Something to Strive For

Or: Rewards for dedication are severely lacking in Overwatch

Rancor is in the air. Many are calling Season 5 of Ranked Matchmaking in Overwatch the worst since S1’s disastrous coin flips. Due to the total lack of transparency from Blizzard, it is unclear if the Matchmaking algorithm has in fact changed (and led to genuinely worse matchmaking) or if tensions are simply reaching a boiling point. Either way, the potential for disruption in the market for competitive Overwatch matchmaking has never been greater.

The reasons are obvious: one-tricking remains a behavior officially accepted by Blizzard, the punishment system feels toothless, and the Skill Rating algorithm is embarrassingly manipulable. 1/10 Ranked games feel competitive and interesting on a good day.

Even if these glaring failures are rectified, the prioritization of queue time minimization has left striving for the top of the ladder feeling deeply unrewarding. Overwatch, from a fundamental game-design perspective, is the eSport with the greatest demand for constant coordination. Games like CS:GO, Dota 2, and League of Legends reward coordinated executions and smart team play, but Overwatch demands it constantly. True 1v1s are incredibly rare and virtually every fight is decided with crucial contributions from many players. As individual SR presses past 4300, however, wins and losses are decided by carry play and team coordination goes out the window. When a 46-4700 rated player solo-queues into a game, it is virtually impossible that his/her teammates will be able and willing to keep up. Although queue times stay relatively fast with this system, it feels as if the matchmaker asks only the question of which team will more effectively stymie the efforts of their one or two carry-players. There’s no value in a brief queue time if the majority of matches are poor quality.

As a player at this skill range, these sort of games are incredibly frustrating. Although Ranked Matchmaking will never perfectly simulate an organized competitive environment, its power to shine the spotlight on new talent (as in other eSports titles) is directly correlated to the degree of similarity it can achieve. One of the most compelling parts of eSports is its accessibility. There is a sort of egalitarian charm to the idea that anyone can make a name online and earn a chance to be rewarded for their dedication and skill. Overwatch is failing terribly in this respect.

A competitor to Ranked Matchmaking (similar to the offerings of Faceit or ESEA in other games) may be the best path forward. There is tremendous demand for a more meaningful proxy to true competitive Overwatch, both from established professional players and from those who wish for a legitimate arena in which to display their potential. Something as simple as a captain’s draft system or a classical Elo measurement would yield a product far superior to what Blizzard has produced.

Beyond prizes and external motivations, I know that I would personally pay for a subscription just to guarantee a consistently serious and competitive mindset among my teammates. Ranked in its present state is a remarkably poor environment in which to practice the most important skill of Overwatch: team play. I had hoped Blizzard would act faster, but the deterioration of the past few seasons makes one thing strikingly clear: Blizzard’s game development priorities seem to put Quickplay on par with Top 500. For the organic growth of the eSport in the long term, the need for something to strive for is greater than ever.



P.S. My apologies for the delay between articles. I’m taking college courses online now in order to finish my degree (on top of World Cup practice), so my time is a bit more constrained than usual. As always, let me know what you think in the comments and on twitter at @jake_overwatch

The Perfect Meta-game

And how to achieve it.

It’s time to go there. This piece will be structured with relatively simple contentions, the defense of which aims to construct a coherent set of guidelines for how to balance Overwatch most efficiently and effectively.

For those with a bit less eSports savvy: in Overwatch, the ‘meta-game’ is comprised of the sum of expectations about which team compositions are strong in certain situations.

Firstly, the standard:

Claim 1: The degree of freedom that a meta-game instantiates is the best available standard by which to evaluate its quality.

I contend that the ideal meta-game consists of the maximum amount of competitively viable team compositions and styles of play. There is no objective way to measure what makes a game fun, however I would argue that novelty is a close proxy and a goal internally worthy of pursuit. Novelty is best measured through variety, counterplay, and creative potential; in other words the degree of freedom that a meta-game instantiates.

We can compare this standard against the emotive responses of the playerbase to help evaluate its quality as a metric for meta-game quality. The infamous Quad-Tank meta (under which my team, then Bird Noises, made its name) was near universally despised. What my team discovered in this patch was that there was no need to run any other composition in any circumstance; the only counter to Quad-Tank was to play Quad-Tank more aggressively than your opponent. This would be an example of a meta-game with an extremely low degree of freedom; only one composition and one play style is viable. Here my standard would concur with community sentiment of the time; a meta-game with less choices is less fun.

