Yesterday, Blizzard published patch notes for a major Overwatch update they’ve been rolling out across their public test servers. The developer reveals a host of significant changes coming to the game’s competitive mode, not least of which involves limiting character selection to no more than one of each hero per team. If you’ve ever gone up against half a battalion of Bastions, a full crew of Junkrats, or an all-Torbjörn team on defense, you know how quickly things can go sour.
I once saw a Twitch broadcaster lead a team of six D.Vas to an almost effortless victory in a game of Control at Lijiang Tower. “We did it! We solved Overwatch,” the streamer joked. Because of the sheer number of hit points between them on the objective, the opposing team’s efforts at getting through proved utterly futile—even if one D.Va lost her mecha, the others could stagger their defense-matrix uses to protect her while her ultimate recharged, and so on. In a competitive environment, whether in matchmade online play or within the esports arena, this clearly poses a problem to the game’s central emphasis on diverse team composition.
One likely side effect of the new rule will be a more pronounced divide between the casual and competitive segments of the player population, as those who prefer to play as their favorite character all the time and those who prefer a higher win percentage more or less part ways. That’s not to say there won’t be those who enjoy dabbling in both experiences, but I certainly haven’t felt inclined to return to Quick Play since the launch of Competitive. Granted, that might change the moment a group of friends and I decide we want to try out a certain wild combination of heroes.
For good or ill, I foresee Competitive Play becoming home to the majority of regular Overwatch players (most folks I play multiplayer shooters with love to win), and that means issues related to character balance are crucial; nobody wants an unfair meta ruining the game’s dominant playlist.
“We’ve been discussing the idea of hero limits for almost as long as Overwatch has been in development,” says game director Jeff Kaplan. “In Competitive Play, we feel that hero stacking is becoming detrimental and leading to some not-so-great player experiences. For example, we’ve seen organized teams on Assault and Hybrid maps use hero stacking to overtake the first point before the defense has a chance to counter. We’ve also seen players use specific stacked compositions just to frustrate their opponents or cause indefinite delays in overtime.” Kaplan’s statement encapsulates my own experience with things like those six unstoppable D.Vas.
“While this kind of thing is certainly possible in any mode,” Kaplan adds, “the higher stakes of Competitive Play means these kinds of tactics were popping up more often than anyone would like.” A healthy, enjoyable multiplayer experience demands this kind of attention to player behavior—and that goes tenfold for the world of esports, where actual money is at stake.
There’s a happy medium that exists when it comes to hotfixes in the FPS space: Some shooters, like Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015) and Halo 5 (2015), seem to take their time and ensure that updates are going to address more problems than they create. Bungie’s Destiny (2014), by contrast, has a reputation for bending too easily to player demands, thereby making the Crucible meta feel like a constant and confusing uphill battle. Others still are so subtle with their patches as to seem static, which feels refreshing in 2016, even if it doesn’t necessarily facilitate an esports-ready competitive culture.
With major adjustments coming to characters like D.Va, Mercy, and Zenyatta, in addition to an entirely new support character named Ana, the new hero limit will ultimately be for the better. One aspect of the game that separates Overwatch devotees from casual players is the advantage that comes with mastering as many characters as possible. This new rule encourages that.