The Shifting Metagame of ‘Overwatch’

Adam Rorke
Games Xbox
Games Xbox Blizzard Overwatch Nintendo

While “meta” in most contexts is either a self-referential or higher-order word, in videogame land it refers to a game’s strategic trends over time.

Specifically it stands for Most Effective Tactics Available when referring to competitive gaming. What’s “most effective” is a complex balance between constant changes (new characters / balances) and how people actually play the game. Sometimes, a meta can change drastically without any input from the developers; players simply evolve how they play.

Over the years Overwatch has seen many meta shifts, and with BlizzCon 2019 on and the announcement of Overwatch 2, we take a quick look back at how this meta has evolved over time.

Battle of the Dives and Shields

One of the first accepted metas to appear in Overwatch was the Shield Meta. Players quickly figured out that with a static objective target, positioning was a key component to victory, and what better way to create the right angle or vantage point than with a double shield providing a safe “beachhead” of sorts. Whether it be advancing forward or bunkering down, Reinhardt’s massive shield combined with Zarya’s bubble became a very effective tactic across a wide range of maps.

With the team snuggly tucked away behind a barrier of protection, it was significantly easier to holy a position or create space. That was until people started utilising Winston, D.Va and a range of other characters that could cover a lot of ground really quickly, this gave birth to the Dive Meta. Needing a bit more timing and coordination with the team, this negated an opponent’s fixed position, rendering their nice little bunker less effective.

Reinhardt stands facing the camera.
Reinhardt's shield has been key to many Double Shield strategies.

It wasn’t uncommon for high level teams to switch between the two styles of play or even scout ahead at the start of a map to see if there were any counter picks they could throw in the mix to gain that slight advantage, this particularly was a popular method amongst professional teams. This initial meta proved popular because it allowed players to showcase their individual skill to stand out from the crowd. To beat these players you not only had to counterstrat, but you had to get better.

Later the Shield Meta would see a resurgence as more characters like Osira would be released with shield abilities, synergising with Reinhardt’s ol’ faithful. This is something Blizzard would proactively address with the release of Moira, whose abilities would pass through shields and be capable of hitting multiple enemies — intented to be a hard counter to the Shield Meta.

A League of GOATS

As the Overwatch esport scene grew, high competitive play was  commonplace, and as a result teams were investing in coaches and staff in an attempt to find any possible advantage they can get, no matter how small. Then during one season in the open division, a North American team called The GOATS hit pay dirt and created one of the most iconic and disruptive metas in Overwatch history.

GOATS would consist of three tanks (Reinhardt, D.Va, and Zarya) and three support (Zenyatta, Brigitte, and Lucio). The three beefy front line heroes with shields, barriers, and health was only made more powerful with the support backline constantly regenerating their hit points. A GOATS team would look to build their ultimate abilities and coordinate their attacks to perform massive team wipes and secure the objective, no matter what it was.

The Italian Overwatch team mid-game.
The Italian Overwatch team mid-game.

As is the case with many game-changing strategies, GOATS was so good that other teams found the only effective way to beat it was to mirror it entirely and attempt to simply do it better than their opponents.

Despite the fact that the team skill level to perform this well was extremely high, the community hated it. Many complaints were aired during both live matches as well as on the Overwatch forums. To quote a professional player – GOATS was fun to play, but boring to watch and the negativity from the player base reflected this. Blizzard knew it had to do something and in the final stages of the Overwatch League 2019, a massive change was made that would turn everything on its head.

Lock Time

The developers took action and introduced the 2-2-2 role lock. This meant that each team were forced to use two tanks, two damage, and two support roles… no exceptions! In most games, such a move is reserved for ladder play, meant to usher new players into a style of play that’ll benefit them, while competitive players are expected to know what’s best. But rather than change the design of the game, Blizzard opted to simply change the format.

A large crowd faces the stage at the Overwatch Pro League finals.
Overwatch not only has to be fun to play, but fun to watch.

Almost overnight, things nearly went full circle and shields and diving were popular again, although things had changed. Due to a range of new characters now available, Double Shield and Bunker were considered quite popular and were quickly dominating the Masters and Grand Master games.

Bunker usually involved an Orisa, Bastion, Mercy, and Baptitse. This allowed a team to bunker down with a very powerful machine gun in a space that was hard to penetrate. The Double Shield Meta would utilise Orisa and Sigma’s shield in tandem to plod their way forward or back. Dive had mixed success and there was definitely some criticism from the community at large, but most people agreed that it was at least better than GOATS.

Tracer salutes.
Still our favourite character.

Where Are We Now?

If the Grand Finals of the 2019 Overwatch league were anything to go by though, it would seem that people are already adjusting, and teams are back to counterpicking and outplaying their opponents. For the first time in a long while, characters like Pharah and Reaper are proving to be  just as effective as Bastion on attack!

As Overwatch continues forward, it’s safe to say that from a meta perspective, we’re in a pretty good place and although no one can predict the future, we’re fairly excited to see where it’s heading.

Adam Rorke
Freelance Writer, lover of all things esports and proud member of the Australian FGC. Games critic of the days when you could remember every sound your modem made when it made its connection to the internet.