Overwatch Competitive Play is the largest change Blizzard has made to their massively popular first-person shooter since its May release. The stated goal of this addition has been to create a game mode with a more intense tempo for hardcore Overwatch gamers. Serious players can hone their skills in tight battles against players of equal measure and slowly gain ranks. Unfortunately, Competitive Play has been a controversial addition. Some have taken “Competitive” to mean “we can be as awful as we want because now winning is serious business,” and harassment and toxicity are worse than ever.
However, as myriad as the problems of the Competitive mode are, there are real positives. Some players are toxic yes, but the majority can be trusted to be effective players. In Quick Play randomly assorted teams can struggle to pull together effective compositions. This does not seem to be a problem in Competitive. Everybody knows to keep the team balanced and to switch if their current character is not working. Competitive Play matches players by skill, so matches become razor thin close calls. They can be forty minute epics of shifting momentum and changing strategies. It really can be the best gameplay Overwatch can offer.
So why does it bring out the worst of its players? What is feeding the trolls?
Change in Tone
The beauty of Overwatch so far has been its friendliness towards players. The Quick Play and Weekly Brawls both avoid any explicit rankings of a player. Levels are as meaningless as the points on Who’s Line is it Anyway?. All they say is how long you’ve been playing, not how good you are. Overwatch has been designed to only point out the positives of a player’s game, not the negatives. However, the Skill Rankings in Competitive Play are explicit statements about your worth as a player. When you are Rank 47 (like me), it is clear proof that you are below average.
Individual ranks are a curious choice for a game that is not driven by individual play. Overwatch is a team sport. A fantastic Tracer can tear up the enemy team’s backline, destroying Torbjörn’s turrets before they are finished building, harassing Widowmaker before she can snipe, and assassinating healers. But if the other players are not pushing forward, the best Tracer player in the world has as much chance of winning as the worst Tracer player in the world. This is why characters like Mercy, who are almost useless on their own, are made helpless by a bad team and suffer in the ranks.
Toxicity seems like a natural result of a game whose attitude is at odds with itself. This change in tone is jarring. “Yeah, you kind of suck at this,” says Overwatch suddenly, after hours and hours of positive reinforcement in every other mode. Competitive Play still does not use typical FPS rankings or K/D ratios, so at the end of any match, win or lose, Overwatch still only talks about positive achievements. Players cannot see how they individually failed the team. Instead, the game gives them every reason to think with their pile of medals and Play of the Games that they were stabbed in the back by a weak team.
Ranking is Opaque and Often Unfair
The goal of Overwatch Competitive Play is to rise in Rank and gain Competitive Points. To keep things even, higher skilled players should be placed in matches with higher skilled players. Lower skilled players can play lower skilled players so that they have a fair shot of winning matches. If ranking worked, it would be a great system keeping matches even. Competitive mode wants to avoid total blow-outs that often occur in Quick Play. These should be tough, exhausting, but exciting matches. That has not always been the case. Blowouts still happen. Ranked matchmaking sometimes fails to pair even teams.
Winning makes your ranks go up and losing makes your ranks go down. That works and makes sense. But otherwise, the system has flaws. Players gain very little EXP if anybody leaves the match. If somebody leaves on your side, you are virtually guaranteed a loss and still take a full rank hit for something that is not your fault. Players also gain less EXP if Overwatch thinks their opponents are “underdogs.” This applies even if the “underdog” team is an average rank 47 playing an average rank 46. The difference in skill level there is completely negligible. Plus there are in-game glitches: Control Maps at first gave far less EXP than other modes.
It is hardly encouraging when a glorious match where your team came back from a two-loss deficit in Nepal to win results in you barely going up a quarter of a Rank. Then one loss on Sudden Death at Hollywood takes away a full Rank. A lot of Overwatch’s Competitive ranking seems based on some esoteric concept of how “well” a player is doing versus wins or losses. That qualitative judgment is right now mostly a mystery. This does not seem to have anything to do with the medals a player receives, their number of kills, Play of the Game, or any metric the game gives to the player to determine how well they have done. There is evidence that it is biased against Healers, who do not get many kills, but are still the backbones of many teams.
It is simply unclear as to what Overwatch Competitive mode wants. As a result, it might be creating bad incentives for the player base. If Healers are being undervalued, why play a Healer? How does Overwatch positively reinforce good team play?
Leavers Ruin Everything for Everybody
Players who leave Overwatch competitive matches while they’re live are creating a complete mess. Competitive Play is built so that only twelve players may take part in a match. No automatic replacements come in as they do in Quick Play, so any person that leaves a match instantly ruins it. Matches can fail to start or be instantly annulled if a player drops out within two minutes, turning the whole thing into a waste of everybody’s time. But it is even worse if a player rage quits after the first two minutes, forcing everybody to play a lopsided match. Either team that wins also takes a huge EXP penalty. Blizzard is working on removing that penalty, but many players are still reporting it.
Worse, Overwatch just seems unprepared for a player to leave a match. It has no backup plan. A 5 vs. 6 match is instantly unbalanced and unfair. It usually devolves into an entire team surrendering by leaving. At least if new people were subbing in some kind of somewhat even Overwatch could be played. The game does not even incentivize staying. Undermanned teams do not get more EXP for winning, they take the same EXP hit as everybody else. Leaving is such a complete disaster to a match it naturally feeds negativity and bitterness. If you play too well, land too many missiles as Pharah, the other players leave and suddenly you’re losing rank instead of gaining it.
Blizzard has stated that eventually players who chronically leave matches will be banned from Overwatch Competitive play. This does not seem to have happened just yet, as players continue to abandon matches left and right. Overwatch is plagued with rage quitters. Players troll others by quitting just before certain losses to damage their EXP boon. Or they just leave matches to be awful. Right now it might even be to a player’s benefit to just stick to Quick Play for another week until the trolls are finally banned. Obviously some people just have internet problems, but the length of Competitive Matches make it more likely that they will at some point somebody will be disconnected.
An action as simple as leaving a match should not be so utterly crippling as it is now.
There’s Still Hope
Overwatch is still one of the best shooters on the market today. Much of that comes from its community. They have actually been great sports in spite of the difficulties in Competitive Play. The bullies, leavers, and the jerks who proclaim they are “carrying the team” on their mics have been the exception. Most players just want a good game and come to play the best they can. Players have been very patient with Blizzard throughout the Competitive Play growing pains, pointing out the issues constructively on the subreddit and other forums. The honeymoon period of Overwatch has thankfully not ended. This community still supports each other.
Already Blizzard is listening to fan feedback. The Sudden Death Coin Flip mechanic is not going to survive this season. Control Maps finally give the proper amount of EXP. Players who disconnect and rejoin matches can actually win matches. Hopefully soon the bias against Healers can get solved as well. Right now we are playing what Blizzard calls “Season 1” of Competitive Play, with new seasons and rules to follow. It is hard to shake the feeling that Season 1 is actually a paid Beta for better modes to come. Things are going to get better… eventually.
Just try not to get too salty in the meantime. Please, try not to be horrible to each other.