Activision Blizzard required a phone number to play its latest game. Players said it discriminated against poor people

A scene from “Overwatch 2.”
Courtesy of Activision Blizzard

Activision Blizzard is removing an anti-cheat precaution from its newest game after players complained it discriminated against poorer players.

Just over a week before the launch of Overwatch 2, Activision’s newest shooter, the developer announced that players would need to have a valid phone number to play the game. The system, called SMS Protect, would help the developer keep cheaters and abusive players out of the game. Banned players would be forced to get a new phone number if they wanted to play the game again.

Yet players found that SMS Protect also excluded anyone on a prepaid phone plan, effectively locking them out of the game. Players with too little income to afford a phone service contract, or who just preferred using prepaid phones, complained that the developer was barring them from enjoying its game.

“Never thought I would be disqualified from playing Overwatch based on my ability [to] afford a phone contract,” one user wrote on the Overwatch subreddit. The player explained that he used Cricket Wireless and wrote that “Blizzard is the first company to make me feel too poor to play a game.”

Other players worried that blocking those with prepaid phone plans would harm the game’s community by lowering the potential player base. “Today has made me realize how popular Cricket Wireless is with Overwatch Redditors,” commented another user on the Overwatch subreddit.

To make matters worse, Activision shut down the first Overwatch game on Monday in a bid to ensure people would move to the sequel. Players on prepaid phone plans were now stuck with a game that was now unplayable. 

On Thursday, Activision backed down, saying it would remove the requirement for most players in a blog post. While SMS Protect isn’t going away entirely, Activision said that anyone who had played since last June would be exempt. 

A rough launch

SMS Protect was merely one of the frustrations players experienced with Overwatch 2. 

Hackers hit Overwatch 2’s servers with a distributed-denial-of-service attack when the game launched, forcing players to wait in long queues to find a match. Even as the attacks subsided, players still reported long wait times as Activision’s servers struggled to keep up with demand.

Players have also complained about the game’s monetization features. Overwatch 2, unlike its predecessor, does not require an upfront purchase to play the game. Instead, players spend money on cosmetic upgrades, like new characters or new costumes for their characters. Gamers are frustrated that these purchases, in total, could end up costing more money in the long run.

Overwatch 2’s monetization features are actually an attempt to move away from another dubious monetization practice. The first Overwatch game featured “loot boxes,” either unlocked through gameplay or purchased directly, which contained a random assortment of upgrades. Regulators are increasingly viewing loot boxes as a practice similar to gambling.

On Thursday, Activision Blizzard told players in a blog post that “while millions of people have been enjoying [Overwatch 2], the launch has not met your, or our, expectations,” and promised numerous fixes to account for player concerns. 

Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest video game companies,  is in the process of getting regulatory approval for its acquisition by Microsoft, announced earlier this year. The Xbox maker in January said it would pay $68.7 billion for Activision, which also owns franchises like Call of Duty, Candy Crush Saga, and World of Warcraft. 

Employees have accused Activision of ignoring concerns about sexual harassment and making it harder for workers to organize.

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