In the shadow of Overwatch: How games are trying (and failing) to compete

Overwatch is very popular. But more than that, Overwatch is a very difficult game for competitors to challenge.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Overwatch is necessarily the “best,” simply that it’s constructed in such a way that becoming a successful competitor is difficult. This is because Blizzard understands the mistakes that other developers make, and actively avoids those mistakes. In essence, Overwatch was crafted to be a game that cannot be challenged if the industry continues operating the way it has been for decades.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Overwatch isn’t unbeatable. It’s just not directly opposable. No game can beat Overwatch by just trying to be a “better” Overwatch. In fact, it’s rare for any game to beat any other game by simply being a better version of it. This is why World of Warcraft reined supreme for so many years, even though there were tons of new and innovative MMOs that came after it.

To truly understand how to compete with Overwatch you have to give up the idea of being Overwatch. Instead, examine how Overwatch competed with the games that came before it. 

Before Overwatch

The easiest way to compete with a popular established title is to offer something that the aforementioned title does not. If you wanted to compete with Overwatch, you’d need to provide a multiplayer shooting experience that is significantly different from Overwatch’s experience. As I said before, Overwatch’s myriad "Hero Shooter" competitors are not doing this. Instead of creating titles that highlight significant differences, developers make games that closely copy Overwatch’s formula in the hopes that anyone who liked Overwatch will like their game as well.

Evidence from the last shooter generation proves that this strategy doesn’t work, or at least it won’t allow you to create a true competitor. At most, you might get some leak-out revenue from people who enjoy Overwatch but want to try something different, and that might be enough for small developers who really aren’t looking for mainstream blockbuster success. You know the saying, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Well Overwatch’s competitors haven’t learned from the story of Call of Duty, which was undeniably the king of shooters in the military shooter era.

Call of Duty ascended to the throne because it was significantly different from shooters that came before it. The prior era of shooters was the Doom and Goldeneye era, which produced games that focused on health and weapon pickups and prolonged confrontations in wide-open areas. Call of Duty turned this formula on its head. Instead of focusing on pickups and firefights it stressed loadouts and cover. They revolutionized the FPS health system with their take on regenerating health (even though many other games had experimented with regenerating health before them). They made confrontations quick and brutal, and the winner was usually determined by who better took advantage of the terrain, rather than who was better at circle strafing.

This new “military shooter” style of FPS rose to popularity as quickly as Call of Duty did. Everyone wanted to be the next military shooter. Battlefield did a decent job of competing with Call of Duty because it featured larger squad-based and vehicle-based combat, a significant difference between the games. But Call of Duty had many other competitors in the military shooter genre, and how many of them do you remember?

These copycats never rose to popularity because, frankly, it made no sense for them to succeed. Why would anyone play a functional carbon copy of Call of Duty when they could just play Call of Duty instead? It would cost them less money and most of their friends were already playing CoD.

The Competition

Enter Overwatch. With the military shooter saturating the landscape, Overwatch offered us something that we hadn’t seen reign supreme in a long time: class-based arena shooting. The last such game to hit it big was Team Fortress 2 in 2007, and one of the reasons that game stayed so popular was because it offered a shooting experience that was significantly different from the rest of the military shooter landscape.

However, despite several updates, Team Fortress 2 was outdated by the time Overwatch released. This made many people view Overwatch as a spiritual sequel to Team Fortress 2, and made Overwatch only the second major arena shooter to come out in nearly ten years. Meanwhile, nearly a hundred military-style shooters came out in the same time period.

This difference made Overwatch appeal to an audience that Call of Duty didn’t, and that audience was starved for content.

So when, say, Lawbreakers or Quake Champions comes out and they end up being yet another class-based arena shooter, players are going to ask, “What’s the difference?”

The answer? Probably not enough. Quake Champions decouples guns from classes, but you still sort of have your healing, sniping, flanking, and tank archetypes. Lawbreakers is even worse. It’s a class-based arena shooter with colorful characters, each filling a different archetype with MOBA-style unique abilities and ultimates that charge over time. It’s very close to Overwatch, with a different shade of paint.

Now, fans of Lawbreakers will argue that there are a lot differences between that game and Overwatch and they have some facts on their side. Overwatch is a very grounded game whereas Lawbreakers focuses on low gravity aerial mobility and positioning. Overwatch has a lot of status changing, positioning changing, and AOE abilities, whereas Lawbreakers focuses heavily on aiming skill, even beyond team composition. Quake Champions, as I said, is even more distinct, granting you access to a huge gun inventory and operating similarly to shooters in the Goldeneye era.

