Competitive Overwatch turns the game upside-down-- for better and for worse

July 8, 2016 by Suriel Vazquez

Overwatch's competitive mode changes the flavor of the game pretty seriously.

After completing my final placement match in Overwatch’s new Competitive Play mode, the game reveals my new skill rating: 42. I’m not really sure what that means. Mathematically I’m below the fold (the highest skill rating is 100), but it’s hard to gauge where that puts me on a bell curve. I’m not ecstatic about it, but I’m not disappointed by it, either. I look at my rating, and don’t have much of an impulse to improve it.

That’s a weird feeling for me. I’ve poured dozens of hours into ranked matches of Dota 2, and part of the reason I stopped playing Street Fighter V was because after crossing the 1000 LP threshold (a relatively low milestone, I admit), I started getting anxious about losing those points. These kinds of ranking points and systems might feel frivolous to a lot of people, but I like the feeling of earning points from a win. They act as motivation for properly learning the ins and outs of a game, and thinking critically about every match I play instead of just doing whatever comes to mind. In turn, seeing those numbers rise acts as validation for all the practice and hours I’ve put in to improve. And in team-based games, knowing that your skill rating is visible to everyone makes everyone play with purpose, raising the stakes and intensifying matches.

But with Overwatch, I don’t feel that same pressure, and it has to do with both how Competitive Play works and how the game itself doesn’t feel like it’ll properly reward that work.

Up until now, Overwatch has felt like a rejection of the competitive mindset. You can switch characters to counter the enemy’s lineup whenever you want (which, admittedly, adds its own layer of strategy), or just play whatever hero you like most. Weekly Brawls, alterations to the standard game’s design, aren’t meant to be taken seriously. You have to dig into menus or go to stat-tracking websites to see your win-loss ratio or get a glimpse of how well you’re doing. The game doesn’t show you a scoreboard during the match, and even after, it’s a personal one, so only you can see how well (or poorly) you did. Overwatch has had a pick-up-and-play vibe, and that vibe is one of the many reasons the game is so immensely popular with people who don’t normally play shooters.

Competitive Play upends that casual vibe entirely. On Control mode maps, both teams play fighter over capture points until one team captures three of them. On Escort or Assault maps, both teams play a round as defense and offense, seeing who can move the payload farther or capture more points. If both teams do as well as the game allows, they play a third tie-breaker round. The presentation of the teams is a little flashier, showing everyone’s ranking, and going to separate screen to summarize how many points a team earned in a separate. Aesthetically, the game is asking very politely that you take the game seriously.

As I played my placement matches to get my ranking, both my teammates and enemies certainly were. They were more on edge, less flexible about what the “right” approach might be on a given map, and more inclined to point out other player’s mistakes. If the enemy got a triple kill, someone got their head chewed off for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone wants the highest rating possible, and teammates seemed like as much an obstacle to that rating as the enemy team. You have to win at all costs. In Competitive Play, it’s the only thing that matters.

But thinking about Overwatch that way conflicts with many of the game’s core principles. For starters, two of the game’s three modes, Escort and Assault, are asymmetrical. The teams have two very different goals, the maps play differently depending on which side you’re on. What’s more, most maps are balanced so that if both teams know what they’re doing, the attacking side has a higher chance to win. If a player drops out, they’re usually replaced by someone else almost immediately. This is fine when playing casually, but when a coin flip decides whether you’re attacking or defending in the tiebreaker, it’s hard to see the game as completely fair. That makes caring about things like a rating a little harder.

Blizzard is currently thinking about ways to rework these modes to make them more fair. But the extent to which they need to rework the game in order to fit Competitive Play only shows how little Overwatch’s base structure fits with a competitive mindset. In Overwatch, there are lots of little bits of “unfairness” you can blame for a loss. The wonkiness of Roadhog’s hook. The wider hitboxes on projectiles that make it hard to anticipate how to dodge them (which also acts it easier on the people firing those shots to land one). The way the game’s low tick leads to some latency issues. The asymmetry of the maps and modes.

These aspects all make it easier to think that you lost because of some ridiculous reason, blame anything but yourself, and immediately roll into the next match with your ego intact. But in Competitive Play, they only serve to make matches more frustrating. What’s more, people can’t backfill teams, which means that if someone drops out, the rest of their team is at a huge disadvantage. So your rating can feel out of your control.

It’s only until a friend nonchalantly tells me his rating (which is much higher than mine) that I get the urge to go back into Competitive Play. And for the ways they conflict with the games design at times, matches in that mode offer those hard-earned victories that make playing to win worth it. Playing on Ilios, a Control map, my team gets decimated the first two rounds. Like, “never captured the point once” decimated. Between the second and third rounds, my team decides to start talking with each other. We discuss picks, tell each other when to hold back and wait for the rest of the team, and go for more coordinated pushes. We end up winning the next three rounds straight, and take the game.

After wins like that, I see what Overwatch has to offer my competitive spirit. The validation that comes with a higher number is in my bones, and even now, I feel the itch to raise that 42 number. But with as many competitive games as I play, the highs need to both worth the lows and my time. And while Overwatch works brilliantly as a game that anyone can play, Competitive Play doesn’t work quite well enough for me to take it seriously. I’ll probably play more of it just to see if I can’t break a 50 skill rating. But if I don’t, it’s just a number anyway.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who would probably would probably have a higher skill rating if he could play Hanzo. Like at all. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Glixel, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.