Ah, Overwatch, the meat and potatoes of this year’s early-summer buffet and critical darling. Since its release, this multiplayer-centric, team-based, hero-focused shooter (try saying that five times fast) has become a favorite among both casual and serious players for its easy-to-learn/hard-to-master mechanics, frantic pace, and all around charm. Many have fallen in love with Overwatch’s heroes as much as they have its gameplay. From generating memes to spawning an amazing, yet sometimes bizarre fan art following, an active and generally positive community has built itself around Overwatch. And rightly so. Plainly stated, the game is just fun. But with the recent rollout of Overwatch’s Competitive Play mode, has Blizzard compromised what made people fall in love with this quirky team-based shooter in the first place?
Here’s how it works. Players are given ten placement matches, which are meant to serve as a sample size of your skill and ability, but really they come down to nothing more than winning or losing and the rate at which you do so. In my placement matches, I won the first, lost four in a row, then won four in a row. I ended up with a Skill Rating of 46. I won’t lie: those four losses were bad losses. In each one, my team was steamrolled, absolutely destroyed, and I began to wonder if the community had just improved that much overnight. It certainly offered a fine dose of perspective. This is what high-level Overwatch play feels like, and I’m definitely not there.
After running the ten-match gauntlet, players are then matched with other players of similar Skill Rating. This is where the grind begins. Like a lot of ranking systems, every win contributes to increasing your rating, and every loss brings you down a rating. The stakes are higher. In wins you feel like a hero for stopping a Reinhardt push or destroying a Symmetra teleporter, and in losses you feel like a liability affecting not only your own rating, but the rating of everyone on your team.
It provides for tense moments in matches and a willingness to stick with it because matches can swing at any moment. Cheap tricks like knocking a hero off the map with D.Va’s rocket boosters aren’t as effective because players are more aware and tuned-in to what’s going on. The seasons last two and a half months in which players will grind to increase their Skill Rating, earn Competitive Points that can be used to buy exclusive rewards, and compete to reach the tops of leaderboards that highlight the top 500 players in the Overwatch community. Once the season ends, everything is reset, and players get to test their skills all over again.
Honestly, I found a lot to love in Competitive Play. The matches now have a strong sense of continuity, and they flow the way you’d expect a competitive shooter to flow. In Quick Play, you’re assigned to either Attack or Defense and play out the match as you regularly would, but when the match ends and it comes time to switch sides, the teams often get jumbled. You end up playing with people from the opposite team, or people drop out—there’s no continuity. In Competitive Play, the teams are locked in, so any grudges you had in the first half of the match carry over to the second half. The same goes for friendly teammates and that jerk Agent_of_Death69 (there’s always one) who only plays as Reaper. This allows for a feeling of finishing what you started and had me more engaged in the matches.
Another thing that I enjoyed about Competitive Play was the way Blizzard tweaked the scoring system. Now, Attacking teams are awarded a point for every objective they clear (taking a capture point, getting the payload to a checkpoint, etc.), so if your team doesn’t manage to get the payload all the way across the map, you’re still awarded points that can swing the match in your favor if you manage to defend well when the time comes. Again, the flow and continuity of this new system made me feel closer to both my team and what’s at stake. And all of this is slathered in a new coat of paint that presents itself with something more aligned with eSports and MLG.
However, there were quite a few things that I found puzzling, or that felt just plain wrong. Outside of wonky server issues (that are likely fixed by now), one of the most aggravating additions to come with Competitive Play is the new Sudden Death mechanic. If the match ends in a stalemate, a coin is flipped, and one team is made to defend while the other attacks. The only problem is, if for the entire match neither team was able to win on defense, whichever team gets to attack more than likely wins. The coin flip decided the outcome before Sudden Death even started. Given that some matches can last half an hour, this is understandably frustrating. Luckily, this is an issue Blizzard plans to fix next season.
Another issue I had was related to the Competitive Points that the player is awarded after every win. As it stands, the only thing to spend these Competitive Points on are shiny golden guns for your hero. I guess this is all fine and well, though I must have missed a memo or something because when exactly did golden guns become such a thing in online gaming? Anyway, the issue here is that to buy a golden gun, you need to have racked up 300 Competitive Points, and since you’re only award one Competitive Point per win, you’ll need to win 300 times. And that’s 300 Competitive Points per gun per hero. You have to believe Blizzard has more (hopefully exciting) rewards in store for other seasons, but the current exchange rate seems too damn high.
There’s also what Blizzard calls a leaver penalty which currently seems unfair. If someone on your team leaves the match, every player on that team is penalized if that spot isn’t filled with a new player in a certain amount of time. I also found it odd that there aren’t mode-specific playlists because each mode has a different flow and calls for different tactics, but this could just be an issue of personal preference.
Beyond those issues, I guess the biggest question that many are wondering is: has Competitive Play turned Overwatch into something it’s not quite equipped to be? The new mode has, more or less, splintered this community, with many left feeling the taste of a certain sodium-based ionic compound swishing around their mouths. Players have taken to forums and other platforms to voice what seems to be overwhelming discontent. Suddenly, everyone seems so angry, and shipping a Pharah-Mercy romance doesn’t seem so fun anymore. It’s grueling. Losing a match drops your rank a whole level, while winning only pushes you up half a tick. It’s no longer funny if players spend the match as a heavily-countered character because everyone’s rank is at stake. There’s more pressure to perform well, but at the same time the mode seems designed to work against you.
But that’s the nature of competition, right? Quick Play isn’t going anywhere, and Competitive Overwatch wouldn’t be fun if it operated like some suburban soccer league where everyone gets a trophy even if the team didn’t score a single goal all season. But you do start to wonder things like: Is competition supposed to be fun? And what is fun, anyway—a varying subjective measure of how much joy someone gets from something? Bigger questions for another time maybe, but as it stands, Overwatch seems to be dealing with shifting identity like that time your mom cut off all her hair and started wearing jeans with bedazzled butt-pockets.
Is it MLG-ready and destined to draw in a huge viewership on ESPN2? Probably not. Is it ready for normal people to come home from nine-hour work shifts and login and feel like they’re a part of something? Maybe. The point is, it’s not clear—not yet, but Blizzard has been extremely active in its forums and in responding to criticism. They seem very intent on making sure Overwatch is a long-lasting and persistent experience with changes and tweaks along the way.