A Eulogy for Esports

The usual course of action when someone opens an article like this is to hearken back to their fondest memory. In my case, when it comes to esports, I don’t have a singular fond memory that makes me go “That’s it. That’s when I knew it’d be a big”. Rather, I have a pick-up truck worth of memories where I recall how things happened and the stories associated with them. I remember watching EVO Moment #37, not really understanding why it was a big deal but getting hype anyways. I remember watching pro Starcraft and getting frustrated when I didn’t have the dexterity or the APM to play it on a professional level. I remember the hype and memes surrounding the MLG circuit with Halo and everyone scrambling to throw together a team for an online tournament.

It makes me sad that all of that is gone.

Prime Time Entertainment

I’ll be blunt that I was never really invested in the new wave of esports. Sure, I watch Worlds and see what’s happening at The International but the drive to remain current and up-to-date is gone for me. I could argue that I outgrew esports but when you have journalists, players and people who are decades older than I am, it’s not a strong argument. What really changed my point-of-view on the subject is remembering part of why I loved old esports: It was an untamed wilderness.

Back then, esports were an uncertain field. Things like vulgar language, fights and money matches were common. I’d compare it to something of an underground fight club, where you could only really catch these matches on the tail-end of a shaky recorded youtube compilation. When someone got demolished in a match, you could bet that they’d throw their controller and scream some horrible epithets about their opponent. These days, you’re lucky to get someone saying they’ll easily beat an enemy.

To me, the main problem with esports is the move towards widespread entertainment and consumption. A once-niche audience of seeing who was the best is now prime time entertainment for the masses. Games are designed to have esport scenes from the ground up, vying to be the next big part of the pantheon. In this way, esports has to move towards normalization and political-correctness. It’s not “right” to scream in an enemy’s face. It’s not “setting a good example” to mock and laugh at someone you beat in a perfect match.

This point could just be nostalgia. Someone looking back and saying that it wasn’t like what it used to be so it’s worse. That’s understandable.  After all, esports had to mature to reach a wider audience right?

Money and Politics

This is the part that can’t be disputed. Since the move, money has been pouring into esports like cake batter into a pan, covering every inch of it. Companies are increasing their hold over their games and forcing out both competition and people they do not desire. This isn’t ubiquitous to a single esport either. Every single game these days has this problem and will continue to have this problem.

These situations fall into two major fields that can be described with media: 1984 vs. Mad Max.

1984-style esports are your big organizations like Riot, Blizzard and so-on. These are the guys who own and dominate their game and crush out any ill-will. You will play by their rules or you won’t play at all. Coincidentally, these are also the places that are moving heavily toward franchising. It’s a move that holds skepticism as nothing of the sort has been attempted to such a large scale. This idea is an easy pill to swallow as well. Oh, the big bad corporation hates dissent and wants to establish a freaky utopia? Where do I sign up to overthrow them?

Mad Max is the esport that everyone likes to pretend is still “original” but can have just as many problems as the former. These types of games such as CS:GO are privy to a lack of regulation and a general disinterest from the publisher/creator. These are the places where seedy backroom deals take place. The places where players don’t get paid but don’t want to come forward. Match fixing, illegal gambling and more take over. The worst part is that most people chalk it up to a few bad eggs. A puddle of toxic waste on the path to greatness. This attitude, in my mind, will lead to an even worse situation than the former style of governing an esport.

The forced competition also has killed much of the comradery in gaming. Sure, you may not like the other game, but you didn’t care if your game was located in the same tournament convention. These days, companies seek to isolate their game further and further even with things like ESL and IEM. I’ve found that in speaking with friends, most focus on only one or two esports. They’re not interested in experimenting and expanding their horizons. They watch one game that they’ll defend to the death.

In esports, it feels like competition has hit a fever pitch. If you’re not in the spotlight all the time, you’re holding onto a dead game and that’s worse than death.

Fixing esports?

You can’t.

Perhaps I’m being cynical but I don’t see a world where esports goes back to its roots. It has had too much money pumped in, become too much of a mainstream thing, to fall back to the place where it began. This also isn’t something organizations or companies want to return to either. With all this money and advertising placed in esports, why would you ever bother going back to how it was? You can control every aspect or just collect revenue while you do very little to manage it. In either case, it’s a flat out success.

The future will also be made by those who grew up on these esports. People who watched the LCS or looked up starry-eyed at the Overwatch League. People who didn’t care much about the game DOTA but saw dollar signs when the prize pool flashed up. People care more about the roar of the crowd than being one of the best players in CS:GO. In an ironic twist, esports has fallen into becoming just any other sport. It has descended into that cauldron of easily consumable entertainment that you and the boys watch every Friday night to see whose team beats which opponent.

Consider this my eulogy for what esports was and why it just doesn’t hold my heart as it used to. Maybe one day I’ll find a game that captures me like Street Fighter III did or old Marvel vs. Capcom 2 videos did. Until then, I’ll consolidate myself to watching the twitter feed with whatever organization or company screws up next and the armchair backlash of people who have a quarter of the facts.

Overwatch Uprising: Intended Design vs. Fan Favoritism

There is an interesting phenomenon going on with Overwatch. Largely designed to be a player-versus-player competitive experience, a pattern is beginning to emerge: People like the player-versus-everything types of experiences far more than the originally designed core experience.

