Here's why you should care about Overwatch's Year of the Dog event, even if you don't play Overwatch

Skins are nice, but competitive CTF shows just how far Overwatch has come

Overwatch's seasonal events are always worth celebrating. They help break up the year and make the game feel alive, give fan artists a boost of inspiration with new skins, and generally just exude an aura of celebration. This year's Lunar New Year event, Year of the Dog, is no exception - and if you're an Overwatch player waiting to jump in, you might've already planned to call in 'sick' to work on February 8, when the event kicks off.

But there's also something about Year of the Dog that shows how Blizzard plans to continue building on its team-based shooter in the future, and it's worth taking note of the company's approach, even if you don't play the game.

Carrying the flag

On its surface, the Year of the Dog event might not seem much different from last year's Year of the Rooster event, or indeed any seasonal Overwatch event. It's got the usual smattering of digital goodies for players: skins, emotes, sprays, etc. But where events like Winter Wonderland and Year of the Rooster introduced new modes (Mei's Snowball Offensive and Capture the Rooster, respectively), Year of the Dog is focused on improving an existing feature, not adding a new one.

That feature is Capture the Flag, which itself evolved from last year's Lunar New Year event and its "Capture the Rooster" mode. In a developer update video, game director Jeff Kaplan breaks down the changes: "We looked at the game rules in CTF and we made a bunch of changes. ... First off, there's no more draws anymore. We know historically every time we've had draws in Overwatch, there's been discontent in the playerbase. We want to get rid of draws, we know that they're not very exciting and they can feel very anticlimactic. So we've added a sudden death mechanic." Kaplan explains that if time runs out and the two teams are tied, both teams' flags become moved closer to the center of the map, shortening the distance needed to score.

"The other thing that's very exciting is we've changed the flag pickup rules - so now picking up the flag is instant, but if you use certain abilities ... we call these 'restricted abilities,' so certain abilities... and I'll give you an example: Winston's leap, his jump pack, will [cause him to] drop the flag when he uses it. We found that by doing this, the rate of capture is much higher, the games are now much more offensive, and much more action-packed."

All of these rules will be implemented on a new map, set in Thailand, created specifically for Capture the Flag. Previously, CTF games relied on existing maps for players to enjoy, making the Thailand map a first for Overwatch. The new rules will also be in effect for a short competitive season, meaning ranked CTF is also coming to the game (at least for four weeks, the duration of the Year of the Dog event).

Slow and steady

Overwatch launched in May 2016. At the time, some criticized it for being too light on content. It was, after all, a multiplayer-only game with no PVE elements to speak of, released in a market where both 'hero shooters' and multiplayer-only models were considered hit or miss (often miss) gambles. Even if it had the most finely-balanced combat of any FPS ever, how could it stay relevant going forward?

This is how: slowly, incrementally adding onto the foundation laid two years ago with new and diverse content. Think of Overwatch less as a standalone game and more as a platform for absorbing players into its fandom, slowly but steadily branching out into new avenues of engagement, new ways for people to enjoy the Overwatch universe. It has tie-in animated shorts and digital comics for those who admire the game from afar, and is building and honing new modes for active players.

It would be wrong to dismiss these changes to CTF as a mere holiday event or temporary hype. Kaplan has stated that it takes months for the dev team to take a map from prototype to fully-realized environment, and I have a hard time believing Blizzard would put the effort into creating such a thing (not to mention the extra work of crafting a competitive CTF season and its associated rewards) if it was only ever intended to be temporary.

Remember: the DNA for Overwatch's Capture the Flag mode goes back to last year's Year of the Rooster event. This year, it's getting what feels like a trial run of a competitive version, and players will get to experience a new map built specifically for CTF. I wouldn't be surprised if by this time next year, CTF became a standard mode, always available for players to enjoy.

But the important thing to note here is how much time Blizzard is taking with implementation, and how the company has made the growth of Overwatch a deliberate and iterative, not sudden and sporadic, process. This helps prevent a feeling of burn-out, it reduces the likelihood of drastic missteps, keeps Overwatch relevant as it faces down new competition, and arguably most important to Blizzard, it keeps players engaged. It's a strategy that personally, I'd like to see more developers take.

These are slow, toe-dipping steps into a pool. I can't wait until we're swimming in the deep end.

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