How Overwatch's Sound Design Gives You an Edge

I'm playing Overwatch, and things are getting a little nuts. To my left, I hear the relentless fusion cannons of D. Va, a bubbly celebrity who pilots a powerful mech. On my right, I hear the clanks and whirrs of Bastion, who's about to transform from a cute robot to a murderous stationary turret.

I'm surviving so far, until I hear a lazy Southern voice above me spout three words players have come to dread: "It's high noon." That's a clear indicator that cybernetic cowboy McCree is about to unleash his ultimate attack, so I run for cover to avoid taking a magnum round to the head.

Photo: Blizzard

Photo: Blizzard

These tense moments happen all the time in Overwatch, a game that alerts you to every major threat on the battlefield with distinct audio cues. Blizzard developed its mega-popular shooter with a "play by sound" mantra, implementing Dolby's Atmos technology to ensure that every footstep, bullet and dragon-summoning magical attack has its own distinguishable sound that can be heard with pinpoint accuracy.

Here's how these two giants came together to help create a game in which hearing your enemies is just as necessary as seeing them.

Atmos for Everyone

Blizzard and Dolby have worked together for quite a while, mostly on the publisher's notoriously well-produced cinematic trailers. When it came time to unleash Overwatch onto the world at BlizzCon in late 2014, Blizzard teamed with Dolby to create a special Dolby Atmos theater that would present the game's debut trailer in immersive 3D sound.

But while the game's explosive cinematic trailer was a huge hit among those in attendance, the folks at Blizzard were even more impressed when Dolby found a way to bring that experience home.

The following March at GDC, Dolby presented Blizzard with a special render of that same trailer that allowed the video's surround-sound cinematic audio to be experienced with a regular pair of 2D headphones. Scott Lawlor, project audio director for Overwatch, said he was in awe of what the company pulled off.

"When Widowmaker [Overwatch's stealthy sniper] grapples behind the camera and starts shooting sniper shots, you can hear up and to the right behind the player," Lawlor said, referencing a scene that you can hear for yourself in Atmos here. "When I heard that, I was blown away."

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Dolby's Atmos technology is built to be more engrossing than standard surround sound, allowing you to hear objects above you and rendering the tiniest sounds in rich detail. Games such as Star Wars Battlefront support Atmos, but you'll need an expensive home-theater system to take advantage of the technology's benefits.

The PC version of Overwatch, however, is the first game to support Atmos for headphones, meaning you can enjoy that same soundscape using whatever set of cans you already have lying around.

"Atmos for home theater is amazing, but the fact that we can bring that to anybody with any stereo headphones was the major driver behind why we pushed forward with it," Lawlor said.

While you can enjoy Overwatch's Atmos sound whether you're using iPhone earbuds or an expensive Sennheiser set, both Dolby and Blizzard were quick to point out that you'll have to disable any existing surround-sound features on your headphones or gaming headset to get the full experience. 

The Sounds of Overwatch

Dolby Atmos makes a perfect fit for Overwatch, a game in which every piece of sound serves an important purpose. A competitive, team-based shooter, Overwatch's 21 unique heroes each have distinct footstep sounds.

Each character's "ultimate," a powerful move that can turn the tide of a match, is accompanied by an impossible-to-miss audio cue: from healer Mercy exclaiming "heroes never die!" before reviving her teammates to marksman Hanzo yelling loudly in Japanese before shooting a literal dragon out of his bow.

You'll know when this guy's ultimate is coming. Photo: Blizzard

You'll know when this guy's ultimate is coming. Photo: Blizzard

"[Blizzard's] goal was to enable the players to really use audio as a core part of the way they compete," said Spencer Hooks, director of Dolby's Games Business department. "Every time you hear someone triggering an ultimate, you know where they are and who triggered it."

"We built full systems around prioritizing the biggest threat on the battlefield," Lawlor added.

"Atmos for home theater is amazing, but the fact that we can bring that to anybody with any stereo headphones was the major driver." - Scott Lawlor, project audio director, Overwatch

According to Lawlor, the folks at Blizzard played against each other for hours every night and took notes on how to improve the audio experience for players. The team members would record their matches and try to pinpoint moments where they couldn't hear their enemies coming. This led to features such as Overwatch's occlusion system, which allows rival players to sound muffled when behind walls, but clearer as they approach whichever doorway you're in. For a deeper dive, you can check out the audio team's GDC 2016 presentation on playing by sound here.

"Let's say you get hit from behind from a Reaper [the game's shotgun assassin]. If he one-shots you and you didn't hear him coming, it's a frustrating experience," Lawlor said. "We wanted [players] to feel like they had a fair fight."

Hearing Is Winning in eSports

Hooks and Lawlor agree that audio is hugely important to eSports. After all, not hearing your opponent can mean the difference between winning and losing in a competitive game. Lawlor noted that Blizzard has been getting very positive feedback on the game's sound design, and with more than 7 million people playing, the team must be doing something right.

Playing without sound will likely get you taken out from behind by characters like Reaper. Photo: Blizzard

Playing without sound will likely get you taken out from behind by characters like Reaper. Photo: Blizzard

"Audio is a huge part of how you play the game most effectively," Lawlor said. "When I'm playing at home, I can tell when someone's not using sound, because I can go behind them with Reaper and go 'click,' and they're dead. We did everything we could to make sure that footstep was as loud as possible and coming from the right direction."

Gaming hardware makers such as Turtle Beach and Logitech already offer specialized headsets for pro-level gamers; now, it seems like it's up to developers to help out gamers on a software level the way Blizzard and Dolby have. While Hooks had nothing specific to announce, he noted that Dolby is always on the lookout for future games that would benefit from Atmos.

"[Sound] is something that's not always utilized to its fullest in eSports games." Hooks said. "This is a really good example of the coming together of eSports and a game where audio really can be a core part of that competitive environment. I think Overwatch is the perfect storm that lets us demonstrate that."

Get Your Competitive Edge

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.