When Counter-Strike: Global Offensive released in 2012 and later in the years claimed the flagship of FPS esports titles (like its predecessors), it further showed what other FPS titles were lacking in terms of tools and core mechanics to be a spectator-friendly competitive game. Halo, Call of Duty and Rainbow Six: Siege are just some of the current established FPS esports titles that don’t quite measure to the popularity and excitement that Counter-Strike has established.
Among these titles is the prominent new IP from Blizzard Entertainment called Overwatch: a class-based objective-driven FPS with 21 playable characters and three modes: ‘Capture Point (Assault), ‘King of the Hill’ (Control), ‘Escort’ and maps that are a hybrid where you attack/defend a point, then escort a payload.
Before open beta was even released, established esports organizations have already announced their Overwatch squads in preparation for this prosperous competitive title. Announced tournaments from ESL (at Gamescom), GosuGamers and Esports Arena are trying to be the frontrunners to push a flourishing esports scene. However, a mediocre spectator client and questionable map design choices may push the Overwatch esports scene to be as small as Team Fortress 2 instead of as big as Counter-Strike.
Team Liquid’s Overwatch squad are not the first team organization to get on-board with the game. Teams such as Cloud9 and EnvyUs are currently fielding teams and Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield 4 players are switching to Overwatch is hopes the scene prospers.
Overwatch is both fun to play, skillfully demanding and requires a good amount of communication to win. Impressively, traditional class-based designs from other games are combined with unique abilities that don’t typically work in a FPS environment, such as: Roadhog’s Chain Hook or Reinhardt’s melee-oriented attacks. Despite the limited amount of maps and modes, each game feels fresh as you approach a match differently with unique team compositions. At its core, Overwatch mostly achieves the first half of what makes a successful esports title: exciting to play. The other half, ‘exciting to watch’, has its issues. These are issues that aren’t new and have been something that’s been around in other games like Team Fortress 2, Battlefield and Call of Duty.
As the Overwatch competitive scene takes off, distinguishing ‘Skill depth’, avoiding ‘rhythmic strategies’, and accommodating the scene with more competent competitive maps/modes will be necessary for the scene to grow and the game’s public interest to continue to be renewed with new features.
Distinguishing Skill Depth
Skill depth is the demanded layers of a player’s ability to perform a character’s capabilities at varying levels of execution.
For example, in Team Fortress 2, you can maneuver as the Solider class at three distinct levels of execution:
- Traditional movement on the ground
- Rocket Jumping, like in Quake with the risk of self-damage
- Jurfing – where the user takes an increased amount of consecutive damage to rollout faster to a specific capture point
In a competitive environment, being able to rollout as the Soldier (or Demo) class is key to a good start in a competitive match for the team.
The skill depth in Overwatch is varied per class, but the biggest issue is the difficulty in distinguishing that skill as a spectator. Like Team Fortress 2, Overwatch suffers from the same quality that makes it so enjoyable to play: projectile chaos. Projectile chaos is what makes the game incredibly fun, frantic and fast-paced, but makes for a terrible spectator esport. This is emphasized in head-to-head confrontations on ‘Capture Point (Assault)’ and ‘King of the Hill (Control)’ maps where the control point is close quarters with little room to maneuver and even less room to see what is going on. Overwatch wants to use the first-person camera to display great skill, but have to somehow also meaningfully convey the skill in team-fighting abilities and big-battle engagements.
The lack of coherence in a player’s individual skill depth is an inherent issue in Overwatch. Ammo is not a problem, thus a player can attack more without risk – leading to a lot of action with little substance. Any key action that does occur, is often lost in the commotion of bombs, rockets and bullets. Especially true for ultimate abilities such as Genji or the attacks of Reinhardt which are melee-oriented and right in the thick of fights. Viewers have to rely on sound cues and the kill feed instead of the match itself. Overwatch’s inability to display skillful plays in an easy-to-interpret manner may lead to a dwindling viewership. The fact that Overwatch has no tools to help highlight unique team execution leaves little to appreciate during Overwatch matches.
What distinguishes Overwatch are its abilities and game-changing ultimates where characters are defined by what they offer to the team. However, these powerful abilities create a rhythmic playstyle that centers each match around these abilities, specifically the combination of the team’s ultimate abilities. Progression in matches end up being dictated by these ultimates rather than as a complimentary layer of skill depth. This is something competitive Team Fortress 2 relates to, but is limited to one class.
