Following a barrage of complaints and criticism, Blizzard is dropping a requirement to have phone numbers attached to Battle.net accounts "for a majority of existing Overwatch players."
SMS Protect, as it's called, originally required all Overwatch 2 players, on all platforms, to have a phone number attached to their Battle.net account in order to play the game. It's a fairly basic 2FA system, but the idea is that it won't just help players protect their accounts, but also help Blizzard to take more control over who can access Overwatch 2.
"SMS Protect helps verify ownership of your account in the unforeseen event of an account compromise," Blizzard said. "Similarly, if a disruptive player has been suspended or banned, SMS Protect makes it more difficult for them to return to the game."
The problem is that SMS Protect is excluding certain players for reasons unrelated to their in-game behavior. Each Battle.net account requires a separate number, which could exclude households with multiple Overwatch fans and a shared phone line, and perhaps worse, "certain types of numbers, including pre-paid and VOIP, cannot be used for SMS Protect." That potentially locks out a large chunk of people even though they do have a unique phone number, especially younger players who can't, or just don't want to, sign up for a multi-year phone contract. Prior to today's decision, the requirement held even for those who purchased Overwatch, which is no longer available to play now that it's been replaced with Overwatch 2.
"I played Overwatch from almost day one and I loved it. It's the entire reason I enjoy competitive games in the first place," redditor WavePheonix wrote. "Now, a few days before launch, I wanted to get around to linking my phone number to my account. Come to find out, I can't play because I have a pre-paid plan and I'm devastated. I can't just change my phone plan for one game and now despite me paying the money, playing all the betas, and having been a fan for years I don't think I'll ever get to play it."
"So...what happens in a household that only has one phone number...but multiple people?" Chromeglow asked. "Blizzard really isn't expecting people to get another phone number just to play their game, right?"
"I have Cricket wireless. It's what my family can afford. Idk what else to say," RLmclovin wrote. "I'm not going to tell my family that we should switch because of a video game. Now I can't play overwatch. I'm really sad about this. I've been playing with friends and family for years, now I can't play with any of them because of my phone plan."
TheNocron posted an image of his rejected effort to add a phone number:
"This sucks!" they wrote. "I can't even play a game I paid for because of my phone plan." (They later clarified that they paid for Overwatch 1 and now have no choice but to move to Overwatch 2.)
Confusing the situation even further, some prepaid plans do appear to work, despite Blizzard's policy. Our Overwatch 2 reviewer and all-around good guy Tyler Colp told me he uses Mint Mobile prepaid and said the SMS Protect system works fine with it, and that he's aware of others who have had success with it as well. Redditor Sophie_bear said they've also been able to use SMS Protect with Tello Mobile, another prepaid system.
Prepaid phones tend to be portrayed in TV dramas as the tools of criminals and spies, but the reality is not so sensational. A February 2022 report from Research and Markets, for instance, says prepaid mobile services in the US "have become increasingly competitive in recent years as they evolve offerings to be more on par with post-paid service features and plans," and anticipates continued growth in prepaid usage "as part of a dominant trend towards prepaying mobile services becoming increasingly more comparable with post-paid wireless."
Even now, the numbers are huge. A November 2020 report from Fierce Wireless says there were roughly 74 million prepaid users in the US as of the third quarter of 2020. That's an awful lot of phones, and that number is not going to shrink.
Some Overwatch 2 players have said they support the restriction because it'll cut back on smurfing—that is, highly-ranked players creating new accounts so they can gank lower-skill players—and, hopefully, toxicity in general, as the system makes it than it was previously to bounce back from an account ban. A new phone contract is an expensive penalty to get back into a game, but the side effect has been locking out certain newcomers, as well as some longtime Overwatch fans.
Most of the latter group, at least, will get relief: An update that's expected to go live on October 7 will remove the phone number requirement for any Overwatch player with a connected Battle.net account, which includes all players who have played the original game sine June 9, 2021.
We want to provide an update on what we have been doing behind the scenes to get more players into #Overwatch2 and make your play experience smoother.Read more here https://t.co/YmTcxm3Zh0October 6, 2022
"We remain committed to combating disruptive behavior in Overwatch 2—accounts that were not connected to Battle.net as well as new accounts will still have to meet SMS Protect requirements, which helps to ensure we’re protecting our community against cheating," Blizzard said. "If a player is caught engaging in disruptive behavior, their account may be banned whether they have a new account or not."
The new policy is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves an awful lot of potential players out of the loop. As a free-to-play game, one of Overwatch 2's big attractions is the ability to jump into the action without a lot of horsing around. But newcomers will still have to connect a phone number to their account in order to play, and there's no word about how, or if, Blizzard intends to address players with prepaid phones. Blizzard's "Defense Matrix" update from last week still states that prepaid and VOIP numbers cannot be used for SMS Protect. I've reached out to Blizzard for more information and will update if I receive a reply.
Blizzard also acknowledged Overwatch 2's ongoing problems with queues, server crashes, and game stability, and said that it's taking steps to address these issues, including server-side updates and the addition of new nodes to the player database to ease the load on it.
"We are also currently throttling queues in order to protect the player database as much as we can while we scale," Blizzard said. "This feels bad in the short-term, but once it’s done, will greatly improve the experience for players across multiple fronts moving forward."
Problems with account merges are also being addressed (and in some cases, already have been), and Blizzard said that no player data has been lost. A separate problem resulting in incorrectly locked heroes and items is also being worked on. On the upside, Blizzard said the DDoS attacks that plagued Overwatch 2's launch appear to have stopped.
This article was updated to include Blizzard's announcement regarding existing Overwatch players.
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Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.