Yet none of these differences matter. Why? Because they are significant enough to set the games apart. How can we be so sure? Because I can name a game that didn’t play anything like Overwatch at all and was still criticized as an inferior version: Battleborn.

Battleborn was called Overwatch’s main competitor at the time the games both came out, but that really made little sense. Battleborn was more PVE as opposed to Overwatch’s PVP gameplay. Battleborn used experience both in and out of matches to grant your character upgrades, while Overwatch gives you the same abilities in every single match for the duration of the match. Battleborn’s games were played on large maps with an almost RPG feel to them while Overwatch played on instanced maps made for singular conflict.

Yet all of these major differences were not significant enough because Battleborn was a shooter that involved choosing characters/classes, and Overwatch was a shooter that involved choosing characters/classes. That made these two completely different games similar enough so that only one could survive. If Battleborn was too similar to Overwatch, then Quake Champions and Lawbreakers – which are even more similar to Overwatch – will encounter similar problems.

Is it fair? No. But this is how big groups of people think, and Blizzard knows it. Group thinking is critical to multiplayer-focused games that need a certain number of players in order to survive. When a multiplayer game becomes dominantly popular, moving away from that game to play anything else can mean abandoning your friends, your clan, and the strategies you've spent countless hours mastering. In this way, Overwatch's strength has a lot in common with Blizzard's StarCraft 2

Groups are quick to stereotype and judge, and by being the first class-based arena shooter to strike it mainstream in over ten years, Overwatch essentially planted a flag on the whole class-based arena shooter genre. Inevitably, anything with shooting and classes is going to be compared to Overwatch for the foreseeable future, and Overwatch is simply going to have the advantage because it’s already here.

You can already see this reflected in the beta numbers for Quake Champions, Paladins, and Lawbreakers. All of them have been called Overwatch-like and all of them have had far fewer people participating in their betas than Overwatch did. The very presence of Overwatch makes arena shooter fans less likely to even try something new.

The Monopoly on the Shooter Genre

Let’s play devil’s advocate and say that a developer takes these lessons to heart, crafting a  multiplayer shooter to compete with Overwatch that doesn’t use classes and doesn’t feel like an arena shooter. Blizzard took this into account as well. You see, Blizzard planted their arena shooter flag smack dab in the middle of shooter territory, between the boundaries of two other well-established shooter sub-genres. There is, essentially, no more room for another competitor.

What do I mean by this? Well, one of the obvious ways to make a shooter significantly different from Overwatch is to make it more “hardcore.” Place the focus on weapons instead of classes and on positioning instead of team synergy. Makes sense, right?

The problem is that there is already a dominant game in this sub-genre, and it’s called Call of Duty, our old military shooter friend. Then we have Counter-Strike and Battlefield and all the other military shooters that have saturated this space for the last decade. No competitor can take up residence in this space because they will simply be outcompeted by the games that already exist there. You can’t overtake Overwatch if you lose to Call of Duty for the same reasons, right?

A less-used strategy would be to pull everything back, totally change the formula, and make the game more casually acceptable. Perhaps a few years ago this would have worked. However, Nintendo has come to dominate this sub-genre with Splatoon. Any new casual shooter IP will inevitably be compared with Nintendo’s hit, though, to be fair, as long as a new game doesn’t use a territory/paint mechanic it still might stand a chance at flourishing. 

Overwatch’s competitors will have to do more than just provide a different experience. They will also have to drag users away from Overwatch itself, and that’s easier said than done. There aren’t exactly a whole lot of people displeased with Overwatch’s gameplay right now (or at least not displeased enough to not play). 31 million gamers can’t be wrong.

There are, however, many people who are upset with Overwatch’s community. Toxicity has been on the rise, so much so that one Overwatch user performed an experiment to see if reporting toxic players actually did anything. The upside? It does! Reporting a problem player will eventually get them banned. The downside? It took about fifty games of explicitly asking everyone in the game to report him for toxic behavior for anything to be done. That’s an absurd amount of games with explicit toxic behavior for something to eventually be done.

It is theoretically possible for an Overwatch competitor to foster a safer and less toxic community to draw in players, but only in theory. First of all, you can only see how toxic your community will be after you build a community, and to effectively build a community you have to succeed. So for a “safe community” to be a draw of a new game, it would have to had already competed with Overwatch on some other ground.

