How Overwatch’s Design Is Shaping a Better Gaming Community

Overwatch has found a way to promote a very positive FPS community. And it might be completely by accident.

As fun and convenient as online multiplayer gaming can be, it isn’t perfect. Anonymity, unfortunately, has caused issues within the communities of games like League of Legends where stiff competition can stir up negative commentary, rude opinions, and just plain unsportsmanlike conduct. This type of negative behavior is often referred to as being “toxic” since it seems to spread from one gamer to another like a virus, creating waves of negativity that can be hard to ignore—especially if you’re still learning the ropes of a game.

Poor player behavior is nothing new in gaming, of course, as veterans of popular match-based shooters like Call of Duty can attest to. As more and more games embrace the online multiplayer approach and sometimes only release with a multiplayer mode (yes, Overwatch, I’m still lamenting the absence of a single player campaign…), this creates a big problem when it comes to community, the lifeblood of a successful online multiplayer game. As online multiplayer games become increasingly popular, more gamers are becoming exposed to poor sportsmanship and attitudes that may drive players away.

For newer gamers, especially, this is a serious issue. Video games can and should be for everyone, not just battle-hardened veterans. If communities aren’t welcoming to new players, what happens? That game will eventually cease to exist.

Online games depend on a constant flow of new and/or returning players. If more than half of the new games that come out include online multiplayer options, game developers owe it to themselves to at least try and come up with ways to encourage and promote better and stronger player communities. 

Blizzard has tried to tackle the issue of community in a few interesting ways. I’ve discussed the issue of community in regards to World of Warcraft at length in the past, but essentially Blizzard tried to solve the issue within WoW by creating multiple difficulty levels for each dungeon and raid, essentially separating the playerbase by their experience and/or goals. This sort of works, but it sure isn’t ideal and ends up creating a whole lot of repeated content and boredom. In Hearthstone, Blizzard nixed the ability for players to communicate with their opponents. Players can send out polite, pre-written emotes and that’s it. This, again, sort of works, but it makes playing matches against friends a little dull. It also makes it impossible to actually meet the player behind the cards if you’re the type that enjoys socializing.

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With Overwatch, Blizzard faces the same challenge and in a genre that’s had no shortage of issues when it comes to negative player conduct within communities. It’s very impressive then that Blizzard has found a way to promote positivity within its latest IP. You see, the company has tackled the issue in a totally different manner—one that hasn’t even been promoted as a method of improving the game’s community. It’s sort of a side effect, actually. Take a look at this infographic. Notice the average length of the matches. Notice anything striking about those times?

Yep. They were super short. 7.25 minutes on average. Blizzard essentially encourages players to worry more about the match they’re playing than the people they’re playing with because the matches themselves are so short. Everything from pre-game prep to the time it takes for the first objective point to spawn is sped up in Overwatch. Even the post-game wrap-up screen, which lets players hand out commendations to each other, is placed on a fairly short timer.

There’s zero time to prepare or plan in most Overwatch matches. You’re just essentially thrown in right out of the gate. Players—even new players—are taught that they need to just run in and hope for the best. If, for whatever reason, a player feels disgruntled about the group makeup, they can switch characters at any time. There’s even a helpful indicator in the character selection screen that allows teams to keep track of whether they’re missing a medic or have too many assault players or not enough tanks, etc. This lessens the chance that a player will give a teammate a hard time about his/her chosen character or the group’s makeup. Everyone’s in control of the group makeup for the entire game’s length.

There’s also less of an opportunity to complain to team members after dying. MOBAs and even most shooters have a fairly long respawn timer after your character dies, giving you a chance to plan, rethink your tactics, and chat with your teammates. During Overwatch’s tiny respawn timer, the screen by default swaps to a death video recap, further lessening the chances of someone speaking up in group chat after dying. By the time the recap’s over, it’s time to haul ass and get back out there.

While there are Overwatch matches that extend beyond that 6 to 9-minute mark (especially those that run into overtime), on average, the shorter match length doesn’t really allow players to focus on anything bad that may happen. If a teammate makes a bad move, it’s not that big of a deal—not when you’ll be able to join a new team and be in a completely new match in less than 10 minutes.

Compare this to an average match in League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm that can last 20-35 minutes. MOBA pre-game phases can seem excruciatingly long at times, especially when you have someone on your team who’s already complaining about team makeup before the game even starts. The slow, drawn out pace of waiting for minions to waddle their way to the frontlines doesn’t make things any better, either. MOBAs are more obviously focused on strategy than a shooter like Overwatch, but the comparison gives us an interesting viewpoint. Free time can lead to negativity under certain conditions.

While there are times during Overwatch when I feel the matches run a little too short, the the match times do lend themselves to zero-stress gameplay that results in a quick win or loss—no harm, no foul. This type of gameplay is great for beginners since there’s less time to toss out judgements and opinions. Find you’re really awful at a certain character? No big deal—try a new one. Don’t like the way your team is playing? You’ll have a new team in no time. The game’s ripe for learning by experimentation, and that’s the perfect type of environment for someone who’s new to a genre.

So far, Overwatch’s community is rather excellent. As much as the inner WoW veteran in me who remembers spending hours in Blackrock Depths hates to admit it, Blizzard is on to something here. I’ll admit this too—charging right into the heat of battle with zero prep time is sometimes just plain fun.

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Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.