Uprising, Junkinstein and PvE

What is most fascinating about these events is that they do a lot of what players should dislike; These events limit your character choice, create difficult scenarios and force you to be on your toes against far-stronger enemy waves. That said, people have come to latch onto these events. Along with this there is a clear feeling that people enjoy these events far more than any esport-centric or competitive experience. Why could this be?

For starters, Overwatch falls prey to the common problem of online games. That being the factor of playing with someone else. “Toxicity” is what companies call it but I prefer an old school phrase known as “being a jerk”. In competitive games, like League of Legends and DOTA2, these people are synonymous with the game in quite negative ways. Its taken a good chunk of the reputation these two games have as well, despite how players and creators are quick to try and silence those criticisms. Overwatch is no exception, with youtube compilations of people spouting out racist or aggressive comments because you picked a hero they didn’t like. It sours an experience others enjoy.

Uprising and, by extent, all PvE modes doesn’t succumb to this to any meaningful degree. There’s a sense of comradery that grows between four players fighting against hoards of computer-controlled robots. In my many hours of playing, I only recall a few instances where someone was being a jerk to the point of annoyance. Beyond that? This experience is largely more enjoyable on a purely personal level.

One can also not neglect the essence of skill required; While there are harder versions, the overall PvE experience is much easier than a PvP one. Robots stand still, can be gamed by simple AI tricks and dying is usually because they’re FAR stronger than you are individually, not being outplayed or outmaneuvered. PvP is a breeding ground for the skill frustration, no real solution other than to “git gud” and not fail. With these in mind, it seems like the PvE experience is the way to go, right?

PvP vs. PvE

Except Overwatch was primarily designed to be a player-against-player experience.

From the establishment of the Overwatch Pro League coming later this year to Blizzard doing everything in their power to push for esports success, such as hiring MonteCristo and DoA to be the leading stars of the NA OPL, Blizzard wants Overwatch to become a long-standing esports game. Blizzard isn’t truly looking to make this a game like World of Warcraft with equal PvP and PvE content. This is a game designed to focus on the interaction between living players of equal skill.

With the comparison between Uprising and the normal experience, what can be done? This is not an easy question to ask, of course, but it’s a profound one that should be investigated. There are two obvious paths to take: On one hand, Blizzard could always make the PvE events second fiddle to the PvP ones. This might annoy many casual players (who are arguably the biggest audience) but it will preserve the main identity. The alternative is to develop PvE alongside PvP, creating maps and scenarios specifically for the playerbase which enjoys it. If it gets big enough, one might even be able to host time-attack tournaments to see who can clear scenarios the fastest or with the most points.

One option you might notice I omitted was the idea of removing focus on PvP. To be blunt, I don’t forsee that as an acceptable solution. Blizzard has committed too many resources already to go back on the PvP aspect of Overwatch. Even if the majority played PvE instead of PvP, the design of the game has just put too much energy and effort into crafting a specifically PvP experience. “Too big to fail” if you will.

Design Intention vs. Design Endpoint

A good example of this scenario stretches back all the way to Warcraft 3 and the modding community. Designed to be a multi-unit RTS, Warcraft 3 ended up taking off with the MOBA-style/DOTA-like game. Blizzard didn’t really support this to any meaningful extent, the game and community springing off despite Blizzard’s focus on making the core RTS the experience they wanted to enforce. This, of course, lead to the MOBA genre taking off and games like League and DOTA dethroning the RTS.

Can a similar scenario happen here? While Overwatch’s custom tools aren’t on-par with Warcraft 3’s, it could one day come to a point where the PvE experience overtakes the PvP. A game similar to Left 4 Dead being born from Overwatch’s framework that leads to a new experience that trounces the intended design. Perhaps I’m misjudging the desire for PvE. It’s entirely possible my focus on this could be overestimated and what many loved was just a fun, side diversion. After all, the OPL hasn’t started yet and the pro-scene of Overwatch could very well explode, snuffing out the PvE lovers.

All I can truly do is bide my time and see where this goes. Uprising or not, I highly doubt the PvE aspect of Overwatch is going to stay muted.

Orisa: Setting a Dangerous Precedence

In terms of new characters, Overwatch has so far made some really interesting unique additions to the game. Both Sombra and Ana brought new things to the game and, whether they were viable or not, both brought things that weren’t originally in the game. I was quite excited for the next one.

Unfortunately, Orisa has not piqued my interest. In fact, she makes me worry for the future of Overwatch’s hero design if she becomes a standard among the cast. To understand my frustration, we have to go back to League of Legends and the earliest days of Riot’s design. It’s only in understanding their missteps that we can move forward.

Perhaps Riot’s biggest blunder in my mind was the bloat of characters in seasons one and two. During these seasons, Riot pumped out a new character almost every other week. It was impressive that only a handful came out so pathetically bad that there wasn’t any real problem with them existing, save for the space they took up.

But this problem was compounded by these additions not bringing new things to the game. They didn’t reinvent or introduce new concepts. They didn’t bring many new skills or ways to play. In many ways, the design of Riot was an incredibly safe cookie-cutter that was only changed by what you put into the mold rather than the mold itself. To go with the analogy, Darius might be an oatmeal cookie to Garen’s chocolate chip…but they’re both still cookies.

