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To understand Overwatch, you need to look at its architecture

To understand Overwatch, you need to look at its architecture

On September 11, during the final match of the Mountain Dew Cup at the Singapore Toy, Game, and Comic Convention (STGCC), something unexpected happened. The game was Overwatch, the map was Hanamura, and the teams were Elvellon and inSidious Gaming.

Elvellon was dominating, having won the two previous rounds, needing only a third win to be crowned champions of the tournament. However, inSidious went first as the attackers on the Hanamura map, and managed to melt through Elvellon’s defense and secure both capture points in very good time. This meant that Elvellon was looking to be even quicker with its own attack in order to stay competitive during this round.

The unusual and crucial pick for Elvellon was Mei, played by Zest. Mei, with her ice walls, is categorized as a defense character, and is typically used exclusively in this role, especially at such high competitive levels. Picking Mei for attack on Hanamura isn’t unheard of but it’s certainly questionable. Eyes were on Zest to see what the team had planned.

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There are two banners hung on the wall next to each other inside Shimada Castle—the major landmark of the Hanamura map in Overwatch. Between them, these banners spell out an ancient Japanese proverb: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” It speaks of a persistence that Overwatch players would do well to take on at all times, but this goes especially so in the case of Shimada Castle, whose entrance gate is among the hardest chokepoints to penetrate in the game.

The gate itself is a large wooden structure divided into three: two large gates and a smaller window. The middle gate is closed, and so attackers have two options—either pushing through the large right-side gate, or zipping through the much smaller left-side window. There are, technically, a third and fourth option, as the two gates have square openings above them, but they are so high up that only a few characters can make use of them (such as Pharah with her jetpack), who are then greatly exposed to the enemy if they do.

gatesketched
Fall seven times and stand up eight

This architectural circumstance has winnowed down the number of viable tactics for the attackers. Given that, especially at higher competitive levels, Overwatch demands team efforts over solo play, the preference for attackers on the Hanamura map is to group up and push through the large open gate, for it is easier to coordinate a team push there than it is through the window. This is what’s expected, and so it’s typical for the defending team to designate a Reinhardt to block it off, whose shield is capable of covering the entire width of the gate entrance, stopping any enemy fire.

From there, the attacking team has two clear options: either to deplete the enemy’s shield and then rush them, or attempt a flank through the window (or both). But a good defending team will always have a series of trials for the attackers to overcome on the other side. It might be a Mei erecting an ice wall to block the entrance while Reinhardt’s shield regenerates, a Symmetra or Torbjörn who have turrets ready to pick off individuals, or a Bastion or Junkrat who can focus a torrent of bullets or bombs on the entire team as they breach.

It’s the limited number of options the attacking team has compared to the defending team that gives the Shimada Castle gate so much friction. But adversity yields innovation: that same friction encourages attacking teams to experiment and find new tactics to wrongfoot their opponents.

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One of the shoutcasters on the Elvellon vs inSidious Gaming match comments on Zest’s choice of Mei: “Maybe this could be a pocket strat.” That’s something of an understatement. What Zest pulls off with Mei ends up going viral and has since been named the “Stairway to Hanamura,” owing to its effectiveness in that match. It goes down like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7jrzt6_PQE

As expected, inSidious has stacked up behind their Reinhardt at the Shimada Castle gate. Their team composition emphasizes inertia—two healers and two shield characters. Their plan is to stop Elvellon dead in its tracks. Aiming to counteract this, Zest takes his Mei up to the first floor of the temple opposite the Shimada Castle gate. Behind him are Zenyatta and Lucio, the two healers on the team, who are looking to protect the Reaper and Reinhardt running alongside them. The key to this set-up is getting Reaper and Reinhardt in among the enemy team where they can both deliver a lot of damage, so long as they are right up in the faces of their targets.

What happens is Zest throws down an ice wall from the open side of the temple’s first floor so that it creates an elevated bridge over to the right-side gate. From there, the stack of five is able to run across the ice wall and jump right over the enemy Reinhardt, diving in behind the inSidious set-up and dispersing it with devastating effect. Reaper destroys with his shotguns and Reinhardt delivers huge blows with his hammer. With this play, Elvellon goes on to get the team kill and capture the first point immediately after.

The beauty of the “Stairway to Hanamura” is its simplicity. It’s exemplary of the type of important play that will likely go on to define competitive Overwatch’s greatest moments. It  showcases exactly what makes Overwatch different to other competitive first-person shooters. And that is how it democratizes some of the genre’s most advanced techniques as well as inventing its own. It is a game that, in part, is about mastering the ebb and flow of a fluid, player-led architecture.

