It’s time for Overwatch to go free-to-play

If you were to head to over to Twitch’s most-watched list of games right now, you’d mostly see the usual titles enjoying top 10 spots. There’s Fortnite, of course, and your slate of e-sports mainstays like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike. But right now there’s also a brand-new game occupying the number one spot: Respawn’s Apex Legends, the free-to-play battle royale game from the creators of Titanfall that’s taken the competitive gaming community by storm this past week.

Through its free-to-play business model, combined with thoughtful game design and exhilarating combat, Apex has fast become a must-play online shooter with a huge online audience of both viewers and players. A week after launch it even had its first e-sports tournament. Beyond being a lesson for the broader game industry on how large, risk-averse companies can break into new genres, Apex is also a good example of how certain games can add fuel to an e-sports scene and really accelerate its growth, namely Blizzard’s Overwatch. No, I’m not saying Overwatch should add a battle royale mode (although imagine how fun that might be). But the game should absolutely go free-to-play — and here’s why.

We’re one day away from the premiere of the Overwatch League’s second season, and the team shooter around which Blizzard has built a wildly ambitious e-sports infrastructure is sitting at 17th on Twitch, with just under 17,000 viewers. It’s less viewed even than RuneScape and Civilization VI. Now, of course, it’s a valid question why anyone would be watching Overwatch on Twitch before the season starts. And Twitch viewership is not always a strong indication of a game’s popularity; some games just aren’t that fun to watch, or have dedicated communities that exist outside the streaming and social media space.

But if any game should probably be fun to watch, and experiencing at least a little boost in popularity ahead of a big e-sports event, it’s Overwatch. Blizzard has poured immense resources into turning the title into a proper sport, equipped with an international city-based team system and slick, expensive production that runs out of stadiums in New York and Los Angeles. In turn, the league has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship and broadcasting deals, commanding a reported $20 million team entry fee and much more in exclusive licensing rights sold to Disney and Twitch.

And yet, it doesn’t feel like Overwatch has retained its popularity in the gaming zeitgeist like other e-sports. Of course, battle royale games are more accessible for the average viewer and more popular within the broader gaming community right now, so it’s natural those titles dominate the leaderboards. But Blizzard has based the entire success of its e-sports league on Overwatch attracting new viewers, and then retaining those viewers as they turn into dedicated fans of one or more of the league’s teams.

Overwatch League

Photo courtesy Patrick Dodson for Blizzard Entertainment

Even games that have been out for far longer, like League of Legends and CS: Go, attract many times the viewership of Overwatch on an average day. So if fewer people are watching Overwatch now — and likely fewer people are playing the game, too — how large of a swell in popularity could a second OWL season really create?

This raises an important question, one that has yet to be answered by any modern e-sport to date: can a game truly survive as a professional sport while its general popularity as an online game wanes? Football fans aren’t typically playing football every day after work, but it goes without saying that most viewers of an e-sport have spent at the very least a dozen or so hours with the game they watch professionals play. And because online games change so drastically compared to standard sports, following an e-sport tends to require you check in with the game every now and again, so you’re familiar with the updates; in the case of Overwatch, that means the steady stream of new heroes, maps, and team strategies.

One move to make in this scenario is to change Overwatch’s business model. Instead of charging a flat, one-time fee to play the game, Blizzard could follow in the battle royale and MOBA genres’ footsteps and go full free-to-play. The studio has been steadily moving toward this moment for some time, having cut Overwatch’s price tag considerably over the last two and a half years, down to $40 and most recently down to $20 as of last month. By going free-to-play, Blizzard could bring in more players that could, potentially, become new OWL viewers.

Going free-to-play would also free up Blizzard to experiment with how Overwatch makes money and how it might better retain players in the future. The company has in the past added direct-purchase hero skins styled after OWL teams. But by going free-to-play, Blizzard could go one step further and add even more customization options for heroes, and more ways for you to play the game and unlock new cosmetics, perhaps through a seasonal battle pass like the one pioneered by Fortnite and coming soon to Apex Legends. The studio could also ditch its controversial loot box model, or simply add a rotating direct-purchase store for buying skins and other items outright.

There are some deeper, structural problems to Overwatch that have hindered the game’s competitive popularity, and no amount of tinkering to Blizzard’s business model will be able to change that. Most prominently, Overwatch is a dense game to watch, making it hard to follow and sometimes boring if two teams find themselves at an impasse. If you don’t play it, it’s also almost impossible to understand what’s going on, which is true of most e-sports, but especially difficult for Overwatch because Blizzard has made it a focus to push the game toward mainstream audiences on ESPN.

Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard has also kept OWL a few versions behind the game regular players experience in the day-to-day Overwatch scene, due to balance issues and the notion that pro players need some time to acclimate to updates. But that means that, in extreme situations, it’s like casual players and pros are playing two entirely different games, which makes for a poor viewing experience if you’re an invested player looking to see applicable strategies play out in a professional setting.

There’s also an argument to make that if a video game isn’t fun to play, it won’t be fun to watch. Overwatch, as a team game, is notorious for its toxic community and for Blizzard’s never-ending quest to make the game more inviting to new players and less harsh for people who like to play specific heroes. The failure to solve those issues has inevitably pushed casual players away, as has the game’s intrinsic design that prioritizes competitive play at the expense of other, more casual modes.

But again, in an ideal free-to-play world, every activity in Overwatch would help you progress a battle pass or earn in-game currency to unlock new cosmetics. That would give new players and casual ones reason to stick around and play quick play or mystery heroes or any of the other peripheral playlists.

All of these factors present Blizzard with some tough challenges as it heads into OWL season 2 and tries to plot the future of Overwatch. We have no idea if the company is planning a sequel to the game, and all signs would point to that being a bad idea if OWL is to become a proper e-sport for years to come.

Following Blizzard parent company Activision Blizzard’s earnings announcement yesterday, in which it laid off hundreds of employees, the studio said it had “a lot of new ideas” for the Overwatch universe, and that the game we know is “just a small part of the overall franchise.” That suggests anything new might move away from the e-sports and competitive nature of the original, and more into the narrative, story-driven end that’s made Overwatch’s animated shorts and lore so popular.

But right now, there doesn’t appear to be much value Blizzard and its publishing parent Activision are getting from selling Overwatch to the few fence-sitters who may have been waiting for it to drop to $20. By going free-to-play, the game could take on a new life by inviting in everyone who has even a passing interesting in Overwatch to finally give it a try. They might even like it enough to watch OWL for the very first time come Thursday.

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