How popular is Overwatch, really?

UPDATE: We took a fresh new look at the state of Overwatch, one year later. 

You’ve probably heard Overwatch being called the most popular shooter on the market right now, but what does that mean? Why is it so popular, and how will that popularity effect the game’s future? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

How Many People Play Overwatch?

Overwatch was successful before it even released. Its free open beta maxed out at 9.7 million participants, which is a near unheard of magnitude. It passed 7 million players in just its first week, and the last time Blizzard gave us official numbers we were moving in on 11 million players. For comparison, World of Warcraft at its peak had 12 million subscribers, and that was only after being out for five years.

Some have already called Overwatch the most popular shooter of all time, but that’s inaccurate. In fact, pretty much every Call of Duty title has outsold it, so far. The best-selling CoD title, Black Ops, sold 30.17 million copies, almost 3 times what Overwatch is currently posting. But this claim isn’t just inflation and marketing, because Overwatch is gaining players at a faster rate than CoD ever has. In the same time period that Overwatch reached 7 million players, Black Ops and Modern Warfare reached 5.6 million and 4.7 million copies sold, respectively.

Overwatch was the best-selling game in May despite being launched at the end of the month. It is one of the fastest growing e-sports, with major tournaments already being held with six figure prize pools. Its subreddit, boasting 263,000 subscribers, averaged 20,000 more views than Reddit’s front page during the game’s launch period.

But perhaps the most interesting metric is that of the gameplay habits of South Korean gamers. Unlike the personal computer culture here in America, the primary way to play online games in South Korea is through Internet cafés, also called “bangs.” Many of the top Korean e-sport competitors spend their days practicing at these bangs, and a game's popularity among bangs can be used to take the pulse of the global e-sports community. Since 2012, League of Legends has been the most played game in bangs. However, in the past month Overwatch has taken over League’s spot with 30% of bang customers playing it compared to the 27.8% that play LOL.

How many people play Overwatch? A lot.

Why Is It So Popular?

It’s tempting to write off Overwatch’s popularity as a function of its quality. “Well of course it’s popular, it’s a good game.” While I’m not discounting Blizzard’s ability to make a good game, Overwatch’s popularity is more complicated than that.

In fact, one of the primary reasons for its popularity is the aforementioned open beta. It’s common practice for companies to play their upcoming releases close to their chest, but Overwatch, flaws and all, was opened up to anyone who had a rig good enough to play it. This alone converted many players who might have been on the fence about an Overwatch purchase to loyal customers. 

Overwatch’s success is also a matter of timing. We were just recovering from a period of shooter oversaturation. The success of Call of Duty led many shooter developers to create carbon-copies of the military shooter formula. However, Overwatch built itself on a very different formula: the class based team shooter. We haven’t seen a successful release in this genre since Team Fortress 2, which had long since gone free-to-play. While TF2 is still very popular, its focus on grinding for loot drops and small hero roster solidly place it in the past of the early 00’s. Overwatch, however, feels like a game made with contemporary game design philosophies in mind. In effect, Blizzard courted an audience that hadn’t seen a game release tailored for them in over a decade!

Then there is the story behind the creation of Overwatch. The game was spawned by Blizzard’s failed MMO project, Project Titan. But the meta plot seems to have been remained intact. As soon as Blizzard started releasing character videos, fans started picking apart the lore. This was only magnified by the references and Easter eggs found in the maps themselves. Most shooters simply don’t have a strong story. Team Fortress 2’s meta plot is one big joke, and Call of Duty’s single-player missions have nothing to do with its generic military-themed multiplayer mode. But, Overwatch keeps its players talking about every single pixel included in every single map with the fervor of a conspiracy theorist trying to uncover the Illuminati.

