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Can 'Overwatch' Overtake 'League of Legends' Without Fostering Toxicity?

Blizzard's wildly popular arena shooter is attracting more people than Riot's legendary MOBA. Is civility the cause?

by Leif Johnson
Jun 27 2016, 11:00am

Image: Blizzard.

Blizzard Entertainment's team-based arena shooter Overwatch is a pretty big deal. It's only been out for a month, but already it's said to have raked in $269 million across PC and console sales in May alone and amassed 7 million players just in its first week. By two weeks later, it was already up to 10 million. But arguably more impressive numbers have been coming in from overseas lately, as tracking site GameMetrics is reporting that Overwatch is the most-played game in South Korea's PC bangs, the popular internet cafes where the locals come together to battle it out. As of today, Overwatch is holding a steady lead with 31.23 percent of players there, while the former popularity champ League of Legends is trailing with 28.05 percent.

These are huge numbers. The third most popular game, the Korean free-to-play shooter Sudden Attack, can only pull in a measly 8.4 percent at PC bangs. Starcraft, Blizzard's popular space strategy game, only manages 2.54 percent in sixth place. No other game's been able to fill that gap in ages, much less overtake it. Overwatch's domination is all the more remarkable since it's achieved this level of success despite costing $40 on the PC and $60 on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, whereas League of Legends is free-to-play. Even if Overwatch were to suddenly go free-to-play, it'd still make some healthy cash from the in-game cash shop that features items that sell for as much as $40. (And let's not forget the truly big winner here is Tencent, the Chinese corporation that owns League of Legends' Riot Games and stakes in Overwatch's Activision Blizzard.)

League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that first came out in 2009, has dominated the charts for so long in Korea's PC bangs that some critics assumed Overwatch's sudden supremacy was a mere fluke, spurred on by its good reviews and excellent marketing. But even if Overwatch does eventually slip into that respectable second place, its rise arguably signifies a shift in the multiplayer gaming mindset that's existed until now.

As things stand, League and Overwatch deliver two entirely different multiplayer experiences. League is set in its ways almost to a fault, to the point that any true newcomers must have the courage to wade into an environment where players know the arcane ins and out of almost all of its 131 characters. Anyone who jumps in blindly (and even some players who've done this for years) finds themselves at risk of being brutally ridiculed and scorned for the slightest slip. It's not a game for the thin-skinned.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Compare that to Overwatch, where I find most matches still end with chummy banter and congratulations for each side even a month after release. It's this attitude that keeps me coming back, even with controversies such as the perceived imbalance of some of its characters. Much of that goodwill, I suspect, springs from the fact that it's easy to pick up and play every one of its 21 playable characters, even smack in the middle of a match when you haven't ever used it before. While studying tactics certainly helps, there's generally no need for the in-depth character studies you often see for League characters in order to get the most out of the game and (most importantly) support your team. Overwatch also doesn't keep track of kill/death ratios, making it less easy for snotty players to bash those who aren't performing as well, and it finds new way to celebrate achievements. All this combines to make it uncommonly easy to introduce a friend who's never played before, thus easily boosting the game's already exploding numbers.

Overwatch also maintains its friendly atmosphere with matches that typically only last around three to 20 minutes, while League matches generally last around 30 minutes on the low end. Thus, if things aren't going too well in Blizzard's game, you're not stuck in there for up to over an hour, and temperatures aren't reaching the boiling point they often reach in League. So your team did shittily this one match. Big deal. With some new players filling in the blanks for the next one, maybe you'll win. For me, at least, that's what keeps a smile on my face in Overwatch, whereas some matches of League of Legends have left me slamming my fist on the table and making broad statements about the state of humanity based on what I saw in the pixels making their way across the screen. It shouldn't be hard to guess which one I prefer. I can't imagine I'm alone.

But the big question is whether this happy state of affairs can continue for Blizzard. The number of players in the Korean cafes continues to go up, but already some players are starting to grumble on the official forums and on Reddit that there aren't enough maps, modes, or heroes in Overwatch. Of course, even seven months ago players were complaining about the same thing, and obviously that perceived "lack of content" hasn't hurt the launch that much at all.

Blizzard's used to these kinds of complaints. After all, people were complaining that World of Warcraft didn't have enough content back when it first came out in 2004, and I'd, ahem, say they addressed that competently enough. (Although, weirdly, the studio has effectively ignored the live version of its once mighty cash cow for a year now.) And Blizzard's supposedly set to release its long-awaited "Competitive Mode" for Overwatch any day now, even if there's some concern a mode like that will destroy the happy state of affairs we've enjoyed over the past few weeks.

For now, let's let it last. I, for one, welcome this chummy little chapter in contemporary multiplayer gaming, and apparently the folks in South Korea do, too. And considering how toxic gaming culture as a whole has been lately, anything that brings us together is worthy of celebration.