Second, successfully moderating your game and banning toxic behavior take a lot of time, effort, and money. Blizzard has time, effort, and money to spare. Any game made by a smaller studio will have to somehow do more with less, which is unlikely.

Finally, many of Overwatch’s competitors are actually playing up the "toxic" side of the game as part of their marketing, as a way to stand out compared to Blizzard's friendlier face. Quake Champion’s characters, for example, spout smack talk every time they score a kill. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. But it certainly won't attract players looking for a "less toxic” environment.

The Financial Angle

The next natural place to compete is cost. Overwatch costs 40 dollars. Why not make your game just cost less, like Lawbreakers, which only costs 30 dollars?

Of course there’s an issue with this strategy, too. First of all, appealing to cost only appeals to gamers that haven’t already tried Overwatch. Buying Lawbreakers for 30 dollars is a better deal than buying Overwatch for 40 dollars, if and only if you haven’t bought Overwatch already. If you’ve already sunk money into Overwatch, then continuing to play Overwatch costs nothing, while switching to Lawbreakers costs 30 dollars on top of the 40 dollars you already spent.

There just aren’t a whole lot of gamers who haven’t tried Overwatch left. According to the Pew Research Center, about 10% of the American adult population considers themselves “gamers.” There are an estimated 200 million adults (aged 18-64) in America according to the 2012 census, meaning that about 20 million people consider themselves to be “gamers,” i.e. people who regularly and routinely play video games. Remember, Overwatch has approximately 31 million players. Its reach already extends far beyond even those who would self-identify as "gamers." 

The obvious solution here is for a hopeful competitor to go free-to-play, but that, too, presents several problems. First of all, free-to-play games have an unfortunate stigma of being games of lesser quality than pay-to-play games. This stigma will actively hinder people from giving the game a try. Also, most free-to-play games need to make their money in some other way and that usually means microtransactions, one of the most hated payment models in gaming history. Quake Champions is free-to-play and includes microtransactions, but went as far as to provide an option for players to buy the whole game outright. Even with that alternative, the game still hasn't escaped the free-to-play stigma. 

Once again, Blizzard put Overwatch right in the middle, price-wise, to make it hard to compete with. It’s cheaper than full price 60 dollar titles, it includes microtranscations but only for aesthetics, and all mechanical DLC, from maps to characters, is free, making it an incredible value. Even if another game came along and offered more, Blizzard will already have several years of DLC to offer its fanbase, while new competitors will have to start at square one. And if a player has actually spent additional real-world money on Overwatch loot boxes, that's even more of an personal investment a new game will be competing against. 

Time Conquers All

So how do you compete with Overwatch? The tough answer is…you don’t. Overwatch is going to rule the multiplayer shooter landscape for a while. While this is unfortunate for multiplayer shooters that began their development before Overwatch got big, it’s simply the truth. Because the real thing you need to compete with Overwatch is a massive shift in public opinion.

I started this article talking about how Overwatch competed with military shooters by offering a different experience, but simply offering that experience isn’t enough. Gamers need to want to have that experience. Plenty of free-to-play arena shooters came and went while Call of Duty ruled the shooter world, and none of them struck it big. Many would attribute this to their lack of quality, but it’s more complicated than that. Gamers simply didn’t want them to succeed. Gamers as a whole were happy with the military shooter landscape.

But gamers are also easily bored. Each year, more and more gamers became disillusioned with the shooter status quo. Even as Call of Duty sales grew, enthusiastic participation waned. As time went on, gamers wanted to see something different, and Blizzard picked the right time to strike. They marketed Overwatch to a community that was yearning for its exact gameplay style, and we all took the bait.

Now, we will see history repeat itself. We continue to play Overwatch because we aren’t really looking for an alternative. We don’t need one. That won’t always be the case. Eventually we will become bored with Overwatch and end up latching on to some other game. However, that certainly won’t happen only a year after Overwatch’s release.

Gamers are very often looked at as passive consumers, but it’s quite the opposite. They are an active force that pushes the market in different directions. So if you really want to challenge Overwatch, the question you have to ask yourself is, “How do I change public opinion?” Or, rather, “How do I make gamers need my game?”

And swaying popular opinion is a much harder thing to do than, say, making a game with low gravity physics. How do you sway the public opinion of millions of gamers at once? That’s a topic for another article.

But, what about you? How would you compete with Overwatch? What sort of shooter can fill a niche that Overwatch isn’t already filling? Let us know in the comments.