Blizzard has something of a tradition of taking a game someone else has made and polishing away the rough edges to make it their own – they took the real time strategy game Dune and polished it into Warcraft. Magic had its complicated land systems revamped to a deceptively simple game of escalating mana counts with Hearthstone, Everquest had its role playing wonkiness sanded down into World of Warcraft, and Defense of the Ancients was reworked to be the more accessible and player-friendly Heroes of the Storm. And, of course, then there’s Overwatch: Blizzard’s attempt to transform, modernize, and streamline TF2. That Overwatch is deeply influenced by TF2 is apparent when you sit down to play it. From its upbeat and cheery artstyle to its character-driven advertisement campaign to its mix of capture points, king of the hill, and payload objectives, to its core gameplay loops and class definitions, Overwatch is definitely Blizzard’s take on TF2.
And I find that interesting, because despite all of the similarities the two games end up creating radically different social spaces and ask players to approach them in very divergent ways. Specifically, Team Fortress 2 focuses on creating a social space within the game whereas Overwatch tries to frame itself as a social activity. Or in more simple terms: TF2 is where you go to meet your friends, where Overwatch is a thing you do with your friends. And I don’t know how much of this is intentional on either Valve or Blizzard’s part, but both games have several mechanics and interface choices that pull them in those specific directions.
Take each game’s pacing, for example. Team Fortress games – especially the earlier modes like capture the flag and control point – tend to have a lot of down time. Maybe you’re an engie guarding your turret, maybe you’re a sniper sitting in his roost, maybe you’re a medic waiting for his uber to charge – for a lot of classes there can be a surprising amount of sitting around in this fast paced online action game. These quiet moments are amplified by the comparatively long length of the rounds. A TF2 match can last 40 minutes to an hour on official servers if there’s an ongoing stalemate, with average matches of a lot of modes running twentyfive to thirty minutes. All of this leads to lots of time to socialize – the game has some quiet time that lets players breathe a bit and allows for non-systems based interactions like sprays and taunts and chat to matter, and because matches are so long and prone to stalemating taking a few seconds to enter some text or put out a spray isn’t the end of the world.
Overwatch, meanwhile, is paced much more tightly. It aims for a sweet spot somewhere between Team Fortress 2’s half-hour-to-an-hour battles and Splatoon’s 5 minute skirmishes. It wants rounds that last long enough that the match feels like it has consequence and is something to get invested in, but short enough that you’re never more than ten or fifteen minutes from changing things up. The result is that things are frantic and action-packed from the word ‘go’, and the game avoids a lot of the sitting around that happens in Team Fortress 2. Overwatch is very much about active engagement on both sides rather than hardcore turtling on one side and waiting for an uber to pop on the other, and that makes for matches that feel fluid and close without feeling like a waste of time… but it also leads to matches where there’s not really an opportunity to use your spray or your taunt or your voice line because you are always needed somewhere on the battlefield just that second. It is rare to see someone using a spray or taunt outside of the attack team’s preparation stage. It doesn’t help that instead of TF2’s single button press you have to select a taunt or vocal line from a radial menu, which isn’t the best interface when using a mouse in the middle of the game.
But even if Overwatch were slowed down to facilitate more self-expression, the game doesn’t seem all that interested in it. TF2 may have completely broken its wonderful aesthetic with hats, and that’s a fair criticism. But it did so to facilitate player expression, which was clearly a value the game adopted after its initial release. TF2 gives players the ability to build their own custom outfits from three different cosmetic slots, then paint those objects a variety of colors. TF2 encourages players to upload their own sprays and even attach their own images to some weapons. You can name your weapons or have them track your kills or end up with a pseudorandom weapon skin that is (technically speaking, anyways) unique to you. In short, in TF2 you are an individual, and the game uses clothing and weapons and sprays and more to help you express yourself and tell your story. Even how you got items tells a story – their quality indicating whether you bought a game, or popped it open from a chest using money, or got a super lucky drop, or were playing the game back in the day before there were qualities to be concerned about. Owning a vintage sandman or an Unusual Backbiter’s Billycock says something about your history with the game.
Overwatch – for a variety of reasons – seems to be disinterested in letting players be unique snowflakes. You can pick skins for each character, but it will be a pre-approved skin in a pre-approved color. Having skins also doesn’t really tell a story – you slowly accumulate items and cash as you level, and with enough cash you can purchase any skin but the pre-order skins. You can use sprays and taunts and emotes, but only official ones found in the game – and only after unlocking them. To be clear, this has benefits – unlike the ramshackle look TF2 has slowly adopted, Overwatch’s characters are always pleasing to the eye. They also don’t exploit their userbase with crates with a low percentage chance of expensive items – you can buy loot boxes to speed up the unlock process, but there’s nothing in the game you can’t get with time. TF2 tempts you to gamble to get exclusive rare items, Overwatch just offers to speed up unlocks for a price. It also avoids the issues that crop up when people decide to make pornographic or racist images their spray in TF2. Cosmetics become less about expression of self to others, and more about expressing yourself to yourself – less “How do I dress my heavy up to intimidate the enemy?” and more “what is my favorite color of McCree?” The whole thing is safer, prettier, and less exploitative, and I don’t want to discount that… but it also does kill the sense that you are anything other than Torbjorn #4812 on server #523.
