Image credit: Stewart Volland / Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch League's latest big change is great for viewers

And for some previously struggling teams.

Kris Holt, @krisholt
08.29.19 in AV
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    Image credit: Stewart Volland / Blizzard Entertainment

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    Picture this: FIFA decides to bring in a rule that changes how every team, from World Cup squads to US Youth Soccer National League orgs, plays. They're forced to field two strikers, four midfielders and four defenders at all times, even though many top teams prefer to have more midfielders supporting one main attacker.

    If that sounds drastic, Blizzard just enforced a similar, more ironclad rule for Overwatch. From now on, every team in the competitive and quick-play modes will have two damage dealers (or DPS, damage per second), two tanks and two support heroes. Each player can only pick heroes from their predefined roles for the duration of a map. That 2-2-2, or role-lock, change is probably the single biggest modification to Overwatch since the game was released over three years ago.

    The shift has already had a big impact on Overwatch League, the game's top professional tier. If you're not familiar, Blizzard designed the eSports league to reflect traditional sports setups, with 20 teams representing cities across North America, Asia and Europe, up from 12 last year.

    There's big money involved too. This year's eight expansion teams reportedly had to spend north of $30 million to secure a slot. While the prize money pales in comparison to some other eSports, with the champions taking home $1.1 million, players are salaried. They each earn a minimum of $50,000 per year, and their organizations provide accommodations throughout the season, healthcare and a retirement plan. One player, San Francisco Shock's Jay "sinatraa" Won, reportedly signed a deal worth $150,000 per year in 2017. He was 17 at the time.

    With so much on the line for the players, teams and Blizzard, keeping viewers tuned in is critical. The best way to do that is with exciting matches that are easy to understand -- something that hasn't always been the case for most of the last year.

    Overwatch League 2019

    Teams played 28 games during the 2019 regular season, each taking place across four maps, with a tiebreaker if needed. As with most competitive games, top players find the most effective strategies and playstyles on a given update and tend to stick with them. In certain situations, as we've seen in Overwatch League lately, that can lead to stale, one-dimensional contests with stronger teams steamrolling over weaker ones despite mostly playing identical combinations of characters (also known as a "mirror" matchup).

    But with the enforced 2-2-2 lineups coming into force for stage four, the final seven regular-season games, Overwatch League became more viewer-friendly. Teams shook things up with a broader variety of heroes, with only Orisa and Mei getting close to ever-present status. In fact, in the first week of stage four, OWL teams used all 30 heroes.

    There are a few reasons why the 2-2-2 change was necessary, and it was important in overhauling what was largely a repetitive viewing experience. The previous playstyle has its roots in Blizzard's introduction of a character called Brigitte in March 2018. Though ostensibly a support hero, she was very durable and highly effective on offense.

    Brigitte has a couple of crowd control abilities that are effective in stunning or displacing enemies. Some saw her as a counter to the so-called dive meta, a previously optimal playstyle built around characters with high mobility such as D.Va, Winston and Tracer. They could leap behind enemy lines and take out more delicate support heroes to win team fights -- but Brigitte could stop them in their tracks.

    A lower-tier team in the Open Division (a Blizzard-backed competition any team can enter) called GOATS quickly took advantage of Brigitte's close-range potency to popularize a style of play that relied on three tanks and three support heroes. It was hugely successful, and teams higher up the food chain took notice.

    Brigitte became available to OWL teams during last year's stage four, which started in May. That composition, also named GOATS after the innovative squad, gradually became the dominant playstyle in top-tier play. Philadelphia Fusion even tried it out during the 2018 Grand Finals.

    The composition, which requires a great deal of coordination between players, became much more popular this season. Much of the time, you'd see both teams in a match stick with Reinhardt (or Winston), Zarya, D.Va, Lúcio, Brigitte and Moira or Zenyatta. The problem is, that wasn't ideal for viewers.

    Close-quarters team fights often really dragged on. Using only tanks with big health pools and support heroes with fast-healing abilities meant players stayed alive for a long time. Players could also cancel out certain powerful ultimate abilities, such as D.Va's Defense Matrix making Zarya's Graviton Surge vanish or Brigitte interrupting Reinhardt's Earthshatter animation with her Shield Bash. It was often difficult for viewers to catch all the nuances of the brawls, which meant the (fortunately excellent) broadcast team was required to break down each set-play.