Blizzard than capitalizes on this fan fervor by listening to fans and responding to them. For example, fans began talking about whether or not Doomfist, the character who owns the powerful gauntlet seen in one of the game’s first trailers, would ever become a playable character. Blizzard originally planned for Doomfist to be a throwaway reference, but fan excitement has caused them to look into actually creating Doomfist in playable form. This attention to player desire extends far past the playable roster. It was player feedback that lead to nerfs and buffs for most of the characters during the beta period, the early nerf of Widowmaker and McCree, the console nerf of Torbjorn, and more. Since players feel like they have an active role in deciding where the game will go in the future, they are more likely to play the game in order to see their influence.

Then there was the pricing scheme, which was brilliant in its own way. While console versions cost 60 dollars, the basic PC version only cost 40. This lowered the cost closer to impulse buy range for a lot of people. The deal was only sweetened because you could get Overwatch-themed bonuses in Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. For people who were willing to pay 60 dollars anyway, a special edition was provided that gave users a bunch of cool costumes to play around with.

Finally, it’s worth it to mention the popularity boost that Overwatch received as a result of scandal. Early on, as Blizzard revealed art assets for the game, a scandal broke out over a pose that Tracer was in which showed off her butt. Some people felt that this was reminiscent of a Rob Liefeld-esque Escher Girl, while others believed that the post was harmless. Regardless, this turned people’s eyes to the game, and simultaneously caused people to objectify Tracer even more! Porn searches (yes, really) for Overwatch characters ballooned upward 817 percent following the start of the open beta. This caused even more outrage, and got yet more people talking about the game.

There’s an old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” and Overwatch may be proof of that. It especially helped that outraged individuals who tried the game found an incredibly diverse cast of characters of all races, genders, sexualites, and…species, I suppose. It was like a trap, luring in people who were seeking progressivism in games with butt-based outrage, and then giving them exactly what they wanted.

What Does This Mean For The Future?

It’s tempting to call Overwatch the shooter to end all shooters, but it’s important to note that Overwatch isn’t necessarily unique. Yes, it’s the first shooter Blizzard has ever released. Yes, it’s the first successful class-based/team-based arcade style shooter released in over a decade. Yes, it has grown at an unprecedented rate. But we are still only a little over a month post-release. Every game sees a heavy influx of players during its initial release, regardless of quality. All the planets may have come into alignment for Overwatch to have a more successful release than similar games, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have staying power.

Overwatch is going to face some heavy competition in the next year. We are hitting yet another point of shooter saturation, and the market will soon be flooded with new titles in the genre to play. Titanfall 2, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and Battlefield One are just a few that we are looking forward to. And more team-based arcade shooters are coming out, including Quake Champions on the way. Not to mention it still faces stiff competition from Team Fortress 2. It’s hard to argue with free as a price tag.

With each new release, Overwatch is going to leak users. If it stayed a static game, as it is now, Overwatch could be dead in a few years.

The solution? Keep the game changing. This is where DLC comes in. Blizzard already has a huge advantage over similar games in that they have said all Overwatch DLC will be free. It costs Overwatch players nothing to try out the new content. So Blizzard has to plan around this. A new shooter comes out? Drop a new character and some maps, preferably a short time after the new shooter releases. That way everyone can have their fun trying out whatever hot new shooter comes out, but their curiosity will bring them back to try out Sombra, Doomfist, or whoever else Blizzard has up their sleeve. Then Blizzard will have the power of inertia on their side. Without the release of something new, gamers tend to continue playing whatever they played last, which in this case is Overwatch.

It looks as though Blizzard is already set to release their first DLC character sometime in the near future, within two months of the game's release, and that’s about the schedule they should shoot for. The game has to stay fresh at all times. TF2 accomplished this by near constant content updates, and Overwatch will have to do the same.

But if Blizzard keeps the content rolling, Overwatch could have a bright future ahead. Right now it has momentum and huge market saturation. Everyone from casual fans to e-sports competitors are pushing it hard. This momentum could keep Overwatch a staple in the shooter-sphere for the next ten years. Blizzard just needs to capitalize on it.

A sale or two would also help.

What do you think? Have you jumped on the Overwatch bandwagon? Let us know in the comments.

Overwatch hero stacking