Overwatch was my 2016 Game of the Year due to its engaging team gameplay and how it helped me bond with friends. Two and a half years since its release, while it’s still fun to play with others, the gameplay itself has become what many describe as both stale and frustrating (at least from what I’m seeing). This is from the perspective of players who take their competitive rank with some degree of seriousness.
There have been concerns on the state of Overwatch at this time regarding persistent problems with its metagame and design, which I can compare to those of other Blizzard games in the 2010s. It’s either they forgot how to balance a game or they never knew to begin with. Then again, with how quickly metagame changes these days with the rise of esports, that may be a harsh statement.
This is mostly me just talking out of my ass, but that’s just a part of trying to better understand this whole thing regarding a game that’s still beloved, but is starting to show major chinks in its armor.
“The State of Overwatch” by Seagull
It’s the video that was the result of Blizzard’s somewhat questionable design decisions and a catalyst for mass discussion and reassessment within the Overwatch community.
From what I can understand, he talked about the following:
- Hero designs and how passive buff skills can become bad easily
- Hard counters, forcing hero switching, and loss of nuance in gameplay
- A call for more serious discussion in online communities
What I think Seagull is trying to say is if your pick is being countered, you should still be able to get by it with skill and tactics (i.e. Pharah using cover and movement to avoid getting shot by hitscans). There are good reasons to not want to immediately change to another hero, like banking 90+% ult charge, not wanting to mess with your current team synergy, your current hero being your main, and so on.
The video now has over 1.5 million views as of this writing, with the first million popping up within the first week. This took the community by storm, sparking discussion and even panic for some. But it was far from doomsday talk, being merely a call for a fix to various things in the game by Blizzard.
When the video was released, the game did have some noticeable problems in terms of balance and it looks like Blizzard is still figuring it out. There’s a player in the Overwatch Contenders league with the name DeleteBrig, which is a sentiment shared by many other players in the game.
Comparing Overwatch to Another Blizzard Game
I have my own opinions on this, as well as my own understanding of Seagull’s insights that he presented in his video. I paraphrase them here as best as I can. I like to compare this to the metagame in StarCraft (I played StarCraft II semi-seriously for five years).
In both StarCraft games, even if your army is weak against your opponent’s unit composition, you may still be able to win by having more units through better macromanagement. Being able to overcome a seemingly disadvantageous situation with sheer skill is a big part of competitive gaming, just like with any sport.
Game balance is pretty much what it says on the tin—it’s a tightrope act. Internal testing can only get so far, and true balance can never be found since the nature of metagame is to shift from one side to another. When the scales tip, that usually means a solution to a problem was found and a counter to it hasn’t been completely figured out just yet.
Balance is said to be offset if a prominent strategy or tactic has well above 50% win rate over a considerable period of time. Of course, most complaints regarding such lopsided metagame shifts tend to yield complaints, which is just noise for the most part. The developers’ job in the game’s continued support is to parse through that noise to know what feedback truly constitutes a balance change.
This was how it was with StarCraft II, especially during its heyday. The game had been so dominated by Korean players that the story most of the time was the coming of a foreign hope. As of late 2018, the top competitor is a Finnish Zerg player named Serral, so it may seem like the non-Korean world has caught up. I don’t know if the same can be said about Overwatch in the coming years.
When I still played StarCraft II, the community had been rife with balance complaints and countless players over the years have considered the game as either dying or dead, even if it really was to the contrary. Unlike with Overwatch, the narrative with StarCraft II was dominated by comparisons to its predecessor, StarCraft: Brood War. The older game’s long shadow can never be fully escaped due to its legacy in the esports world.
I’m not sure if Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 can be compared in the same way.
Since then, the player population has gone down and somewhat stabilized. It’s long past its 2010-2013 prime with other games having taken most of its esports shine, as well as the absence of expansions and major updates in the foreseeable future.
The Threat of Hard Counters
When the player being countered is not allowed to find a way to overcome a counterpick by toughing it out first, thus being forced to change, then the game becomes a lot less about the shooting and more about just picking heroes.
If your gameplay can just simply be negated by a simple character switch in any game, even in other genres like fighting games, it eventually becomes a game of rock-paper-scissors, pick your poison, and so on.
