Is Blizzard’s team-based multiplayer shooter in trouble? Well, it depends how you look at it and the metrics by which you judge its success. Active players? Profitability? Esports scene? Fan engagement? Critical reception?
First things first. Is Overwatch fun to play? Yes. Is it a better game than it was when it launched? That’s a harder question to answer. It’s certainly a bigger game but the answer to the question depends on who you’re asking.
Four years after launch, Blizzard still doesn't have a clear idea of what Overwatch should be.
Right from the moment it was pitched, Blizzard have looked to make Overwatch a game for all kinds of audiences. If you’re looking for a fun and colorful game to play with your friends, it’s easy to recommend.
This casual-friendly attitude is proudly reflected in the diversity of modes in Overwatch. Even before the arrival of the Workshop, the game boasted Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and other seasonal game modes that let you find fun outside from the game’s quick play and competitive formats.
If you’re a casual multiplayer person who likes to dip in and out, the myth of Overwatch as a game that’s gotten better over time is one that’s easy to believe in. Blizzard might have stumbled when it comes to maintaining a consistent cadence for new heroes and maps but, through the past four years of post-launch support, they’ve gotten it right most of the time.
If you’re after an accessible hero shooter with a diverse cast and fun gameplay that you can jump right into, Overwatch remains very much that game. It’s a multiplayer experience where everyone gets to feel like a hero, regardless of whether they secure the coveted Play of the Game.
The problem here is that, once you go beyond being the player who drops in for a couple of rounds of Quick Play once every few months, the myriad of issues in how Blizzard have tried to refine and balance Overwatch pile up fast.
See, in addition to the above, Blizzard also wants Overwatch to be a multiplayer experience where solid teamplay can trump almost any difference in individual skill.
They want it to look like the former, but play like the latter. To that end, numerous balance changes have been made to the game with the professional level play of the Overwatch League in mind. Not all of these hotfixes and nerfs have made the experience of everyday play for amateur players better.
Take Hero Pools, for example.
Drawn on a weekly basis, these cards enforce temporary bans for certain characters - favoring some teams and disadvantage others. One team might invest a ton of money into recruiting a star player known for their skill with one specific character and then be practically unable to actually put them on stage when it counts most. For this reason and others, Overwatch League coaches and players complain endlessly about the semi-random ban system.
Nevertheless, Hero Pool were introduced by Blizzard to make the meta at that level of play more dynamic and fluid - and this objective is something they’ve arguably achieved.
If you take a look at the leaderboards for this year’s Overwatch League and compare them to last year, the difference is kind of almost nonsensical. Where the 2018 season was defined by which teams were able to adapt and 2019 was defined by the teams able to perfect consistency, the 2020 season has been utter chaos on a week-to-week schedule.
Prior to Hero Pools, the different stages of Overwatch’s meta were talked about like eras of in-game history. There was the Dive meta, the Double Shields meta and - of course - the infamous GOATS meta.
For those who aren’t fluent or familiar, the word meta here is shorthand for the phrase: Most Efficient Tactic Available.
In other words, what’s the easiest way to win?
When you factor in the way that the game has been balanced and designed, playing to the meta involves playing in the way that’s most likely to succeed. You lean on the characters who are currently strong. You avoid using the characters who are currently weak.
There are sometimes differences in the details but, at the highest level of play, matches of Overwatch either come down to which team is able to execute on the blueprint laid out by the meta better or which team is able to find a way to subvert the meta against their opposition.
Unfortunately, the knock-on effect of Hero Pools for regular players hasn’t been nearly so much fun to watch unfold. There's genuine joy in seeing underdog teams leverage the opportunities created by these limitations and a thrill in seeing established teams scramble to craft new compositions to compensate for the loss of critical players, navigating that morass as a player isn’t nearly as much fun.
Hero Pools are fodder for spectators. They trigger conversations, debate and speculation. However, they’re not really a problem that everyday ranked queue players are equipped to handle in real-time nor one that’s particularly thrilling to solve.
Realistically, wrangling randoms in Overwatch sucks almost just as much as it does in every other competitive online game. There are exceptions but, unless you’re purely playing with friends, every round of competition is a grab-bag of idiocy, creepers, toxicity and in-fighting with the occasional dash of competence or good sportsmanship.
You never know what you’re gonna get and, outside of the best case scenarios, it’s usually not that good. Even if the other team might be in the same boat, winning a game of Overwatch is often about making the best of an imperfect situation. For all that the game builds spectacle around individual heroics, your whole team needs to be working - or at least working better together than the enemy team - to succeed.
Hero Pools don’t radically change this but they do add just enough pressure to make it worse. Weekly bans might make the game more interesting to watch but it makes the game much worse for casual or regular players.
That’s probably why Blizzard have gone and removed them lower-tiers of ranked play. As of May, Hero Pools only apply for players above 3500SR.
