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Promotional images and screenshots courtesy of Blizzard

How 'Overwatch' Lost, Then Found Again, the Things That Made It Special

As its sequel comes into focus, Blizzard finally figures out what it wants 'Overwatch' to be.
May 28, 2021, 1:00pm

When it was released in 2016, Overwatch was seen as an innovative entry in the shooter genre that was accessible and entertaining. Since then, the game has undergone many evolutions as both an esport franchise and a delicately balanced competitive game. Different people have had different ideas about what makes Overwatch “good” all along its trajectory, many of which had a significant impact on the health of the game. Being a game that has almost no twin has made a blueprint for Overwatch’s potential failure or success volatile, and weak to pressure internally as well as from the audience.

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Overwatch followed Blizzard’s pattern of taking a particular genre and doing their own bubbly, accessible take on it with spit shine polish. Despite being a first person shooter, it was clearly made for people who may have never played one before. It relied heavily on teamwork and fun, easy objectives to work towards in all of the game modes. Playable characters, called heroes, were also broken into three roles, with the “holy trinity” of tanks, DPS and support, a concept that many Blizzard fans were familiar with. The homages to favorites such as Halo 2, Quake and Team Fortress 2 were obvious in the movement and abilities the initial heroes had, but what made it brand new were the inflections of MOBAs and MMORPGs in how the gameplay was devised. 

Everything about it felt like a healthy move away from the overt military aesthetics and K/D ratios of other shooters, preferring to reward people with post-match cards and Plays of the Game sizzle reels for participating skillfully. Success and skill, in the early days of Overwatch, felt very much oriented towards fun, with a very low barrier of knowledge to enter.

This era of the game had the most potential and space to be anything it wanted to, but Blizzard had bigger plans in mind.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2018, former Blizzard Entertainment President and co-founder Mike Morhaime, said, “It was very early on that Jeff Kaplan had even reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you know, we want to learn about what you've learned about with esports...We think that Overwatch has the potential to be great.’”

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Overwatch’s approachability had larger ambitions than simply garnering a casual play-base. When players formed ad-hoc teams during the game’s beta period, the company saw the potential for a unique esport, different from the developers' other franchises. Overwatch was expected to excel because fans could grok gameplay clearly, or at least cheer for players wielding their favorite heroes at a level they couldn’t conceive.

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When the game introduced a competitive mode in June 2016, it created a competitive scene and highlighted its best players, many of whom were former pros and streamers from other games. For the first time, Overwatch had authoritative voices commenting on the game's balance and competitive integrity, which would have a future impact on development choices.

Later that year, during Blizzard’s annual fan convention BlizzCon, the company made public an intention it had all along. Paired with its first Overwatch World Cup tournament, Blizzard announced the start of the Overwatch League, its official professional esports apparatus. Both of these things would signal the start of Overwatch losing its initial casual character in favor of becoming a more polished competitive game and commodified esports product.

Changes to the game started to reflect this new goal. Everything from the UI, to individual heroes were tweaked for both the highest skilled players and the spectators that watched them. The kill feed, which displayed ally and enemy eliminations, was clarified to show individual abilities and ultimates for increased readability. And Mercy, a hero derided by many high-profile players, underwent the game’s first major hero rework, removing her mass Resurrection ultimate and greatly reducing the frequency that she could undo fight-winning kills. 

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It was a flashpoint for how the game was evolving towards becoming faster, more lethal and pushing out a more casual player base. These reworks also introduced significant changes that affected the game’s balance.

For a competitive game, one that has so many heroes, balance is what makes or breaks how fun or fair it is. Feeling like strategy can be ignored in favor of a particular hero or team composition to just “win” can have an impact on the health of the game. For something like Overwatch, where balance is not just impacted by the individual characters that are played, but the strength of each individual role, it’s extremely critical. 

And now, with the debut of Overwatch League in January 2018, the development team had two concerns: the entertainment factor of their company’s very new, very expensive esports franchise, and the health of their competitive ladder.

On the surface, this meant changes to the overall optics of the game in the form of spectator cameras that heavily focused on ranged hitscan DPS versus emphasizing tanks or support plays, as well as commentary that reported on more traditional shooter stats such as K/D ratio. 