This is also partially why Riot has to make large-scale class reworks: The similarity problem has gotten so bad that those who are on top outshine those who aren’t in almost every category. The sins of the past have caught up to Riot and now they’re scrambling to fix this. Moving back to Overwatch, there are some similarities and differences to how they operate.

For one thing, Overwatch is taking their time with character releases compared to old Riot. Riot moved to this format as well, which means you don’t have to worry about roster bloat as much. However, this also means that a bad release will sit on the player’s mind for a while, much like what Orisa is doing to me right now. It’s not flawless but I see it as better than the alternative. The more important issue is Orisa’s kit and why I’m so disinterested in her as a playable hero.

Lore-wise, it makes sense for Orisa to have the kit she does. She’s the invention of an eleven-year-old genius who looked to the heroes she worships and copied much of their skills. I was guilty of this as a child as well, making carbon copies of Power Rangers because young me only knew what worked, not how to innovate the concept. The problem comes when you consider Orisa as an introduction to the game as a whole and not as something that exists in the universe as a living, breathing addition.

Orisa does not innovate.

Yes, she does things in different ways comparative to others, but she does not have any truly “new” mechanic to her. Perhaps the most interesting thing about her is the damage reduction/CC immunity spell but even that is quite similar to Zarya’s bubble or Torbjorn’s molten core. More importantly, when you compare Ana and Sombra, both brought tons of new things to the game. Sombra was an invisible, hacking offense hero who could disable heroes with strong abilities. Ana was a healing sniper who could boost up the power of her allies while also negating healing.

If you ask me, Orisa does not bring enough new to the table to justify her inclusion. No matter how interesting as a character she might be, she doesn’t really bring a fresh look to the table. What strikes me more than anything is that Orisa’s kit can be described in a pretty quick, singular word: Rushed.

Designated as an “anchor tank” (A tank that leads the charge and holds the line.), Orisa is meant to be a replacement for Reinhardt in certain situations. When you consider that, the situation with Orisa’s kit feels even more compounded; Was Orisa a character that was lovingly handcrafted to bring fresh life to Overwatch and to expand the roster with a new, fascinating hero or was she a character quickly rushed out the door to create someone who could stand toe-to-toe with Reinhardt so that he’s not the go-to tank in every situation?

My main fear when it comes to these situations is that this won’t be an isolated incident. Sure, Orisa isn’t a stellar release comparative to the two we had before in terms of gameplay, but overall we can chalk her up to just a meh release. What’s more concerning is if Blizzard is going to take her as a model of what a character should be. Blizzard could very well use Orisa as the model for solving problems of over-picking a hero; instead of buffing, nerfing or finding a work around for that hero, Blizzard could opt to make a similar hero of a similar role with just enough differences to warrant another inclusion.

Of course, not everything about Orisa is bad. I’ll likely play her a bit if I want a ranged Reinhardt or if I get some cosmetics for her. I like her character and while I don’t like the kit, I dig the lore reason surrounding it. There’s always the idea that maybe I’m just worrying about nothing. Maybe this article is simply the fears of someone who saw a similar thing happen in another game and doesn’t want to see Overwatch go down the same path. Consider this doomsaying or criticizing if you will, I merely wish to air my concerns with Blizzard when it comes to a new hero.

The beginning to a disappointing trend or just one not-that-interesting kit? Hopefully Blizzard proves me wrong in the future.

The Expansion of the Loot Crate

Remember back when you could just buy what you wanted? Yeah, I do too.

It was a short while ago in around 2009 that Team Fortress 2 introduced the concept of the loot crate. A box you could unlock with real-world money to get some rare items. Since then, almost every game worth its salt has a loot system. Be it a free-to-play mobile game to a cosmetic churning machine like Overwatch. Earnest and honestly: This sort of thing has to stop.

A Disguised Purpose
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The concept of the loot crate inherently isn’t a bad one: A gatchapon of gear that you unlock for all sorts of random goodies. Perhaps you get that rare item you wanted. Perhaps you get wrecked and get a pretty meh item. It’s a roll of the dice every time. In idea, you’d think it’s a cool thing! Wow, free cosmetics for playing the game! Boy oh boy it’s just what I wanted…that said, in practice it’s never truly worth it.

When you consider loot boxes in games, they very rarely are for giving you exclusive, free loot. They’re a revenue generation device. People LOVE to gamble and video games are no exception. It’s why CS:GO gambling became such a big deal. The worst part about this is people hold up the excuse that this is a free system for a (usually) free game that gives you free loot…but you rarely get exactly what you want.

A perhaps sinister way to look at things, the “loot box” system is a way out for companies. It’s a tool they can point to and go “See, we give you free stuff all the time!” when it actually doesn’t change your income of loot items all that much.

Competitive Games and Loot
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Perhaps worse yet is “competitive” games reliant on loot. I decided to give Clash Royal a try and see what the fuss was about…and frankly, it often feels awful. Having card-based unlocks and “items” makes the game either painfully one-sided or a slugfest between people with wet noodles. This feels like a TCG except you can upgrade cards and make them more powerful. Imagine if you could get between a two damage, four health Brann Bronzebeard or a ten damage, thirty health Brann Bronzebeard.

While I don’t like the loot systems in other games, THIS deserves a special note because of how it’s made. It’s made to force money out of you to win, as are many mobile games, and it feels truly awful.