Still, Hero Pools are a great showcase for Blizzard’s inability to decide what they want Overwatch to be. Their implementation suggests Overwatch's meta is supposed to be more dynamic but their scaling back of them indicates they probably inadvertently made ranked play much worse for more casual players.
Of course, role-lock is a good example of Blizzard attempting to implement the reverse of this. Introduced late last year (seemingly in lieu of a new hero), role-lock forces players to decide which role they’d like to play before queuing for a match.
The short-term impact here is that you’re much less likely to get into a game where you have one uncooperative player undermining the rest of your team. In theory, it puts everyone on the same page as to how they should be playing approaching the game.
Unfortunately, over the long term, this change has made Overwatch a far less interesting game to play and watch. The maps and names change but things feel more samey than ever. Damage-dealers are usually something of a lucky dip but, a lot of the time, matches end up with the same picks for tanks and supports on both sides.
If Hero Pools are intended to spice up the professional level of play and make it more interesting for viewers, role-lock does the opposite. It brings rigidity and makes the process of climbing the ladder feel more like a grind and professional play seem less dynamic.
Whenever Blizzard moves the status quo in one direction, it usually isn't long before they swing even harder in the other.
Of course, Blizzard’s approach to evolving and adding to Overwatch over time isn’t split between two different audiences - casual and hardcore - but many more than that.
Rather than build a game with a clear vision of itself and who it’s for, they’ve tried to cover all the bases. There’s no coherence when it comes to their vision of what they want Overwatch to be because, in the era of live-service gaming, it has to be everything to everyone.
It has to be as fun to watch as it is to play. Teamwork has to matter but it has to feel like individual exceptionalism saves the day. The characters and setting have to be rich and resonant enough to draw you in and hold your attention but the narrative can never move forward, otherwise lapsed players might feel daunted at the notion of having to catch up.
Overwatch is envisioned as a multiplayer experience where creative and diverse compositions are strongly encouraged. It’s simultaneously trying to be a game about mechanical repetition, where playing to convention is ideal, so long as you're executing that game plan better than your opposition. All these ideas and ideals can't co-exist without friction.
Even for a developer as storied as Blizzard Entertainment, this kind of overlapping ambition is folly.
Pleasing everyone at once is an impossible task. Every band-aid attempt to resolve the issue just creates new ones. By designing the mechanics and framework of Overwatch with utter versatility and flexibility in mind, they’ve diluted the vision of what the game should be for everyone.
That brings us to the esports side of things.
Even as someone who has watched hundreds of hours of Overwatch League and counts seeing Team Australia qualify for the Overwatch World Cup as one of my all-time best esports experiences, Blizzard’s strategy here hardly inspires confidence.
2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for the Overwatch League. Instead, it feels like the pro-player ecosystem around the game has been hammered by setback after setback.
First, there was the mass exodus of talent from the OWL broadcast team. Then, there was the divisive migration of the Overwatch League from Twitch to Youtube - which, until very recently, stripped viewers of the ability to gain in-game rewards for watching online.
Nevermind the long-standing issues around making competitive Overwatch understandable to those who haven’t sunk dozens or hundreds of hours into the game. The defection of 2019’s MVP Sinnatra and the implosion of the Vancouver Titans - one of the game’s most storied competitive teams - have added further salt to the wounds of an esports in clear decline.
Finally, there’s the derailing of Blizzard’s plans to move the League to an on-the-road homestand format where teams would fly in and out of their hometowns for home and away matches akin to that found in traditional sports leagues.
For obvious reasons, the coronavirus epidemic has made this format shift impossible. The production team involved in the esports side of the Overwatch experience have gone above and beyond when it comes to making the most of these conditions but the fact remains that the League just isn’t in the shape that Blizzard or fans would hope it would be in 2020.
And if the esports side of the equation is running out of steam, the rationale it represents in terms of how Blizzard balance and update the game begins to fall apart at the seams.
2020 looks to be make-or-break for Overwatch.
There’s still no release date for the sequel. The game still hasn’t pivoted to free to play and it’s looking like Blizzard are going to face its stiffest competition yet in the form of Valorant.
Riot’s tactical shooter combines the heroics of Overwatch with the competitive structures and precision gunplay of Counter-Strike. And despite being still in beta, the game is attracting enormous attention from players who see it as the thing that they want Overwatch to be.
In their efforts to build the hero shooter that’s fun for everyone - no matter their skill level - Blizzard have left themselves exposed on all fronts. Every change they make in the interest of one audience has the potential to alienate and frustrate others.
Recent years have seen dominant franchises and brands quickly thrown off their game by more agile upstarts. Look at PUBG and Fortnite or Valve and Artifact. It’s easy to something similar happening with Overwatch and Valorant.