Overwatch’s toxic community is killing the game – can it ever be fixed?

By Vic Hood, Monday, 4 December 2017 16:00 GMT

Blizzard is spending more time attempting to fix the Overwatch community than improving the game.

It’s no secret Overwatch has a troll problem. Whether it’s something small like placing Symmetra’s teleporter on the edge of a cliff, or a bigger issue, such as racial and homophobic slurs, there’s always someone who wants to ruin a good game by being a bit of a knob.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to Overwatch. Most games have a minority group of players who wish to exploit it through practices such as smurfing, experience farming, abusive language or match throwing. As a player, it’s extremely frustrating.

But perhaps more frustrating is watching Overwatch grind to a halt while Blizzard attempts to deal with these players. You see, toxicity in the game is not just ruining individual matches, it is ruining the entire game experience. While some developers concede defeat when it comes to trolls in the community, doing the bare minimum to tackle them and directing energy into content, Jeff Kaplan and Co are on a valiant quest to shut them all down – but it’s not going particularly well.

Back in September, Kaplan addressed the issue of community toxicity head-on, in a development update called “Play Nice, Play Fair”. In the video, Kaplan admitted tackling bad behaviour in Overwatch is slowing down the game’s development and called upon players to be nicer to one another so the team could focus on new content.

“I wish we could take the time we put into putting reporting on console and have put them towards a match history system or a replay system instead,” said an exacerbated Kaplan. “It was the exact same people who had to work on both who got re-routed to work on the other.”

While Kaplan’s pleas may have resonated with some players, unsurprisingly the majority did not listen to his heartfelt call-to-arms. Bad in-game behaviour remains a major issue, as it does in many games. The difference between Overwatch and other games is that the Overwatch team is hell-bent on bettering its community even if it costs development time, banning over 500,000 Overwatch accounts since the game’s launch, introducing console report buttons, as well as implementing tougher measures for misbehaving players. Yet trolls remain and the entire community suffers as a result.

The slowed-down development, as a result of the team focusing on battling toxicity, is painfully obvious. Overwatch has grown stale. New game modes, sufficiently exciting holiday events and new cosmetics have become few and far between. There’s only so many times you can escort a payload or capture a point before you begin to grow tired of the monotony and repetitiveness. Luckily heroes and maps continue to be fairly frequent, though the novelty of these new additions wears off quickly.

If competition is your draw to Overwatch, rather than content, you can find yourself struggling against a tide of players whose sole purpose is to ruin your rank. Again, this isn’t just an Overwatch problem but, if Blizzard claims to be shutting down so many trolls, why are they still so commonplace and why have we been losing out on content to focus on a system that clearly doesn’t work no matter what Blizzard does? It seems like a losing battle.

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It’s out of sheer loyalty, and a solid friendship group, that I continue to play Overwatch. I know Kaplan and his team are trying so I’m trying too. But I constantly ask myself: would I rather have a good community and less content or more content and an awful community? Is a ‘good’ community even possible in modern competitive games or is Blizzard wasting its time trying to achieve the impossible?

At this point, I must admit, I am an Overwatch console scrub. From friends who play on PC, I’ve been assured it is a much healthier platform but on the few occasions I have played with keyboard and mouse I was so bad that other players reported me for being a troll and cursed me out. At least they were communicating and trying to oust the bad guy. The benefit of Overwatch on PC is the ability to communicate via text, a feature console doesn’t have, so if someone is being a troll others can band together to work out a strategy to overcome it. After all, Overwatch is a team game and one faulty cog could take down the whole machine.

Trolling seems to be a bigger issue on console, whether purposeful or not. Console has always been a strange mish-mash of casual and invested players, the two butting heads when it comes to competitive games such as Overwatch. It’s hard to let nine-year-old Suzie know in a nice way that if she picks Hanzo one more time, when we need a healer, I will throw her into the sun. I see her as displaying bad in-game behaviour but the truth is that by being passive-aggressive, or getting obviously angry, I’m presenting the same behaviour Kaplan told players to avoid. I’m straying into being toxic and hindering instead of helping young Suzie. I’m slowing down progress.

On console, voice chat – the only form of communication apart from passive-aggressive voice lines – is a wasteland apart from the occasional screaming child. Like myself, many are afraid to wander into voice chat because it is renowned for being a cesspool, the armpit of Overwatch on console. The result is console players being unable, or unwilling, to communicate with team mates and therefore not actually working as a team with a strategy. Instead it’s a free-for-all shitfest where everyone silently seethes at Mei’s putting up ice walls in front of the base.

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The problem with this is that often console players don’t actually feel like part of a community – out of sight (or hearing in this case), out of mind. It is everyone for themselves, a tactic which isn’t particularly useful in a team-based game.

I am willing to wait for a new hero, map, skin or mode if it means reigniting the Overwatch console community, but it seems as though nothing is changing. I still can’t finish a competitive match with a full team, players still experience farm and there’s more smurfs than in a mushroom-housed village. It seems Kaplan and the team are fighting a losing battle and players are the collateral damage.

I’m excited to see what 2018 holds for Overwatch. We have already seen the upcoming map, Blizzard World, new default skins and Kaplan has promised a “tonne of new content”. “Not only are there some really awesome items coming for upcoming events, early next year we’ll be adding *a lot* of new items to the base loot box,” said Kaplan on the official Overwatch forums.

Hopefully this means Blizzard has finally learned the coveted secret to balancing new content and a good community, or maybe the team has just given up banging their heads on a brick wall that won’t ever crumble and is pouring its focus into revitalising the game.

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