I recently spent several hours watching the professional debut of Overwatch 2. During this time, virtually every team utilized the same characters—most notably Lucio, Ana, and Genji—and pursued nearly identical dive strategies. Disconnected fights happened everywhere, all the time, obscuring what the audience should be paying attention to, and the Tracer’s first-person perspective nearly induced motion sickness. If it’s not great for me, someone who’s put a lot of hours into understanding the game, I cannot imagine how it would read to someone new to the Overwatch experience.
Since 2016, Overwatch has been defined by the fundamental tension between its designer’s intent to create the next esport, and to create an approachable FPS for a mass audience. This has led to, at varying times, one or both of those communities feeling frustrated with the state of the game at any given moment. From character buffs and nerfs, to the introduction of Role Queue and the DPS-ification of supports, the game’s balance and identity has been caught between the casual and the competitive—with the competitive side usually winning out.
This tension could have created something special, but it hasn’t because, at its core, Overwatch is not a very good sport, and the Overwatch League, the official, professional league in which Overwatch is played and advertised, is a poor presentation of that sport.
Overwatch 2’s first competitive showing was defined by basic teams of characters who received few re-works between Overwatch and Overwatch 2. These characters fought in mirror-matches against nearly identical teams in extremely scrappy fights that the spectator’s perspective strained to follow at every moment. The actual narrative arcs of matches were undercut by the games total lack of readability. In many ways, it felt like the grim inverse of watching GOATS-era Overwatch, which was extremely boring and rote, but at the very least readable.
The GOATS meta nearly ruined competitive Overwatch. Popularized by the titular GOATS in the North American Open League, the composition relied on three tanks and three supports, creating a functionally unkillable wall of damage and constant pressure. The composition relied on D.Va to create space, flank the enemy, and protect supports, Reinhardt to soak damage and assassinate enemy supports while taking space with his charge, and Zarya to make both of the aforementioned heroes functionally immortal. Ana and Moira provided constant healing and damage, while Brigitte did basically everything else on account of her extremely overtuned original release and became the core of a GOATS team. The GOATS composition was extremely difficult to counter with anything but another GOATS team, or splash damage heroes like Junkrat and Pharah.
GOATS was so utterly dominant in the professional Overwatch League, and higher ranks of competitive play, that it came to define the most reviled eras of Overwatch’s history. It was a boring composition to play, interminable to play against, and not very entertaining to watch. It was, however, optimal. And in competitive play, the optimal play is always the one that the majority of teams will choose.
Blizzard then did what Blizzard has frequently done with Overwatch: balanced the game around the impulses of its professional scene. Brigitte’s abilities were nerfed into oblivion and, when it wasn’t enough and she was simply replaced by another slightly less overtuned support, Blizzard introduced Role Lock in September of 2019 which forced every team to follow a basic 2-2-2 composition. This moment represents the most significant effect of the professional scene on casual play, but it was by no means the first, nor the last.
However, it is worth noting that GOATS represented Overwatch at peak readability. The games were slow, and deaths were infrequent but significant. Characters almost exclusively participated in teamfights, with a flank here or there, and the heroes who defined the meta were relatively slow moving compared to the game’s extremely quick DPS roster. The game made sense, and the objectives and strategies of both teams could be easily explained to a wider audience. It is night and day compared to the modern, overwhelmingly scrappy and frenetic Overwatch 2.
Despite the vastly different viewing experiences, I would argue that GOATS-era Overwatch League, and Overwatch 2, have been held back by one of Overwatch’s signature design decisions: the ability to switch characters mid-round, and the lack of a character draft in competitive and professional play. Drafts are extremely useful in team composition heavy games like MOBAs and hero shooters. They more easily allow for competitive balance by giving teams the opportunity to respond to one another’s strategies, they can limit the damage caused by overpowered and meta-defining characters with a pick-ban system, and they encourage teams to create different compositions to play against each other with.
Banning Brigitte during a draft could have prevented the dominance of the GOATS meta, it also could’ve prevented the design trends and nigh-mirror comps that are defining the early professional scene of Overwatch 2.
Mirror-comps have been present for a long time in Overwatch; they are also extremely boring to watch. Produced by the competitive impulse toward maximum efficiency, mirror comps see two teams attempt the same strategy with the same characters. This is, unsurprisingly, pretty boring to watch—especially in a game with 32 characters, the vast majority of whom rarely see the professional stage. Mirror comps are not only boring to watch, but also remove layers of tactical depth from a given game. Without hard character counters, which refer to characters who directly impact the play of someone else, the playstyle and game flow of players is flattened across the board, and people are forced to play roles as opposed to specific characters in order to maximize efficiency.
Allowing players to switch characters mid-round could have allowed for constantly shifting team compositions which respond to the opponents strategy and encourage interesting playstyles and counters. Instead, it has prevented the game from introducing a draft and allowing for that same competitive balance and visual readability that Overwatch needs as a sport.
This problem extends out of the competitive scene and into every part of the game. Picks, bans, and a traditional draft allow for players to make actual decisions about their team compositions that will impact the rest of the match. These decisions make the game feel more intentional, and can help prevent the dominance of single character-reliant compositions.
It may feel counter-intuitive that taking tools away from players would allow them to enjoy the game more, but Overwatch as it is currently played would probably benefit from it. One-trick players (people who devote all of their time and focus to a single character) already exist—and changing characters mid-round has rarely been an interesting decision in my time with the game on account of the only consequence being lost Ultimate charge. Replacing a boring decision with an interesting one could, despite the restriction it places on players, significantly improve the health of the game.
With all of these frustrations in mind, it is worth considering what professional Overwatch actually looks like for a new viewer—which is to say a chaotic mess. Overwatch is a fast, fun game, with a significant amount of verticality and intricate map design. This makes it fun to play, but extremely difficult to follow as a sport. When three distinct fights are going on at any given moment, each of which relies on understanding different angles which are only readable to an audience from a first person perspective (which is itself extremely disorienting), the game loses all cohesion as a viewing experience.
Given the centrality of the Overwatch League to Blizzard’s core strategy with the game, the total illegibility of Overwatch to a general audience is astounding and actively interferes with the game’s broader success. And the layoffs and sponsor pullouts which struck Overwatch League last year are just another indication of Overwatch’s uncertain future.
Blizzard likely needs to rethink fundamental aspects of the game’s design and actually encourage a healthy tension between competitive and casual play. What we have now is a constantly rubber-banding balance approach that leaves just about everyone frustrated.