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.
8 thoughts on “The Perfect Meta-game”
I have to disagree with your assessment that balance should be made for and according to pro players. It would basically ruin the game for millions of players in favor of a few hundreds. Not only because ranked meta is much different from esports meta, but again it varies across the tiers. It wouldn’t be absurd however, to have a peculiar balance for esports in esports, even though that would mean you would kind of play different game than the rest of us… which you do anyway.
As for the rest I can’t help but thinking the small variety of tank and support options participates in making the meta so stale (but then I’m a tank main who flexs to support so…). Dva wouldn’t be so dominant if Zarya could have space, same as for Tracer/Genji if McCree could stay alive. You say it yourslef, the whole game is dictated by the choice of your main tank, and there’s only two options for it.
I had the following ideas for a secondary tank, precisely aiming at countering dive. First he would have the ability to apply an AOE damage reduction (% to be determined), and second he would place a small box, a “panic room” anyone in his team can enter and be safe in (however can’t be targetted by allies either, i.e. can’t be healed, and can’t heal allies either or target ennemies). Once used the panic room would be destroyed and on a rather long cooldown.
Casuals will not make any FPS or competitive games having a long life. I can assure you that casuals in OW will swayed heavily away from OW, if other new FPS games released. That’s the nature of casual players, unfortunately. Meanwhile, the comp/hardcore players will certainly help OW because they have more dedication to play OW and also helping to nuture OW into a stable and competitve FPS game. You can’t find it in any casual OW players. So, I agreed on Jake, let’s forgot about catering heavily to casuals and try more focus balancing among pro players only. LoL, CS, and Dota have proven that this method really work well.
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How would balancing around Pro-gameplay ruin the experience for casuals though? Balancing around pro-play gives casuals a reason to get better at, and learn to play the game.
As it stands now Sombra, Widowmaker, and McCree are basically only playable by Diamond players and above because of their skill requirements or team coordination requirements, but you still see people of all levels playing them.
The only way to balance the game, is to balance the very best.
Your comment about making a particular balance set for esports may actually be a more viable option. They already do have specific rule sets for leagues in international rugby and soccer. a committee for the esports league could be used to adjust to a specific rule set . And leave overwatch for mass consumption balance to blizzard. After all esports is rapidly gaining ground as a broadcast qualified sport.
Hey Jake, big fan of yours and LG Evil. Listening to the Overview today I heard your shout out and stopped by. Great blog post. I agree with you that OW should be balanced based on the eSports community as opposed to the ladder. That being said, I have two questions for you.
First, I feel like if you made a very slight reduction to Winston’s Tesla Cannon output, and changed the mechanic where he zaps Rein/others through the Rein sheild, it would bring both of them back to a more viable main tank position. Thoughts?
Second, do you feel like the answer to balancing is a matter of micro-nerfs/buffs? For example, I play a ton of soldier, and when he got super buffed it was a bit OP imo and I feel like the small nerf they applied put him to the right level. Do you think that they just need to do many more of those small tweaks to get the game into a state where 18 – 20 of the 25 heroes are viable at your level vs. 10-12 which is what’s the seems like currently?
I have long held a contempt for meta’s. They are stale unyielding cookie cutter paradigms that show little personality or strategic art of the esports arena. Every season a defining static meta is given the gold standard status. Esports teams lock in mirror compositions without regard for map terrain, or their own teams personality and synchronicity. and from start to end, over 7 maps in a tournament game, is their any variance in that composition. These teams then proceed to brawl each other with pure skill/ rng. There is no thought given to hero’s which may benefit in particular zone regions in the map. In essence the sr system incentivizes that kind of mindset. pure skill measured by specific stats. but completely missing a measurement for a strategic play.
An argument could be made that we’re still experiencing the infancy of Overwatch Meta. Perhaps we are running through all the variations of a static meta. And the future Meta’s for which blizzard has intended their balancing is a dynamic Meta dance. A meta where teams don’t pick mirror compositions but a specific map, with specific intent, in a specific zone of the map. where ult timing/generation becomes even more important,,because it may only be used once in that game before a completely new composition is constructed. At the moment i dont really see teams as personalities in the esports arena.
Really interesting analysis. I certainly hope that somewhere in Blizzard’s goals for Overwatch, they have something like this.
As someone with direct insight into the pro meta, I’m curious what sort of change you think might be made to the game to help achieve this sort of thing? Both with regard to Reinhardt vs Winston dichotomy and other areas for the game?
One thing that’s bothered me is that defense heroes and Symmetra tends to see almost zero play at the very top levels. Any ideas on what could change to help them see a bit more play?
I feel like reworking heroes might be a better idea for both the competitive and casual community.
While team comps wins you games, fact is a lot of heroes struggle to be relevant in team comps due to either a lack of viable pairing or a lack of defining role which is mainly due to the gameplay approach Blizzard has on their heroes over relevant role definition for the game itself. Symmetra I feel is a very good example of that where her pairing are very few and/or not viable themselves while creating issues for the casual scene due to her aggressive aimless gameplay.
The problem is that reworks are very slow for what they are worth and more often than not completely ignore the community input on it making it very hard for them to have an actual impact on how the game is played especially at top levels. They really needs to rethink their philosophy on it and try to be a lot more open about the feedback the community has.
One more thing I would like to talk about is the main tank part and would like to possibly add Orisa to the mix.
I found through testing (thanks to doomfist) that she might get a role to play as a main tank in the future. Doomfist as of now is very capable at countering dive in less mobile compositions, he’s very good at peeling and initiating through the enemy aggressiveness, even more than McCree and is also far more durable than him. However Sombra completely negates him and seeing how much more popular she became, it is clear that future strategies will have to be built around countering her. Mercy is already being used timidly as a way to counter EMP as death simply can’t seem to be avoided however it wasn’t as effective as it needed to be due to how no hero in the roaster could peel enough to stop dive and thus justify the presence of a Mercy without a Pharah. Taking a Mercy also meant giving up on Lucio as forward healing are necessary in dive regardless.
That is where Orisa comes into play, she is very good at spacing due to how portable her shield is, she doesn’t rely on mobility boosting unlike winston and reinhardt due to the range of her weapon and how much more of a rear peeling oriented hero she is, she also combine incredibly well with doomfist due to the nature of his ultimate and what her mini graviton does. Doomfist himself doesn’t benefits much from mobility as he can cross distances very easily and his ability to lock a target puts him free from a need to boost his ability to engage and disengage. While I am aware that speed is a key element to a lot of macro strategies in pro plays, My idea is that a composition with DF/Orisa/Zarya and possibly roadhog as Orisa can assist him without putting down her shield can enable the necessary environment for a Mercy to find viability on the ground providing the necessary mean to counter Somba with a DF oriented comp and as players become better at her as a results, enable different kind of compositions through that knowledge.
Pure theory crafting obviously and I clearly don’t have the same resources to test things out as a pro player like yourself would but considering how much success I had on the ptr with DF/Orisa as a duo, I would argue that this part of the theory translates into well into pratice.
Keep up the good work, I really love your insight.