Blizzcon 2014 was a wild ride. Metallica closed out the convention for some reason, and it was the first time we were introduced to Overwatch, the lively team-based shooter that rules the world now. It was Blizzard’s first new IP in 17 years, buried in a familiar league of World of Warcraft, World of Warcraft spin-offs, Diablo, and Starcraft. Today, May 24th, 2017, is the shooter’s one year anniversary. And it’s been quite a year. A stylish year, at that.
Overwatch blew up quick. Part of that was fueled by Blizzard hype wizardry. The other part probably due to that massive public beta (the first time I got my hands on the game). The other, other part was, well, the characters were attention arresting in ways few shooters were. As in, they didn't star solely white men. There’s D.Va, by day a South Korean teenager and retired esports pro; by night, a sassy mecha pilot. There’s Lucio, a ray of sunshine of a DJ who is radiant with positivity. There’s Zarya, an intimidating body builder with pink hair who would squish you like a bug if she got the chance. And there’s well over a dozen more, each with their own quirks, abilities, classes, and origins.
Overwatch has only grown more diverse over the past year with its added heroes. We’ve met Ana, revealed to be the mother of Pharah; Sombra, a Mexican hacker with a flare for turning invisible; and most recently Orisa, the product of the tinkering from a genius African 11-year-old inventor. In the future, players can already anticipate Doomfist, the looming figure of posters all across Overwatch maps, alongside other surprise heroes.
When Overwatch released, a friend of mine convinced me to get it. So I got it, envisioning a future where I’d leave it behind, as I tend to with multiplayer games after a couple weeks. Splatoon captured my attention for an entire summer before, a task I found groundbreaking. Little did I know, Overwatch would hold my attention for (mostly) an entire year. As even today, I pop into the game at least on a weekly basis (with a few minor gaps between events). And Overwatch did grab me with its diverse roster of heroes. Overwatch was a game that demanded you to fall in love with its characters, just as much as you enjoyed pushing a payload within it.
But what’s kept me coming back to Overwatch over the year has nothing to do with playing it. At least not really. It resides in something more cosmetic, something that itches my collect-a-thon scratch: in skin collecting. Overwatch’s only real sense of progression lies in its competitive mode, a mode that gives me performance anxiety if I play it for too long. I usually churn out my placement matches, occasionally play a match with a group, but otherwise I’m resigned to the sanctuary of Quick Play and Arcade Modes: where I can quietly grind for loot boxes in peace. Where the sense of progression is seeing skins (from D.Va’s Lunar New Year-themed skin to Junkrat’s Dr. Junkenstein skin) get checked off my favorite heroes.
Not all skins are great though. In fact, some are downright disappointing. Pharah has uncomfortable Native-inspired skins, despite being of Egyptian descent. (Fans have speculated that her father is Native, but Blizzard has never outright confirmed as much—and even so, would be an example of doing the bare minimum of “excusing” the skins in the face of controversy.) Symmetra has the Devi and Goddess skins, which have been called out for “trivializing Hinduism,” according to Kotaku. The skins reinforce the idea that cultures can be appropriated as mere fashionable dress, like an in bad taste Halloween costume. For a game that bustles with representing a worldwide, heavily diverse roster of heroes at every other turn, the missteps resonate even heavier.
One of the biggest appeals for Overwatch is that with its focus on skins, it’s somehow morphed into a dress-’em-up outside of its gun-toting modes. A game where your sole sense of growth is in the clothes you accumulate and slap onto heroes. A particular skin might elevate a hero's status visually, like a slick legendary skin for the otherwise heavily-armored Reinhardt. Maybe there’s that hero you main, and whenever you collect enough coins you feel immense relief now that a desired skin is finally attainable. Maybe your sense of progression is rooted in numbers after all: just in seeing the number of unlocked items for a hero slowly tick upwards with every lucky loot box. Overwatch, with no strength boosts at an individual level outside of maintaining a rank on competitive, rewards players for playing by giving them pure fluff. Fluff that, frankly, is what’s kept me engaged with the game, long after I've abandoned others like it.
But I worry if my time with Overwatch is slowing to a stop. With loot boxes giving me more duplicates nowadays than anything else after two hard-earned prestiges (passing by the level 100 to start over from 1 again), I wonder how much longer I’ll return to the lively world of Overwatch. Currently, when an event isn’t ongoing, I’m much less likely to hop into a match. Nowadays, I’ll holler at friends to join me over on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in Overwatch’s stead (a game that, contrary to the core appeal of Overwatch, has essentially no art direction to speak of). In the year ahead, director Jeff Kaplan stated in a Reddit interview that while we may not see as many new events in the coming year, more content will potentially be added to the familiar events.
I login to Overwatch to collect cosmetic items, just as much as I do to play and chat with friends. If one part of the equation falls apart, it wouldn’t be too long until I leave Overwatch in the dust. In Year 2, I suppose we’ll all see what comes next, and if the new skins coax me back into the game's warm embrace.
What were your favorite Overwatch moments of the past year? An exciting competitive match? A particular event? Finally getting that legendary skin you wanted so bad? What’s kept you coming back, or did you fall off the game entirely? Let us know in the comments!