If you are in Asia this time of year, you can’t avoid Lunar New Year festivities, not even if you try to escape into one of the most popular online games.
US gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment has released a special update for its newest game Overwatch in time for the festivities, and it’s using China’s most revered literary tale to keep players interested and boost sales.
Titled ‘Overwatch: Year of the Rooster’, players can don cosmetic “skins” modelled after the four main characters from Journey to the West, a story most Chinese children grow up hearing, about a legendary pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk and his three disciples.
Special holiday items and a new game mode were also made available through special New Year Loot Boxes, each priced between $2 and $45 (£1.75 – £35).
The firm’s other fantasy titles such as Heroes of the Storm, StarCraft and World of Warcraft (WoW) also received festive updates.
Overwatch has also attracted a mammoth following in South Korea, overtaking League of Legends to become the country’s most-popular online game.
China is one of Blizzard’s biggest markets. Although the firm has not provided official Chinese player numbers for Overwatch, gamers in the country have been estimated to make up about half of its five million players worldwide for the WoW franchise.
Released in May 2016, the first-person shooter game has reportedly gained a loyal following of over 20m registered players.
Each battle has two teams of six gamers, and players, represented in the game by a “hero” character, have to secure and defend various points on an online map before time runs out.
Cosmetic rewards like individual victory poses and the special Lunar New Year character skins are a popular feature of the game. However, they do not add any gameplay value.
Journey to the West “skins” available
‘Sanzang’ Zenyatta: This divine being calls upon “orbs of harmony” to heal teammates and weaken opponents. The character is based on Xuanzang, a monk sent on a mission to fetch a set of scriptures back to China to spread Buddhism.
‘Wujing’ Reinhardt: Originally a general in heaven, Sha Wujing, or Sandy Monk was exiled to earth where he became a man-eating demon. His modern video game counterpart is equally fierce and equipped with weapons, including his iconic staff, allowing him to charge and pin enemies on the front line.
‘Bajie’ Roadhog: Modelled after the novel’s Zhu Bajie, who is part human, part pig, this hardy hero can withstand tremendous damage and can recover his health with a short breather. He uses his signature Chain Hook to pull his enemies close before shredding them with blasts from his Scrap Gun.
‘Wukong’ Winston: Inspired by Chinese mythological figure Sun Wukong (also known as Monkey God) and boasting incredible strength, this is the most popular character of all. Winston comes equipped with a jump pack and wields an electricity-blasting cannon. He is a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against the best warriors of heaven.
“We’ve had special seasonal content for years now in our other games and doing something similar in Overwatch seemed like a natural fit,” a Blizzard spokesperson told BBC News.
“While it was inspired by an Asian celebration, it’s not something meant to only serve players in Asia – all players can enjoy the Year of the Rooster.”
Fireworks, pagodas, lion dancers and traditional cheongsam dresses are all part of a promotional trailer for the game, which drew close to 25,000 retweets and 40,000 likes.
“The Chinese elements in the new Overwatch skins look so beautiful,” said Beijing gamer Ning in response to it on the popular Sina Weibo micro-blogging site. “Now we can bring the New Year spirit into our matches.”
The special Lunar New Year series generated buzz and raised excitement among gamers on Reddit.
“It’s awesome how they incorporated Journey to the West characters into the heroes and made them work really well,” said Reddit user Azurezefer.
For other users like Chinese gamer Matt Wang, Winston the Monkey King was his favourite.
“It’s definitely worth every penny. Really nice art work,” he said.
But other Blizzard fans spotted a bizarre bug, with some noticing that character Mei’s waist now looked “thinner” after installing the new update.
“Where did Mei’s waist go? In her Chinese New Year suit, her bust and waist are totally slimmed down. We can have fat Roadhog and love him so why can’t we have fat Mei,” questioned Allie on an official fan forum.
“I get that cheongsum and qipaos are meant to be slimming but this is ridiculous,” wrote Ariela Gadriel.
Blizzard responded, saying it was “unintentional”.
“There’s a bug with Mei’s Luna and Chang’e skins right now that’s causing her waist to appear much smaller than normal,” it said in an official blog post.
It added that their studio was currently working on an update to fix it.