Can the System be Fixed?
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No idea.

Alright alright, let me go further: This system is honestly far deeper and far more complex than I can earnestly say. There’s a fine balance to be had between “giving free items” and “giving so much free stuff nobody pays for your game”. Too much in one direction, you lose money. Too much in the other direction and…you lose money because people feel like you’re greedy and money-hungry.

Overwatch is likely the closest the system has come to work in a paid game while League/DOTA continue to work the best with other games. That doesn’t mean these systems are perfect: DOTA and League still have a tendency to lock time-based loot behind holidays and have confusing metrics for what a holiday box offers. Overwatch jacks up the prices for their timed loot to be three times as pricey as a normal item while only giving the base amount of coins.

Companies would need to take a fine line stance on these things. But perhaps the customer’s greatest hope is that competition breeds better environment for customers. League and DOTA have improved their boxes because of competition. Hopefully when someone steps up to Overwatch’s throne and provides better content for a fairer experience, Blizzard will have to change the way they look at things.

As it is now? This is a system with a lot of problems I’m not entirely sure can be fixed.

 

Viability vs. Optimal

A common error I see when people talk about video games is mixing up viability and optimal picks. This extends to both League and Overwatch but it’s an important distinction that needs to be made, especially when one is arguing about the state of the game.

“Viability” Being Misused

Often, when people talk about viability, they look at it from the perspective of “Is this character in the best spot they could be right now?” which isn’t the case at all. When it comes to viability, it simply means “Can I play this character to an effective level?”. In nine-out-of-ten circumstances? Yes! You can use almost any character in these games. League’s massive one hundred and thirty-plus roster is filled with playable, workable champions. I’d argue about ninety percent.

“Optimal” Being Understood

Optimal, however, speaks strictly about the power behind a single character. There are only a handful of optimal picks in Overwatch right now, the common combination (If I am remembering correctly) being Lucio, Ana, Reinhardt, D.Va, Roadhog and Zarya. This DOES NOT MEAN that all the other heroes are bad, per say. This simply means that in your best state, you’d want to play these heroes.

Blurred Line

The best question to ask is how did this get so mixed up. The answer? Esports. Simply put, since the advent of esports, people look to the pro leagues and the highest echelon of play to determine the state of balance. But balance for the common masses and balance for the top tier is a vastly different ball game. As an example, DOTA 2 balances strictly around the pro scene and results in an incredibly diverse game for them. However, for the common players, some heroes shine far brighter than others. During The International 6 (The biggest DOTA tournament), Omniknight was picked once and lost in all games. However, in normal queues, he was boasting an incredibly high win rate.

In this regard, people will look at the LCS or the upcoming Overwatch Pro League as a metric of what is “viable”. The truth is that in your silver games, anything can be played effectively. Offensive Torbjorn? Sure. Bot lane Yasuo? Go for it. You’re playing at a level where comfort picks are far more useful than any sort of meta strategy.

Balance is a different story but just remember: Just because something isn’t optimal doesn’t mean it isn’t viable.

On Sexual Diversity in Video Games: “Cheers Love, The Cavalrey’s Queer!” (Part 1)

I’ve always been fascinated about the topic of sexuality. Ever since my father told me he was gay, I’ve really made an effort to understand the intricacies, deeper meanings of sexuality. Doubly so in the emerging medium of video games. Games, as they are, have had a history of sort of shooing LGBTQ stuff to the side. It’s not something for everyone, after all. Not that being gay is bad but some people would rather not engage in that content. And that’s ok!

Specifically I want to talk about Tracer coming out as a lesbian, because I’m quite fascinated in this turn.

“The Typical Lesbian” vs. Lena “Tracer” Oxton

Often in media, especially video games, the lesbian character is always the one you most expect. The tough girl, the tomboy, the sexually promiscuous woman, all stereotypes people associate with gay/bi women. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve had to defend my point-of-view on why I think Vi (League of Legends) is more bi than lesbian, but that’s for another day.

Blizzard had many outs and many choices when it comes to making a lesbian character. The one that would have made me roll my eyes in disappointment would have been Zarya. A tough girl with short, pink hair that is a weight lifter. It screams stereotype. Instead, it turns out Tracer is the one chrono-shifting out of the closet.

Now, roll with me here; to the general public, Tracer isn’t a typical lesbian character. She’s not overtly sexy, she’s not a tough girl,  she’s a peppy, cheery lady. Sure the community likes to ship her with Widowmaker but if we’re bringing that into play, almost everyone is bisexual. Yes, even the omnics.

More importantly, your stereotypical character will be a brazen, unabashed flirt. Not so with Lena. She’s all business and quite sweet as well. Never once does she flirt or tease other characters in a sexual manner. Tracer isn’t a lesbian character. She’s a character who happens to be a lesbian. Weird distinction, I know, but so many characters are just lesbian or gay and THAT is their character.

“Hidden in a Sidequest” vs. On-the-box

As I said earlier in this writing, often times the LGBTQ stuff is hidden in a metaphorical dark corner of the game. Even player made characters like Commander Shepard have to go looking for that specific content. I believe the most egregious example of this was Star Wars: The Old Republic which locked a same-sex romance behind paid content. “Pay 2 Gay” if you will.

