things to a rocket jump, like reaching higher places, attacking from the air, but it lacks the same versatility and skill when compared to TF2’s soldier class. A rocket jump can propel you in any direction based off the angle of impact, and talented soldiers can manipulate their speed and trajectory midair. With Pharah, her launch sends her nearly straight up. And while the jet pack lets you adjust once airborne, the speed it moves you from side-to-side is painfully slow.

That isn’t necessarily terrible, as long as the slow feel gets fixed in some ways. It will certainly be mitigated by more playtime—getting used to the game will make it feel better. New characters with more interesting movement possibilities will also inevitably be added to the game, based off some of the creativity showcased in the heros revealed so far.

The characters themselves are designed very well. Each hero is fairly simple, with only a handful of abilities at their disposal, but many of them synergize well in ways that benefit from a player’s skill, both in terms of their aim and their ability to position and read the game.

The abilities in Overwatch were refreshing. Blizzard wants you to use them, and use them again and again. Fast cooldowns and generous charge counts makes sure playing a hero isn’t an exercise in watching cooldown numbers tick down, a problem with many MOBA games and their ilk.

Many heroes have abilities that work best in tandem with others, like the massive shields employed by tanks such as Reinhardt, or the buffing capability of Mercy, able to boost the damage of players when their most effective abilities are ready for use.

Similar to MOBA’s like League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, each character also has an ultimate ability with a powerful and sometimes game-changing effect on a longer timer.

The ultimates, in comparison to the regular abilities, seemed out of place, at first. Instead of a cooldown, you use them based off a charge meter, which presumably fills by completing beneficial actions like damaging enemies or healing friends. The upshot of that system is that ultimates are not available at the very start of a game.

Sometimes it feels like an eternity before the ultimate is available, and with little benefit: many of the ultimates feel awkward and unwieldy until you figure out how to use them effectively. Some have prohibitive charge times or leave you stationary, vulnerabilities that make them extremely hard to use in a game like this, where a sniper can take you out in an instant.

But they’re also very powerful, when used in the right situation. That power allows Overwatch to execute on a Blizzard design mantra: rewarding players for “non-twitch” gameplay, ie not just the ability to point and click a mouse as accurately as possible.

Most of the ultimates reward players for positioning and timing, not twitch skill.

One of the plays of the game, a replay of a big streak at the end of a match, showed a Reaper player. An offense character with high health and dual shotguns, Reaper can wreak havoc in close range with some well-aimed shots. But this player missed five in a row. He then dodged behind a wall, and hit his shift key, an invulnerability shield that lasts a few seconds. That let him get into position to hit his ultimate in the middle of the entire enemy team, a kind of bladestorm with guns, scoring five kills. The ultimate is deadly, but it doesn’t last long and your movement speed is slow while channeling it, meaning Reaper must be positioned for maximum effect when it is cast.

Some of the characters who took much more skill than others, such as Hanzo, still have skills that rely more on positioning and the ability to read the flow of battle than a player’s talent at pointing the mouse in the exact right spot. His ultimate does devastating damage, but only in cone in front of him and after a long charge up time, during which Hanzo is vulnerable. That means timing and positioning make the difference, a theme with many of the character’s ultimates.

That allows characters to have a healthy balance between effectiveness through twitch skill—aiming Reaper’s shotguns and Hanzo’s bow—and rewarding positioning with their ultimates. 

Mercy’s ultimate resurrects every teammates on the map, in the spot they died. It’s nearly impossible to use in the pickup environment at BlizzCon, where communication is impossible. But in the hands of a well-organized team, it’s extremely powerful if timed correctly.

Those are the kind of things that will make Overwatch teamplay, at a competitive level, a thrill.

Blizzard’s hallmark has never been innovation in and of itself. The company has made a living taking other people’s great ideas and polishing them into a perfect product.

Overwatch looks to do the same thing, taking great ideas from games like Monday Night Combat and Team Fortress 2 and creating a new, polished experience.

But some parts of the Overwatch experience aren’t just quite there. Overwatch needs some work on the feel of the game.

Tracer is the character tabbed as the face of the franchise, an effervescent heroine who is Overwatch’s answer to Team Fortress 2’s Scout. Like the Scout, she’s fast and agile, but fragile. But while it’s fun to blink around enemies and bend time to your advantage, Tracer lacks some of the elegance in the Scout’s simplicity. For one, Tracer’s blink only works on the x-axis—you can’t pull off any of the aerial maneuvers in the trailer, or double jump through the air like the Scout. And while Tracer’s machine pistols are a proxy for the Scout’s scattergun, lethal at close range but a liability from afar, they lack the crunch that makes the scattergun a satisfying weapon. When you nail the Heavy point blank with the scattergun, you know you’ve deal a devastating blow. You can feel it. There’s oomph and force behind it—so much so it even spawned its own term, the “meatshot.” Raking Winston from close range with the full clip of Tracer’s weapons feels like tickling King Kong.

Now, part of the issue there is an underdeveloped UI—in class-based shooters, where every character has a different amount of health and every weapon does a different amount of damage, it’s often impossible to get a feeling for how you’re doing without some kind of specific feedback, like the hit sounds and damage numbers Valve eventually added to Team Fortress 2

But it also feels like Blizzard is still trying to understand completely the shooter experience. It’s a new genre for them, and they need to make sure they get the details right to create the proper Blizzard experience, and to let Overwatch compete with its forebears.

That should come with time—the game isn’t even in beta yet, after all. But it’s something to watch for as the development process goes forward.

Listening to Jeff Kaplan and Blizzard talk Overwatch in their presentation, the game media, the press conference, makes it sound like “esports” is some kind of taboo word in their parts. But while they might not want to use the word, it’s clear competitive gaming is a big part of what they’re doing. Blizzard broadcast an “in-house” tournament. Kaplan used phrases like when you play the game “non-competitive.” That, combined with the fact that the game is hosted solely on Blizzard servers, means they’re clearly thinking some kind of competitive mode or ladder.

And that’s pretty exciting.

I love Team Fortress 2. It’s a great game. But for me, Team Fortress 2 is absolutely horrible to play. The problem isn’t with the game itself, per se—it’s with its players. Joining a random public server will put me in a game with players so bad that it just isn’t fun to mow them down, or suffer them as your teammates. That may sound like an elitist statement to make, but it’s just a simple fact of gaming at a certain skill level. It’s kind of the opposite problem a game like Quake Live has, where your average new player can’t get into it because they’ll get instantly obliterated on any server they join.

The solution to this problem is a simple one—matchmaking. But that’s something Valve never deemed necessary to implement (though rumors point to an upcoming “competitive mode”). It’s something that Quake Live desperately needed. It’s something largely ignored in the PC shooter space, save for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game that’s taking off.

And it’s certainly time a new title breaks into that market.

Many players will look at Overwatch to fill what they feel is a gaping hole in the shooter market, one only partially sated by Team Fortress 2. It’s got all the tools to work as the next big shooter esport, but it also won’t feel comfortable for many looking for that. It’s an extremely familiar game, it plays like Team Fortress 2, there are turrets like Team Fortress 2, the game modes look like Team Fortress 2, but it’s a new and novel experience, and one that I think will stroke the heartstrings for many players.

Plus with Blizzard behind it, the sky’s the limit.