So it’s beginning to look a lot like the Overwatch fad has faded. It was a crazy couple of years there, but the fact that it’s just not making its way back on those Superdata charts and the overall cooling seems to be a sign that the flash is over. And I’m willing to bet that at least some of you are alternately blinking in disbelief or rushing straight down to the comments to mention that Overwatch is most definitely not a fad, that it’s a huge success, and that you just need to look at its revenue to know that.
That is entirely true; the game was a big financial success. But I suspect that the game’s massively outsized popularity was, in fact, a fad. Just like Pokemon Go, just like Fortnite, just like League of Legends, and only slightly less superficial than slap bracelets. (If you’ve got no idea what those are, gosh, you’re in for some fun sifting through cultural detritus.) But it’s easy to miss all of that because, well, we don’t have a very clear picture of what fads look like in the online space.
As much as I love to look up etymology, “fad” as a term doesn’t have an agreed-upon one beyond a consensus that it’s probably slang for “fiddle-faddle,” which means trivial or nonsensical matters. Regardless, we all know what it actually means. It’s something that spends some time being absolutely everywhere and the most important thing in the world, almost overnight… and then just as quickly no one remembers that it exists and it becomes a trivia question. “Whatever happened to those slap bracelets, huh?”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the term doesn’t also have its connotations. I remember people insisting with vigor that Pokemon Go wasn’t a fad because look, it’s still running after a few months! And it’s making money! And it has news about it! Clearly, everything is going just fine, it’s going to be a huge thing forever.
Fast forward to now, when the game is still making money, but it’s also… well, just not that huge a deal. I was part of a decided minority playing the game while at the Final Fantasy XIV fan festival, and while the overlap between audiences isn’t complete, there’s definitely a fair slice of similar targets. Especially since it took place in a venue covered in Pokestops.
In other words, we tend to associate “fad” with “failure,” but that’s not always the case. The boy band explosion of the late 90s and early aughts was definitely a fad, but most of those acts (or the labels responsible for them, to be fair) made a lot of money before the fad died off. Beatlemania was a fad, but you know, I hear the band behind that fad did pretty well for itself afterwards. The reality show Survivor was a fad, too – remember when everyone was watching it? When everyone had an opinion about the show and its later seasons, even if it was just that Survivor was dumb?
But the fad went away, and the show was canceled in… never. It has a 38th season kicking off in February. It’s just no longer the big thing, and you don’t have other channels rushing to get their own unique brand of Survivor spinoffs out the door.
The problem with fads is that they’re things catapulted into the public consciousness in a huge way for a short span of time, and since they then fall out of the consciousness we tend to think that we stopped hearing about them because they stopped existing. But Survivor didn’t stop existing; it just stopped mattering to anyone who wasn’t a Survivor fan.
This, I think, is part of why we have a problem thinking about fads when it comes to online games. We think of fads as being very short-lived things when they are, really, more often a flash in a much longer lifecycle. They’re moments when a game dominates everyone’s thinking for a little while, and then it just… doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean that it necessarily shuts down; it just means the fad ends.
It’s not hard to see what tends to land a game in that fad space, either. Something that’s accessible and approachable for a wider audience, with a lower barrier to entry and the possibility to reinforce social bonds. It’s not stuff that’s targeting kids, usually, but it’s stuff that you aren’t upset to learn your kids like. Something where you can create a culture focused around it regardless of any qualities of the thing in itself, in other words.
Pokemon was a fad itself when it first hit the scene. It relied on having a Game Boy (which were dirt-cheap at the time) and thus was portable, easy to share, and easy to talk about. As time went by, though, the fad faded. That didn’t mean that merchandise stopped getting made or that games stopped coming out or that everyone forgot it existed; it just meant that you no longer had everyone playing Pokemon Red or you had people explaining their deep philosophical objection to the game.
Remember the thinkpieces in magazines about the franchise and how it was alternately wonderful or destroying the youth of the nation? You can find-replace a lot of the articles today about Fortnite and you’ll basically recreate them. Or you can look for articles about World of Warcraft, or maybe even about pogs. Remember pogs? Whatever happened to pogs?
The reason I’m nudging at Overwatch specifically here is that yes, the game definitely had some time in the sun. It has LEGO sets out now! But it’s not making as much money as a game, and the thing is that for those sets to keep making money, it would need to be able to transition from a game to a property that covers a lot of ground. My gut instinct is that for all its ubiquity, the star is fading, and it’s going to start humming along more quietly for a while.
That doesn’t make it a failure, nor does it mean that this is the absolute automatic course of the game’s future. For all I know it could get a second wind, or another new hero will be just what everyone wants, or it’ll get some single-player spinoff or an animated series that suddenly turns Overwatch into a whole brand. But it seems like the sudden surge has passed, and now we’re into the denouement for the fad. Whether or not it has a future when the fad fades is for future speculation.
I do think, however, that we need to think more critically about what fads look like in terms of the online gaming space. A game can make a lot of money and still be a fad; in fact, with online gaming being what it is, that’s almost a prerequisite. And while I don’t think we as an audience need to buoy enormous companies who assume that this fad is a tentpole forever and ever (they can deal with the ruins they created for themselves), we do need to realize that fads aren’t games that have a brief splash and then shut down after less than a year. Fads are games that flash into being huge and then darken over time.
And after they’ve faded, we need to be ready to talk about them as fads instead of acting like it’s a huge surprise that this thing with huge crossover appeal suddenly stopped being the biggest thing ever. Possibly with its own line of branded slap bracelets.