I have a confession to make: Despite being Kotaku’s number one Overwatch fan, I haven’t played it myself in two years. But buffeted by my optimism for Overwatch 2 and being unable to get my Overwatch fix because Overwatch League won’t be back for another month, I decided to play again, hoping to recapture what I first loved about the game.
Cooperative shooters were never my thing. In my mind, they had a reputation for being unforgiving in terms of skill requirements and player toxicity. However, aided by the fact it was made by Blizzard Entertainment, a company I’d grown to love over many years of playing World of Warcraft, when Overwatch arrived in 2016 I thought this could finally be a shooter for me. And it was. Overwatch was the game that got me out of multiple comfort zones. Not only was I playing a cooperative, first-person shooter, but I gravitated toward the support heroes—something I’d never done in any class-based game before. Overwatch just clicked for me. I didn’t feel any undue pressure to be good, and the diverse cast, bright colors, and hopeful message put me at ease in the way the dishwater-brown seriousness of Modern Warfare et al did not.
Overwatch League arrived in 2018, galvanizing my commitment to and love for the game. I had a serious case of esports fomo. I was endlessly excited by the idea of video games getting the same treatment as meatsports—finally a competitive thing I want to participate in! But all of the most popular esport titles—League of Legends, Call of Duty, and Dota 2—weren’t games I was interested in or could even understand. I would watch The International, Dota 2’s yearly competitive season-ending tournament, feeding off the infectious energy of the crowd, casters, and players, while not understanding a single thing happening in front of me. What the hell is a BKB? I dunno, but they all seem pretty excited about it. Overwatch League became the bridge that connected me to something I was desperate to be a part of but couldn’t quite grasp. I bought all the way in, and while the League has its troubles with dwindling interest, a lack of female players, and player protections, I truly feel it’s a community I’ll stay with until the very end—whether I’m playing the game or not.
Almost three years ago, I just stopped playing Overwatch. While my love of watching the game via Overwatch League was at its highest (and it’s still there) actually playing the game had become a chore. The Arcade and Quick Play modes had become stale, the Workshop wasn’t yet a thing, the newest heroes weren’t exciting, and I avoided the competitive ladder since it contained the worst “git gud” elements of the community. There was also the racism. Despite having an overall good experience, Overwatch has the dubious honor of being the game in which I’ve experienced the most racism. In-game chat filled with the n-word was a common occurrence. Reddit and the Blizzard forums have threads asking why innocuous meme phrases like “GGEZ” are banned but should you turn off the profanity filter, the n-word becomes fair game. As I was falling out of love with the game and before stopping completely, I remember having discussions with myself before logging in. I would weigh how much I wanted to play against my strength to deal with any racist or misogynist fuckery that might ensue. And as my strength to deal waned, my desire to play dwindled to nothing and I finally stopped. My friends noted my absence. They would jokingly send me screenshots of their Battle.net friends list with the “Offline” timer under my name growing longer.
Last week, I decided to play again for the first time in years. There was no real precipitating incident that caused me to come back—I just did it. It took a moment for a couple of months’ worth of updates to install, but I was back in the game. It’s changed a lot. There are little quality of life adjustments that are nice to see. The “mark all as seen” button for any new cosmetics is nice (though I did sometimes enjoy clearing the notification out manually if only to spend time with the characters.) I like that the game tells you how long you can expect to queue and that you can spend time in the practice range while queueing for a match. Role queue is a blessing. In the early days, I spent many a game struggling on damage or tank heroes because all the support slots were filled. Role queue eliminated that anxiety. It is hands down it is the best thing about returning to the game.
Returning to Overwatch didn’t feel like a big deal, rather it was a collection of smaller moments that reminded me why I fell hard for this game back in 2016. I remember opening the game for the first time, hearing trumpets blare “The World Could Always Use More Heroes” and feeling my lips automatically quirk up in a smile—like hearing a greeting from an old friend. I was delighted by the muscle memory kicking in while playing Zenyatta. I didn’t have to remember the keybinds for his damage and healing orbs, shooting them all over the place, unafraid to get close to the heart of battle. That fearlessness was rewarded with gold and silver medals in healing done and kill assists. It felt as though I had never stopped playing—although my ultimate timing is still a bit rusty.
Overwatch, it seems, is still my comfort zone smashing game. I feel more empowered to try other modes I ignored in the past. I experimented with different heroes in Team and Solo Deathmatch for the first time and was quite surprised at how well I did. I’m even considering giving Competitive a serious attempt. One of the best things about Overwatch is that I don’t have to make a big time commitment to it. I can get everything I want out of a session in 20 minutes or less, making it the perfect palate cleanser for when I need a break from endless hours of Final Fantasy XIV. Though I needed some time away from Overwatch, It feels really good to come back.