Overwatch is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and enjoyable first-person shooters to spring onto the gaming scene in the last decade. After an unending wave of shooters where you play as a gruff military man who shoots the evil, America-hating bad guys, Overwatch certainly felt like a breath of fresh air when it launched in May of 2016. With its vibrant cast and diverse play styles, the mechanical depth and complexity of Overwatch has yet to be matched by most, if not all, of its competitors. Yet despite this, and despite the hundreds of hours I’ve sank into Overwatch over the eighteen months (I bought Overwatch about a year after its release), I’ve almost completely lost interest in the game.
This isn’t an issue with the heroes, gameplay, or balance. Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, has done an excellent job of creating a game experience that is complex and thrilling, but they’ve done a downright atrocious job of incentivizing their player base to keep playing. The first and most problematic offender in this regard is the game’s loot box system.
Since the loot box controversy is a dead horse that has been beaten to death by multiple other dead horses, I won’t retread all of that ground here. However, the impact of loot boxes on the overall enjoyment of Overwatch cannot be overstated, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the largest effect that loot boxes have on the game: they completely strip away any agency that the player has over cosmetic items. Did that awesome Blackwatch Genji skin catch your eye? Well, you better grind for in-game currency or hope you get lucky, because you’re not getting it any other way unless you spend actual money. The fact that you could open 20 loot boxes and still not get that skin you’ve been dreaming of demonstrates the depth of this problem perfectly. Spending hours and hours working towards the goal of unlocking a certain item becomes fruitless, and it robs you of the catharsis of having this investment of time and energy pay off. This issue is only exacerbated the more time you spend on the game; now that I’ve unlocked most of the cosmetics, the majority of loot boxes are filled with duplicate items, which are entirely useless except for the laughably small sum of in-game currency that they net.
Speaking of useless, most unlockable items in Overwatch are useless. Sprays, voice lines, and player icons are the most commonly earned items, but very few of these hold any actual meaning. I simply don’t care when I am gifted yet another mediocre voice line for Symmetra, or that I had the phenomenal fortune of receiving another player icon that I’ll forget as soon as I return to the menu screen. Victory poses, highlight intros, and emotes, on the other hand, hold a little more credence, and skins are without a doubt the most meaningful content that a player can unlock. It’s a shame, then, that these items are so much harder to come by in comparison to the usual dregs of the loot boxes.
Items earned from loot boxes also don’t say anything about the identity of the player, since everything is doled out randomly. Even if a player does spend some of their precious in-game currency on that adorable Orisa puppy emote, other players have no way of knowing that Lady Luck didn’t just smile on them as they popped open a loot box before the match. Conversely, in a game like Halo 3, if you saw a player wearing the Hayabusa armor with a katana slung across their back, you knew that that person had unlocked every achievement in the game, because that’s the only way to unlock that armor set. No matter how unimportant or trivial this may seem, a player owning the Hayabusa set says something about that player: they poured a lot of time and hard work into this game, and the armor they choose to wear is tangible proof of these accomplishments.
In fact, the only case in Overwatch where an unlockable item says something about the identity of the player is if they purchase the golden gun for a specific character. This generally implies that this person is skilled with that specific character (or that they think they’re skilled with that character), or that the player prefers this character on the basis of gameplay or aesthetics, or even that the player has just spent a lot of time in competitive matchmaking. We need to talk more about the golden guns, though, as they’re unlocked differently from the rest of the items in Overwatch.
Golden weapon skins can be purchased for any character by spending 3,000 “competitive points”. Fifteen competitive points are earned whenever a player wins a match in the competitive playlist; larger sums of competitive points—for most players, this will be several hundred points—are earned at the end of each season of competitive Overwatch, which last two months (for more specific numbers on this issue, check out this link: https://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20762076359). Let’s not sugarcoat this: this is an abysmal grind. Unlocking even a single golden weapon skin will take multiple competitive seasons, as evidenced by my own data. After playing 174 hours of competitive matchmaking across 10 different seasons, I’ve unlocked four golden weapons. Assuming you place in the Gold or Platinum skill tiers like I do, which the majority of players do, that means that it takes about 44 hours of competitive play to unlock a single golden weapon.
