Less Is More

This week saw the release of Blizzard’s video game Overwatch, available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. The game is advertised with a tremendous amount of flair and pomp, with Blizzard’s usual blitzkrieg of videos, previews, and so forth. But in actually describing what the game is about, Blizzard is being uncharacteristically minimalist. It’s a multiplayer objective-oriented shooter. That doesn’t mean a whole lot to people who aren’t already steeped in the intricacies of video games, and even then it’s pretty vague. Fortunately, Overwatch is more than just a handful of words.

The primary conceit of the game is that two teams of six characters compete to control objectives and complete simple missions. Only four game types are available in the launch package: Assault, which tasks players to capture or defend two control points on a map (one at a time); Escort, where players must lead a vehicle through dangerous territory– or stop the payload in its tracks; Control, where there is only one control point, and victory is determined by being the first to hold the point for about two minutes (non-consecutively); and Hybrid, which combines the Assault and Escort types by requiring the attackers to capture a drop zone for the vehicle they are escorting before the vehicle can arrive. Games typically last less than ten minutes each, but during escort missions the attacking players must reach checkpoints to extend the time allotted time that defenders must hold out for. At launch, twenty-one characters are available, and more are anticipated.

Prior to the game’s launch, there were rumblings that Blizzard was trying to make Overwatch the next big game in eSports, like how their StarCraft and StarCraft 2 have been massive draws in South Korea and the world over. Given the description of Overwatch as an objective-oriented shooter, one might think that the game would be suited towards the kinds of long-form, contemplative gameplay that has characterized the majority of eSports’ broadcast output. Indeed, shortly after the game’s open beta period earlier this month, Reddit users on the League of Legends board were abuzz with the thought that this title might kill interest in League. I’m proud to say that’s not the case, and it’s for the same reasons why League is a strong game as well. Basically, both games scratch different itches.

League of Legends is an extremely slow-paced game. It has moments of quick action, but predominantly there is a lot of 1000-foot-high strategic planning going on that makes for a very different kind of tension. Players who rush in to get kills find themselves facing an extremely steep death penalty: respawn timers range from twenty seconds to over a minute, and not only are you out of the action during that time, you’re not gaining the gold and character levels needed to stay on an even footing with your opponent. The game also has an order of magnitude larger roster of characters– over 140 to Overwatch‘s two dozen. There is an established level of tactical balance in League that involves knowing which characters are strong against others. But probably the most glaring difference once a player has experience with both games is that League of Legends is a much longer-term game than Overwatch

When you pick a character in League, you’re committing to that character and that role for anywhere from twenty minutes to almost an hour and a half, depending on the game. The concept of “lane swapping”– changing the role a player executes dynamically, essentially breaking the established metagame to get an advantage over an unwary enemy– is relatively unorthodox in worldwide League play, which is fixated on a very rigid game structure. There are rules of the game and then there are conventions: guidelines which have become so ingrained into high-level competitive play that players can’t help but learn as they gain experience. In short, League is a very regimented game that differs only in its details, and cumulative errors and advantages build up to victories.

Overwatch chucks all of that. Games are fast– under ten minutes– and the action is relentlessly non-stop. Death comes quickly in the game: Widowmaker, the arachnid-themed sniper, can one-shot several weak characters like Tracer and an unarmored D.Va. Fortunately, you’re only out of the game for about eight to ten seconds after death, and since characters don’t evolve at all during the match there’s no progression to fall behind on. If you’re the short-range Mei finding yourself stopped by an enemy Reinhart’s huge energy shield, however, you’re not stuck with her: players can change their active character during the match. There are a wide variety of maps and game modes, in contrast to League‘s trusty old Summoner’s Rift. Victory in Overwatch hinges on every moment, but errors are fleeting; an early mistake doesn’t hinder you twenty minutes later, or even twenty seconds later.

If it sounds like I’m overwhelmingly favoring Overwatch, I have to admit I am a bit more happy with the new game than I am with League of Legends right now. But that’s not to say that there’s a clear hierarchy between them. And, probably most telling, I vehemently disagree that Overwatch has a place at the eSports table. The game is too fast, too “blink and you miss it” to be an effective spectator sport, which is a failing both of the somewhat claustrophobic three-dimensional maps and the first-person perspective making it difficult to get a good birds’-eye view of the action, which is a hallmark of League‘s televised presentation.

But is Overwatch a bad game? Absolutely not! And is League of Legends officially obsolesced? Of course not! I love them both, and I’m thrilled to live in a time where both games are active and popular. Like I said earlier, the two games fulfill very different roles in how people play. Trying to say one replaces the other is like saying “Oh, you like Final Fantasy? Here, you’ll love Street Fighter!” If anything, I think it’s great that there is that variety of video games available. 

When I was in college, I picked up Pocket Fighter as a way to intentionally leave my comfort zone with the games I played; there had been too many samey RPGs out at that point and nothing else really appealed at the time. It rekindled a spark in me that I hadn’t realized had gone away. Tournament fighters had undergone the same kind of overload before I really discovered RPGs, and platformers before both of them. Whenever something becomes too commonplace, a shakeup can really help people discover what made them love the games in the first place.

Overwatch is an exceptionally strong game, and is probably the best objective-shooter on the market today. There are a few mechanical glitches with the game, but those are fleeting and probably going to be fixed in short order. Blizzard has made what could be an early contender for Game of the Year, and with any luck there’s more to come.