That’s frustrating not only in Overwatch, but also in other online multiplayer genres like MOBAs, wherein the draft is indeed immensely important. But at least playing skill is still important if the game in question is indeed fairly balanced.
Hard counters should be around 7:3 matchup at best (or worst). Otherwise, it should be 6:4 on average; it should only give enough of an advantage to be noticeable, but certainly not enough to be game-breaking.
But when a game is not balanced, it’ll feel like a a 9:1, especially when compounded by a team composition that supports that pick. This creates a snowball effect throughout the game that gives the other team no way to adequately fight back.
Even if the most important gameplay mechanic of Overwatch is hero switching, it’s not the meat of the gameplay itself. Overwatch is a first-person teamfight game with objectives, so it’s all about a team shooting the shit out of the other team to accomplish the map objective, and using the right heroes at the right times helps greatly.
For the game to be seen as balanced, mismatches should still feel competitive. Using the right heroes is not the number one factor in the gameplay as playing skill should still matter a lot more.
On Blizzard’s Hero/Unit Design and Passive Abilities
I also see a point to the argument of area-of-effect passive skills being somewhat upsetting to game balance, but that can be curtailed by making sure the area of effect is fair in size and the effect is not too strong. Remember Lucio’s old healing rate?
There are similar complaints to Brigitte’s armor passive, but that shouldn’t be hard to fix. Besides, it’s dependent on team cohesion to give the best possible effect. The main argument against is it’s a passive. It’s always there, so it doesn’t take much skill to have it buff teammates. All they have to do is stay close.
I shall now rant about something I really hated in StarCraft II. It’s not the only thing that was bad about that game throughout the years, but this one stands out the most for me during my active playing years.
The introduction of the Zerg swarm host in StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm was disaster that resulted in unsolvable stalemate situations and hours-long games. It was basically a Zerg ground version of the Protoss carrier, but with sub-units (locusts for the swarm host; interceptors for the carrier) that don’t cost anything to generate while the main unit itself stays buried at a considerable distance.
So far, the problems seen in Overwatch thus far have not been as bad to as the swarm host was in StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm.
Because of this, I can say the Overwatch team is slightly less bad than the StarCraft II team. Both teams look like they’re never sure about what they’re doing with unit/hero design, still experimenting even when their games have long been in retail.
It’s embarrassing, but at least the Overwatch team is willing to make big changes (i.e. New Symmetra, New Mercy, etc.) Factor in the struggles Blizzard had with Diablo III, from its launch to its many major updates, and we can say that they’re not that sure about their own designs for the most part. On the other hand, internal testing can only get you so far.
Perhaps you can say the same about other popular team-based competitive multiplayer games from other companies, but I don’t think League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Rainbow Six Siege have the same degree of problems as Overwatch at the moment. I may be wrong, though.
I don’t claim to completely understand the metagame in both these games. I was only able to reach platinum league in StarCraft II and I’m still stuck at bronze league in Overwatch, and I’m unable to put enough time in the latter as of this writing.
However, you can watch any stream of any prominent master or grandmaster player out there these days or go to any Overwatch forum and be inundated by rants and complaints about the meta. Most of the time, it’s just whining. But when everyone seems to whine about the same thing, that’s worth looking deeper into.
The worst thing that can happen in any online competitive multiplayer game is if the meta becomes virtually static for a long period of time, with no other way to counter whatever becomes the best way to play. That reminds me of the later days of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, just before Heart of the Swarm was released.
I’m sure Blizzard has seen that happen in Hearthstone.
This does not mean the game is no longer enjoyable. It’s just what happens to a competitive multiplayer game when a few years pass by. With new content and balance changes over time, things pile up and attitudes change from mostly optimistic to either more nuanced or overly negative. It depends on how the developers handle its continued support over that time.
The most important thing here is Blizzard’s willingness to do what is best for the game, regardless of how they and the fans feel. Short-term emotions can easily overwhelm long-term rationality, and the latter is what matters more for games like this.
Of course, indifference is much worse for the game. It’s good that the community still feels strongly about about. When no one complains, it can be that there’s no one playing the game anymore and you can consider it dead.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.