Overwatch is nearing its fifth birthday in 2021. And while the game launched to big fanfare, interest towards it has certainly waned in favor of newer games like VALORANT or Call of Duty: Warzone.
But it’s clear Blizzard still has long-term plans for the game — the commitment to Overwatch 2 shows as much, so it’s important that they take action to retain interest in the Overwatch property.
If Blizzard wants the Overwatch player base to remain healthy and growing until they eventually release Overwatch 2, it would behoove them to turn Overwatch into a free-to-play live service game — and support it like one.
Making Overwatch free-to-play is best for Blizzard
With the release of Overwatch in 2016, Blizzard helped popularize the cosmetic loot box as a form of ongoing monetization. Almost all cosmetics in Overwatch — skins, voice lines, and sprays — can be unlocked that way, whether you’ve earned the loot box from playing, or paid real-world currency for it.
The loot box model was a smashing success in the early days of the game as Blizzard reported profits in the billions from the loot boxes alone. But that model has a flaw. Once the players unlock all the things they want, they will no longer need to play the loot boxes casino. The more someone plays Overwatch, the less they’ll spend on the game, especially after they unlock the duplicate Persimmon Mei skin for the fifth time today.
Meanwhile, other Blizzard titles like Heroes of the Storm have already successfully implemented successful f2p monetization systems that don’t rely solely on loot boxes and random chance mechanics. In Heroes of the Storm, you can buy permanent access to various characters with real-world money. As new heroes are added to the game, players are encouraged to spend money if they want to access them on a permanent basis, in addition to being able to purchase cosmetics in a digital store.
While HOTS’s model appeals to veteran and new players alike, the loot box model relies almost entirely on newcomers. Assuming Overwatch continues to stand by their loot box system, they will need a constant stream of new players to keep the game profitable, and going free-to-play is one of the easiest ways to generate a new stream of paying players.
Dropping the price tag expands the player base by lowering the barrier to entry for anyone who doesn’t have $40 USD to spend on a five-year-old game. Then, if the game is attractive enough and/or lucky enough, this creates a domino effect: Newcomers come, like the game, invite their friends to play with them, who come, like the game, and so on, and so on. One example of that is Rocket League, whose active player base exploded following their move to free-to-play in September last year, almost doubling their previous peak, and there is no reason why Overwatch wouldn’t see similar results.
The boom that would come with making the game free would be huge for Blizzard, which is further in hot water with Overwatch fans after they announced that Overwatch 2 won’t be coming this year, even though 2020 was empty on OW content precisely to speed up OW2’s development cycle.
Additionally, bringing more players into the Overwatch multiplayer ecosystem can only be good for the Overwatch 2's prospects. It's unlikely that OW2 will be a genre-shattering, generation-defining title like other Blizzard sequels have been in the past (Diablo 2, Warcraft 3, StarCraft 2), so its success heavily depends on how many fans are already vested in the Overwatch IP. Going free-to-play is the best way to gain new customers and set up Overwatch 2 to accrue sizeable sales.
Bringing more players to the game could also help support the Overwatch League, which has been declining over the past couple of years due to a lack of interest and support from Blizzard. This decline is connected to a broader loss of interest in Overwatch because every thriving esport feeds off of its healthy grassroots.
Making the game free, and supporting it like a f2p title, truly makes the most sense for Blizzard and the challenges the company is facing in its Overwatch branch.
Making Overwatch free-to-play is the right decision for the player base
There are some drawbacks to going free-to-play, such as the struggle to punish players who break the rules, the increased level of smurfing, and the increased development resources that a free-to-play model demands.
However, bringing in new players to Overwatch would bring new life to a game that has felt mostly stagnant in the past year. While many fans were willing to wait sometime without updates in hopes of getting Overwatch 2 sooner, Blizzard can’t expect fans to wait forever in the name of working on the Overwatch 2 which has not even been given a release date yet.
New Overwatch recruits mean lower queue times for most players. And while the top echelons of the game, where the availability of skill-appropriate competition is scarce, will likely not see improvement, queue times for the larger populace will become significantly shorter.
The move to free-to-play would also necessitate that Blizzard does a better job of supporting their game, which is a benefit for Overwatch fans. Rather than recycling the same annual events and providing almost no development resources to produce new maps or characters, they would have to invest in the game to keep their player base happy with a free-to-play model. By moving to f2p, Blizzard is making a commitment to producing new content for its players after a year of absence, and such commitment is needed if a title is to survive — and thrive.
A counterargument to pouring so many resources into Overwatch 1 would be that this would take development man-hours away from Overwatch 2, making it an unattractive option. This response might be more palatable to the Overwatch community if Overwatch 2 was coming anytime soon. It is a bad call for Blizzard to neglect Overwatch indefinitely, in favor of a game that hasn’t even received a release date.
Even with the associated issues with a f2p model, outlined above, the pros drastically outweigh the cons for both Blizzard and fans. It's time for Blizzard to admit that Overwatch is a live service — and support it like one. If they want their player base to be happy, healthy and hyped for Overwatch 2, they need to act now to expand and retain player interest in the Overwatch IP.
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.