With Tracer…you can’t really ignore it. She’s front and center. She’s the titular character and the poster girl of Overwatch. You could argue that nobody would know unless they go lore-delving. To counter this, who would likely be the first character for people to look for and learn about? Yep. Lena Oxton herself.

Most protagonists and cover-feature characters in video games tend to be men. Especially in the FPS genre. Gruff, military badasses in power armor. Instead, for Overwatch, we have a bubbly lesbian with time powers. It’s a far-cry from the norm and not something we’d expect to see at all. Tracer is breaking the mold and normality by checking the opposite of every other main. She’s not a man. She’s not straight. She’s not a (conventional) badass. She’s just who she is.

Thus, Lena becomes front-and-center when it comes to Overwatch. Not in-your-face about it but she does have this aspect while also being a main, lead character in one of the hottest games of 2016.

Loud and Proud vs. Character Trait

Remember earlier how I said Lena is a character who happens to be a lesbian and not a lesbian character?

Time and time again, even the most well-meaning person writes a character where their sexuality is the hook. Where the entire character is defined by being gay/lesbian or it’s the main motivation behind all the things they do. Now, there’s nothing wrong about being proud of yourself but often these things read as stilted. They read as someone jamming sexuality into every nook and cranny of a character to the point where you go “Is there ever a moment where the character ISN’T gushing about other men/women?”

Tracer, however, could very well not be a lesbian and I mean that in the best of ways. In my own life, being around gay and lesbian people, the tired motto of “they’re just like you and me” rings true. They don’t act weird or differently, they just like the same sex. Tracer, if you removed the panels of her with her girlfriend, would still be the same character. You wouldn’t lose much and she’d still be good ol’ Lena Oxton. Just like a straight person and all that.

However, in adding those panels, you add a bit of depth to her. You add a little tweak to her character that changes things up. Lena is still Lena, she just has something important to note about her character. Perhaps it makes her friendship with Overwatch different. Perhaps there’s a story about her realizing herself. There’s so much more that you CAN add but nothing that takes away or messes with the core character.

Criticism and Conclusion (For now)

Not really excited for the incoming hate from both sides, gotta be honest. LGBTQ community saying I don’t get those relationships because I’m not them and the gamer community accusing me of being a pandering bastard. Well, that’s gonna be fun.Still, to me, the overall change to Tracer is…well, good.

While I do approve and think this was a good change, I will say one thing: It’s one of the safest paths you can take. Tracer’s conventionally attractive. She’s had some of the most developed Overwatch lore there is and she’s easily the person who will represent the franchise. Her girlfriend, Emily, is also quite attractive. Now, before you think I’m just gushing and that I’m crushed Tracer x Me isn’t going to happen, hear me out.

You can easily fetishize people in such a way and Tracer is no exception. She’s a character who people know, love and (barring some crushed people who take sexuality too seriously) is a character people could love regardless of what she did. She was the “safe” pick to make an LGBTQ woman. Perhaps if Tracer’s girlfriend wasn’t exactly hot. Perhaps if Tracer herself had this fact stated or revealed from the get-go…but, I’ll be honest, I’m nitpicking.

Tracer’s coming-out marks something semi-important and major. It makes one of the first non-player-created characters of LGBTQ origin who is the titular character of the game. I’d also say this is likely the biggest game in a LONG time when it comes to IP and sheer cultural permeation, making it something of a sign of the times when the star of 2016’s game-of-the-year (in many circles) likes the same sex. Still, all this has got me thinking…what about games that play coy with other character’s sexuality?

Next week, I’ll take a look at another game (League of Legends) and talk about the vacuum of sexuality in it.

Overwatch and the Power of IPs

I don’t think Overwatch is going to last forever.

Perhaps it’s a controversial opinion, especially considering the popularity right now, but my personal thought is that Overwatch is going to slowly die out over the course of around five years. Sure, it’ll still be played but it won’t remain the mega-blockbuster-hit it is right now. Instead, I want to draw attention to the real success of Overwatch: The IP.

Blizzard and Franchises

Perhaps Blizzard’s greatest strength is their ability to make franchises that transcend single games and become long-lasting phenomenons whose effects are still felt today. Hell, Blizzard is responsible for three of the last genre bubbles (The MMO, the MOBA and the Hero-Shooter) that have transpired. They’re making great games to go along with it…but really, I find their power is in making IPs that last.

For any who don’t know: IP stands for “Intellectual Property” also known as the story, characters and general name-brand nature of a game. Blizzard’s stable include Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo and now Overwatch. All four are what I would consider signature franchises for PC gamers and great examples of how Blizzard can take lightning in a bottle and create long-lasting legacies of video games.

Overwatch’s IP: Dipped in Gold

The first moment I knew that Blizzard had the long-game planned for Overwatch was in the opening of the Warcraft movie. When Blizzard’s logo appeared, iconic characters flashed in the letters. There was Arthas, Diablo…and then Tracer. A game they’d just made was already standing side-by-side to some of their most iconic IPs. “No duh”, you might argue, but to me it was a telling sign of what was to come.

Compare League of Legends for a moment: In talking with others, I’ve found that people who don’t even play the game recognize the characters from conventions, other media (comics, music, fan art, whatever) and influences outside of the core game. So too is Overwatch hitting a point where people can point and say “Oh, that’s Tracer!” even if you don’t play Overwatch.

