Yesterday, Blizzard released a breakdown of Junker Queen, the newest hero coming to Overwatch 2. But this isn’t a news piece about how sick the latest tank character’s kit is. That’s because the same day, only five percent of Activision Blizzard’s shareholders voted to have an employee representative on the company’s board of directors. Last week, Blizzard released an extensive look at Overwatch 2’s new seasonal model, but this deep dive came on the same day as Activision Blizzard exonerated itself from all wrongdoing in its ongoing workplace harassment troubles while promising it would avoid crunch as the shooter shifts to more frequent content updates.
At this point it’s little more than speculation, but the instances of Overwatch being paraded while Activision Blizzard’s failings as a workplace are publicized feel too regular to be accidental. Overwatch 2 news has largely been infrequent since its reveal back in 2019, but the team’s big information blowout has been rolling out since the release date announcement during Xbox and Bethesda’s showcase earlier this month. As we near Overwatch 2’s October 4 early access launch, it’s becoming increasingly odd that we hear about it most often when Activision Blizzard has something to hide.
This isn’t a new observation, though the pattern seems more apparent as Overwatch 2 is nearing launch and Activision Blizzard’s public downward spiral is nearing its one-year anniversary. The closer we get to October 4, the more opportunities there are for Blizzard to show new content. While it’s not always a bombshell moment like the publication of a lawsuit or a report on CEO Bobby Kotick’s involvement in the company’s workplace harassment, more stories are coming out of its parent company with regularity.
It’s the same regularity you’d naturally expect an upcoming game to be showcased to the public, so Overwatch 2’s updates landing on the same day as bad news once or twice could be dismissed as happenstance. But even so, the video game release machine marches on, and the internet has goldfish memory. Any attempt to distract from Activision Blizzard’s misconduct is more likely to work now in a way it wouldn’t have a year ago as the public consciousness starts to push the stories of harassment, discrimination, and stolen breastmilk from its mind.
Even as a person who started playing Overwatch about three years into the original game’s lifetime, whispers of Blizzard using the shooter as a shield to deflect criticism for its controversies were already pretty widespread. However, there was some plausible deniability at the time, especially since some of the criticism was wrapped up in bigotry not even tied to any ongoing issue.
In 2019, it was announced that Soldier: 76, one of the first-person shooter’s most popular characters, is a gay man. It was an inclusive revelation from Blizzard — and a jarring one as the company simultaneously dealt with fallout surrounding what turned out to be a fake female Overwatch League player. Detractors of Soldier’s identity claimed the reveal was a distraction thrown together to get everyone to look in the opposite direction. But while accusations of Blizzard doing the J.K. Rowling post-launch reveal of a queer character were rampant, there were hints to Soldier being in a relationship with a man as far back as the 2016 Reflections comic. As a result, I read the reveal’s subsequent outrage in some corners of the internet as a homophobic dog whistle from players angry about unknowingly playing as a gay man for almost three years, all under the guise of critical outrage.
Similar accusations followed later that year when Overwatch 2 was announced at Blizzcon. The timing once again lined up with controversy: Blizzard had just come under fire for banning Hearthstone pro Ng Wai Chung (known more commonly by his pseudonym Blitzchung) for voicing support for the ongoing Hong Kong protests during an official Hearthstone live stream. This led to accusations that Blizzard announced Overwatch 2 solely to distract from the company’s own failings.
The Blizzcon 2019 presentation began with an empty statement from then-President J. Allen Brack, who stopped short of actually specifying what event he was referring to. But again, the notion that Blizzard threw together an animated cinematic and a playable build for the show floor in order to distract people from something that happened merely weeks prior seemed both impossible and disingenuous to assume. It still feels that way, but as more reasonable examples of Blizzard possibly using Overwatch to distract from the state of things, the sentiment feels more earned.
In fairness to everyone involved, whether or not Blizzard actively has Overwatch 2 behind a glass case with “Break in case of emergency” painted in big, red letters is just conjecture. But it’s strange that Sojourn, the first playable Black woman in the series whom fans have long anticipated, got her origin story trailer the same day a report alleged California’s governor had meddled in Activision Blizzard’s ongoing legal troubles related to workplace harassment. And it feels odd that Overwatch 2’s first beta was announced shortly after word came out that Overwatch League employees were being left to hang by lack of communication from higher-ups.
Activision Blizzard is a big company — it has many moving parts and people doing their own thing while it deals with constant public fallout regarding its workplace culture. But the timing of Overwatch 2 announcements landing directly on or reasonably near big developments in Activision Blizzard’s legal scandals feels too consistent to be an accident. Once is an instance; twice is a coincidence; three or more is a pattern. And we’ve added two more examples to the list in as many weeks.
In the Recall animated short, Dr. Harold Winston told the young monkey that would become Winston, a hero in Overwatch, to “never accept the world as it appears to be; dare to see it for what it could be.” But lately, Overwatch 2 feels less a shining beacon of what the world could be and more a flash grenade thrown down so we don’t see the world for what it is.
Many of my hopes and dreams for an Overwatch game that finally moves the plot forward are still alive and well. But in the face of a company tearing itself apart as those affected by its self-destruction try setting a better foundation, it feels like the game is being used to distract me. And as Overwatch 2’s launch looms, the game and its developers deserve better than to be weaponized against criticisms of a company that hasn’t lived up to its own message.