On Skill in Overwatch



Sun 31st Dec 2017 - 3:09pm

Greetings, k0nduit here. The focus of today's article is not on gameplay strategy, but on some game design concepts (which I'll loop around in the end and connect with some advice for your actual gameplay). With the advent of the Overwatch League, things are heating up in the realm of competitive Overwatch. There's been a lot of discussion on the state of the game, about balance, and about hero design.

My article today is going to focus on one question: "What does it mean to be skilled at Overwatch?" With this article (the first in a short series of game-design related pieces), I hope to shed some light on Overwatch's game design - and why it's great - as well as cover the above question... the answer to which may give you some insight about your gameplay and provide some ideas for how you can go about improving your skills. Without further ado, let's get right into it:

Overwatch is not a 'Traditional' First-Person Shooter

In my opinion, Overwatch is a combination of the FPS and MOBA genres, blended into something different and incredibly fresh. There are significant elements of both genres in Overwatch. Of course, Overwatch has been branded and marketed as an FPS first and foremost; and while it's defnitely more of an FPS than a MOBA or any other genre, to classify it solely as an FPS is a bit inaccurate (to read more on this idea - which I've summarized a bit - check out: "Overwatch: What Genre is it?"). One of the most beautiful things about the game is that it appeals to a wide audience, boasting a roster of characters with widely different playstyles, not all of which are shooting-centric (in the classical, FPS sense). In this way, people of all different backgrounds, gaming interests, and involvement in the FPS genre can find something to love about the game (this was one of the big pulls to the game that I read/heard about as it came out). Reinhardt, Winston, Symmetra, and Mercy are the best examples of 'unorthodox' character implementations that defy the traditional outlook of "shooting is core to a shooting game." This is important because when discussing what it means to be skillful at Overwatch, you must expand your analysis to those skills not only involved in a traditional FPS but even further... because Overwatch is not a traditional FPS!

Playing Overwatch Entails Developing a Wide Skillset

And this is where the similarities to the MOBA genre arises. You have a cast of characters with almost completely unique abilities, more often than not asymmetric team compositions, and objective-focused gameplay. (Heroes of the Storm - Blizzard's MOBA -  implemented the Volskaya Industries map into their game. The fight for a control point is a pretty clean transference from a FPS's perspective to a MOBA!). The interactions and implementations of the hero design alone bears a great deal of similarity to a MOBA, with offensive, defensive, and mobility options all available depending on the character you choose. For those familiar with the MOBA genre, one can almost consider Overwatch 'left-clicks' to be the equivalent of a character's autoattacks - except you can miss or get headshots! Now the key differences of course, are that Overwatch has a greater emphasis on mechanical execution, i.e. aim (though again, not all characters have this emphasis), and that the game structure, map, and objectives often fundamentally differ from a MOBA's setup (these distinctions are discussed a bit in "Overwatch: What Genre is it?").

There are two articles which I would recommend reading: "Overwatch: A Multi-Genre Game for Multiskilled Players," and "Overwatch: What Genre is it?" Both will get your mind turning as to what things you should be focusing on when trying to improve your gameplay. Here's a quote from the latter, which explains the idea of a diverse skillset (beyond just aiming) better than I can:

"Again, once you scratch the surface you realize that Overwatch is a game less about shooting and more about understanding character loadouts, map awareness, cooldown awareness, teammate awareness and coordination, teammate cooldown maintenance, situational awareness, positioning and posturing, and the synergy of all these things. These are the same things that make fighting in MOBAs interesting and fun. At the same time, the game is accessible because it’s outlined like a first person shooter, given a FPS HUD, and includes staple shooter genre game modes."

This paragraph sums it up beautifully. There is much more to Overwatch than meets the eye!

Shifting Your Mindest

If you've played Overwatch for a while, a lot of the items discussed in the above paragraph may seem intuitive to you already - tracking cooldowns, positioning properly, and coordinating with your teammates all seem like standard things to do. What I want to emphasize today is not these skills (the above two listed articles cover many of these nicely), but the shifting of your mindset when playing Overwatch to something like when you're playing chess, or a MOBA - instead of a run-and-gun FPS.

How I think of Overwatch (and many video games in the general sense, in fact) is as a game of chess, but with the added twist of mechanical execution. In normal IRL chess, moving the pieces where you want them to go isn't really a 'part' of the game - if you want the knight to go to D6, you simply move it there. But in Overwatch, while you might WANT to take out the incoming Soldier: 76 and know that it's the right play and that you're in the right position to do so, in order to succeed, you must hit your shots - which is not necessarily a guarantee (you can even get outmaneuvered/outplayed and have the enemy Soldier turn the tables on you! Such is the impact of execution and mechanics.). And so, we can see how the presence of dexterity and execution adds layers of interesting gameplay. But on top of that, there is a wealth of strategic depth to the game with many different options and tactics to explore, which makes me think of it as chess (fast-paced chess, if you will). I think there is poor nomenclature in the general gaming community that "strategy games" are in their own genre. In my view, all games are strategy games, and Overwatch is no exception!

