Overwatch: Where Gameplay Enthusiasts and Fandom Participants Meet

Overwatch has been out for over a year now. We’ve seen lots of updates and gameplay patches, tons of cosplays, and an approximately infinite amount of fanart and articles on the game’s social issues and impacts. Suffice to say, the game has been a worldwide phenomenon among many audiences. In this regard, Overwatch has executed the seemingly difficult task of being a hit with both experienced players and casual players, as well as with both gameplay enthusiasts and fandom participants (and of course, these two can overlap). It’s one of the best examples of a game that has accomplished garnering such an audience, and I’d like to explore how they’ve done this.

Pharmercy in action (via Medium)

Overwatch gameplay has a lot of actions that on their own are fairly simple to understand: health management, shooting, using shields, various power-ups, and movement abilities. However, once six players per team start using all these things at the same time, the experience can quickly become complex and deep. This depth is what attracts players that crave competition and involving gameplay. For players who thrive on technical skill, there are characters that require mastery of physical skills like aiming and moving with a mouse and keyboard. But for players like myself who haven’t spent years perfecting aim, there are characters that still can have huge impact based mostly on understanding positioning and timing. This diversity in gaming types can lead people to bond with their favorite hero in the game. A lot of people love American badass Jesse McCree because of his tight gameplay centered on landing headshots. Other people enjoy Lucio because his impact comes from automatically healing teammates in close proximity. Also, he can skate on walls. But these characters are more than just their mechanics.

This is where the unison really comes into play between fan circles of the game. Like I said before, not everyone has every skillset needed to master each hero. However, there is much more drawing people to the actual character. I can hardly aim, but I still love McCree because of his cheesy cowboy aesthetic and catchphrases juxtaposed against a futuristic world. I chose to sink hours into playing Lucio because he’s Black. These facets of the characters give players something to latch onto and relate to. People who play for more technical perfection will nevertheless spend hours getting to know the hero through their voice lines about their actions and the other characters during their long practice sessions. Players who are in the game for the characters and story will eventually become more and more proficient with the character’s mechanics while trying out all the various actions. In this way, both groups are catered to, and both groups are motivated to interact in the other’s space if they weren’t already. Luckily, for people like me, both areas are strong.

There’s all kinds of jokes and references in the settings. (screencapped from Overwatch)

Character is what people relate to and what makes so many players invested in the game, as opposed to just practicing at it. In fact, the characters of the game also affect the gameplay-specific enthusiasts. Many of the tactics and phenomena in the game get cute nicknames rather than more clinical-sounding names. For example, teams will often use the healer, Mercy, to fly to the rocket boosting Pharah, which makes them both more difficult to hit while letting them shrug off all but the most extreme damage. This tactic was dubbed the Pharmercy combo, a pun and portmanteau of the characters’ names. The fandom also latched onto this term, applying it to the femslash ship of the two. Both the technical players and the fandom players have a mutual pairing to work with. Another example involves Reaper and Ana combining two moves for maximum attacking potential. Reaper’s ultimate ability has him shoot in 360 degrees while spinning. Ana’s ultimate gives another character a power and defense boost and it used to boost speed. When these two moves are used in unison, it was colloquially called the Beyblade. This is sort of a fun joke, but also highlights the relationship between the two as a grandmother giving a kid a fun top. Even further, the community really loves memes. Genji players had a tendency to be lone wolves but use an in-game prompt to ask for healing even when it would be difficult or hardly necessary, to the point where it’s easy to find any artwork of the cyborg ninja with an “I need healing” quote close by. Players in all tiers make these jokes in-game, which again shows how much technical fans and story fans start to adopt each other’s interests and styles.

All this said, I think it’s easy to see what draws people into the game and its fandom, and what keeps us coming back to the fandom. The fun, beautiful designs, the range of interactions the characters have during action and downtime, the customization, and the ever-developing story give us a fantastic pairing to the expanding, deep gameplay. There truly is something for every type of fan, and the interaction between these fan types creates a mixture that I haven’t personally seen in a game in recent memory.

Players can leave “sprays” on walls to express themselves. (screencapped from Overwatch)

League of Legends and Splatoon are two games that have also recently become popular, but they haven’t achieved quite the same level of popularity as Overwatch. Both games have huge followings for their aesthetics and characters, with seemingly less fanfare about their mechanics. League of Legends and Splatoon may be similar to Overwatch, but League doesn’t feel as welcoming to less technical players as it has a large number of characters with information to know to even operate in a match effectively. League is a MOBA game which normally has heroes with upwards of 4 moves with various effects, cooldown times, and specific damage per second statistics. With a roster of over 130 characters, this is a lot to learn! Compare this to Overwatch, which has about 25. For this reason, people are less likely to pick it up the way they would Overwatch. 

Similarly, Splatoon doesn’t seem as welcoming to mechanics-motivated players since the amount of active systems (mostly the ink mechanics) is low and the weapons aren’t very precise. I think this is why Splatoon grabs fans at first, but doesn’t hold onto them the same way. Once you understand the ink’s ability to help/hinder movement and reload allies’ tanks, you’ve got most of the skills in your belt. There are a decent amount of weapons, but they all work the same way, just with different ranges and area spreads. Additionally, the special abilities are pretty self-explanatory once you’ve seen them. Both games do have character designs that fandom culture will latch onto even if they don’t play the game, but their gameplay styles don’t seem to have the hook that Overwatch does for them.

These toys show the cute style that Splatoon fans really love. (via NintendoSoup)

That said, any game that fosters a merging of gameplay fans and transformative fans is a plus in my eyes. Many people already exist in that intersection, but I’d love to see more. There’s nothing wrong with just interacting with a game’s systems, and there’s nothing wrong with just interacting with its lore and fandom, but the greater the population that does each, the more both these communities can expand. I hope to see more games that build a great environment for both these ecosystems to coexist and grow.

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