Thanks, Jeff (from the Overwatch Team)
The world can always use more heroes, and I’m pleased to say Jeff Kaplan is one of them.
I’ve spent countless hours toiling away in front of CRTs, monitors, and HD TVs playing video games, but I’ve never amounted to anything more than a player. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the competitive scene for games like Super Smash Bros., and have watched and supported fandom events like Games Done Quick. But most of my existence as a gamer is through a product-consumer relationship.
Games are my media of choice. The combination of tactile feedback with engaging, hours-long narratives and oftentimes heavily orchestrated music beats out sitting down and binging a Netflix show, or listening to a newly released album on repeat. Usually, my connection to the games I play is based on the time spent playing them. All of the deaths and respawns, rage quits and fist pumps create my journey as a gamer, from my humble days of failing to beat the water (err… Mega Mack) in Sonic 2, to admiring the shiny, graphical coat of my PS5 games.
In most respects, Overwatch is just another game I’ve played. Like so many other titles I purchased it on a whim, enticed by the character design on the box art (physical media for life, by the way). And despite being a team-based multiplayer game, I played Overwatch like so many other titles, typically off mic with a bunch of random players like any game of Call of Duty or Smash online.
Strangely enough, when I heard the news that Jeff Kaplan, the face of the Overwatch Team for the last five years, would be leaving Blizzard, my heart sunk and I had a glaring realization.
Jeff is a huge reason why I love Overwatch.
To the best of my knowledge, Jeff, at least the developer we watched explain and explore Overwatch, isn’t too different from me. He was born in New Jersey and had a background in writing. More importantly, despite being credited as a game designer and director on projects at Blizzard, he isn’t a technical wizard so often associated with game development.
In other words, Jeff is a gamer.
Over the last five years, fans have been treated to 50 Overwatch Developer Updates. Hosted on the Play Overwatch YouTube channel, these videos, usually between five and 15 minutes in length, saw Jeff, from the Overwatch Team, chatting about the newest changes and fixes that players could look forward to.
Typically dressed in a t-shirt or hoodie with an Overwatch logo, each of the videos followed the same course. “Welcome back everyone, this is Jeff, from the Overwatch team. Today we’re going to be talking about…” and insert the latest news. Unlike the status quo for highly-manicured talking head videos on YouTube, the developer updates lacked any noticeable sort of jump cuts or edits. Jeff was a straight shooter, talking uninterruptedly about the game without any sort of pause or stutter.
The community of course, most notably YouTuber dinoflask, took the Jeff updates and turned them into community memes, chopping up various words and phrases to hear Jeff dish out a collective spanking to the sometimes-toxic Overwatch community, or creating a public database of players ready to be doxxed.
Kidding aside, these updates stood in contrast to standard video game PR procedures. In many ways, these videos posed Jeff as a fellow gamer chatting about the latest news in his favorite game. There were no cinematic sequences of high-octane action or calls to purchase loot boxes or battle passes. The strategy was akin to an Overwatch fireside chat, tallying up the changes and updates in language easily understood by casual fans and pro players alike.
As one of those casual players, I couldn’t be happier with the approach. Despite pouring 1,800 hours into Overwatch, I’ve never watched an entire professional match. (There was one time Overwatch was on ESPN and I watched for a little while as something of an, “I was there for that” moment, but I quickly turned it off when I realized the commentator controlled camera was not working for me.)
Jeff’s updates were approachable, if at times a tad dry, perfectly suited to the dad-like aura the community bestowed upon him (some fans affectionately called him “Papa Jeff”). In 2017 he recognized his odd role in the videos while reflecting on the dinoflask parodies. “I mean, I am this middle-aged, awkward nerd with 0 points in charisma and really don’t belong on camera in any way, shape or form,” he said on Reddit during his Ask Me Anything Q&A.
And yet he returned time and time again, delivering the Overwatch digest as only he could. He even did so after admitting that he was a “platinum player,” who he thinks “could get to diamond if I played competitive more.” In Overwatch, platinum sits just a tier above gold, which is where the majority of players, and yours truly, compete.
In most cases, there is a disconnect between game developers and their fans. Masahiro Sakurai of Super Smash Bros. fame has plenty of meme-worthy moments in his own developer updates, but he can also be seen controlling two, opposing characters with two controllers at the same time like he’s typing on a keyboard. People who make games are usually viewed as gods of their games — and rightly so.
Jeff, by contrast, felt more like a casual player than any developer I can think of in recent memory. His passion for the game was always apparent, but never strayed into the annexing, hardcore fandom that could drive lower skilled players (like me) away. Like the game itself, which features a diverse cast of characters from all walks of life, Jeff helped Overwatch become an inclusive, safe space regardless of how you preferred to play.
I don’t know if I’ll take to another set of Overwatch developer updates delivered by anyone but Jeff himself. So for now, I’ll just say thanks to Jeff, from the Overwatch team, for reminding gamers that you don’t have to be “MLG Pro” to enjoy a game. You just have to have a little bit of fun.