Video Games

After competitive changes, ‘Overwatch’ could be the game of 2016

“Overwatch” is clearly the game of 2016 so far, but being the top dog before the holiday release crush is a bit like going undefeated in the NFL preseason: It’s nice, but it doesn’t mean anything. Fellow shooter franchises “Battlefield,” “Call of Duty” and “Titanfall” are coming for the “Overwatch” faithful, and Square Enix could bring the pain with a new “Final Fantasy” or (hopefully) “Kingdom Hearts.”

Perhaps in an effort to fend off the vultures seeking to pick off its players, Blizzard announced sweeping changes to the game’s competitive mode. I wrote about the mode’s major flaws when the first season started in June. Some issues, like players being penalized for a teammate leaving the game, were fixed on the fly. Fixes for the remaining problems – a horrible coin-toss system and a weak progression system, to name a few – appear to be on the way.

The major upcoming change will be the mode’s ranking system. The simple 1-100 system will now be a 1-5,000 system with five skill tiers, similar to “League of Legends” and Blizzard’s own “StarCraft.” Once you reach a specific tier, you can not fall below it – unless you are playing in the very highest levels.

The most popular change will undoubtedly be the gutting of the sudden death/coin toss tiebreakers. These abysmal systems ensured that close, hard-fought games were almost always settled by random chance. I am not in love with the idea of some games ending in a tie. A wise movie baseball coach once said that ties are like kissing your sister, but it’s better than losing because a virtual coin said so.

Players of vastly different skill levels will no longer be able to group up in competitive, which is also for the best. It could sometimes lead to really odd matchups, and I am sure people of low skill level had probably resorted to paying people to raise them up in this way. And I am always against boosters.

On an unrelated note, whoever added the bad sportsmanship filter to the most recent “Overwatch” patch is a genius. If you try to type “gg ez” (condescending gamer slang used when you easily beat an opponent), the game will automatically change it to one of several hilarious phrases like “It’s past my bedtime. Please don’t tell my mommy” or “I’m wrestling with some insecurity issues in my life, but thank you for playing with me.”

I wrote about how Blizzard needed to take steps to stop online toxic behavior before it becomes the norm, as it is in “League of Legends.” This minor tweak won’t stop toxic behavior completely – only a drastic societal change would do that – but it will embarrass a few bad eggs, and that’s a better defense than most games can muster.

When competitive mode was released, Blizzard promised four two-and-a-half month seasons per year, with two weeks of break time in between each. The first season only lasted about six weeks, so someone must have decided to cut things short early to implement these changes.

And that’s a great sign.

The changes and the decision to expedite them show two important things: Blizzard is working diligently to make “Overwatch” better, and the creators are listening to player feedback.

I wasn’t sure just how serious Blizzard would be about improving its shooter. Unlike “Dota 2” or “League,” “Overwatch” is not free-to-play. Developers giving their game away for nothing have to retain players in the hopes they will buy a skin here and a boost there. These microtransactions are their main source of income. But we shelled out the traditional $60 ($40 on PC) upfront for “Overwatch.” Blizzard made millions in a single day, so I worried about its commitment to keeping players who had already contributed plenty to the bottom line. Important, timely updates have calmed my fears.

If you’re not an “Overwatch” fan, a lot of this is probably gibberish. Just understand a few things. First, “Overwatch” is an amazing game. You should be playing it daily. Even with the competitive mode flaws, it is top-tier. Second, Activision-Blizzard is a massive company. It has hundreds of ongoing video game projects, so taking time to fix an existing game and listen to its fans means something – even if you aren’t an “Overwatch” fan. And third, competition is always good. Because “Overwatch” is so good, the creators of other upcoming games – “Titanfall 2,” for example – know they have to step up their game.

The next few months are critical for “Overwatch.” Are we look at a good game, the best game of 2016, or a once-in-a-decade online phenomenon? We’ll see.