Comparing this meta to the post-Dva-&-Ana-nerfs meta, nearly everyone would agree that the ‘quality’ of the meta-game went up relative to Quad-Tank. Out of the three plausible off-tanks in this meta-game, different teams chose different pairs out of the set of Dva/Zarya/Roadhog. Some teams (e.g. Selfless) bucked even the name of the meta-game and chose instead to play a 2-2-2 style with a very high degree of success. While virtually the rest of the world continued to play Rein-centric compositions, Rogue impressed everyone paying any attention with a Triple-DPS dive comp that took the competitive scene by storm, proving its viability with undeniably dominant results. Again, my standard matches the sentiment of the community in declaring this meta much more fun than the one preceding it.

If asked to evaluate the present Counter-Dive meta, most would call it a regression from what was previously achieved (although perhaps better than metas like Quad-Tank). Once more my standard concurs with this sentiment, since the spectrum of viable compositions and play styles has grayed drastically over the past few patches. Presently, Dva/Winston/Tracer/Lucio are approaching perma-run status with a few exceptions on exceptionally enclosed or flank-less map locations. The choice between Zen/Ana and Soldier/Genji (or Pharah+Mercy) with the occasional and situational Sombra flex is essentially all that is available to competitive teams. Apex results seem to show that even Rogue’s unmatched mastery of the Triple-DPS play style was insufficient to overcome the dominance of the 2-2-2 meta. Those stubborn teams that have stuck to Rein-centric compositions have been consistently trampled underfoot by one very angry scientist.

From these instances, I conclude that what makes a meta-game good or bad is the degree to which teams can convert their unique individual styles and ideas about the game into genuinely competitive strategies. Fostering creativity as a means to victory is a powerful way to elevate Overwatch above the aim-duels that are lent such primacy in mirror matches. As a side note, I believe that diminishing the importance of these extremely mechanical aim-duels and elevating the importance of team-composition makes Overwatch vastly more entertaining and watchable from a spectator’s perspective. The narrative of one team outsmarting the other is much more compelling in my eyes than that of the more skilled players dismantling their weaker counterparts.

The immediate next question to ask once one accepts this standard is ‘how does one best achieve the maximum degree of freedom in a meta-game?’. This question is slightly more complex, yet no less answerable:

Claim 2: At their core, Overwatch’s meta-games and overall balance are about team composition.

Winning or losing a game of Overwatch depends entirely on a team’s ability to successfully attack and defend various objectives within a roughly given timeframe. As tempting as it is to consider a hero’s balance in a vacuum, such an hero-centric approach to balancing is doomed to failure.

It seems quite plausible that the vast availability of statistics regarding hero play in Ranked Matchmaking has tempted the OW dev-team to think of each hero as an island. When a hero seems to be winning or losing a little too often it seems a prime candidate for a nerf or a buff, respectively. This logic misses what was in front of our eyes the whole time, that one hero choice is only strong or weak relative to other options and the team composition that surrounds and opposes it. Heroes don’t win games, compositions do.

Consider Genji. In Triple-Tank his role is essentially to farm Dragonblade as quickly as possible to participate in combo play with his primary enablers: Lucio, Ana, Zarya, Rein, etc. In dive compositions, however, Genji acts as the secondary initiator alongside Winston and Tracer. Dive seeks to enable the Genji to maximize dash resets while the primacy of Dragonblade is significantly reduced relative to Triple-Tank Genji play. The shift in team composition fundamentally alters the role of the Genji player as his primary ‘partner heroes’ become fellow damage-dealers rather than defensive enablers. This is a crucial distinction to recognize. Hypothetically, were Genji oppressively strong, composition-defining, and thus demanding of a nerf it would be very important to change him in the right way so as to properly affect the meta-monopolizing composition without fully eroding his general viability.

Dva can benefit from a similar analysis, sans hypotheticals. After her originally massive buff was toned down, she didn’t feel oppressively overpowered in tank compositions. Her mobility wasn’t so incredibly useful in slower compositions, yet it felt like she had a good place in countering spam-centric opposing team comps and enabling more aggressive DPS choices in Triple-Tank (like Genji). Without any changes directly to Dva, the massive buffs to Winston, Lucio, and Zenyatta combined with Rein & Roadhog nerfs have left her feeling oppressively strong. The Zenyatta buffs and the Lucio rework established a much more cohesive backline than had ever existed in Rein-less compositions. Dva perfectly fit the niche of peeling for this backline perfectly while also soft-countering Discord Orb and often preventing the all important Dash-resets of Genji comps. This instance reveals that hero balance cannot be examined in a vacuum, even with statistical evaluation; Dva shifted from ‘viable-yet-unpopular’ to ‘must-have’ without a single direct change to her kit.

