A gloom has descended on Overwatch’s competitive mode. For over a month, players have reported joylessly grinding through Season 5 to redeem their former competitive rankings, a result of publisher Blizzard artificially depleting them. The community’s reaction, which ranges from sorrow to toxicity, has been depressing to watch, but more depressing to participate in.
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There’s a reason why so many of us at Kotaku are obsessed with Overwatch. Those of us who play are enamored of its players at their best, a capable, lubricated machine in which each part supports and empowers its neighbor. But to be a masterful player, machine-like gameplay is not as important as working together. The beauty of Overwatch is the coming-together of six human strangers, all with the goal of coordinating and executing something very difficult within a short period of time. And sometimes, achieving that something—moving the payload or capturing the point—means sacrificing your kill-death ratio or gold medals. It can mean choosing a supporting hero so a better teammate can carry or picking a shield-bearing tank to protect your more feeble damage-doers. Overwatch is a game about how empathy and compromise win out. Real life has no parallel.
A cloud of toxicity is passing over Overwatch’s competitive mode right now, obscuring what makes the game great. Play a lot of Overwatch and it’s impossible not to notice: People are being cruel in chat, mocking Blizzard’s ineffective reporting system and rage-quitting matches (all of which Blizzard says they’re working on). In part, that toxicity is due to perceived flaws in the way competitive mode works. Players are acting nastier because they feel hopeless, struggling to regain their lost skill rating, which has made playing Overwatch collaboratively even more challenging.
Competitive mode’s skill ratings (SR) go up when you win games and play well during them. Overwatch is always making predictions about how well you’ll play compared to an enemy team and to your chosen hero’s average stats. If you exceed expectations, you’ll get a bonus. For example, compared to your team, you might do the most damage as the hero Pharah (and win a gold medal for it), but not much better than the average Pharah in your skill tier, so you won’t get rewarded the most possible, even if you win. Your SR will help the game’s matchmaking algorithms sort out your teammates. The better your SR, the better people you’ll play with. So it’s a meaningful number.
In early June, I noticed that Overwatch’s Battle.net forums were saltier than usual. After Season 5 launched, players flocked to the forums complaining—as they do—that their lower rankings were totally unfair. Hundreds protested that, last season, they placed in, say, low gold, and after winning the majority of their placement matches (with gold medals to boot), their SR clocked out in the low-silver range. It was a disgrace to the effort they’d put into the game, they said.
At first, seeing these posts, my impulse was to laugh. Of course a first-person shooter’s forum community is adamant that they’re better than they are.
Then I did my placement matches. Wow. After a high-spirited four hours of victories, weighed down by only three losses, my SR meter stopped climbing far earlier than I had expected. I confess I was furious. Starting from Season 3, we had known that Overwatch would place players in a lower tier. But after grinding so much the last few seasons, and competing in an accurate tier with well-matched peers, my new ranking felt like an insult to my efforts. So last month, I reached out to Blizzard, whose PR people set me up on a phone call with Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer. Mercer confirmed that Overwatch now ranks players about 200 or 300 SR lower than their “actual” play grade. “We do that to give you a sense that you are improving over time,” he said, since victories would initially grant more SR than usual. Players could earn back their lost SR after about 50 games.
I’m about that many games in now and I can just nearly kiss the SR I had last season. There are a lot of factors: I solo-queue a lot, so I can get stuck with crummy teammates who won’t switch heroes; I play popular (and much-requested) heroes who can receive less SR than others for wins; about a quarter of the time, I’m stuck with a toxic teammate who makes me upset; and, of course, I’m not always a great player. What I want to focus on, though, is the toxicity. Because in my experience, this season of Overwatch is the most toxic yet.
For people who care about SR, that number is a measure of worth, just like weight, grade-point average or salary. This season, players I’ve encountered in real life have confessed their SR in hushed, embarrassed whispers or as part of angry tirades against Blizzard as a company. Competitive mode regulars I encounter in-game are, quite often, sad, begging every new team to usher them into a higher tier. This pressure to perform makes losses all the more painful, wins all the more coveted and players all the more sensitive. And some, in their desire to redeem themselves, act outrageously by rage-quitting or insulting teammates. That, paired with Overwatch’s opaque, and toothless reporting system, has made toxicity a nightmare recently.
Yesterday, Overwatch YouTube channel Your Overwatch interviewed Jake Lyon, a professional offense player for the USA’s national team, in a video that’s been making its way around the community. In the video, Lyon explains what he thinks is wrong with Overwatch’s SR system: “Right now, if you’re playing and you’re getting great stats, the system’s saying, ‘Good job. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ But in an esports context, they couldn’t be less relevant. No one cares what your damage is in an esports context. Are you out of position and dying at a key time and losing your team the point?” Lyon goes on to say that what makes a good Overwatch player—and wins games—is teamthink, which encapsulates empathy, strategy and attentiveness to others.
“These things [gold medals] can never measure your decision-making, your choice of when to switch heroes,” Lyon said. “And these things can be just as—if not more—impactful to actually winning games than having a high accuracy. Any system that’s gonna prioritize statistics is a system that’s gonna miss the whole story. . . I think at the end of the day, that’s a really frustrating feeling for some players—when their teammates aren’t playing to win, but rather to maximize their statistics. It doesn’t feel very rewarding when these players are in this individualistic mindset: ‘Well, it’s fine, because as long as I do a ton of damage, I won’t lose too much SR.’”
There isn’t a stat for teamthink. There are gold medals for damage, eliminations, healing, objective time and objective kills, but there are no medals for empathy or team strategy. And as long as gold medals are how Overwatch rewards personal performance, players will pursue them at the expense of the less quantifiable skills that actually do pave the road to wins and, maybe, SR redemption (and will lead to less toxicity for everyone).
Your Overwatch’s video resonated with players on Battle.net who had been wading through endless sad posts about competitive mode. “This forum is depressing,” an Overwatch player wrote there last week. “Is there anyone that is actually happy to be playing this game?” Another replied that they really do love Overwatch, which is what makes playing it now, with its recent toxicity, so frustrating. But on “one of the days I was tilting really badly and feeling like the world was mowing me down,” they wrote, they looked up their stats on OverSumo, an app that scrapes competitive data. “On days I’m chill and focused I am performing anywhere between a Diamond and GM level on my good char[acter]s. But on the bad day, I was barely doing silver on Mercy because I was tilted. It makes you really realize how much attitude can affect you.”
Players who feel enslaved to their former competitive tiers, grinding out gold medals in hopes of feeling less crappy, can fall victim to the sort of depression and, often, toxicity that’s been haunting the community. The only thing that can pull players out of this mass gloom is being good to each other.