But the larger issue was how Overwatch League and the top end of their competitive player base interacted with each other when it came time to form metas or make hero changes. How these players engaged tactically with the game not only impacted the value of the esport, but also put pressure on the balance of the live game.

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Needing to balance around both the desires of Overwatch League’s pro teams and their top-tier competitive counterparts came into stark relief due to the habit of many top-tier competitive players to suss out and repeatedly play only the safest and consistent ways to win. This was carried forward from the earliest Overwatch tournament series and top-500 ranked playstyles, and when those players were brought up into the League, it came with them. 

This meant that if something worked, every team at both the professional and amateur level would consistently play it, mirroring each other, until they got bored and a balance patch made it unfavorable. When something new became dominant or successful, everyone would quickly follow suit. Strategies would trickle in and out between the top of the competitive ladder and professional players who were live on screens every week.

While the game’s first real competitive meta in the competitive ladder was often slow and based around healing and shields, early professional clubs figured out that fast, burst damage heroes could eviscerate the other team’s support with smart coordination. This newfound lethality was quickly extrapolated into the popular team composition, “dive”, which was made up of mobile, high-damage heroes as opposed to a slower tactic. 

Much of the game's tank and support cast didn’t have the tools to withstand or prevent a dive team from pummeling their targets. It was the fastest, most efficient way to secure a won team fight and naturally more and more pros opted for this strategy. Although this strategy mostly appeared in its purest form at the highest ranks of the competitive ladder, a fundamental understanding of coordinating burst damage eventually trickled down to most levels of play. 

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Instead of taming this meta with a series of small balance changes to limit mobility or burst damage output across several characters (which eventually became the norm later on in the game’s lifespan), it seemed like Blizzard confronted the problem in the form of its newest support hero Brigitte. A paladin-like character that could stun, knockback, AOE heal, single target heal, and bulk up her team with armor, Brigitte was a direct response to the mobile heroes of dive getting an easy kill on a weak support. Compared to other healers, Brigitte was a walking swiss army knife with a shield. Brigitte’s massive utility and ability to keep her team alive was vastly disproportionate to the amount of skill required to play her. Her all-in-one design catalyzed a series of reactionary changes to the game that not only spawned the most divisive meta in Overwatch’s history, but ones that are still being smoothed out to this day.

The meta that formed around Brigitte was an incredible case study in the failings of Blizzard’s design philosophy, its inability to decide who its shooter was for, and the ways it nearly broke Overwatch. Like the dive meta, “GOATS” (named for the Overwatch Open Division team that invented it) was born out of players discovering an efficient, consistent way to decimate lesser compositions, forcing teams to mirror it or lose the match. GOATS completely omitted damage characters in favor of three tanks and three supports, underlining Brigitte’s ability to both nullify an entire category of heroes and to thrive in coordinated play. While GOATS didn’t proliferate as completely to every rank, having a Brigitte on your team certainly made a match a lot easier no matter how well the player performed.

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2018 was the year of GOATS, and Overwatch League fans had turned it into a meme, joking about how stale it was to watch and pleading for their favorite DPS players to make a return. Blizzard reacted quickly. But the nerfs that came down on Brigitte, while helpful, couldn’t solve the root of the development team’s problems with design: that hero releases could combat metas. It was simply too much to ask of one character, and as a result, she and the heroes to follow were more impactful than the original cast out of necessity to survive the grip of GOATS. Instead of draining the power from Brigitte until she was in a good spot, Blizzard pushed the rest of the game—primarily the DPS category—in the other direction.  This shift was largely a response to esports players, so Blizzard focused a lot of the nerfs on tanks and healing-focused support, and the buffs on hitscan heroes who had previously been a niche among the damage role. Because in the world of esports and competitive gaming, there are few skills that truly captivate an audience as a sniper player erasing a team with precision shots.

GOATS finally died in 2019 when Blizzard made the decision to implement a “role lock” system that forced players to play only two heroes per role. Role lock may have pushed GOATS out of the game, but it also ruptured a lot of the reasons casual players picked up the game in the first place: the quick queue times, the spontaneity and the creativity of hero picks and strategies. Now, players had to pick a role, wait in a queue (which could be upwards of 10 minutes due to the popularity of DPS), and stick to it for the entirety of a match. Role lock was a bold decision to cure the competitive side of the game and to hopefully stabilize the balance changes going forward. The problem was that Blizzard applied role lock on top of the already simmering problems in the game’s balance that GOATS left behind. 