Herein lies the biggest problem to successfully balancing Overwatch. The above paragraphs are significantly less true if we are considering Ranked Matchmaking rather than organized competitive eSports. In Ranked, the near total lack of coordination greatly diminishes the importance of full compositions and lends much more credence to claims that a hero is strong or weak in a vacuum. Without fixing Ranked play (see my earlier blog posts on the subject) I can’t imagine a solution to this dilemma, except to plead with all my heart that Blizzard prioritize balance for those who dedicate their dreams, careers, and lives to Overwatch.

Playing eSports doesn’t make you better or more valuable than a casual player, but I believe that that kind dedication is deserving of the respect and priority of the dev team. If a character is a bit too strong in low-skill public games, some casual players will have an infinitesimally more difficult Ranked experience. If the Overwatch eSports meta becomes stagnant and/or unenjoyable to watch, careers and lives are potentially ruined. The best of the best will find success regardless, but it is the scale of the eSports scene upon which those on the margins of top play depend. Furthermore, I would argue that balancing for eSports will ultimately benefit the whole playerbase, although that’s a topic for another article.

The world could always use more heroes.

Claim 3: Presently, the game is more defined by choice of Main Tank than by any other role. Choosing Winston or Rein will dictate more strategy than almost any other role selection.

With the heroes presently available in Overwatch, the degrees of freedom available in terms of composition and strategy selection are almost entirely dictated by Main Tank selection. When a team selects Winston, more than half of the heroes in the selection screen might as well be blacked out for how weak and non-viable they are in aggressive dive compositions. Reinhardt hero selection acts in a similar way, except that he fully ‘blacks out’ fewer heroes and rather simply demands that a significant portion of his teammates’ heroes are devoted primarily to his defense (a role for which there are only a few meaningful choices).

Under this situation, then, ensuring the viability of both Rein-centric and Winston-centric compositions (as close to a 50/50 as possible) is what will result in the most variable and creatively adaptable meta-game. In the short term, this is the only solution to stagnant meta-games that prevent individual and team flavors from expressing themselves in team-composition choice.

Ideally though, I’d like to see heroes that either add a third option to the Rein/Winston dichotomy or allow the game to potentially be played in a way that isn’t so fundamentally tank-centric (although this may simply be a reality for Overwatch in the medium term). I’m looking at you, Doomfist…


If you read this far, don’t hesitate to give me feedback in the comments or on twitter at @jake_overwatch. This article was pretty intensely theoretical, so if you made it all the way through I appreciate your dedication.

I’d also like to thank Wojtek for his instrumental assistance in refining this piece and also for inspiring its focus.


Elegy for a Swine

or: Constructive Feedback on Roadhog’s Balancing

Roadhog was the first character in Overwatch that I really wanted to master. Coming from TF2 as an avid MGE (My Gaming Edge is a popular 1v1 practice mod in TF2) Soldier player, discovering the balance between the Rocket Launcher and the Shotgun lent incredible depth to a character of such apparent simplicity and formed the foundation of my passion for competitive gaming. Diving into the nuances of Roadhog, I felt just the same as I had in the early stages of mastering MGE’s Soldier duels: perfect play was so clearly possible and yet always tantalizingly out of reach.

Missing or landing a hook almost never felt like a game of chance, and a perfect understanding of range was a must-have to do battle while Hook was on cooldown. The character rewarded skill with unique carry-potential and punished mistakes and poor positioning with significant contributions to enemy ultimate tempo. Then came the hook 2.0 update.

It only took a few minutes of playing the new Roadhog for me to recognize the gravity of what was lost. Impressive hooks were often broken by odd geometry or falling opponents, only occasionally did this new mechanic yield the sense that your target had truly outplayed the hook. On the receiving end, I felt the same. Once in a while I truly intended to sidestep a hook and broke it with my cover, but more often than not my response was to say a quick prayer to RNGesus.

