The trauma felt by the Sombra ARG participants is actually grounded in expectation of fairness.
Overwatch fans love their lore. Blizzard has created a completely multiplayer experience yet filled it with unique and vibrant characters, giving each a unique backstory that ties them all together. It’s a testament to Blizzard’s world building that fans have reacted to so strong to these characters, creating amazing fan art and fan fiction that approaches canonicity for some fans. So why are so many of their community members furious about Sombra?
Sombra is, theoretically, the second addition to Overwatch’s stable of playable characters. She comes after Ana released back in July. Many fans actually thought Ana was Sombra at first. Initially, the ardent detectives of all things Overwatch had discovered an in-game folder titled “SOMBRA [CLASIFICADO]” all the way back in the pre-beta days of the game. Attentive players will even catch Reaper saying, “Where’s Sombra when you need her”, occasionally when spawning on the Dorado map. Blizzard seemingly laid the groundwork for a cunning Sombra reveal.
Eventually, the hints at Sombra’s existence became more complex. The video that revealed Ana also revealed the seeds of an ARG, or Alternate Reality Game. Fans had to decipher a hexadecimal code, turn it into ASCII, then use a cipher to decode a cryptic message and, once again, the name “Sombra”. This wasn’t going to be just another timed character release. This time, clever Overwatch players could get involved.
For ARG fans, this was the start of something exciting. While generally part of an existing marketing campaign, ARGs can be their own intricately designed and immensely rewarding experiences. The Battlefield developers have a long history of incorporating complicated and devious puzzles into their updates. Participants are treated to a myriad of unique challenges and to ultimately earn some narrative or in-game reward.
Unfortunately, many players of the Overwatch ARG grew increasingly upset at short puzzles that Blizzard has released, most of which lead towards some kind of countdown to the next event. At this point, most everyone expects a complete Sombra reveal at Blizzcon this weekend. For those hoping that the ARG reward would be an early look at Sombra, their effort seems futile.
Earlier this week, at the height of another puzzle and subsequent countdown, the Overwatch subreddit was alight with arguments. One post was a plea to Blizzard to never reveal a character with an ARG again. Other posts poke fun at the incessant teases, suggesting that when her ultimate reaches 100 percent, it’ll simply reset and start another countdown. Some have come to Blizzard’s defense, suggesting fans should never have had an expectation of being rewarded for their efforts.
In a way, they’re right. When you buy Overwatch, you pay for the game and all of the characters in it. There’s no guarantee that any external content will be created, let alone that it’ll be good even if it does. There’s also a certain entitlement implicit in the way that some Overwatch fans have reacted to the ARG. Some participants feel as though they’ve been intentionally misled, lied to, or strung along -- even though Blizzard has barely said anything official about the ARG, one way or the other.
Others take a more level-headed approach to Blizzard’s strategy. The folks putting in all the effort to decipher these clues know this is all a marketing strategy. The issue isn’t that Blizzard is misleading fans into thinking they can somehow unlock Sombra early. It’s that the ARG participants are being reminded how they fit into the consumer-creator relationship.
On the other hand, I suspect the trauma felt by the Sombra ARG participants is actually grounded in an expectation of fairness. An ARG, in a way, is an agreement. Folks will put in the work to decipher clues, reveal new information, and therefore build buzz around game content. They have an expectation (I believe a reasonable one) to see this value reflected by the ARG creators. This could be in the form of new information, art, or even simple recognition.
In a perfectly executed plan, the ARG reveals information at the same pace that the creator wants that information revealed anyway. By including such long delays and countdowns between ARG segments, the illusion of earned recognition vanishes. Instead, we see how the sausage is made. That is, according to the sausage-maker’s own meticulously planned schedule.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped Overwatch fans from latching onto what little we do know about Sombra. The community is already rife with fan art, and I suspect we’ll see at least one Sombra cosplay attempt at Blizzcon. Maybe, in an underappreciated form of live comedy, the Sombra cosplayer will arrive on her own time, two weeks after the doors have shut.