Roughly a month after it’s launch, Blizzard released a highly anticipated update to the critically acclaimed class based shooter Overwatch containing the game's competitive mode.
Players had a month to acclimate to the game, learn the ins and outs of the maps, and figure out what heroes synergized well with each other and acted as counters to others, and were eager to put their skills to the test against other equally skilled players. At least that’s what the hope was on the day the patch came out.
Theoretically the competitive mode is simple. The player completes 10 placement matches and then is assigned a numeric rank anywhere between 1 (low) and 100 (high). From that point on any game you played in the competitive mode would raise or lower your rank depending on the outcome and your individual performance in the match, all in hopes of winning enough competitive matches to be able to earn a golden skinned gun for your favorite character. All seemed fine at first, but as players completed their placement matches and started working their way up the ladder it became clear how broken a lot of the systems in place were.
Mo' Modes, Mo' Problems
The first problem with competitive mode is the lack of a distinct queue for solo players and groups. As it is currently set up, everyone is thrown into the same player pool whether or not you queue up individually or as part of a pre-made team of six players. The matchmaking system will try to pair players up appropriately, pairing six man pre-mades with other six man pre-mades and so on, but naturally it cannot be guaranteed that will happen. The system is in place to get you into a match as fast as possible, and often times waiting for another pre-made team at or around the same rank will take way too long.
This often results in pre-made teams going up against a team of random players who just matched together. One team here clearly has an advantage. Due to the nature of Overwatch, teams that communicate and work together properly are more prone to success. A pre-made team of six players are likely to be friends comfortable with communicating with each other and calling out relevant information when necessary. This doesn’t always guarantee victory, but the chances of a team that is communicating and working together winning are much higher than a team of random players matched together all trying to do their own thing.
Then there’s the sudden death coin flip mechanic. When playing a competitive match on Assault, Escort and Hybrid maps both teams will have a chance to attack and defend respectively. When both teams have had a chance to attack, the team that moved the payload the furthest or captured more control points is the winner. If both teams succeed in delivering the payload completely or capturing all objectives, then the match goes into a second round in which both teams attempt to do it again, this time only having the time left over from round one to complete the task. If both teams manage to deliver the payload again the game goes into sudden death, a coin is flipped and teams are randomly assigned to either attack or defend. In sudden death, the attacking team needs only to capture the first point or deliver the payload to the first checkpoint to win. This has caused a lot of anger amongst players because the attacking team has an advantage here. Depending on the map it is very easy to get a good push going and complete the sudden death objective very fast.
Jeff Kaplan, game director and vice president at Blizzard had the following to say about the sudden death mechanic.
“I think the Sudden Death format we have now is very good, and is actually much more balanced (and I’m looking at real stats here) than players are exaggerating it to be. However, it’s clear that players, at least the vocal ones, are largely not pleased with any form of coin flip or any form of asymmetrical resolution to the maps.”
The sudden death mechanic being balanced when looking at the overall stats is not the issue here, as Kaplan suggests. Rather, the problem is twofold. First, regardless of whether or not an imbalance exists, there is at the very least a perceived imbalance, which is just as bad. Players will regularly be relieved they got placed on attack during sudden death and lament the fact that they got placed on defence. This perception, again, regardless of the truth of the fact, has a mental effect on players that can cause more casual players to essentially give up because they were placed on defense during sudden death. Second, the nature of the competitive mode is to determine which of the two teams pitted against each other is better. If, after two rounds, the teams are tied then the logical conclusion is that neither team is better. Neither team should win and potentially rank up in this case, especially not due to a coin flip. (It’s worth noting that the sudden death mechanic is going to be removed from competitive play in season two, as we will discuss later).
The last, and perhaps the most egregious problem with the competitive mode in Overwatch is the way experience is gained and lost during competitive play. Overwatch seems to determine a player’s rank based on three main things; the team’s probability of success, a player’s current win/loss streak, and individual performance.
The first two are not a problem and make sense with the nature of the game. The problematic aspect of this is the fact that individual performance is tracked when determining rank. In theory this system rewards players who carry their team more, as they probably should be rewarded. The problem arises when you take into account the nature of team play and the synergy between characters in Overwatch. A system like this can only work if the stat tracking is incredibly detailed. More detailed than it’s logically possible for it to be.