Even more absurd than the grind for competitive points—and this is what really grinds my gears—is the fact that golden weapons skins are literally the only item that competitive points can be spent on. At the time of writing this, Overwatch has been out for over two and a half years, and in that time, Blizzard has not added a single other item or cosmetic that players can purchase with competitive points. I’m not an expert on game development, but I’m pretty sure slapping a coat of gold paint on a weapon model takes up about as much development time as it takes for Tracer to zip from one end of the spawn room to the other. To put it in layman’s terms, it doesn’t take long.
The fact that no other ways to redeem competitive points exist in the game is inexcusable. Why hasn’t Blizzard thrown in cheaper, alternative weapon skin options, or even allowed their player base to buy loot boxes or cosmetic items with their competitive points? There are a lot of different directions that Blizzard can take this, but given that they haven’t taken it anywhere in over two years, their apathy towards this issue cannot go unnoticed.
Moving out of the cosmetics region of the game, let’s talk about Overwatch’s seasonal events. These are almost always based around a season or holiday, and they always include a mini-game to come along with the influx of new cosmetic items. The Summer Games event brings in the soccer-inspired Lucioball, the Halloween event brings in the wave survival mode of Junkenstein’s Revenge, and so on. The fact is, these mini-games wear themselves out pretty quickly, especially when they return annually with little to no changes. There’s only so many times I can play Mei’s Snowball Offensive before I find Blizzard’s idea of variety in these mini-games to be offensive.
Of course, not all of these events are repetitive or uninteresting. The Uprising and Archives events, which featured PvE gametypes rather than Overwatch’s traditional PvP gametypes, were by far the game’s most successful and exciting events, and that’s not only due to the shift in gameplay; it’s due to the shift to a more story-driven experience.
Overwatch may not have a story or campaign mode, but these two events are the closest that the game has gotten to something like this. And it’s a real shame that Blizzard has spent so little time on story-based events like these, as I find the lore and characters of Overwatch to be genuinely interesting. Sure, you have characters like Junkrat and Roadhog who don’t have much of an impact of the larger story and are more cartoon caricatures than characters, but you also have characters like Soldier 76, Reaper, Ana, and McCree, who have a surprising amount of depth and backstory to them. There is a lot of complexity and mystery to capitalize upon here, yet Blizzard has done relatively little capitalizing in this area.
Perhaps it is because of this lack of lore-based events that the story in Overwatch feels so stagnant. Yes, characters like Doomfist and Moira have been added to the roster, but they haven’t actually done anything significant to affect the current story other than to vaguely hint that something bad is looming on the horizon. Similarly, the Uprising and Archives events filled in some backstory, but they did nothing to progress the story itself. Since the game’s launch, the world of Overwatch has stayed in the exact same place: at the brink of conflict without ever developing into that conflict. If Blizzard wants to maintain their player base with seasonal events, then they need to start pumping out events that people actually care about, and these events need to be fresh and have an active impact on the story and characters of Overwatch.
I know I’ve been hating on what may seem like pretty insignificant parts of this game, but the all of these smaller factors have been rubbing me the wrong way for months now. Despite this, I still love Overwatch. It’s precisely because the game itself is so well-designed and so high-quality that I find these flaws to be so aggravating (it doesn’t help that I’m a ridiculously nitpicky consumer, in case you haven’t surmised that yourself by now). I’ve spent hundreds of hours rocket-punching enemies into walls as Doomfist, landing sleep darts on ulting enemies as Ana, and saving a desperate teammate with a well-timed bubble as Zarya, and I hope that I can spend hundreds of hours more in this beautiful, exhilarating game. But I honestly don’t see that happening until Blizzard provides better incentives for its player base to stick around, and I doubt I’ll be the only one to leave the game behind if they don’t.