    The evenly matched chess-style battles between teams using GOATS were sometimes enjoyable, but it did eventually get tiresome. Maybe most importantly for viewers, there wasn't always a ton of opportunity for players to have huge individual clutch plays. Faced with so much healing potential and enemies with tons of health points, it seemed much harder for any one pro to "pop off." There was at least some opportunity for creativity, though:

    The core playstyle gradually started to shift over the season as teams experimented with counters, often with Sombra's powerful EMP ultimate disabling enemy abilities. Shanghai Dragons and freshman squad Chengdu Hunters also often bucked the trend by respectively running a DPS-heavy lineup and a team composition built around Wrecking Ball.

    But the demands of an evolving game and a widespread desire for change helped bring about the formal demise of GOATS. Blizzard says the role-lock system had been in the works for over a year and that killing GOATS wasn't the main goal. "We're in the middle of [a big shift] anyway that's happening very naturally through hero balance," Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said in a video announcing the move. "We don't believe that a rule like this is intended to target any one specific [strategy]." Regardless, even if GOATS wasn't the direct target, role lock has eliminated it for good.

    Tanks and support heroes are extremely important to a balanced team. But more damage dealers means there's more scope for flashier plays. DPS players who'd largely been forced to ride the bench or take on an unfamiliar role for much of the season were able to start playing heroes more suited to their skills, which inevitably made matches more exciting.

    Blizzard brought in the 2-2-2 change for Overwatch League stage four at the end of July and players on public servers at around the same time. It's not entirely a positive move, because it means we'll lose some of the wilder strategies, such as London Spitfire opting for a quad-DPS crew or Vancouver Titans tank player Sangbeom "Bumper" Park switching to archery master Hanzo. There's also the chance that we'll see teams rely on the same lineups, but for now, at least, there's a lot of diversity in hero selection, particularly on the DPS front.

    In stage four, fans saw a lot more use of snipers, dual-shotgun wielder Reaper, cybernetic ninja Genji and high-flyer Pharah. In particular, OWL teams used Mei much more than in the past, when she was often selected to stall on an objective. Her icy, crowd-control abilities pair well with those of Orisa and Roadhog's to quickly eliminate an opponent -- or counter a similar combination from opponents. With a wider array of characters making it into OWL matches, fans are getting to see a broader variety of playstyles. That kind of flexibility and diversity in strategies is supposed to be a core part of the game.

    We also saw OWL damage dealers switch heroes a little more often to counter an enemy. Let's take a quick look at a match from the final weekend of this year's regular season. Once Atlanta Reign got a glimpse of Dallas Fuel's defensive setup on King's Row, Andrej "Babybay" Francisty swapped from Reaper to Symmetra.

    While long considered a sub-optimal character among pros (she was the only hero not used at all last season), she was enormously effective here. The damage output of her Photon Projector beam ramps up the longer it's focused on an enemy target. With the Fuel clustered so close together, Babybay and his teammates ripped through the opposing Mei Ice Wall, Orisa shield and the Dallas team to capture the first point in no time. The broadcast team also suggested Symmetra will be featured more in the next dominant playstyle (or "meta"), which seems likely to be oriented around shields.

    The Fuel's Dylan "aKm" Bignet then switched from Reaper to Pharah, who can easily dodge Symmetra's beam and slow projectile attack with her jetpack. In response, Babybay switched to McCree and shot aKm out of the sky with the cowboy's revolver. Both switched a couple more times to try and gain the advantage.

    That's classic Overwatch, which hadn't been on display in OWL too much this year prior to stage four. With Babybay and aKm's deep knowledge of the game, ability to play so many heroes at a high level and knowing exactly when to switch, it made for an enjoyable one-on-one duel.

    The re-emergence of damage heroes is good for fans for another reason. The Command Center spectator option on Twitch had plenty of teething problems at the beginning of the season, though it proved to be an effective way to switch between pros' perspectives and help fans see more of the big plays. A replay system on PC goes even further, allowing devotees to observe matches from any angle and in slow motion. That's especially useful for kills that happen in a flash.

    Big upsets, like those we've seen in recent weeks, have added some excitement to matches too. Washington Justice went 2-19 through the first three stages as they endured a torrid time in the GOATS meta. When star DPS player Corey Nigra (who simply goes by Corey) was freed from playing Zarya with the role-lock switch, that all changed. With the help of his incredible accuracy on snipers Hanzo and Widowmaker, the Justice had a 6-1 record in stage four. That included a stunning 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Titans, one of the league's two best teams this year.