If Overwatch were to die tomorrow and just get thrown into the dumpster, Blizzard still have a vibrant world with colorful characters to use. Movies, television, animation, comics, everything beyond the core game has immense power simply because of the “Overwatch” logo and title sitting at the top.

Industry Movings

I think this speaks greatly to the video game industry moving more-and-more to trying to establish long-lasting franchises rather than the old “one and done” system. Ages ago, during the NES and Genesis days, games were just single-releases. You made a good game, made some money, that was that. If you were a franchise, that was earned through being damn good at what you did and making a brand through sheer game power.

Now look at us today: Mighty No. 9, for all its faults, tried desperately to be a massive franchise before a single game was even out. Comics, movies, sequels, the rumors swirled that this would be a game franchise for the AGES. Sure, it flopped, but you can see it in other games as well. Name brands are power and long-running franchises are the goal, not a dream in the eyes of a dev.

Even if Overwatch were to die tomorrow, as I said, I’m confident in its longevity as an IP. For me, I don’t care about the game so much as reading the stories, watching the movies and hearing the tales of a world worth fighting for. Kudos to Blizzard for making yet another powerhouse that can stand alongside Arthas, Diablo and Kerrigan.

 

Remembrance

Worried for her friend, Ana Amari reminisces with Soldier 76 to see if Jack Morrison is still there.


It might have been weeks ago but there were always clues to be had. Stuff the beat cops missed. That’s exactly why they had made the rough journey from the sands of Egypt to the snowy buildings of France. They might be undercover and they might not have a true home but with what was going on in the world, they would take any hints they could get.

Jack Morrison, the mystery man known as Solider 76, knelt inside the art gallery. Snow drifted in from the hole in the roof, his visor inspecting every element of the rubble. Normally, he would have had to knock the police out and add to an impressive resume of crimes as an unknown man. On the positive side, thanks to his new ally, things had become much easier. Said guards he would have beaten until they were unconscious were now quietly sleeping outside, propped on the wall so observers would be none the wiser.

The old woman with an eyepatch watched Morrison with a stern gaze, waiting to hear his findings. According to the news, a pair of famous and wanted Junkers had broken into the art gallery with intent to steal. What piqued the duo’s interest were how they were stopped: A familiar face coupled with an unfamiliar ally. Of course, questions piled on outside of that.

“No doubt about it. This had to be caused by one of Oxton’s pulse bombs,” Jack grumbled.

Ana raised a lone eyebrow. “And the other one?”

Jack shook his head. The assistance Tracer had received hadn’t been someone he recognized. “Some kid, from the look of the security tapes. Wore a hoodie. Had some special gloves on his hands, was punching the fat Junker and matching him blow-for-blow despite being half his size.”

Instantly, Ana grit her teeth. “Was it him?”

In response, Jack shook his head. “No way it could have been Doomfist. Kid fought like a boxer. Ducking. Bobbing. Weaving. Doomfist was more of a one-and-done guy, if we’re talking about the one we’re worried about.”

Sighing, Ana looked to the sky. “So what is it? Why are there Junkers in France? Otherwise we’re just here to figure out if Lena’s alright?”

Standing from the rubble, Jack moved over to Ana. “Same night, a munitions plant was robbed. Didn’t make the news because of the ties to Overwatch in this story. More importantly, there were rumors and reports that they Junkers got away in a black jet of sorts.”

Clenching her fist, Ana walked with Jack as the two moved to get out of the building. “Talon? Helping the Junkers?”

Nodding, Jack stepped into the cold. He quickly took his jacket off, placing it in a duffle bag alongside his visor and pulse rifle. From said bag he removed a large parka and thick hat, quickly disguising himself as a tourist. Ana did much of the same, albeit her clothing was a little longer and make-up was applied to hide her tattoo. Despite their fame, nobody would recognize the heroes of the Omnic Crisis when they were disguised as such.

From the alleyway the two began to walk onto the frigid and dark streets of Paris. Winter was setting in heavily and the evening was upon them as they carefully surveyed their surroundings. Even with disguises, the threat of being discovered was enough to put the two old soldiers on edge. “So what now?” Ana questioned. “Do we track them down? Heavens know that they’d be hiding out…”

Jack nodded in response. “We’ll get a plane. Still got the money from the Helix job. If I had to guess, Gibraltar.” Looking to his side, Jack’s eyes met with the disapproving face of Ana. “What?”

“You’re better than this, Jack. You know how I feel about such things,” Ana spoke, careful to disguise her words so that a passing couple couldn’t hear them or gleam information neither wanted to let leak. “At the very least, you’ll apologize?”

A grunt. “Provided I’m not dead at the end of this…fine. I’ll serve my time and do my service,” he muttered. It wasn’t a concrete promise but perhaps there was still hope for Morrison. Such a thing did tug at Amari’s heart however. To see a man she’d admired and loved as a leader, torn down to little more than a soldier.

The snow began to pick up, Ana checking her watch. “We find a place to stay for the night, before we freeze to death.”

“Quit being melodramatic. There are plenty of hotels and hostels to sleep at,” Jack muttered. A nearby bed and breakfast seemed to illuminate itself by luck, Jack nudging his neck to the side and beckoning Ana to follow. Quickly crossing the street, the two made it inside just in time to avoid the torrential snow that began to rain over Paris like a pale blanket.


