I don't know much about MOBAs.

I know the acronym stands for "multiplayer online battle arena." I know "League of Legends" and "Dota 2" dominate the genre's player base. And I know those games' popularity has spawned feverish fan communities and e-sports leagues so lucrative in stakes and so gibberish in language that they might as well be a foreign stock market.

That's as much as I know. Still, from that tiny framework, I can say with some certainty when a game's not a MOBA. And "Overwatch," despite the way it's been received, is not a MOBA.

Sure, Blizzard Entertainment's new team-based multiplayer shooter stresses the "team" part. But the game's accessible enough that you can fare just fine the first time you play it. Matches last a few minutes, not dozens. And it's possible to have fun without being a team player.

If those descriptions don't spell it out, the sight of the game's colorful, diverse cast of 21 characters does: "Overwatch" is more like a fighting game than a MOBA.

However you map the game's genre code, though, the result is much clearer: the freshest and most fun multiplayer shooter in years. It finds depth not in gruesome photorealism, in a spate of barely different play modes or in a byzantine gear system that requires you to reach the right level to unlock the right sight, the right barrel and the right grip.

No, "Overwatch" finds depth in the team, in what simple abilities each member brings to the table, and in shuffling the roster to tilt the team's dynamic in the direction of the winner's circle. Where "Call of Duty" and "Halo" can feel like hammering a nail, "Overwatch" can feel like discovering said nail is a screw — and having both a flat and a Phillips head handy.


Soldier 76 and Reinhardt await opponents in "Overwatch."

Like fighting games, or progenitor "Team Fortress 2," each "Overwatch" character is defined by a few fixed variables. Some are passive, like HP, movement speed and wall-climbing, while the active ones include weaponry, special abilities that quickly cool down and an ultimate ability that slowly charges up. Though some characters take longer than others, each one's arsenal can be absorbed after a few minutes in the game's practice modes.

In the multiplayer arena, you'll chose from those characters depending on the match conditions: Pharah's flight and Reaper's teleport mean they can apply pressure on offense in assault mode, or on either side in control mode. On the other hand, Widowmaker's sniper rifle and Bastion's sentry turret mean they can resist that pressure with the same force.

Just that hypothetical matchup presents one of several examples of the way Blizzard balanced out its massive roster so well: Reaver's teleport is the perfect move for avoiding Bastion's sentry turret, then junking the robot with a shot or two at its rear weak spot. Taken with the ability to switch characters from a safe zone — to extemporaneously select the antidote to the other team's most potent member — that balance yields bottomless strategic possibilities.

Now, you could play "Overwatch" like "Call of Duty," selecting gateway character Soldier 76 and simply trying to gun down as many red-named characters as possible. But, short of throttling its light-speed matchmaking, the game does as much as it can to discourage such lone-wolfing.

Not only do "Overwatch's" mechanics mean such behavior usually leads to losses, but it co-credits eliminations to every assistor and gives that statistic equal weight with HP healed, damage blocked, objectives held and more. And the leveling system unlocks nothing but cosmetic perks like skins and poses. It is curious, though, that most of the game's achievements reward superlative uses of character abilities, and that all of its post-match plays of the game reel off elimination sprees.

If "Overwatch" has a weakness, then, it's the impossibility of filtering out players conditioned to chase individual glory. Through the character dynamics of fighting games and the teamwork emphasis of MOBAs, it all but escapes the trappings of popular shooters — just not the one that some players can't escape themselves.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox, or find him on PSN or Xbox Live under the name davewiththeid.


Features editor for The Citizen.