Last summer, an indie game called "Rocket League" came from seemingly out of nowhere to be the unquestionable video game of the season, a fun and breezy mix of soccer and customizable cars.
This year, three months after its launch, the game everyone is still playing and talking about couldn't be less indie. It's "Overwatch" from Blizzard Entertainment, the massive studio behind "World of Warcraft" and "Hearthstone." But like "Rocket League," it's perfect summer entertainment, an enjoyably fast-paced, extremely well-polished action game. It's a shooter, but one that doesn't feel bloody or gory, and focused on team play as squads of six players work together to attack or defend objectives across a globe-trotting set of maps.
There have been other great games the past few moths. Sony's "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End" is gorgeous and has some of the best action set pieces and voice acting you'll find in any game this year. And "Inside," a sequel to the moody puzzle game "Limbo," is being hailed by some critics as a masterpiece.
But to me, a summer jam of a video game is one that you can easily play with friends online, a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, and one that offers almost endless replayability without getting stale.
This week, Blizzard released "Summer Games," a temporary, Rio Olympics-themed facelift to "Overwatch" that adds a soccer mode as well as new costumes and other add-ons for its abundant 22-character roster of heroes.
It's a good time to take a look at why the game, released in May, has been such a huge hit — it's attracted 15 million players and bringing Activision Blizzard Inc. $500 million in revenue — and why it will probably have plenty of staying power for the rest of the year.
1. Keep it fresh
"Summer Games" is a good example of Blizzard's continuing effort to keep "Overwatch" updated with new content and fixes to even minor problems or complaints about the game. Last month, a new character named Ana was added to an already large cast of characters, giving players another set of skills and weapons to learn. Every week, the game has been patched up with tweaks both minor and major that affect hero abilities in an effort to keep the game balanced.
The game's "Brawl" mode has also allowed for much more experimental and goofy gameplay with sometimes arbitrary-seeming limitations (players can only choose from three of the characters in one recent Brawl). The Quick Play and Brawl modes aren't ranked, so they allow players to try out different characters without worrying about losing stature in the game.
It can't be overstated how much the success of Blizzard's games have to do with how fully formed they are when they're finally released. The studio has a reputation for not releasing games until they're up to a certain standard, and while no game is ever perfect at launch, Blizzard's have a way of shining through with an extra layer of care and attention.
With "Overwatch," server issues on launch day didn't much mar expectations. Nearly 10 million players participated in a hugely successful beta test that did as much to sell the game as its fun and clever marketing campaign. And there aren't a lot of game studios who could release a game with 21 characters, all of which seem completely distinct and memorable. That takes time and lots of talent.
How do you make a shooter in 2016 that's packed with weapons and brawling warriors that doesn't feel oppressively violent and dark? One that you might even let your kids play? (Confession: I have.) Unlike DC Comics movies, Blizzard figured out a way to keep "Overwatch" light on its feet with heroes that seem, well, heroic. The character design, especially in standouts such as Symmetra, Tracer, D.Va and Lúcio, feels lovingly drawn, inclusive and mostly free of the tropes of most video game shooters. It's the perfect antidote to gamers burned out on the increasingly grim stakes of "Call of Duty" games.
4. Cross platform or go home
The aforementioned "Uncharted 4" is a great example of a great console exclusive. But "Overwatch" has benefited greatly from having launched on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows PCs at the same time and delivering a game experience that plays just as well in the living room as on a computer screen. That's not always the case, particularly with shooters. If only "Overwatch" was available for Apple Mac computers as well, as most Blizzard games of the past have been.
5. Fan love
Some of the success of "Overwatch" has been completely out of Blizzard's hands (which must simultaneously delight and horrify the company). It has to do with fans falling so in love with the game that they go to great lengths to cosplay its characters or create memes around its quirks. Not every game gets that kind of love from gamers. That's perhaps the biggest x-factor, apart from the game simply being very fun to play, that'll keep "Overwatch" going long after lots of other games have been left behind.