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.