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Way back in the glory days of arena shooters like Quake (1996) and Unreal Tournament (1999), competitive shooters emphasized player skill through shooting accuracy. Yes, you had to have map awareness (e.g. learning the exact timing of weapon drops), but the precision and reaction times driving your mouse reigned supreme. This has remained the case as the competitive shooter has developed and other titles have bolstered on new techniques. Counter-Strike refined what arena shooters started by making the headshot utterly essential. But games like the Halo series added a new level of strategy through slight alterations to the formula, such as its two-weapon carrying limit. Whereas the PC shooters allowed players to have a weapon for every number on their keyboard, Halo’s carry limit meant the choice of which weapons to wield, and who would carry them, became an intrinsic and more important part of team strategy.

The rise of class-based shooters, such as Team Fortress 2 (2007), saw the team configuration aspects of shooter strategy further develop, as for some classes the use of guns was secondary to their role. Team Fortress 2’s Engineer class is meant for building teleporters for quick team movement and dispensers to keep their guns stocked. The Spy exists to sneak behind enemy lines invisibly and disable these building units. And the game’s Medic serves to heal and buff teammates. As Team Fortress 2 practically served as the blueprint for the class-based shooter, it’s no surprise that Overwatch has characters that parallel these classes.

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not in how it lets players traverse its architecture, but in how it enables them to summon their own

Part of improving at any first-person shooter is discovering, learning, and mastering forms of movement that were unintended by the designers. In Quake, this was rocket jumps; in Counter-Strike it was bunny hopping. While use of these exploits has been controversial over the years, more recent shooters have embraced these as part of their taxonomy, with games like the Tribes series turning geometry sliding into one of its defining characteristics, and InMomentum (2011), which took bunny hopping and built a time-trial 3D platformer out of it. One way that Overwatch differentiates itself from the likes of Team Fortress 2 is in how it brings in the genre’s past exploits and adopts them as part of its characters’ toolkits. It’s this that forms part of the appeal of Overwatch too, as these abilities, which were previously available only to those who put in the hours to practice them, are now given a designated button.

Here, take a look:

Rocket jump:

Junkrat’s Concussion Mine enables him to launch enemies or himself through the air (except the blast only damages enemies, and not himself or anyone on his team).

Pharah’s Concussive Blast gives her damage-free horizontal acceleration through the air if it’s fired at a nearby surface, not to mention her rocket launcher can be used for an extra (but self-damaging) boost.

The explosive charge of Zarya’s particle cannon can be used to propel her into the air too, so long as it’s shot at her feet.

Geometry surfing:

Lucio’s wall-riding ability is a direct offspring of the geometry surfing of older shooters. It also falls in line with the wall running that lent Titanfall (2014) and Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015) their refreshing momentum.

Bunny hopping:

Tracer’s most defining characteristic is being able to “blink” three times in succession to quickly traverse a location, and hopefully get behind the enemy team.

D.Va’s Boosters let her fly in any direction, making not only the rocket jump look like the invention of a Neanderthal, but also bunny hopping—if she needs to get back into the fight, you need only to hold down Shift and let her go.

Back to Lucio again, whose function, aside from healing, is to increase the speed of himself and nearby allies.

You could even add to this list (though it is not a movement ability) McCree’s ultimate, Deadeye, which essentially embraces the aimbot—unarguably a cheat in any shooter—and reconfigures it so it can only be used sparingly. Distributing these movement abilities to various classes has the effect of removing some of the more dexterous requirements of the competitive shooter. It then replaces them with a focus on team-based strategy—Overwatch is part MOBA, after all. It’s no longer a case of trying to pull off a complex series of button presses to gain an advantage, but whether or not you want the class assigned to perform a certain ability in that moment of play, and whether you’ll know to use it at the right time. This makes for a fundamentally different type of competition than other shooters, which should become even more apparent as time goes on and our understanding of what constitutes a great Overwatch play is developed.

Where Overwatch adds to the vernacular of the competitive first-person shooter is not in how it lets players traverse its architecture, but in how it enables them to summon their own. This plays out across three characters: Mei, Reinhardt, and Winston. Each is able to create walls that change the demarcation of each map, as well as the invisible territorial boundaries that fluctuate between the two opposing teams. It’s this that enables these heroes to direct their team’s attention and play such important roles.

Mei makes best use of her ice walls to divide the enemy team, trapping some on one side, while those who have pushed in closer are unable to retreat to safety with the wall in place, letting Mei and her team outnumber and obliterate them. The ice walls can also be used to temporarily block enemy snipers’ sightlines. And, as seen with the “Stairway to Hanamura,” they can also be used to great effect as a bridge, or as a shortcut to raise herself and other members to elevated platforms. Mei’s potential seems currently under explored, as proven by Zest’s clever use of her ice wall, but with her recent buff more players are mapping out how to best utilize her, and so she could be central to any number of upcoming, game-changing plays.

