Overwatch isn’t just about the guns. Unlike other hero-based shooters, the game, which turned 5 years old this month, has some heroes who don’t even have guns. Instead, characters throw an entire periodic table of projectiles and abilities at each other for 10 minutes, and then do it again.
If, somehow, you’ve never played it, there’s a DJ who heals his allies with music and a gorilla from the moon that pummels enemies off the map. Sometimes they fight a tactical battle over control of a dim London road, and other times it’s a steamroll through a Russian mech facility. The winner is the one who gets away with the most ridiculous combination of futuristic abilities and successfully escorts a truck or defends a point.
Overwatch is a competitive shooter, but its definition of balance is vastly different from the many shooters that came before it, as well as the games it’s inspired since its 2016 release. Here, heroes are born broken. In a vacuum, fighting any one of its characters is like fighting a boss battle in a game where you’re under-leveled. It’s deeply unfair and disempowering. Except Overwatch heroes don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist in a six-versus-six environment where they are kept in check by other heroes with similarly outrageous powers. This clash of vast strengths and vast weaknesses demands creative strategies in order to win a match. Unlike most shooters that ask you to express yourself on a purely equal playing field, Overwatch asks you to express yourself on a deliberately unequal playing field.
Blizzard’s shooter values a mix of skills and makes nontraditional ones like protection and healing essential in any match. Tank heroes like Reinhardt and support heroes like Mercy complicate the act of securing a kill. The players behind these characters don’t have to employ traditional shooter skills, instead working only to disrupt them. The best players are exceptional decisionmakers, not simply adept at aim and raw reflexes. Flexibility and a knowledge of the many interactions between heroes both on your team and the enemy team is paramount. Every match is a new puzzle to solve, because each of the game’s 32 heroes has a distinct style of play. The hero select screen is like your first plate at a buffet. Whether you’re hungry for the crunch of a Roadhog hook and shotgun combo or the snap of Hanzo’s bow, there’s something for every mood.
Every hero in the game has a counterpart, or a hero specifically designed to get rid of them. Healers like Zenyatta can prevent any kills from Genji’s sword-swinging ultimate ability, and the sniper Widowmaker will keep a flying Pharah grounded with ease. Put in traditional shooter terms, Overwatch gives everyone the tools to make a matchup unfair by swapping to counter-picks during the match. This unfairness, or player-driven disempowerment, is key to the game’s entire philosophy. No single player can purely out-skill their opponents without leaving opportunities for counter-play. Teamwork and strategy are just as important, if not more important to a victory over the opposing team. The best team compositions synergize and complement each other’s flaws. Watch any professional Overwatch League match and you’ll see players who bait moves out of the enemy team, counter-pick to surprise heroes, and cover their allies in danger instead of going for a kill.
You can’t take advantage of your team’s strengths without managing your weaknesses, and it’s that constant threat that keeps Overwatch distinct from other hero-based shooters like Valorant and Apex Legends. In these games, characters are only relatively distinct from each other. The difference comes from your playing style, what guns you choose, and how you use the character’s unique abilities to set up how and when you’ll shoot the enemy. In general, everything is made to support how well you can swipe your crosshairs to an enemy in an engagement. Valorant and Apex Legends want the best players to succeed no matter who they’re playing. And as a result, abilities are often extensions of those traditional skills, rather than subversions built for people more interested in alternative types of play. Movement, healing, and high-damage abilities add wrinkles to a firefight, but their severe lack of availability means that when it comes down to it, good aim is still valued above all.
In the 2015 book Shooter, designer Clint Hocking compares the interplay between two players in a shooter with two opponents in hockey: “Because of the dynamic nature of these games, the skills effectively have no ceiling, so the challenge is not to meet some arbitrary, fixed skill bar, but rather to out-perform the opponent.” Hocking defines this play as “synthetic meaning,” or “a ludic dialectic taking place between players constantly proposing and counter-proposing theories of optimal play.”
Valorant, Apex Legends, and Overwatch are shooters that align with Hocking’s definition, but the difference between them is the number of options you can use to out-perform your opponent, and the ceiling on optimal play as a result of that. Overwatch is the only game that offers plenty of opportunities to engage in synthetic meaning without mastering skills like aim. A great Mercy player is as recognizable as a great Widowmaker player, and can be just as annoying to shut down. Although Valorant and Apex Legends both expand the types of skill in the genre, neither of them go as far as Overwatch.
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Even now, five years after its launch, Overwatch is still a game that recognizes that shooter skill has spent decades defined by a specific type of player, even as ones that don’t recognize that continue to be released. Competitive gaming’s white, cisgendered player base has long been an obstacle for many players looking to find a game made for them, and Overwatch offers an experience for people who never saw themselves enjoying the genre. But that experience has its limits. For all that Overwatch does to make a shooter more approachable for more types of players, it has repeatedly failed to represent and support them in other ways.