In Team Fortress 2, the importance of keeping your medic alive is the highest priority. Not only is the Medic the only support class in Team Fortress 2, but the class’ offensive capabilities are slim to none. However, the Medic has one “ultimate” ability where he can grant invulnerability or guaranteed critical damage. It is game changing and must be charged over time. Overwatch builds on that with ultimates that create great moments for the player to feel “overpowered”, but create huge comeback swings that can make games feel entirely dependent on it. For example, Mercy’s ultimate can resurrect entire teams and Lucio’s ultimate can block damage from the enemy’s team. The enemy team must account for that, so they may also withhold their ultimate or simply pull back to another chokepoint. This creates rhythmic strategies where entire games are dictated by ultimate abilities and the progress/pushback branching from them. Depending on the success of one team’s string of ultimates, the game may progress or stall. Players then focus on survival and dealing as much damage as possible instead of overcoming the enemy team, to continue charging their ultimates.
To add, some ultimates are clearly more team-contributing than others, emphasizing, almost to essentialness, the need for a Lucio or Mercy over other more situational supports like Symmetra or Zenyatta. This can continue to be a problem should the game release even more characters, diluting its intent for varied use of all characters. This is an issue in Team Fortress 2 as well, where classes that were not maneuverable or did not have the strongest area damage (like the Heavy, Spy or Pyro) were seldom used. Fortunately, the highlander mode (a 9 vs. 9 match-up where all 9 classes are played) is becoming more prominent, a flexibility Overwatch does not share. If Overwatch expands to even more heroes, the importance to include certain “core” heroes in team formations can push others down.
In Team Fortress 2, it is the attacker’s job to make use of the Medic’s invulnerability ‘ultimate’. In Overwatch, ultimates can compensate for a player’ ultimates partially mitigate player individual skill outside of short 30 second bursts.
Too Fast, Too Short, Too Much
At the moment, the best mode for competitive Overwatch is Escort. One of the reasons is that the other modes, Assault and Control, can be too swiftly concluded – removing any build-up. Assault maps such as Volskaya Industries offer up a lot of entryways for attackers to reach the first point, but make it too difficult for defensive line-ups to counter. Especially when the spawn areas are alternating in advantages, creating the intention for the defenders to eventually concede the first capture point, but heavily defend the last one with proximity to their now close spawn. However, the defender’s concession can lead to unsatisfying matches where attackers will snowball by capturing the first point and race to take the second point with their ultimates already charged and the defense squad either don’t have time to setup or simply already used their ultimates to previously defend the first point. At the highest levels of competitive play, these biases too heavily dictate the outcome of a match.
The attacker’s ability to reach the first capture point on Volskaya Industries is numerous. You can approach it from two different levels (upper/lower) and three cardinal directions (North, East, West). It is a challenge for the defensive team to both hold the main entrance choke and counter against heroes that slip by that first defense choke point. Should they lose, scrambling to defend their second point may prove more challenging than intended.
The appeal to the Escort mode, and hybrid maps that have an escort portion, is that there is a build-up and an evolution throughout the matches. Players are faced with different challenges depending at which point or area that cart has reached. From chokeholds to multi-paths of attack, these areas of conflict can create unique strategies that call for different heroes. Escort maps have momentum and progression which can create more engagements and thus a better display of individual skill. However, a singular mode is not ideal for a competitive game where the core adversarial dimension is the same: prevent the enemy team from escorting their cart. It can create feelings of repetitiveness for the viewer, this wouldn’t be as big of a problem if Overwatch’s map-pool for that one mode wasn’t as considerably small.
In the MOBA genre, there are enough characters and item choices to makes matches feel unique from one another. For FPS titles, a variation of maps and modes can alleviate the redundancy of using the same weapons. Overwatch has both a large cast and many maps/modes, but competitively, only takes advantage of less than half of both aspects. This core issue would likely be resolved as the game develops, as did many past competitive titles, for an esports scene to then emerge. However, since Overwatch has ramped up its competitive environment before the game was even released, a lot of its faults are being highlighted.
Overwatch is having an incredible launch with a strong and potentially long-term playerbase. While its competitive spirit is still young and new, the core issues inherent to the quality of the game from a competitive standpoint stick out like thorns. From a viewer’s standpoint, issues like visibility of skill or the feeling of rhythmic strategies can detract from being excited watching matches as much as playing. This is amplified when the mode/map-pool is limited and the essentialness for key heroes, due to their team-influencing ultimate abilities, creates a feeling of repetition for the viewers.
While nothing is final in terms of how the competitive scene will be shaped, it is not right to assume that the competitive scene will flourish as some expected Heroes of the Storm to be. The game is exciting to play, though it is not necessarily exciting to watch for the same reasons some of its predecessors faced. Although developer support is a step in a positive direction, if the community is not behind the idea, a competitive scene might be less than a possibility. For every community-inspired scene like the original StarCraft or Hearthstone, there are also opposites like World of Tanks and Shootmania. If Blizzard hopes to push Overwatch as a legitimate professional esports title, it will need to ensure its game design direction does not go the same way Team Fortress 2 did.