Blizzard scales back Overwatch 2’s controversial phone number requirement

Overwatch 2 characters offer varied reactions based on whether or not they are now exempt from Blizzard’s "SMS Protect" system.”/>
enlarge / Overwatch 2 Characters offer varied reactions based on whether or not they are now exempt from Blizzard’s “SMS Protect” system.

Blizzard has partially walked back a controversial policy that required Overwatch 2 players to confirm a valid mobile phone number to play the game. Now, players “with a connected Battle.net account”—a group Blizzard says includes “a majority of existing overwatch players”— will be able to avoid that requirement.

Blizzard originally announced late last month that all Overwatch 2 players would be required to sign up for its “SMS Protect” service with a valid phone number. The move was sold as a way to bring “meaningful change when it comes to disruptive play” in the game.

In free-to-play games like Overwatch 2, problematic players can easily create new accounts in an attempt to evade bans. By linking all Overwatch 2 player accounts to a distinct phone number, Blizzard said it was “mak[ing] it more difficult for [disruptive players] to return to the game.”

“The key idea behind SMS Protect is to have an investment on behalf of the owner of that account and add some limitations or restrictions behind how you might have an account,” Overwatch 2 Lead Software Engineer Bill Warnecke told Forbes. “There’s no exclusions or kind of loopholes around the system.”

This kind of policy isn’t unheard of in the game industry. In 2019, Bungie rolled out a similar SMS validation requirement for free-to-play Destiny 2 players on PC to access some high-level raids and in-game events. That attempt to limit cheating and ban evasion has not been entirely successful, however.

Push ’em back, push ’em back, waaaaay back

In Blizzard’s case, the SMS Protect policy elicited immediate pushback from many players who faced a number of problems getting their phone numbers linked to their Overwatch 2 accounts. That includes players who reportedly faced issues because they use prepaid phone plans—Blizzard wrote that “certain types of numbers, including prepaid and VOIP, cannot be used for SMS Protect” (presumably in an attempt to prevent the use of “burner phone” numbers for ban evasion).

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

Late Wednesday evening, Blizzard issued a “Launch Status Update” intended to address some of those complaints. Now, “any overwatch player with a connected Battle.net account… will not have to provide a phone number to play.” That includes anyone who played the original overwatch on a PC—where a Battle.net account has always been required—and all console players who have played since June 9, 2021—when Blizzard added a linked Battle.net account requirement to help enable cross-play features between platforms. Blizzard said the new policy is expected to go into effect Friday and that it should affect “a majority of existing overwatch players,” who will no longer need an SMS Protect phone number on their account.

That said, Blizzard isn’t giving up on its phone-number-linking system entirely. “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,” the company wrote. “If a player is caught engaging in disruptive behavior, their account may be banned whether they have a new account or not.”

It’s not immediately clear if there is a specific cutoff for when existing overwatch players can connect to a Battle.net account to avoid the SMS Protect requirement or if that time has already passed. It’s also unclear if new players who sign up today (ie, before the new policy goes into effect tomorrow) will be exempt from the requirement. A Blizzard representative was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment from Ars Technica on this matter.

Regardless, Blizzard’s partial walk-back suggests the company is at least somewhat receptive to the widespread player complaints and bad press surrounding the SMS Protect requirement. It also suggests Blizzard trusts that players who invested time in the original overwatch are less likely to jeopardize their long-standing accounts with ban-worthy activity.

Throw another server on the pile

Elsewhere in its Wednesday Overwatch 2 update, Blizzard apologized for the server issues and DDoS attacks that have led to entry queues for launch-day players. The company explained that “the player database is being overloaded, which cascades and causes a backup in the login system, which eventually leads to some people being dropped out of queues or being unable to log in at all.”

New server nodes should ease that server pressure, Blizzard said, though those nodes have to be added slowly to avoid putting too much pressure on “an already stressed system” and avoid “any further disruption as devs and engineers work through separate issues.” Blizzard also said it is working on a server update that will “reduce the occurrences of players being disconnected once they’re already in-game.”

“We have addressed some issues and are in the process of addressing others, but players should still expect to see queues,” Blizzard wrote.

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