How To Hype: ‘Overwatch’-ing The Videogame Market

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About a year and a half ago, Blizzard (known for games such as World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and the Diablo series) released one of the most highly anticipated games of the year, ‘Overwatch’. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, ‘Overwatch’ at its core is a team-based shooter where players pick from one of the currently 26 heroes and compete in a 6v6 format.  To this day, it remains the only game I have ever pre-ordered (and never regretted buying, which is more than I can say for some games I got on sale for next to nothing). So what was it that made me, and millions of others alongside me, so very excited for the release of this one game that we were willing to throw out one of the gaming community’s golden rules – “never pre-order”? How did Blizzard manage to create a game that was so cool (pun intended)? How exactly did this one specific game in the oversaturated and highly competitive video game market manage to get everyone so hyped?

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Building hype can be one of the most important goals of the often large-scale marketing machines of current games, films and other media. Hype is paramount to securing sales before a product is even released, often being built and increasing over many months before ultimately ending when the product is finally sold. The initial reveal trailer, released all the way back in 2014, was the first stepping-stone towards building the ‘Overwatch’-hype. It had everything: a giant gorilla with a laser gun fighting an edgy teen’s dream characters – two hot chicks performing acrobatics in true videogame fashion, and two kids being (un)willing spectators to the whole shebang. If that was too subtle for you, one of the kids literally says, “That was awesome”. Despite the fact that the all-CGI trailer shows absolutely no actual gameplay, it already got people excited for the game. Still, releasing one 6-minute video[1] (no matter how awesome it was) is a long way from actually successfully selling a game – after all, most games are nowadays accompanied by fancy CGI trailers that say nothing about the actual quality of the game. So, what was next?

 

More CGI, that’s what. Still building up to the release of the actual game, Blizzard released a bunch of so-called animated shorts; basically, 6/7 minute short films[2] centred around one or more of the characters available in the game, or ‘heroes’. Cat2This was a close to unprecedented move; the obvious high production value and the amazing storytelling made people feel like they actually knew the characters before the game was even released. It was a risky move by Blizzard: the actual game itself is surprisingly low on lore, and the cinematics could have further widened the gap between the gameplay and the story (or lack thereof). Instead, the shorts served the purpose of even further hyping the game the characters were from, and Blizzard has continued to produce these shorts even a year and a half after the game was released (the latest one was released less than a week ago). Fans are begging the game developers to produce a feature-length movie, and it’s not hard to see why: the amount of emotional storytelling wrapped in a the highly polished finish means these shorts pack more of a punch than most movies that are currently in theatres.

The biggest thing ‘Overwatch’ had going for it, however, is the thing that is also missing from most highly anticipated films and games, and that results in those films and games having little to no long-term impact: ‘Overwatch’ actually proved to be a good game and more than delivered on its pre-release promises; it was one of those rare cases where the pre-release hype was justified by the post-release product. Blizzard knew this, and arranged for ‘Overwatch’ to have an open beta shortly before its release, meaning people were able to play the full game for free for a few days. It is amazing to see that the game developers had so much faith in their product that they believed ‘Overwatch’’s biggest selling point would be the game itself. And so the hype continued to build, up until the final launch in May 2016.

The hype did not stop there: the game developers are far from idle, even when the game they helped create has lived up to its hype and is a verified success. They Cat3keep listening to the community, balancing and re-balancing the game over and over again (the acronym OP, meaning overpowered has been used to describe literally every hero in the game at some point), and even releasing new content, such as new heroes, maps and events, for absolutely free – a new hero, map and skins were just announced at Blizzard’s two-day convention. In a market often ruled by micro-transactions (“buy this unique one-of-a-kind skin to show people in-game that you spent actual real-life money on a virtual item that does literally nothing to enhance your experience other than making you look rad while you’re losing”), this is almost unheard of.

However, the release of a new hero is also one of the only times the hype turned against its makers. A new hacking-based hero had been hyped up for months; speculation abounded, but Blizzard decided to put a spin on its traditional timeline of announce, video, release. Instead, they engaged the community in a so-called ARG (alternate reality game), hiding bits and pieces of code, puzzles and lore in sporadically released new material. With this, however, they thoroughly underestimated the fervour and obsessiveness of the ‘Overwatch’ community. Before they knew it, countless conspiracy-style videos sprouted on YouTube; new information was sought in everything from the initial launch trailer to the blinking patterns of game director Jeff Kaplan (could it be Morse code?). Some even went so far as to create a song out of literally nothing more than a poorly rendered sky on one of the maps (Blizzard actually put this sky-song in the game as one of the new hero’s emotes). Before long, the hype had turned to disappointment and anger; it was quite obvious that Blizzard had plans to release the character at a specific time in the future and that the ARG was a way to keep the community nice and eager until that point would arrive, but that they were never expecting their puzzles and codes to be solved so quickly. Lesson learned for Blizzard: never underestimate a bunch of video-game nerds when you tease them with a new character, and never over-hype.

Other than that one small misstep, the game’s path to success has been almost instant, and along with it many others found fame: ‘Overwatch’ has launched the careers of countless streamers, professional players, and anyone involved in making money off of videogames. Currently boasting over 35 million players, ‘Overwatch’ is even planning on launching its own e-sports league, where professional players (who often gain a fan following not unlike successful players of traditional sports) can become part of a team and compete for money, glory, the works. Perhaps the phenomenon of ‘hype’ is therefore in this case not something that ultimately finds release or stops altogether; perhaps, in the case of ‘Overwatch’, it is a state of being, a continued intangible characteristic of the game and all that goes with it as a whole. Overall, there is only one phrase that truly describes what I am trying to say: “that was awesome!”

[1] Which you can view here if you’re curious.

[2] A playlist is available on YouTube; there are currently 8 shorts available on the Overwatch YouTube page, the most popular of which has over 20 million views. The playlist can be found here.

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