Can We Believe Blizzard Will Avoid Crunch with the Overwatch 2 Seasonal Model?

Activision Blizzard's public statements on labor have been diametrically opposed with reports coming out of the company.

Overwatch 2 is finally nearing its PVP launch after decoupling the game’s competitive side and the cooperative story mode. Blizzard announced during the 2022 Xbox and Bethesda showcase that Overwatch 2’s competitive suite will be free-to-play when it launches on October 4, and today, the studio laid out its plans to roll out seasonal content every nine weeks. This includes new playable heroes, maps, and modes in a rotating fashion. But as a person who is invested in Overwatch’s characters and lore, I was curious as to how the story content would factor into this new business model.

Earlier this week, I took part in a panel interview with Overwatch 2 Game Director Aaron Keller, Art Director Dion Rogers, and Overwatch VP/Commercial Lead Jon Spector. I asked if Overwatch 2’s story would be a full campaign in the traditional sense, or if it would be part of this new directive to release new content periodically; the answer I got stopped short of explicitly saying one thing or the other.

The switch to a seasonal model has changed the way Blizzard is rolling out content holistically. Keller states the team is opting to release content when it’s ready instead of holding onto it. With Overwatch 2, the goal is to tell “a complete, linear story with a beginning and an end to it.”

“Rather than saving all of the content that we make to put in one big box that you sell for $60 or more, we’ve shifted our model to start releasing things seasonally,” Keller says. “It’s really important to us to continue to put content out for the game.”

Keller went on to confirm that Overwatch 2’s PVE mode will launch next year and that it will be part of the game’s seasonal service; however, the team isn’t ready to delve into details about it or its place in the business model. Overwatch Communications Lead Kevin Scarpati then stepped in to say Blizzard would speak in more detail about the business model and how it pertains to story content in the future. The team’s intent is to provide that context for players all at once so that they can “fairly judge the system” as much as possible.

Can We Believe Blizzard Will Avoid Crunch with the Overwatch 2 Seasonal Model?

Story content isn’t coming until 2023, so PVP will be the bulk of the Overwatch 2 experience when it launches in Early Access in October. Up to this point, cooperative story content had been pushed as one of the major reasons to make Overwatch 2 a sequel rather than an update like other live service games. I asked about the panel’s pitch for lapsed Overwatch players to come back in October, especially since that selling point won’t be a factor when Overwatch 2 launches.

Keller and Spector pointed to the new content cycle, saying the game will be supported in a way the original hasn’t in several years. Spector says the team is aware that Overwatch’s player base has dwindled due to a lack of regular updates. To facilitate this, the team’s model and staffing has been “geared up” in order to “meet those player expectations.”

“Especially in the last year or two, we know the top reason why some players have stopped playing Overwatch is they just want more new content,” Spector says. “Our model, our team staffing, all of that were geared up to meet those player expectations and regularly deliver.”

As Overwatch 2 moves to a seasonal rollout, it brings up questions about the well-being of its team, which will work to meet constant demands for fresh material.

Crunch within teams developing live-service games is well-documented. Epic Games notoriously began running into issues of employee overwork as Fortnite became one of the biggest video games in the world. Just last week, a report was published about Bethesda and how Fallout 76‘s live service elements added to an already extensive crunch for its QA team. Blizzard itself is part of an ongoing workplace culture scandal with multiple related lawsuits regarding its treatment of its women employees (and that’s not to mention its long string of controversies).

When asked by another reporter about what Blizzard has done to mitigate crunch as it pivots to a seasonal business model, Keller explained that the Overwatch team has been working toward actualizing this new workflow for years both by hiring more developers and enacting structural changes.

“We’ve taken a lot of measures over the last few years to grow the team to be able to handle the amount of work it’s going to take to put all of this content out there,” Keller says. “We’re over three times the size we were when the game first launched. We’re restructuring parts of the teams so that we’re able to work on multiple heroes at one time, multiple maps at one time, all while still looking at bigger features that are coming later to the service such as PVE.”

Can We Believe Blizzard Will Avoid Crunch with the Overwatch 2 Seasonal Model?

Spector added that, on top of personnel, Blizzard has also been preparing for the new seasonal model by making under-the-hood changes for ease of workflow. This has extended to an updated engine and development tools. Rogers explained that the improvements to the team’s tools have made it easier to make rapid changes to assets and mechanical updates, which has made workflow easier for the team across the board.

But even so, as reports about Activision Blizzard’s treatment of its workers behind closed doors continue to surface, its public comments on labor issues bear scrutiny. Lawsuits have described threats against employees who attempted to organize for change within its subsidiaries, the company has excluded an entire studio that just so happened to have unionizing workers from pay raises, and it was ready to lift its COVID-19 vaccine mandate until there was employee pushback.

Earlier today, the company released its own internal investigation that conveniently exonerates it of wrongdoing. Activision Blizzard is in the midst of an acquisition by Microsoft, but until the deal is complete, it’s unclear how or if the company coming under new management will affect its workplace issues. Recently, Microsoft signed a labor neutrality agreement with CWA, which is representing unionizing workers at Raven Software, which will allow Activision Blizzard workers to “freely and fairly make a choice about union representation.” It’s a sign that the Xbox manufacturer is willing to play ball, but there’s a lot of time between now and when the $68.7 billion deal is set to close in June 2023.

“I think a lot of our thinking is, we’re making this commitment to the live service seasonal content, and that’s gotta be a marathon, not a total sprint,” Spector says. “Because we want to be doing this for years.”

Overwatch 2’s PVP overhaul will enter its second beta test on June 28.