And speaking of: the approach each game takes as to how to handle servers is by far the biggest cause of the divide in the games’ social environments. Overwatch has a locked down set of official servers that players access via a matchmaking system. This approach will take a player or their current group and dynamically find a collection of other players to fill out a match, then dump the lot of them into a server to play. This means that with sufficient players and servers finding a match is quick, easy, and requires no effort on the part of the players. But it also means that the people you’ll be playing with will be algorithmically selected – and reselected as people or whole groups quit the game.
In contrast, (at least historically) Team Fortress 2 has allowed people to set up their own servers that you can connect to via a server browser. And a lot has been made about the impact of user owned and operated servers in terms of modability and consumer advocacy, but there’s also a social angle that I think gets largely ignored. Custom servers facilitate communities in a way that dynamic matchmaking just can’t. They can have their own rules and map rotations – maybe they like community created maps that haven’t been made official yet, maybe they only like capture the flag maps, maybe they want a place to play 2Fort 24 hours a day seven days a week. They can set server rules – not just for gameplay like player count and respawn time, but community rules. What behavior or play styles get you banned from the server is up to these small collections of players to decide. But more than the control over how you’re playing, it’s who you’re playing with.
Overwatch, by using matchmaking and official servers exclusively, doesn’t have the ability to create communities. And that’s why, to return to my perhaps overwrought phrasing, Overwatch is a thing you do with friends where Team Fortress 2 is a place you go to meet friends. Overwatch lets you load up a game against randos, and if you have other friends who play Overwatch they can smash randos with you. And it’s good fun, and it is social, but it’s social internal to people you already know, who are already on your friends list. On the other hand, Team Fortress 2 servers can become something like a local bar – there are the people who never seem to leave, the regulars who tend to reliably come in at certain times or certain days, and the collection of rando that fill out the rest. And in that environment, people get to know each other. Especially in these slower matches that have breathing room to share jokes or taunts and express yourself via in-game items. Now this has changed in recent years (look at this week’s patch for evidence of that). And despite being more popular than ever the community servers have largely died off, and I’m mostly just being an old man waxing nostalgic for the version of the game that existed five or six years ago. But I know I’m not the only one who had one of these during TF2’s height – a favorite server where no matter when you hopped on you knew at least a third of the people playing, and where you felt like (even in some shallow and artificial way) you were getting to know these other people playing. There were inside jokes and social hierarchies, friendly rivalries and drama. They were, in short, communities, and that’s something Overwatch will never offer.
And let’s be clear – much like everything else Overwatch does, this has some tremendous benefits. You don’t have cheevo farming servers, trade servers, idle servers, or the myriad of other servers that are filled with all sorts of undesirables. You also don’t have servers full of dangerous chaos – there are plenty of Team Fortress 2 servers out there that are the videogame equivalent of a 4chan board, and Overwatch just doesn’t have that problem. And, frankly, most of games seem headed in Overwatch’s direction – locked down and centralized, offering a streamlined service rather than a platform for expression and community building. Starcraft 2 only lets you upload 10 user created maps, Fallout and DOOM have official places to dump your mods. Team Fortress 2 was released almost a decade ago, and even that game has started to step back towards matchmaking with official servers in recent releases. The latest patch even introduces the idea of putting you into a clean server from start to finish, just like Overwatch, and a ranked 6 v 6 mode, just like Overwatch, and a leveling up mechanic, just like Overwatch. And no doubt this will push the popularity of custom servers – which aren’t in quick play rotation – down even further. Times change, and we’re less interested in games as a place to be social and make friends than as a means of being social with your existing friends, especially if that means building a safer and more inclusive space which is absolutely important.
But I also think it’s important to not forget about what we’re losing as we lock things down and put everything onto proprietary servers. What we gain in safety we lose in community; what we gain in one-click ease of use we lose in terms of player expression and individuality. Having seen both approaches it’s hard not to feel like we’ve traded one form of broken excess for another. We still long for a place we can go on Friday nights where everyone knows our name, and the house rules for both gameplay and the community are just the way we like them, and we can show off our new hats or the prestigious counts on our guns. And while I get why, Overwatch isn’t interested in any of that. It’s safer and more streamlined and that’s not to be overlooked! But no matter how much I play it – and no matter how amazingly fun it is – it’ll never feel like a digital home the way games five to ten years ago could.