Are Overwatch’s characters bigger than the game itself?

Overwatch fan art - Liang Xing

Overwatch is big, you don’t need me to tell you that. But perhaps it’s bigger than you thought. See, Blizzard’s latest is much larger than its 25 million players. It’s become more than just a videogame; it’s a cultural phenomenon that now encompasses memes, fan art and fiction, and dominates websites like Reddit and Tumblr. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Overwatch has begun to outgrow Overwatch.

Related: the best Overwatch characters in each class.

We’re on a trajectory towards a point where the fiction and characters of Overwatch will become more valuable than the game itself. When I say ‘Marvel’ a great majority of people will associate that word with cinematic depictions of characters like Iron Man and Captain America, rather than the comics from which they hail. Marvel’s heroes have vastly outgrown their comic roots, and I feel that Overwatch’s characters could be going the same way.

Overwatch Tumblr

This is not to say the game will become irrelevant; not at all. It will continue going strong, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Overwatch become the Blizzard game ahead of Warcraft. In less than 12 months it’s risen to be the second-largest subreddit dedicated to a specific game (bested only by the years-old League of Legends), and neither the community nor Blizzard seem like they’re in any danger of slowing down. But the game’s fiction feels like it’s on the edge of being something bigger, and the more popular the game becomes, the more its impact will be felt in wider circles.

Search ‘Overwatch’ on Tumblr and you’ll be met with a wall of amazing fan art. It encompasses everything from cute chibi sketches to elaborate, realistic digital paintings. Quite a bit of it is on the sexy side (no surprises there), but the vast majority is as clean and creative as Blizzard’s own work. The most interesting things, though, can be found in the comments. It’s not unusual to see something along the lines of “I don’t even play Overwatch, I just love the characters”.

Overwatch fan quotes

While the percentage is surely small, there are certainly fans whose exposure to Overwatch is purely through community circles and reading about the characters on wikis and in Blizzard’s comics. Ease of access is aided by the fact that love for these characters isn’t shortchanged by not playing the game; Overwatch’s in-game characters are basically just a set of walking abilities. It’s outside the game that the fiction blossoms and grows, and you need only something capable of browsing the internet to become involved. With such a low barrier to entry, that minority of non-playing fans has every chance of growing.

Over on the official Overwatch YouTube channel, you’ll see an interesting trend in the view statistics. Anything relating to characters has significantly more appeal than videos covering gameplay. Take a look at the two main uploads from the summer of 2016. The reveal of Eichenwalde – the game’s first new map since launch, and a huge deal for players – has been watched nearly three million times. But the Bastion animated short that offers nothing but expanded lore about a bird-loving robot? Over 13 million views. Add up all the current tallies for every lore-focused animation and you’ll find a total approaching 90 million views.

Overwatch The Last Bastion

But why have people been drawn to Overwatch? After all, League of Legends has a similar approach in gameplay-detached lore for its huge universe of characters. The biggest difference is that Blizzard seem to actively encourage the fiction with their own lore drops, which leads to fan-produced material and an ever-widening reach. There’s also the very nature of Blizzard’s character work to consider. League has a harder, more traditionally ‘videogamey’ aesthetic. It’s all spikes, sharp lines, huge weapons, and even bigger… well, you know what I mean. Overwatch, on the other hand, has a more wholesome look. Cute, Pixar-like characters with a friendly comic-book feel. They’re also exceptionally diverse, a situation that can’t be ignored when it comes to the potential for mass appeal. Its roster encompasses both genders, races from every continent on the globe, and a multitude of different personalities and sexual identities. You could even say they’re wasted on a videogame that makes so little of their unique personas.

Bolstered by the support of an already fanatical community, those personas seem destined to become something bigger. A regular comic book series is obvious, and those animated shorts will surely become more substantial. Warcraft’s complicated lore may have been too difficult to successfully translate to a mainstream film, but Overwatch’s pseudo-Avengers nature is prime fodder for current hero-loving audiences. It’s not hard to image the world of 2027 featuring Overwatch-branded lunchboxes and advent calendars.

Overwatch Tracer comic

This wouldn’t be the first game this has happened to. Culturally, Pokemon has grown to be far and away bigger than a handheld Nintendo title. It’s an anime series, a movie franchise, a card game, a toy line, and so much more. Most importantly though, it’s a far-reaching fandom made up of more than just gamers. It has become this not through the draw of turn-based battle mechanics, but the enduring appeal of its characters. That very same appeal is prevalent in the Overwatch community. These characters transcend the mechanics of a multiplayer shooter. They’re heroes to be shipped, to be influenced by, to go on journeys with. In short: they deserve more than pushing a payload.

I’ve spent a long time in giddy anticipation of an Overwatch-dominated future, so let’s just come back down to earth for a moment. The chances of Blizzard’s team of heroes becoming the next Avengers is, realistically, slim. But, more than any other videogame out there, Overwatch has the potential to be something much bigger than just a game. In many ways it already is, and I can’t wait to see what it will be in ten years time.