When Shuaib Sookia, an Overwatch fan who lives in the African country of Mauritius, posted to both the game’s subreddit and official forums about how much of a pain it can be to play Blizzard’s team-based shooter without servers located anywhere on the continent of Africa, he wasn’t expecting much in the way of response.
“I love playing Overwatch,” Sookia wrote. “Unfortunately I can’t play because there are no African servers. I have no other choice than to connect to Europe and get a ping of 300+ ... Please don’t ignore us.”
Sookia’s impassioned pleas garnered 11.8k upvotes on the Overwatch subreddit and 515 likes on Overwatch’s official forum, and ended up kicking off a mammoth discussion about the odd paradox of multicultural representation in Overwatch. The game has gone out of its way to feature African characters, but has no servers for real-life African players.
Playing Overwatch in Mauritius and other African countries is often an exercise in frustration, Sookia told me via Skype. He said his ping—the amount of time it takes for his computer to respond to a request sent by another computer—hovers around 250 milliseconds. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s everything in reflex-based games like Overwatch, where 50 or lower is considered good ping, and 100 is on the outside edge of acceptability.
For Sookia, this means trudging through gooey lagoons of lag to play his favorite multiplayer shooter. He can’t use many of the game’s most popular heroes, because in a shootout, his enemies will almost always be quicker to the draw.
“Forget McCree, forget Soldier 76, forget Widowmaker,” Sookia said. He mostly plays as Reinhardt or Winston, characters who don’t require as much timing or reflex.
This was a sentiment expressed by nearly every African Overwatch player I talked to over the course of the past couple weeks, as well as those who posted in the two big threads Sookia started: Overwatch lacks African servers, forcing players to try their luck on EU and American servers instead. In order to succeed, they can’t just play the game normally. If speed kills, then lag’s the perfect accomplice.
A clip of Overwatch player Jody Fourie getting killed after already rounding a corner due to lag.
“If I try to juke a D.Va ult at the last moment, it will kill me because of the delay,” Henré Botha, an Overwatch player who lives in South Africa, told me in an email. “On my screen I appear to be safely behind cover, but on the server I’m still in [line of sight] of the explosion.” Botha says he can’t react quickly enough to fend off most enemy moves, and must attempt to preempt them instead.
Jody Fourie, a player from Cape Town, South Africa, noted that it gets much rougher as you rise through the ranks. He’s made it to the upper echelons of Diamond in competitive mode, but it’s increasingly become something he avoids.
“The game is still fun for me,” Fourie said in an email, “but can quickly become very frustrating when the tide of a match turns just because I died from someone having better latency. Things like this have made me avoid competitive at times because I feel like I put my team at a disadvantage.”
While most African players use Overwatch’s European servers, Milan Oodiah, another player from Mauritius, says American servers give him a slightly better experience, even though that might seem counter-intuitive in light of America’s distance from Africa. He still has to cope with high ping, but it’s in the 150-200 range, rather than 200+.
Oodiah says me he gravitates toward twitchy characters like Tracer and Widowmaker, with some caveats. “Given that my ping isn’t great, I stick to quick play and not competitive,” Oodiah said in an email. “I don’t want to drag people’s [skill rating] down until I feel confident enough about both my aim and my ping.”
While the Overwatch World Cup is theoretically open to teams from anywhere in the world, it’s only “logical,” Sookia pointed out, that no African teams qualified. They don’t have an even playing field, and he believes that needs to change.
Overwatch is not the only game to suffer from this issue. Outside of a couple heavy hitters like DOTA 2 and Battlefield 1, most games lack servers on the African continent. Why is this difficult for game makers? Blizzard did not respond to Sookia’s viral post, nor did it respond to Kotaku’s repeated requests for comment on this story.