It’s easy to argue that Overwatch is more fun to play than games like Apex Legends and Valorant, but it’s nearly impossible to argue that it’s more welcoming. Blizzard has repeatedly embraced racist stereotypes in both its storytelling and cosmetics, and it has refused to further diversify its (somewhat diverse) cast with new heroes, beyond a talking hamster and a rich white woman. (Its first Black woman hero will only arrive in the sequel.) And it offers only weak tools to manage the game’s routinely toxic chat. The game’s “hopeful future” is as hopeful as Wendy’s tweeting a rainbow flag during Pride month. When the game has two out gay characters and you’re still allowed to type homophobic slurs into chat (with possible punishment at a later date, should you get reported), the promise of Overwatch falls apart, especially when games like Rainbow Six Siege at least filter hate speech out.
Blizzard’s reluctance to alienate the kind of players competitive shooters have made comfortable since their inception has led it to erode some of the smartest parts of the game. The Overwatch League’s popularity since its inception in 2018 and the rise of high-profile streamers started to impede on the game’s balance. Many of these players regularly discuss potential changes with designers in a private Discord server, and they are often the target audience for Blizzard balance decisions. The invisible strategy and decisionmaking that differentiated the game from other, more stereotypical shooters, wasn’t spectacular enough, or thrilling enough for these players, so in an attempt to “listen to the community,” Overwatch was bent into something that more resembled those other shooters with an onslaught of major balance and ability changes. Rather than tweak heroes like Brigitte (who herself spawned a much-maligned “GOATS” meta) and Mercy to align with the game’s original design ethos, Blizzard cranked up the power of heroes who were seen to utilize traditional skills like aim. This continued in its new hero releases, where ones like Baptiste, Sigma, and Echo were all made like Swiss Army knives with answers to every problem, out-classing older, more focused heroes like D.Va, Genji, and Lucio. Damage heroes received the biggest buffs, while Tanks and Support were often left to be stunned or disintegrated within seconds.
For almost two years, Blizzard wrenched the game in that direction, replacing careful teamwork and planning for nailing headshots before anyone could react. The pace of matches rapidly increased, and it became increasingly difficult to even find the time to do anything but shoot at each other across all three of its once-distinct roles. Overwatch was stuck in a miserable place between Call of Duty and the kind of game it was at launch. The time-to-kill meant you were sent back to the respawn room before you could react; only when teams silently agreed to not play the more lethal heroes could players still delight in the variety that Overwatch has at its core. Certain heroes were consistently unbeatable without mirroring them on your own team (see: Widowmaker, especially at the professional level) and lone-wolf play still outweighed team coordination. A game that was once about creativity, playing who you wanted, and finding opportunities to cleverly work with your team, was suddenly about adhering to what worked. Nobody was happy. Eventually, many of the same players who called for the initial changes—esports players and streamers—left to try other games that were more honest about what they were.
It was clear the game was going in a terrible direction when players from every skill level were calling for changes to slow the game down so that it might go back to resembling the Overwatch of 2016. Even if that game is long gone, the principles of its design are still buried deep within the current version. In September 2020, Blizzard finally changed course and has been doing steady work to lower damage output and give players breathing room to engage with the unique parts of the game again. High-damage heroes like Ashe, McCree, and Widowmaker had their overall damage output decreased, giving room for the Tank and Support roles to manage their teams much better than before. Even the support heroes that became largely damage focused had their kits shifted back into a balance of attacking and healing. The game re-acknowledged that it isn’t a game about quick kill counts, but a constant war for advantages and decisionmaking, be it via skill, team composition, or positioning. Though some of the same issues remain—some post-launch heroes are still incredibly strong—the pillars of Overwatch’s creative design are starting to peek back out of the dust.
It’s fun to have your hero kept in check by others, and to have to watch your teammates’ backs to succeed. It’s a version of the Overwatch that was promised, where team play is vital and where the demand on your individual skill depends on what characters you choose to play. And all of these things will be getting revitalized in Overwatch 2; Blizzard has already teased some substantial changes at this year’s Blizzcon that seem to align with the direction the first game is in.
The game might be fun again, but it doesn’t mean Blizzard doesn’t have a lot of work to do. When you play Overwatch now, it feels like the future of what competitive games can be, but the future stops there. The focus for the past few years has been on creating the kind of game that an esports league implies, but not the kind of game that brought people to play it in the first place. The game’s world was left thin, with little new story content, and new hero and major map releases have completely halted as work continues on the sequel. With what will surely be an influx of players when the next game launches, it’ll need to clean up its toxic player base and embrace the diverse, passionate fan base it initially welcomed. Let’s hope it will return to what originally made it so different from the competition.
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