    Florida Mayhem had an equally bad record until stage four, then they went 4-3, including a win over the Spitfire, last season's Overwatch League champions. The Reign thrived too, with a 7-0 record in stage four.

    On the flip side, the New York Excelsior struggled to adapt. Some consider NYXL the best team overall throughout the league's two seasons and they're this year's Atlantic Division champions -- but they suffered a pair of 4-0 losses, their first ever, as they went 3-4 in stage four.

    The fan-favorite Shanghai Dragons also floundered after their fairy-tale rise from an 0-40 season in 2018 to win the stage three title, beating the league's three strongest squads one after the other in the stage playoffs. They squeaked into the postseason after a dismal 1-6 stage four, and might struggle to make much of an impact there.

    Whether the big plays and potential for upsets will win viewers back remains to be seen. For the first week of stage three, Twitch viewership on the league's main channel reportedly dipped to about 3 million hours compared with 3.1 million hours from the equivalent weekend last season. Average concurrent viewers were also apparently down for the same period on the English, French, Korean, Portuguese and Russian broadcasts. They collectively dropped from an average of at least 112,000 simultaneous viewers each day to 95,000.

    However, OWL airs on other streaming and TV networks -- including Disney XD, ESPN and ABC -- so Twitch figures don't reflect overall viewer numbers. In fact, fans in China (which now has four OWL teams, up from one in 2018), watch matches via other means and accounted for much of the league's viewership last year.

    Meanwhile, the meta could be about to change yet again as the postseason gets underway. There'll be a new element in play as the latest addition to the hero lineup, gravity-defying tank Sigma, will be available in Overwatch League, bringing his projectile barrier and gravity-defying abilities into the mix. It seems likely OWL teams will frequently pair Sigma with Orisa to run double-shield compositions -- which is why heroes good at busting through shields, like Symmetra, might come into play.

    Blizzard has tweaked the effectiveness of other heroes too. with major changes for Brigitte that make her less self-sustaining and more of a primary healer. Pros didn't use her much during stage four -- her changes hadn't hit the OWL version of the game yet, but they will for the postseason. As a more effective support, she might actually return to the fore.

    Ultimately, Overwatch League is in a somewhat healthier place than it was just a few weeks ago. The matches are generally more exciting and through stage four, there was a real sense any team (at least those not named Dallas Fuel or Boston Uprising) could beat any other squad. That increased competitiveness bodes well for the league going into the playoffs, though it remains to be seen whether the arrival of Sigma and a different meta will ensure matches stay exciting for viewers.

    Outside of OWL, the role-lock move is unquestionably a positive for all Overwatch players, as it resolves one overarching complaint about what's supposed to be a team-based game. With fewer restrictions, many players chose whichever heroes they wanted to play regardless of how their abilities worked in concert with teammates. That meant you'd often see teams with too many DPS players to be balanced, and less-selfish players who'd rather play in that role often resigning themselves to a support or tank position.

    Because you get to determine your role in advance now, and there's a fixed two heroes from each class, that should reduce some of the game's toxic aspects. Teammates won't be able to pressure each other to switch roles to something they aren't comfortable with, and there should be a stronger focus on teamwork.

    Role lock certainly doesn't fix all of the issues players have with Overwatch, including imbalanced characters. Over the last year, Blizzard reduced the effectiveness (or "nerfed") some heroes who were key components of GOATS, such as Lúcio with his Speed Boost, and boosting the strength of others like Reaper and Mei. Perhaps as the 2-2-2 landscape takes shape, Blizzard will re-balance those heroes.

    Overwatch and Overwatch League aren't the only competitive game and eSport that struggle to find a balance that suits most. Fortnite's hated mechs had a huge bearing on a $400,000 tournament for Twitch streamers, in which some quit in anger after feeling the wrath of the hard-to-kill machines (developer Epic Games weakened the mech soon after). Still, Blizzard's role-lock decision should go a long way towards resolving concerns about Overwatch and, thankfully for viewers, help make OWL much more fun to kick back and watch.

    Images: Robert Paul / Blizzard Entertainment (1,3); Stewart Volland / Blizzard Entertainment (2)

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