Locking the door behind them and holding a steaming cup of coco, Ana moved to the desk. It was a small room and it was thankfully one of the few left for the night. She’d made sure to check if there were people on either side, allowing the two to talk freely about their situation. The room itself wasn’t anything special, two beds, a desk, a bathroom and a television. “Do you remember how we used to sleep in the most luxurious hotels? Speak at grand balls?”

Jack snorted, throwing his coat to the side. “You and I were the faces, what else did you expect? Dress up fancy, say a few words, dance in a ballroom, repeat until you want to shoot yourself.”

“And you say I’m melodramatic,” Ana chuckled, moving to sit across from Jack on the bed. “Do you know what today is?”

“Hmph. Wednesday. December twenty fourth,” Morrison mechanically repeated.

Ana nodded. “Christmas eve, you know.”

Jack’s gaze narrowed at Ana. “You don’t celebrate Christmas though.”

Ana rolled her eye, sipping her coco. “Fareeha and I would still attend the holiday parties however, remember?”

Grunting, Jack turned to the table. It was clear that he wasn’t willing to talk about it, keeping up the facade of the strong soldier. “No use talking about the past, you know. Can’t change anything. It happened, we move on.”

Not content to watch Jack be a Bastion unit, Ana smirked. “Don’t you remember how Reinhardt spent hours studying Ramadan to make sure Fareeha and I would feel welcome? The poor man worked himself to the bone. He didn’t even enjoy the party the first time he did it. Passed out on the sofa the moment we all came in.”

A faint twitch on the corner of Jack’s mouth, his rough mask broken momentarily. Ana smirked, pressing the attack: “How about when Torbjörn got drunk on spiked eggnog and started ranting about how omnics shouldn’t celebrate holidays?”

For a moment it looked like the prodding failed. That’s when the softest of smiles graced Jack’s face. He chuckled deeply, looking at the floor. “Winston tried to decorate the lights and ended up shorting out HQ. Spent the holidays in the dark that year.”

“Every year, Angela tried to bring heart healthy food and nobody ever touched it. She would get so frustrated when people would gorge themselves on sweets yet she’d go home with trays of leftovers,” Ana added.

Another laugh, although this one was more genuine and lighthearted, from Morrison. “First year Jesse joined up, he started drinking alcohol while underage. You remember how Gabe-“ Jack froze. The entire room turned to ice as he looked away from Ana. All the good feelings and all the positivity they had recalled for the holiday season had died the moment his name was brought up.

The two sat in silence, Ana frowning as she saw the brief glimpse at the old Jack Morrison vanish. Solider 76 was sitting with her now, the iron-faced vigilante who wanted nothing more than to bring Overwatch’s downfall to light. She briefly looked at her watch, blinking. “Hm, would you look at that.”

“Eh, something wrong?” Jack asked, peering at Ana.

Ana motioned to the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand. A red twelve, followed by a zero and a three, blinked at the two. “Seems that it’s December twenty-fifth.” Ana waited for Jack to say something, for him to do anything. Silence.

Reaching into her coat, Ana pulled out a peppermint candy cane. She handed it to Jack, who looked at her with an expression that could only be described as deadpan. “I was going to stir my drink with it, for festive reasons, but it seems like you deserve it more.” She placed the candy cane in his lap, nodding at him. “Merry Christmas, Jack.”

Jack stared at her. “You don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Ana’s gaze narrowed. “Take my damn gift.”

At this, Jack stopped. He stared at Ana for the longest time, neither person breaking their stern gazes. That’s when Ana’s lips quivered. Jack’s own expression struggled to remain stern. What began as a soft chuckle turned into a boisterous guffaw, the loud laughter resounding through the small hotel room as the two laughed. It was an idiotic thing to laugh at for two old veterans but by god, it was the best joke they’d heard in months. Wiping the corner of his eye, Jack smirked at Ana. He held the candy cane in his hand, nodding to her earnestly and lovingly.

“Merry Christmas, Ana.”

Ludonarrative Dissonance in League and Overwatch

As a fan of lore, backstory, and the general storytelling of video games, you can imagine how much I scratch my head at these two games. While I understand the reason for it, both of these games exhibit extreme cases of ludonarrative dissonance. Rather than specifically state my opinion, I’d like to go over the pros and cons of this divide and further explain the intricacies of this system, maybe even determine why more and more games are moving toward such a style of story telling.

 What is Ludonarrative Dissonance?

Ludonarrative Dissonance is a phrase coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, a creative director at Ubisoft. He used the phrase to specifically describe the disconnect between Bioshock’s storytelling and the gameplay elements related to the game. It drives a wedge between what we’re told (The hero is a heroic, kind, selfless soul) and what we’re actually doing in the game. (Ransacking every house we find.)

Games are unique to this problem because we can’t see a dissonance of this scale when it comes to movies, writing or television. Yes, we can have awkward moments but that is the sign of a poorly-written story where we question the writer breaking character. Comparatively, games have the dual-function of serving both a story element and a gameplay element; Even the most story-driven game has to have some gameplay and even the most nothing story in a video game has to have some overarching goal.

As an example of this, my character in World of Warcraft (at least in roleplay) is a weak human noble with very little battle-based skills. Yet I’m a max level hunter who regularly goes out and murders whatever the baddie-of-the-week is. It’s a clear disconnect between who my character is and the gameplay related to my character, although that’s entirely of my own choice.

