The beta of Overwatch 2 revealed little more than a reskin masquerading as a sequel, and the awful allegations of widespread sexual harassment in the company mean that real-life events have capsized the fantasy of Overwatch and they could very well spell doom to the franchise in its entirety.
When mainstream gaming outlets use euphemisms like “mixed reception”, you know you’re in trouble. That was what the Overwatch 2 beta got from its community on account of the dearth of meaningful changes in what was meant to be a sequel, with almost two years of non-updates in the original game the price to be paid for whatever this is.
One week after its release, 99% of viewers noped out of watching the game on Twitch. Yes, most of these were beta access farmers and casual curious folks to begin with, but it’s not like the raw number makes for better reading: 1.4k viewers at the time of the linked article’s writing is not exactly stellar.
Heroes designed for 6v6 moved over to 5v5 with little care for balance considerations in most cases, role queue is still in the game: watching gameplay footage of Overwatch matches, it can be genuinely difficult to tell whether you’re watching the original title or the “sequel”.
But hey, at least McRee has a new name.
Overwatch 2 and its PvE focus was already seen by some industry insiders as a desperate flap for renewed relevancy in an environment where the Overwatch League’s viewing numbers are low and the competitive experience was marred by awful metagames over and over again. Based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s little to suggest the franchise will be capable of reinventing the wheel this late into its existence. The trouble is that this might hold true for the company as a whole.
Blizzard’s modus operandi was always about taking existing popular ideas in the industry and polishing it to a shine. Nowadays, they take way too long with releases, and when they do, the quality isn’t exactly pristine either. When was the last time they managed to pull off a release without a hitch, no game-breaking bugs or controversies involved?
Ther are mitigating factors at play. No Jeff Kaplan, COVID-enforced home office affairs, frat-boy culture catastrophes. The latter especially stings when it comes to Overwatch: the game’s inclusive, lovey-dovey tone feels more and more fake with every passing revelation about Blizzard.
The drip-drip-drip of awful news related to the inner workings of Activision-Blizzard show no signs of stopping. Despite having settled the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for $18 million, New York City is also suing the company, there are questions swirling around whether the California governor interfered with their lawsuit, investors have also filed their own case, and who knows whether there’s more to come.
Those unfamiliar with the United States’ justice system may underestimate the impact of all this. Either the vision of a sleazy company weaseling their way out of responsibility, or the thought of an oppressive and aggressive prosecutorial team could cloud an observer’s judgment on this matter. In reality, federal prosecutors loathe to bring cases where they aren’t absolutely sure of their success, and when and if that circumstance is applied, they will bring incredible resources to bear to see the matter through one way or another – be it civil or criminal.
This isn’t a counterargument for “innocent until proven guilty”, but an important acknowledgement that the state of California is pretty damn sure after a two-year investigation that they have Blizzard by the balls on this one. The outpouring of additional such stories on social media since the filing of the original lawsuit, not to mention the many murky tales previously told in the wider games industry on such matters lend further credence to the devastating accusations. For the purposes of this discussion, we can and will treat these allegations as credible ones.
It all makes the Overwatch ethos and the Overwatch League’s code of conduct silly, to say the least. The discussions over whether Pepe the Frog memes should be banned or if T-bagging is offensive seem a whole lot more nonsensical in light of, you know, allegations of actual, widespread sexual harassment in the company. Similarly, the notion that a band of diverse heroes may join forces to save the world by harnessing their unique life experiences is aspirational at best or downright hypocritical at worst based on what we’ve learned about the inner workings of the company.
Then again, those who expect ActiBlizz to crumble in light of these news overestimate the impact of this news on the general gaming audience and the entertainment industry, no matter how spectacularly awful they may be. Our attention spans are limited (remember the Blitzchung controversy?), and besides, company cultures can change, appropriate punishments can be doled out, justice can be served, a new dawn may rise.
However, there is one specific part of the company’s portfolio whose branding may be irreparably damaged by these developments: the Overwatch franchise. With a lame-duck sequel on the horizon, a massive reputational hit to the company, and the OWL far from its lofty targets, who but the most dedicated current fans will touch this mess, even with a ten-foot pole?