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After months of tumult born of widespread misconduct allegations, worker walkouts and a $68.7 billion purchase by Microsoft, Blizzard is finally back to its bread and butter: releasing games. Well, sort of. Earlier this week, the game developer rolled out the beta test for “Overwatch 2,” the long-awaited sequel to its popular team-based shooter, with millions of prospective players tuning in on Twitch to get a first look. But despite early signs of success, it’s not yet obvious that Blizzard has a hit on its hands.

“Overwatch 2” isn’t officially out yet, but players can try its player-versus-player (PVP) component as part of a test that runs until May 17. The test represents multiple major milestones for Blizzard: Not only is it the embattled studio’s first major release since misconduct allegations arose last year — prompting widespread backlash from players of its games — but it’s also the first time since 2020 that “Overwatch” has received a new playable character. In the years since, the original game’s update schedule slowed to a crawl, and additions grew insubstantial, leading many players to burn out or move on. Now, in an era defined by battle royale games like “Fortnite,” experimental shooters like “Escape from Tarkov,” and even Riot Games’ “Overwatch”-inspired shooter “Valorant,” can “Overwatch” reclaim its old relevance or will the series’s best days remain behind it?

For a few years, “Overwatch,” which released in 2016, was one of the biggest competitive shooters on the block. Players were drawn to its eclectic mix of heroes, which represented a wide range of backgrounds and play styles. Beloved characters like Tracer, D.Va and Widowmaker inspired an ever-deepening deluge of cosplay, fan art and fan fiction. Regular updates and hero announcements were accompanied by fervent anticipation and discussion. The game’s now-former creative director, Jeff Kaplan, even became something of an industry celebrity due to his approachable demeanor and obvious passion.

“Overwatch” fever reached its peak with the 2018 debut of Blizzard’s Overwatch League, a franchised esports league with team slots reportedly costing $20 million in season one and between $30 and $60 million in season two. The demands of creating content for OWL, “Overwatch” and “Overwatch 2” stretched the development team to a breaking point, with one ex-developer blaming Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick for burying the team under “random projects” that cost them “months” of “Overwatch 2” development time. As a result, the original “Overwatch’s” update cycle skidded to a near-halt, robbing the game of its momentum just as hero-driven competitors like “Apex Legends” and “Valorant” began to appear on the scene.

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Judging by Twitch viewership numbers, “Overwatch 2′s” beta test is off to an exceedingly strong start. The still-incomplete game demolished the franchise’s prior all-time Twitch viewership peak, hitting 1.4 million concurrent viewers on Thursday (compared to a previous high of 461,000 back in 2018). But numbers can be deceiving.

“Overwatch,” which has historically struggled to maintain a Twitch viewer base, is getting a boost from the platform’s “drops” system that allows viewers to unlock in-game items by watching specific streamers. Tuning in is a means to an end for some viewers, and in this case, that end is access to “Overwatch 2” itself. Viewership figures are already down, on account of “Overwatch 2” streams only offering drops on Thursday.

While lapsed fans are clearly curious right now, the “Overwatch 2” beta is remarkably similar to its predecessor, at least on the player-versus-player side of things. A smattering of new maps, a new mode called “Push” and new hero Sojourn — the first playable Black woman in the franchise’s history — certainly freshen things up. But for those who aren’t series die-hards, the sequel is nearly indistinguishable from the first game. On one level, this makes sense; the two games’ clients are meant to eventually merge into one. But in the meantime, deja vu lurks around every corner, waiting to flank well-planned pushes into novel territory.

The biggest changes are the hardest to see. Where once matches pitted two teams of six against each other, both teams have now lost a player. Specifically, the role of “off-tank” has essentially been eliminated, meaning that each team only has one hulking damage sponge of a central hero.

The resulting 5v5 affair moves at a blazing clip compared to the original “Overwatch’s” sometimes sloggy stalemates, but it also punishes mistakes more ruthlessly and de-emphasizes teamwork in favor of higher-level solo skill. Characters, meanwhile, have been tuned around this new status quo, with old favorites like Orisa getting new moves that prioritize aim and fast-twitch reflexes. The new hero, railgun-wielding Sojourn (who is a blast to play) sets a similar standard for new heroes, with a move set that wouldn’t feel out of place in any other fast-paced first-person shooter.

The overall effect is that “Overwatch 2” lacks some of the identity of the first. “Overwatch” took clear pride in upending genre conventions, bringing in characters who felt like they just got off a plane from the world of, say, a fighting game. The sequel, meanwhile, seems to be forcing its predecessor’s most outlandish ideas into a more confined box.

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This trend feels most evident in another element of the game’s prelaunch push: Overwatch League. “Overwatch 2′s” beta has been timed to coincide with the May 5 kickoff of the esports league’s fifth season, which will be played on an early version of “Overwatch 2.” This suggests a prioritization of play at the highest levels, perhaps to the detriment of less dedicated players who could otherwise use the new game as an on-ramp. It’s a tension that’s been present in “Overwatch” balance updates since the league’s inception: As pros have developed strategies that hinge on top-notch first-person shooter skill at the individual level, the game has evolved to facilitate that style of play at the expense of the harder-to-balance whimsy that defined the game’s early days.

In a time when shooter fans’ attention has proved exceptionally fickle (just ask “Halo Infinite”), will the crowd to whom these sorts of mechanical tweaks matter be enough to sustain “Overwatch’s” sequel? Blizzard seems to hope so.

Clearly, the company hopes “Overwatch 2” will bolster its esports arm’s flagging numbers. (To bring things full circle, Blizzard has built an entire Twitch drop-like reward system around Overwatch League to incentivize viewership.) But a game that’s more akin to the rest of a crowded field of competitive first-person shooters risks alienating new players who might have found something that speaks to them in one of “Overwatch’s” less traditional characters. And while there are certainly exceptions, esports audiences mainly consist of people who play the specific games in question. Blizzard could find that this approach to player acquisition ultimately yields diminishing returns. That’s not even factoring in the inherent risks of balancing an entire esports league atop the rickety shoulders of an incomplete game. Bugs and glitches will surely crop up, as will major balance changes and character overhauls.

At some still-undefined point down the line, Blizzard will release “Overwatch 2′s” story-driven, player-vs-environment (PVE) component, a major departure from the first game’s exclusive focus on PVP and an easier sell to new players. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, and the original “Overwatch” squandering its own momentum after coming out the gate strong is how we wound up here in the first place.

In some ways, “Overwatch” occupies a similar position to that of fellow Blizzard stablemate “World of Warcraft.” The massively multiplayer game’s recently announced dragon-centric expansion looks impressive, but many players have judged it too safe to win back the goodwill Blizzard began bleeding last year. Now with all eyes on “Overwatch 2,” one question looms above all others: Is the sequel really ready for prime time, or will we look back one day and find that its soft launch was both too much too soon and too little too late?

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