You just need to look at the Play of the Game system or the commendation cards at the end of a game to see that Blizzard’s methods of determining what were the defining plays of a match may not be where they should be yet. A Soldier 76 who went on a 20 player elimination streak will be highlighted, but the Mercy that kept the 76 alive and boosted his damage when necessary won't be. A Roadhog will get highlighted for hooking a certain amount of enemies, but using his ultimate ability to knock people off of a point and allowing his team to capture it won't get highlighted unless that ultimate eliminated multiple enemies. A quick glance through the Overwatch subreddit or the official Blizzard forums reveals multiple stories of tank and support characters gaining less from competitive victories than their teammates.
On the one hand accounting for individual performance makes sense. It allows for good players who ranked lower than they should to rank up faster, and allows bad players pulling down their team to rank down faster. On the other hand, Overwatch is a game about team composition and successful teamwork. Singling out certain players and rewarding them more or less seems counterintuitive to the nature of the game, especially when the players getting rewarded less are filling such vital roles.
Blizzard is well aware that things need to change for season 2 and are in the process of testing some of those changes right now. In fact, some changes have already been implemented. Previously, a player leaving either team would cause the game to recalculate both teams odds of winning, completely skewing the the amount of rank both teams would gain and lose as a result of the match. Blizzard is currently in the process of making it so that odds of winning are no longer recalculated once a player leaves. The change doesn't seem to be live for all players, but it should be very soon.
The sudden death mechanic is also being worked on. Blizzard plans to remove the mechanic entirely and allow for ties to occur in competitive play. They’ve also made it clear that they don’t want a game that ends in a tie to feel like a waste of time for plays, implying that some sort of rank will be awarded for a tie, but how exactly this is going to be implemented remains to be seen as this change won’t be seen until season 2.
One change that will be coming sooner rather than later is the removal of hero stacking from competitive play altogether. Currently there is no limit to the amount of duplicate characters a team can have. This has resulted in some strategies becoming too prevalent in games, creating an overall negative experience. One such popular composition has been the team of two Winstons, two Tracers, and two Lucios. This results in a team that is incredibly fast, hard to kill and capable of pushing a round into seemingly endless overtime. Previously Blizzard had said that hero stacking was a legitimate strategy in Overwatch.
@Miztershepard Perhaps in a future Weekly Brawl. Hero stacking is a core concept and strategy of Overwatch. Teamwork is key!— Overwatch (@PlayOverwatch) June 22, 2016
But cases like this have caused them to go back on that claim and decide to implement a hero limit. This change is currently in effect in the public test server and will go live as soon as the testing is complete.
The hero limit has the potential to really change the pace of Overwatch in many ways. The most notable example is if two players want to switch characters they now have to wait for both of them to die or go back to the spawn room together. Having a third of your team not be on the frontline doing battle is hugely detrimental, and even having that be the case for a few moments is enough for the enemy team to gain enough momentum to win the round. What about players who main a character? They’re now going to instantly select their favorite character and lock it in, regardless of the composition the team is building or if someone else on the team is better at that character.
The hero limit is a double edged sword that’s going to bring up problems that will need to be addressed at some point.
That seems to be par the course for competitive Overwatch. Every change that can be made seemingly results in more issues that need to be addressed. Implementing too harsh a penalty for leavers would end up needlessly punishing players who had internet issues for a few moments. Removing sudden death and allowing for ties will be met with uproar if the amount of rank gained from a tie is either too low or too high. Implementing a hero limit has the potential to shift balance too much and create more opportunities for griefing.
Summing It All Up
Overwatch is currently torn between two worlds. The Pixar-esque art style and bright colors suggest a friendly, inviting game, while the competitive mode and the aura around it suggests the exact opposite. The problem arises in Blizzard trying to make Overwatch be both those things simultaneously. Had Overwatch launched with its competitive mode on day one and it had been significantly different from the quick play experience, this wouldn’t be such a problem. But Blizzard instead decided to launch Overwatch without competitive play, only to add it a month later. When competitive play launched, it was for all intents and purposes the same experience as “casual” Overwatch.
With the new changes coming in season 2 and beyond, the potential is there for quick play and competitive play to essentially become different games from one another; a tension that will be difficult to resolve. Keeping casual players happy and making them feel like they’re not missing out on content by staying out of the competitive mode while simultaneously giving hardcore plays a challenging and rewarding experience is no simple task, and unfortunately it seems like it’s going to be a little while longer before Blizzard comes up with the solution.