The costs of the servers are likely an issue, but it’s likely more complicated than that. “Every branch option splits the userbase,” said Arjan Brussee, COO of Lawbreakers development studio Boss Key Games. The more a userbase is split up across regions, the harder it is for an individual player to find a match, he said in an email. Many games, like Lawbreakers, run their servers through third-party services like Amazon Cloud—which, Brussee points out, doesn’t have server options in Africa, or in Russia, or in the Middle East.
Those probably aren’t the answers many players want to hear, but Brussee said there are Band-Aids and salves that can ease the pain. “Although we all hate lag, there are ways to hide it with good netcode,” he said.
Whatever the reason for Blizzard’s absence from Africa, several players I spoke to noted the ironic disconnect between the game’s fictional spaces and the actual spaces in which it can be played.
“I find it pretty funny that in the Overwatch universe, Africa is host to these technologically advanced cities, but in our world we don’t even get a server for our entire continent,” said Fourie. “Gaming in South Africa has grown fast over the years, and we are seeing more LAN events and expos than ever before. Our internet infrastructure has grown considerably over the last few years and has become a lot more affordable, and fiber is busy being rolled out to all the major cities at the moment, which will only drive prices down even further.”
“If Blizzard is showing [African level] Numbani, is releasing Doomfist, and is representing Africa, I think it’s not good if you do that, but you don’t seem to care about the players,” Sookia said. “It doesn’t make sense. Either you don’t care about African players and you don’t care about Africa itself—you don’t put Numbani or Doomfist in your game—or you take care of both of them. As is, it’s just nonsense.”
Not everybody was quite so harsh on Blizzard, though. “I’m just ecstatic that Blizzard has taken such care to introduce such a diverse array of Africans in such a visible way,” said Botha. “Media representation of Africans is a critical issue in our time, and Blizzard are doing a stellar job of showing Africans who are brave, resourceful, and intelligent. Every game should do this, regardless of where it is played.”
Consoles, especially PlayStation, are people’s main gaming destination in countries like South Africa, Fourie said, but Fourie added that PC gaming is starting to gain a foothold there in part because competitive games like Counter-Strike, DOTA 2, Battlefield 4, and Call of Duty allow players from African countries to host their own private servers. which give them better all-around play experiences.
If Blizzard is indeed refraining from running African servers because it believes there aren’t enough players, Fourie says the publisher is mixing up the cause and effect relationship: “Blizzard is most likely hesitant to give us servers because we do not have the player base, so perhaps it would not be financially viable,” he said. “Perhaps we would have a much larger player base if someone gave a crap.”
“If EA put servers here, they must have seen a big business opportunity,” said Sookia, noting the company’s recent addition of African servers for Battlefield 1. In addition to being an Overwatch fan, Sookia is a finance advisor for one of the Big Four accounting firms, and jokingly added that if Blizzard wants some market analysis showing that African servers would be a good idea, he is “ready to help.”
Sookia says he has been surprised by just how much support he’s gotten from the Overwatch community, and for that he’s exceedingly thankful. “The community is more awesome than Blizzard,” he chuckled. “I’ve got friends in Europe, a friend in Italy, the Netherlands, France—we all play together.”
Despite a sub-optimal experience, Sookia and players like him still love Overwatch. It’s bright and colorful where other games are drab and serious. It’s got a diverse cast of characters who exist outside the game as well as in it thanks to cinematics, comics, and fan works. A couple of them are African themselves, and it’s clear that Blizzard put a lot of effort into making them capable and relatable. On top of all that, some of the game’s characters are even kinda playable during nauseating lag spikes. It’s for those reasons that African players stick with the game despite Blizzard’s apparent lack of concern for their plight, and it’s also why they’re still hopeful for change.
“I get it,” said a player from Mauritia who goes by the handle Ajaxsirius. “Player density in Africa isn’t high. I get it: it’s easier to convince the creative department to include an African character or design an African-themed map than it is to convince the finance department to take a loss on the installation of servers in Africa.”
“But you know what? The world could use more heroes.”