The mechanical change to the way the pull itself occurred was also rather shockingly bad. Characters hooked off of high ground or from height were not brought straight to the Road player, but rather in a diagonal trajectory that put the two players on level ground. As someone who practiced with the original hook mechanics for hundreds of hours, this change was both annoying and counter-intuitive while having no discernible impact on the balance of the character. Some heroes were originally quite difficult to consistently one-shot combo as Roadhog, most notably Ana. Prior to these changes, only a very small minority of players could truly achieve a very reliable maximum damage combo. The change to pull consistency was perhaps well intended yet in my view only achieved a ‘dumbing down’ of the character’s fundamental mechanics.

I don’t contend that no nerf was deserved, but rather that changes to Roadhog have been poorly designed. Roadhog as he was on release was most certainly overpowered. His one-shot potential was simply too high and counterplay options were sharply limited by his low cooldowns. The hook was also apparently designed for the lowest common denominator of players with a hitbox nearly the size of a payload cart. Despite these problems, at the end of the day the Pig was a hell of a lot of fun to play because the hook was a hell of a lot of fun to use.

The initial changes proved insufficient to properly balance the hero, so the devs turned next to a 33% increase to Hook’s cooldown combined with buffs to the spread of the Scrap Gun and a decrease in pull distance to compensate. The intent was apparently to make him less reliant on his role-defining cooldown and remake him in the style of a classic DPS character. Philosophical problems with this kind of change aside, this patch led to a significant decrease in Roadhog’s vulnerability during Hook cooldown and a significant increase to his ability to drop enemies into death-pits.

In the most recent balance patch, our beloved swine was finally driven into competitive irrelevancy with Ranked win rates approaching 40% and a near total lack of playtime in professional play. The developers had the following to say: “The Scrap Gun changes reduce the power of his hook combo and alternate fire burst damage potential while still keeping his DPS roughly the same.” (For those unaware, the recent patch decreased Hog’s damage by 33% while increasing rate of fire by 30% and clip size by 25%).

The notion that Roadhog could still realistically output the same amount of DPS as pre-patch is pretty laughable. As soon as I saw these patch notes on the PTR I knew Roadhog was destined for the garbage bin if they went live (and live they went). In a game with healing as cheap and effective as it is in Overwatch, burst damage is vastly stronger than damage dealt over time. Just because Roadhog has about the same ability to break a Rein shield (under perfect conditions) as before doesn’t mean that his meaningful DPS will be anywhere close to what it was. Furthermore, dealing the same DPS requires landing more shots than before and thus exposing oneself more than before.

If the developers had written that ‘Roadhog was much too strong and that these changes were intended to bring him in line’ I would disagree with their assessment but agree with the means by which they responded to it. What is really upsetting is that, from the above developer comment I interpret that they didn’t see these changes as a significant nerf at all. Perhaps with the decrease to his critical hitbox size they potentially even saw this update as a buff. The reality, however, is that these changes are perhaps the most significant nerfing any character has received throughout Overwatch except perhaps all of the Ana nerfs combined into one patch. Worse yet, this brutal blow from the nerf-bat was delivered to a character that was already fading out of competitive viability. What that says about the developers’ understanding of their own game is up to the reader to decide.

I am happy and sad at the same time with these changes. Happy because Roadhog stopped being fun for me with the first iteration of Hook 2.0 and now he is so competitively irrelevant that I’ll never need to touch him again barring radical re-balancing. Sad because Roadhog was the character that first made me want to become great at Overwatch.

All along, the changes Roadhog needed were so simple. Were I balancing Overwatch, the next balance patch would do the following.

  1. Reset Roadhog to exactly as he was on release
  2. Hook cooldown to 9 seconds
  3. Hook hitbox size decreased by 33%
  4. Take a Breather healing down to 250 from 300 (or 1-2 second increase in cool down)

Being deleted in one shot isn’t very fun. For newer players it is probably quite frustrating since they don’t understand the game well enough to really engage with counterplay options. These changes will make successfully landing hooks much harder, remove the original ability of the hook to pull players who were completely out of line of sight, and increase the size of the vulnerability window that Roadhog creates when he uses Chain Hook. Reverting the spread changes will push the character back into his original role of a space-denying tank and defender of back lines and further open up counterplay options to reward players who successfully bait out a Hook. If Blizzard remains really resistant to reverting the hook-break mechanic, the hook should instantly stop the motion of its target from the moment of connection through the completed pull so that skillful and ‘legit’ hooks are at least more rarely broken by gravity or odd map geometry.


P.S. This essay was more in a narrative structure than my previous pieces because I felt that it served the point I was trying to make better. Let me know what you thought in the comments; more pieces and potentially more new styles coming soon.