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Overwatch, Blizzard's massive new video game, explained

A screenshot from Overwatch. Polygon

A new video game is having a very big moment. Google searches for it spiked in May, and after its launch last week, it was so popular that its subreddit temporarily overtook Reddit's front page. It's become so popular that it's even spawned an, erm, new genre of porn. And it trended multiple times on Facebook and Twitter — an uncommon feat for a game competing with more widely well-known trending topics like Beyoncé and Captain America.

I'm speaking of Overwatch, Blizzard's new multiplayer, team-based first-person shooter.

In the gaming world, Overwatch is huge. Every major game website is giving it a lot of coverage. Not only does it involve a fairly big developer — Blizzard Entertainment also produces World of Warcraft, among other franchises — but Overwatch appears to be evolving into a cultural phenomenon on its own.

Why is this game such a big deal for gamers, and why does it seem to be breaking into the cultural mainstream? In short, Overwatch owes its success to a complicated but nicely timed confluence of factors, including its status as a slickly produced update of a popular gaming format, the rise of gaming in mainstream pop culture, and the potential for a lot of people to make a lot of money. But let's start at the beginning.

What is Overwatch?

Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch is a multiplayer, team-based, first-person shooter. It was officially released by Blizzard, the company that created World of Warcraft, on May 24, and is available for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

In the game, two groups play against each other in a quest to attack or defend an objective — usually a location that players must stand on to capture, or a vehicle that players have to escort through the other team's defenses. If the attacking team gets the objective, the attackers win. If the defending team fights them off, the defenders win.

Players choose from several heroes to serve as their avatars in this competition, each with a unique set of powers. For example, Reinhardt has a big hammer and can charge at foes, Winston is a talking gorilla that can electrocute people and jump really far, Reaper carries two shotguns and can teleport, and D.Va has an exploding robot that can blow up enemies. A player can change between any of these heroes at any time during a match, with some limitations, to adapt to different circumstances. (Polygon has a great guide to the game's many heroes.)

There are two basic reasons to play the game: It's a lot of fun to get better and crush other teams, and playing more frequently earns you loot boxes to customize the different heroes — with costumes, new voice lines, aesthetic poses (which are sort of like emojis), that kind of thing. But mostly, it's just fun.

The game also has a background story about how a robot uprising led to the formation of a team of heroes tasked with saving the world, and now they're all fighting for some reason. But the story is inconsequential, since the game doesn't have a story-driven, single-player mode and focuses on players fighting each other in multiplayer modes.

Here, let this "honest trailer" from Smosh Games explain, which describes the plot line as "pretty much The Incredibles with a lot more murder":

Generally the game is fun just for anyone who has a competitive drive, especially since you can team up with friends to conquer other players and their teams.

But its team-based nature means your chances of victory rely on your teammates. So if you have a bad team, it can lead to a very frustrating experience. (Indeed, this is some reviewers' biggest gripe with the game.)

Still, one player can make a big difference. In this clip, for example, you can see me kill two people (one of them twice) to help move forward the the objective to push a vehicle to the finish line (yes, I am showing off):

So that's Overwatch. But the mere fact that it's a fun game to play isn't the only reason it became so big.

Why is Overwatch such a big deal?

Polygon

Yes, on one level Overwatch is just really fun, with fast-paced, hectic action that will make hours go by before you know it.

But it's also a great execution of Blizzard's standard formula. The company is known for taking a concept a lot of people like — in this case, a shooter in which two teams use high-tech, superpowered weapons to compete against each other — and polishing the hell out of it. And by most accounts, it succeeded with Overwatch: On Metacritic, the review average for the game is 92 out of 100.

Overwatch is largely a mishmash of other games, particularly Team Fortress 2, another team-based, first-person shooter. But Overwatch has taken the concepts in that game and others and elevated them to a whole different level by adding more heroes, more maps, more multiplayer modes, and more color (Overwatch is very pretty).

Blizzard also did this with its most well-known property, World of Warcraft, which is essentially a better version of the other massively multiplayer online role-playing games that preceded it (like Everquest). It also did it with Starcraft, which is a very polished version of the strategy games of the 1990s (such as Command & Conquer). And the company recently struck gold again with Hearthstone, a Warcraft-themed, accessible online trading card game similar to Magic: The Gathering.

In fact, Overwatch is actually the result of another attempt to jazz up an existing genre. Originally, much of the team behind Overwatch was supposed to yield an effective replacement for World of Warcraft. But things didn't work out; developers said the project, known as Titan, just wasn't fun, even after seven years of development. So they used some of the work and assets from Titan to create Overwatch instead.

But there's another reason Overwatch is a big deal: It's the first new Blizzard franchise since 1998, when the company released Starcraft. Since then, Blizzard has focused exclusively on its existing franchises, particularly Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft. In a world that tends to focus a lot on sequels, a big developer releasing a new property is a pretty major event. And since the highly anticipated Overwatch has turned out to not only meet, but surpass, expectations, its success is all but guaranteed.

Beyond that, Overwatch also has a lot of potential as a competitive game — as an e-sport, if you will.

Wait, what are e-sports? Are they a legitimate business?

The Dota 2 international tournament.
The Dota 2 international tournament.
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Over the past several years, e-sports have expanded tremendously. As one example, one of the biggest tournaments for a game called Dota 2 featured a whopping prize pool of more than $18 million. Other games, such as Halo, Call of Duty, Smite, and League of Legends, have also had prize pools in the millions. And these prize pools are common and big enough that some people now make their living essentially playing video games competitively.

Of course, no good sport would be legit without a way to watch it. So these games have also taken off on Twitch.tv, where gamers, professional and not, can stream themselves playing games. Since Overwatch came out, it's been one of the most streamed games, typically alongside League of Legends, which boasts tens of millions of players, and Hearthstone, another Blizzard game. (One advantage to streaming: Viewers often donate or subscribe to Twitch channels, providing another source of revenue to professional gamers.)

This speaks to another reason Overwatch is so big: Video games are becoming a bigger part of our lives. Gone are the days where only outcasts and nerds played them; they are increasingly turning into something mainstream, largely thanks to big games like Call of Duty, League of Legends, and World of Warcraft. And this is even bleeding over to other media, such as movies (like Hardcore Henry, which mimics first-person shooters, or the upcoming Warcraft movie) and TV shows (like the defunct Defiance).

The rise of e-sports speaks to the cultural embrace of gaming: Games are becoming so big that they can be taken seriously as a competitive sport of sorts — and people will even donate or subscribe to streams to watch other people play games.

Now, it's too early to say whether Overwatch will succeed as an e-sport. (Its competitive mode won't even be out until June.) But its streaming numbers on Twitch, along with all the hype behind it in the general press, certainly give it a good shot — to the point that the game could put millions of dollars on the line for some gamers in the future. If fun isn't a good enough reason to keep an eye on this game, certainly all the potential cash is.

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