Overwatch's Competitive Mode Is At Odds With The Rest Of The Game

Overwatch’s competitive mode has been in the wild for a few days now, and well, let’s just say that Blizzard should maybe consider changing their name. Related: what do you call a snowstorm, except it’s made entirely of salt?

I should preface this by saying that I don’t think Overwatch’s competitive mode is all that bad, for how new and unpolished it is. Some bugs in Skill Rating on certain maps (which have been remedied) aside, the system is functional. Based on wins, losses, the other team’s Skill Rating, and—ever so slightly—your personal performance, you gain points and slowly work your way into a skill bracket that, ideally, should match you against players of equal or slightly greater skill.


It’s not perfect. You will inevitably come up against people who are way better than you sometimes, and the leaver penalty system, which punishes the team the leaver was on nearly as much as the leaver themselves, can be incredibly frustrating. The coin flip for attack/defense during sudden death is not super great, and Blizzard is thankfully doing away with it next season. It’s also worth noting that ranking up is a slow, painstaking process while ranking down can happen after a loss or two. That doesn’t feel very good. Unsurprisingly, people on Overwatch’s forums and subreddit are salty as hell about all of these issues.

But I think the bigger problem might be that Overwatch is currently not a game designed for this kind of high-stakes competition. It’s a game about teamwork and situational adaptability rather than MLG no-scope-to-indie-nosebone skills with a single hero. It’s a game of good-natured fun with a community that’s wary of the toxicity competitive modes in other games engender. It’s a game that’s about the ecstasy of victory rather than the agony of defeat.

Overwatch has trained us to expect certain things that don’t gel with a traditional competitive mode. I’m not saying it can’t support a competitive mode. I think it can, and I hope it continues to! I just think competitive mode needs to evolve to be more in line with Overwatch’s identity as both a game and a community.


As is, Overwatch’s competitive mode uses the language of other competitive games to describe something different. That, I think, is why people are so mad about it. They’re expecting one thing and getting something else.

Let’s start from the top. The Skill Rating system is fundamentally individualistic, or at least, it seems like it should be. The number you get is yours, not your team’s. However, it’s still overwhelmingly dictated by team wins and losses, by the actions of wildcard players who, especially if you’re solo queuing, might be human dumpster creatures who don’t seem to understand that Overwatch is called Overwatch, not Reaper—THERE MUST ALWAYS BE A REAPER AND I WILL BE THAT REAPER UNTIL THE DAY I DIE—And Friends.


In the context of Overwatch’s design, it makes perfect sense to have rank dictated by team wins, losses, and the Skill Ratings of the opposing team’s members. Imagine if individual skill was a bigger deciding factor. Many players would abandon team cohesion and try to rack up kills or rush the objective. It’d be horrible, topsy turvy chaos, even more so than some matches are now. Cats kissing dogs, tanks ignoring their Mercys, Genjis—fearful and forlorn, but ever dutiful—pushing carts all by themselves.


In the heat of the moment, though, the current Skill Rating system isn’t super clearly explained, and it feels fundamentally unfair that shitty players get to have so much influence over your number.

Another thing that makes competitive mode feel at odds with the rest of the game: matchmaking is entirely dictated by Skill Rating rather than level. That makes sense in the long run, seeing as you can earn a high level in Overwatch simply by doing tons of quick play matches, while Skill Rating is about recent wins and losses in a competitive season. But Overwatch is still a young game, and right now coming up against a team of level 130s when you’re with a bunch of level 50s feels a smidge unfair. You might have the same Skill Rating, but come on, we all know how this is gonna end.


Competitive matches are also usually longer than regular Overwatch games. Again, it makes sense; you’re up against people of (theoretically) equal/greater skill who are (hopefully) using teamwork to fight their dang butts off and into tiny, butt-shaped graves. It’s gonna be a knockdown, drag-out battle. So let’s say you win a 40-minute match, only to find that your Skill Rating level bar barely budges. That’s fucking unsatisfying, partially on an intrinsic level, but mostly because Overwatch previously trained us to expect a) short matches and b) big rewards after those short matches. That’s the pace it was designed for.


Despite what some players want and expect, competitive mode is not meant to be a head-on bull rush to the top. Unlike in regular Overwatch, which is designed to make you feel like a winner no matter what with all its experience points and commendations and medals and loot boxes, losing in competitive mode carries consequences. You’re not gaining experience and leveling up slowly, doggedly over time. You’re either slowly becoming more skilled and moving up a couple precious brackets or losing and falling back down into a bracket that suits your relative skill level. Competitive mode is about consistency, not persistence.

I’m not saying Blizzard shouldn’t tweak the system to make it a little less of a bummer, but upping the stakes also means upping the potential for frequent disappointment. That’s just the nature of the beast.


Similarly, high-stakes competition and toxicity tend to go hand-in-hand, and Overwatch’s competitive mode already has an ugly toxic stain. Don’t get me wrong: Overwatch is absolutely not bereft of toxic players even in quick play, but it’s a game whose developer and community have at least tried to avoid the pitfalls of other online gaming communities. It’s a game about having fun and being a team player, one that thrives when players feel unafraid to experiment with heroes and strategies. That spirit pervades much of the game, and it shows in the way tense situations unfold. Generally, when somebody goes Full Shitlord, other players are like, “Chill. It’s not actually that big of a deal” or “Hey, losing isn’t the end of the world, especially if you gave it your all for your team.”


In competitive mode, it is a big deal, and I’ve already watched/listened to some players absolutely go for the throat after matches gone awry. Insults, threats, slurs—you name it. Apparently I’m not alone. To the victor goes the spoils. To the loser goes the spoilsports.

Blizzard’s gonna have to police this stuff harder than any company before them if they want to hold on to what makes Overwatch’s community special. They’ve got an uphill battle ahead of them. There’s a tendency for multiplayer game communities to consider competitive the Real mode, while quick play is for scrubs. I worry about what will happen to Overwatch if that mentality takes hold with competitive in its current state. If Blizzard allows all this sewage to seep into the fiber of Overwatch’s identity, it’s gonna be an ugly scene.


Overwatch is, most of the time, a feel-good team game. Introducing high-stakes competition with a muddled message about the importance of individual skill drags the game into confused, oftentimes negative territory. If Blizzard wants this thing to work, they’re gonna have to figure out a competitive framework that’s true to Overwatch’s spirit, rather than just the spirit of competition.

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About the author

Nathan Grayson

Kotaku reporter. Beats: Twitch, PC gaming, Overwatch.