Ludonarrative Dissonance in League and Overwatch

Perhaps more than almost any other game, both of these games have become extremely disconnected to the story of their respective worlds. League famously had a massive retcon due to the “Institute of War”, a powerful association of mages, causing a lack of conflict resolution or even conflict. To Riot, it was a confusing plot contrivance where characters could not change and all the champions of League had to be on a power-level below these summoners.

In Overwatch, there’s no connection at all. While characters interact, it’s clear from both a story and gameplay perspective that nothing is canonical. Characters die, respawn and fling each other all over the map in the pursuit of..well, either pushing a cart to the end of the map or capturing a control point. Any story elements told are given through cinematics, comics or other forms of media that are passingly related to the game in a stretched scenario. Perhaps the only connection is the small bits of dialogue characters say but, even then, it’s a dream scenario.

The Case for Ludonarrative Dissonance

When you consider these multiplayer-only or multiplayer-focused games, there is a core and damning narrative term that permeates everything: Static. Characters are often static. Characters cannot die and more often than not, story hooks can’t be directly resolved because everything resets at the end of the match. So what if Soldier 76 kills Reaper and captures Hanamura’s point? Is this really where the story is meant to end?

When you look at League, there was a major event early on that was touted as a story change in the game: The Ionia-Noxus match. In this game, players picked predominantly Ionian and Noxian champions who fought to determine the fate of the island nation. After a match done with some roleplay, Ionia was the victor. And….there are Ionian boots in the store now. What? There was no major change in character story arc, no alteration of their voice lines, no nothing. The Ionian champions succeeded in their goal but they still had to fight for…reasons. The conflict was “resolved” yet the only change was the addition of shoes to the shop.

Situations like this outline how forcing a game to work within story contexts can lead to disconnects and frustration. You have to come up with a reason for resurrection yet bend rules so that it’s not an easy out. You have to create change just enough that more of the story is told yet there is a net-zero outcome when the characters have to act-or-play differently. This unintentionally gates the story and makes players wonder if change is even possible.

By separating gameplay and story, you don’t have to worry about these situations. Players are free to enjoy a character without worrying about the actions in the game affecting the character. Those who enjoy the story and background can also go and find it, giving a massively deep layer that isn’t available directly in the game. It also prevents those who don’t really care about story to be subjected to it. With ludonarrative dissonance, you can technically have your cake and eat it too.

The Case against Ludonarrative Dissonance

In many ways, the disconnect is often the coward’s way out. It’s the point where a designer and a writer go “We can’t work together. Let’s just do our own things separate from each other”. This disconnect creates a massive divide in the playerbase and forces players who care about the world to watch a character they love never truly evolve in the game, only in the background.

No game is ever truly separated from narrative, as much as one might like to argue. Story hooks and elements are brought into play regardless of if you place a ten-story building between the two. Camille might not interact with Caitlyn in the story but her speech lines do speak that she knows something about what Caitlyn is after. Soldier 76 and Winston might never meet in the story but they are still sharing story elements in the game itself.

Just because there is a separation between game and story doesn’t mean changes cannot happen either. Yes, it’s more work for the company, but you can arguably change voice lines and character dialogue as things change in the narrative. Even if this is a dream scenario, have characters grow and change. Forcing a disconnect between story and gameplay only happens when you make it happen.

I’m not directly advocating that you MUST have change in the game but to say that you cannot have any change at all is confusing to me. Characters can grow in a story AND in the game. Maybe you can’t change how they play but you can change how they react and how they deal with situations. Dissonance is only dissonance if you refuse to work with the game. Yes, there will be times where the character acts out of turn but a little dissonance is better than separating the game and story like the moon and the sun.

My Personal Opinion

You might have gleamed a bit of this from my word choice and the way I spoke about pros and cons, but my personal belief is that ludonarrative dissonance is fine in most cases. Not every game can have a story that completely syncs with the game you’ve made and that’s alright. No game, not even the best narrative-driven game of all time, will be entirely functional with the game you’ve made. I both understand and respect Blizzard and Riot’s decision to focus on the game itself but allow for a rich and deep story that’s told outside the confines of Summoner’s Rift or Watchpoint: Gibraltar.

My praise given, I disagree that the disconnect has to be complete. I feel like characters being given additional dialogue, new story options and more in the game should be allowed. Give us cosmetics that reflect what happened to these characters. Alter maps to show us what happened in a cinematic without designing the map around it (ala King’s Row). Give us story elements in the game that make us want to go looking at your fancy comic or your narrative hub deeper than the Mariana Trench. There can be connections without having to hamfist or slam a wall between the two.

Perhaps more and more games are moving toward this because less and less people care about the story behind these games? How many of us just rapidly slam the skip button during dialogue? How plentiful is the number of players who go on that secondary website and read all the short stories and comics? How substantial is the divide between people who enjoy the background and world behind these games versus those who just enjoy the game itself?

Ludonarrative dissonance is a tool. It is one of the many little gadgets in a writer’s toolbox that lets them alter and change the story as they wish in relation to the game. Just like any other tool, it’s strongest when it’s doing an appropriate job…but it’s not a universal tool that can fix every problem. There needs to be a fine line when to drop ludonarrative dissonance and work on ludonarrative consonance.