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A majority of Overwatch’s heroes had been sharpened for a game structure that now didn’t exist anymore. This caused the meta to immediately swing back in favor of damage heroes where any careful teamwork could be upended by a solo player dropping three or four of your teammates in an instant. Blizzard experimented with its own form of hero bans that you’d see in MOBAs with hero pools, but nothing could put a stop to the game morphing into a fancy form of deathmatch where anyone who played tanks and healers were at the mercy of their damage-dealing allies’ performances.

The game’s former approachability was being torn apart, fundamentally at odds with the more traditional shooter it was turning into. 2020 was the year Blizzard had to decide the kind of the game Overwatch should be and who it should be for, as development progressed on its sequel. It also had to to avoid having its entire esports organization crumble, especially as COVID-19 derailed the Overwatch League’s plans to go global.

As rival hero shooters like Valorant and Apex Legends continued to thrive, plucking many unhappy, long-time Overwatch fans away from the game, the development team finally seemed to identify the kind of game their shooter should be. In August of last year, the first of many patches hit that walked back the extreme power creep of damage that had been implemented to weaken GOATs as well as lower the singular impact of the strongest heroes. 

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Hitscan damage in particular had their damage output lowered, giving teams rooms to play a variety of close-range and projectile-based heroes and utilize more of the maps. The ebb and flow of teams vying for high ground and flanks returned after well over a year of every match becoming a fancy arcade rail shooter. The game still had its balance problems but the ship had begun to right. Play slowed down, a larger variety of heroes started to re-appear in every match, and the team interactions that separated Overwatch from its contemporaries returned.

After the game came so close to being broken under the weight of overpowered and meta-correcting hero releases, the tinier, more nuanced adjustments made every patch breathe life into playing it again, with a wider ability to play with team composition. Balance felt less like it was being hit with a sledgehammer and more that it was being shaped with a scalpel.

Overwatch is not a perfect game, not by a long shot. As content lulls and the competitive ladder stagnates due to a long development cycle on the sequel, it could be said that it is a dead game. But a fun competitive team shooter is still a good game to play with friends, and Overwatch’s player numbers surged by 10 million in 2020, which says something to the health of the playerbase, even when many other competitors have risen up since the game debuted. 

If anything, change is potentially the key to Blizzard keeping this a profitable and entertaining franchise, both as an esport and a non-free-to-play game. While it may be scary for some players, shaking things up might keep things alive. When former creative director and “face of the brand” Jeff Kaplan left Blizzard in April of this year, many players speculated that this was a huge blow to the health of the existing game and its sequel. But it looks like everything is still full steam ahead, with peeks and hints of Overwatch 2 being revealed at Blizzard’s online convention as well as last week in a two hour long developer preview.

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With changes like a swap to five versus five matches (where instead of having two tanks, teams will work with only one), Overwatch 2 seems to be not only preventing the types of metas that have cropped up in the past, but dismantling how players think about some individual characters and their interactions. The little we’ve seen so far emphasizes choice-driven play by giving heroes more tools to handle problems on their own. Reinhardt has more control over his charge, Mei can no longer freeze enemies in place but consistently slow them down instead, and the development team said stuns across the board will be reduced or removed altogether. These types of changes play with the necessity of teamwork in what could be a smart understanding of how players actually play Overwatch or an over-correction to make the game more solo-friendly. 

With the addition of some major changes to the PVP content, as well as the addition of a fleshed out PVE mode, it seems okay to be cautiously optimistic about how fun it might be, provided the development team for Overwatch 2 takes the many bumps and bruises of the last few years into consideration. 

Overwatch has struggled so much to meet the expectations of everyone invested in its success, and almost failed in doing so. But for the last five years, it has outlasted or outgrown competition in space, by being the only game that does precisely what it does. Other games have taken notes from it, further evolving the character shooter genre, but none of them have come close to what Overwatch has managed to do over the last five years: be something entirely new. With the game being one of the only games of its kind, trying to pull it too far from what made it unique had a lasting negative impact that it is only now starting to heal.