Start thinking of the game from a deeply tactical perspective. Rather than trying to brute force your way through a choke point (though, admittedly, sometimes this is the right play), look for ways to disrupt the enemy team's formation and break it apart. Flanking around to pull away enemies from the choke is a tried-and-true strategy, don't be afraid to bust out Reaper or Genji. Seek advantages in character matchups wherever possible - if the enemy Junkrat and Torbjorn are spamming the choke non-stop, perhaps switching to Zarya to build up free charge is a good play. Trying the same strategy without any variation over and over (with the only changes being made in mechanical execution) is often not a good idea. If you're confident in your approach, by all means run it back; but, Overwatch is not the kind of game where you can put a plan to the wayside and attempt to triumph with mechanical skill alone. You must have a plan! The interplay between the different heroes, abilities, and weapons is part of what makes the game more interesting and complex than "how do I hit the opponent while not letting the opponent hit me."

Look for creative solutions to common problems; let's say a team member has gotten picked, and you're stuck defending a capture point 5v6. How do you use the resources at your disposal to salvage the situation? Is it correct to look to equalize, or to retreat? Having your Reinhardt zone/stall 2 members of the enemy team with the threat of hammer swings can leave the rest of the fight in an even 4v4, which you can win! There are almost always more options than just "brawl it out." Look to create space for your team to win in another area of the teamfight!

Here's a quick anecdote, with some takeaways: Some months ago, I read a comment on reddit which complained about how D.VA was too 'easy' and 'powerful' to play (or something to that effect) - yes, D.VA! The commenter's reasoning was, she had the capability (with her Defense Matrix) to cancel out most of the abilities in the game, including ultimates - which seemed unfair. This perspective, to me, shows a lack of understanding about the nature of the game. You are not playing a 'traditional' First-Person Shooter - you are playing a strategy game... 5D chess, if you will, with strong FPS elements. A tank's role is to defend the rest of the team, providing peel and protection against oncoming enemy attacks. Defense Matrix is an ability that provides this utility, and is a core part of the interplay D.VA has with other character's kits. It is an ability that requires tactical prowess to employ properly, rather than mechanical prowess. The same can be said for Soldier: 76's 'aimbot' ultimate - it's all about when and where you use it, rather than the how - after all, the shots will always land!

Now this isn't to say that all the game's balance concerns can be dismissed under the name of 'tactics' - there's a lot more to each of those discussions, for sure. But, it is important to understand that Overwatch's game design (and therefore balance considerations) have a lot in common not only with the FPS genre, but also with MOBAs, etc. There are many ways to demonstrate and express skill in Overwatch than just through your aim, and abilities that are tactically-focused with relatively little burden of mechanical execution have their place in Overwatch.

Tactical Prowess or Mechanical Prowess - Which Is More Important?

This is an interesting question, which I doubt I will be able to answer in a satisfactory manner. It's a question with a subjective answer I think, and will further vary based on which character you're playing. For example, playing Widowmaker at a high level requires a great deal of mechanical skill and dexterity, in addition to smart positioning and macro understanding. Playing Mercy reverses things a bit, with a great emphasis put on your tactical prowess to perform well, with (comparatively) less emphasis on mechanical execution. There's so much more to discuss with these characters (and I'll be discussing Mercy more in-depth in a future article - she is by far my favorite character, and arguably the most interesting to discuss from a game design perspective, for both 'good' and 'bad' reasons!), so perhaps honing in on these heroes in particular isn't befitting of this article. All I can say is, they're (tactics and mechanics) both extremely important, and you should strive be at least adequate in both areas.

Here's another question that I asked myself, one that's more practical - which should you focus more on in your practice sessions, game understanding/macro or micro execution? The clear answer will often be whichever you feel needs the most improvement. But, in the cases where both are pretty adequate, my response (and this is my own subjective opinion) would always be to focus on your macro and game sense. Rather than spending time in the training room practicing hitting shots, I would review replays/watch VODs and figure out how to avoid situations where you died and discover those areas where you could've pressed your advantage more. Having exceptional game understanding will allow you to put yourself in situations where you can win even with just average mechanical skill, while having exceptional mechanical skill but lacking in the game understanding compared to your competition will result in being less impactful, in my opinion.

Overwatch is a team-based game. By improving your game sense, you're kind of helping your entire team, in a way. Most viscerally, you will be able to quickly and decisively make appropriate shotcalls in tense situations. A razor-sharp aim, without strong game understanding to guide it, will be less effective I believe. I think that practicing both is of course a great idea if you're on the journey of self-improvement; but, if it were me, I would place a greater emphasis on understanding the game. It's also worth noting that with more experience just playing the game, your aim will improve; but if you're not actively thinking about the underlying strategy and figuring out where you need to improve from a macro perspective, your game understanding will often stay the same as it currently is and you'll repeat the same mistakes!

The End of the Beginning, and Onwards

So, there we have it. The big takeaways, I would say, are that Overwatch is a multidimensional game, involving a multitude of both macro and micro skills in order for a player to excel. In my opinion, you should focus on your game sense over your mechanical prowess, as the latter will develop organically the more you play, and the former can have a much greater game impact. And finally, OW's complexity makes it both harder, and much more interesting to balance and design for.

As I mentioned, this piece is the first in a short series of articles touching some areas of Overwatch's game design. When Overwatch first came out in 2016, there was discussion on what genre it was; and recently, with the OWL getting started, there's lots of discussion on hero design, game balance, and more - but some of these conversations are neglecting what exactly makes Overwatch unique and special compared to other games and FPS's. I think that by refocusing in on Overwatch's multi-skilled, multi-genre nature, we can better understand the game, more accurate identify balance issues, and even improve our own play along the way.

That's all for today, I hope you enjoyed the article. If you'd like to discuss anything gaming, have comments/feedback on this article, or just want to say hi, feel free to tweet me @k0nduit and I'll get back to you.

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