Jeff Kaplan on the pressures of being Overwatch's game director

"Literally all night, every night, I'm thinking about the game."

By Chris Bratt. Published 5 April 2017

The Overwatch community is infatuated with Jeff Kaplan. As Blizzard's first-person shooter has attracted a passionate fanbase from across the globe, so has its game director, thanks to his willingness to step in front of a camera, or jump into the forums to speak directly to players about the issues they care about. From sweeping hero redesigns to the removal of an overly-sexualised pose featuring Tracer's butt, Kaplan is almost always involved in the biggest conversations surrounding the game.

But what's that actually like? Towards the end of last year, we were surprised to see Blizzard's loremaster, Chris Metzen announce his retirement from the games industry at the age of 42. Metzen, like Kaplan, had a very high-profile, public-facing role within Blizzard and has since spoken about the struggles this prompted with ongoing anxiety and panic attacks.

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Meeting with Kaplan ahead of the BAFTA Game Awards this week, I asked him if he shared similar concerns.

"I think there is a lot of pressure," said Kaplan. "Speaking for other people, in particular, when I think about my team members and how amazing all of them are. Any one of them could be sitting here, talking to you right now, and knowing that I'm probably not saying the perfect thing, or I might say something that represents them poorly; when those moments happen, you feel terrible and you try to go back to the team and apologise."

His concerns are understandable, with Overwatch now boasting a playerbase of more than 25 million people, many of which hang on Kaplan's every word regarding future heroes, maps and balance changes. I wasn't the only person to interview Kaplan when he visited the UK for tomorrow's awards ceremony, and already many of his quotes are being analysed by other sites, subreddit communities and YouTubers.

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"There's also a lot of fan pressure as well, because the game really belongs to the community. They've made it their own and they're so passionate about it, that you want to tell people what they want to hear all the time. In this interview, I mentioned Sombra's okay but she's not exactly where she was - there's somebody who's got 50 hours on Sombra on them who's really angry at me because I said that right now. There is a lot of pressure but I think anybody who's attracted to working at a place like Blizzard, or being a part of a game like Overwatch, loves the challenge of that pressure. I don't see it, necessarily, as a negative thing."

Despite being Overwatch's game director and Vice President of Blizzard Entertainment, Kaplan didn't land his first job in video games until the age of 29. At the time, he considered himself quite old, although he happily scoffs at that thought today.

"I always tease that I had a real job for 10 years and so it made me more appreciative of working in games," said Kaplan. "But the types of jobs I used to have, you'd be looking at your watch going: is it 5 o'clock, can I get out of here yet? When you work on something that is a labour of passion, which is what Overwatch is, I think [for] me and everyone on my team, we eat, sleep, dream Overwatch, it's our core passion. It's our passion as much as it's our players' passion. You can't ever escape it. There's not a weekend where, you know, I think: this weekend I'm not going to think about it."

Speaking to Kaplan, and indeed, many other game developers across the industry, it's difficult not to be reminded occasionally of the interview Chris Metzen gave shortly after his retirement had been announced to the public. In his conversation with Scott Johnson, he talked about there being "a cost sometimes to running that hard" and one that would eventually prove unsustainable.

"Literally all night, every night, I'm thinking about the game," said Kaplan as we ended our interview. "It's very intense, is the best way to describe it. But I think the people that work on games like Overwatch, that's the intensity that they like, and enjoy, and that inspires them."

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