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Reinhardt is, for the most part, a living wall. His shield raised, Reinhardt is the visible manifestation of the frontline. Two Reinhardts move towards each other and between them lies the hectic crossfire of no man’s land. Overwatch’s most dominant tactics have largely evolved around the use of Reinhardt, perhaps making him the most fully realized character yet. The Deathball is one of the most popular of these tactics, and involves Reinhardt providing a barrier, while damage dealers and healers sit behind him—this composition is especially effective on payload maps and control point matches. It’s a move that is perhaps comparable to the testudo formation of Ancient Roman warfare; the tactic that made the army so capable in siege attempts. Combined with the Nano Boost of Ana, Reinhardt also becomes a destroyer of walls, moving at increased speed and dealing huge damage with his hammer, he is often able to disperse any formation the enemy has set up as a barrier.

Winston’s shield isn’t a wall as such but a dome that is used to create space (similar to Halo’s bubble shield). Spearheading what is known as the “dive comp,” Winston acts like a drop of oil in water, using his leap to land himself in enemy territory and placing his dome shield like a flag in the ground, declaring that land his own. He usually needs a healer and cover fire to stay alive but a team committed to this aggressive maneuver should be able to pull it off. Using Winston like this in King of the Hill is a particularly effective tactic, as he moves in suddenly and can instantly impact the topography towards a team’s favor.

Overwatch isn’t the first competitive shooter to allow players to erect walls and mold boundaries as part of the team strategy. Games such as Ace of Spades (2011) and Block N Load (2015) beat it to the punch, taking the block-by-block construction of Minecraft (2009) and adding two teams armed with guns into the mix—Epic Games and People Can Fly’s upcoming sandbox survival shooter Fortnite looks to expand on this idea. Overwatch doesn’t allow for anywhere near as much architectural freedom as those games. But what it has done is encourage its players to think with and about walls. This, to some extent, is true of all competitive shooters, as it is a map’s architecture that defines sightlines, flank routes, and chokepoints. Further, in Halo, experienced players know precisely where to throw frag grenades on a wall so that it bounces around a corner into frequented hiding spots. Counter-Strike, Battlefield, and Call of Duty all have the “wallbang” too, which is simply to shoot an enemy through a wall (knowing which guns and which walls facilitate this move is key). However, no other competitive first-person shooter has committed as much as Overwatch to the transgression of its own maps, giving players the tools they need to manipulate its rigid enclosures of warfare.

the empty space around the solid foundations of each map’s architecture

This applies to how Mei, Reinhardt, and Winston are able to create their own walls to push friendly advances or halt those of their enemies. But it’s also the undercurrent of many other characters. Watch the chokepoints and notice how some players deviate from the obvious paths. The Volskaya Industries map is an especially interesting one to watch for its shortcuts that allow for killer flanking maneuvers. Similar to Hanamura, the first point on Volskaya Industries forces attackers into a disadvantage at a chokepoint—an open passage between two buildings, under an arch. However, it’s possible for most characters to fly, wall-ride, or teleport across the insta-kill water to the left of this arch, and come right up behind the enemy team. The right side of the second capture point on Volskaya Industries offers a similar if less risky opportunity for attackers too—a small hop around the back of a red building that lands them right behind the enemy frontline. In fact, if you look up shortcuts for almost any map in Overwatch, you’ll see that they mostly involve traversing the edges or underneaths of buildings, passing over certain death. These are shortcuts that make use of the empty space around the solid foundations of each map’s architecture. The important note is that, while these shortcuts aren’t encouraged by anything in the game, they are also not discouraged. It’s telling that Blizzard hasn’t swooped in and introduced new invisible walls to prevent players taking these shortcuts, which is what usually happens in other shooters. The inaction suggests that Blizzard has designed each map in Overwatch with these shortcuts in mind. Indeed, the tools to bypass the outlines of the maps have been provided through each character’s abilities, so it would make sense that Blizzard meant for more perceptive and risk-taking players to seek out these opportunities and make use of them.

Recently, a game called Paladins hit Steam Early Access, attracting over a million players due to being pitched as a free-to-play version of Overwatch. While Paladins is completely derivative of Overwatch, it would be inaccurate to call it a clone. Sure, many of its characters have the same weapons, ballistics, and abilities as Overwatch’s, and it even has a “Payload” game mode. But it misses almost everything that makes Overwatch unique. That is to say that Paladins exists as if an example of what Overwatch would look like without its commitment to fluid architecture. The exception is the Reinhardt equivalent that raises a large shield for players to stack up behind. Other than that, it doesn’t have characters climbing over walls for easy flanks, or creating walls to divide enemy lines. Nor does its maps facilitate the kinds of dangerous shortcuts that high-level Overwatch thrives on (especially in Asia, where teams often split in half to adopt a pincer maneuver). If nothing else, Paladins helps us to see what makes a great Overwatch play. It isn’t necessarily a clutch save by a player pushed into a corner, or a sniper racking up headshots—as we’re so used to in other shooters. But it is a little Chinese climatologist placing a bridge to redefine the contours surrounding an ancient Japanese gate.

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