Earlier this week, publisher Blizzard instituted a new rule of law in the game’s competitive mode: Teams shall be comprised of two tanks, two supports and two damage-dealers, and each role shall be ranked separately. It’s a rule I long-hoped Overwatch would implement, and right now, it is breathing new life into the game. Even tearing myself away from the game long enough to report back to Kotaku readers was difficult. Say what you will about new heroes making the game worse or the slowed-down drip feed of new hero costumes, but with its last update, Overwatch has self-actualized into the best version of itself yet.
Role lock was never uncontroversial. Overwatch’s game director told Kotaku in 2018 that he was concerned role-locking could “hurt the spirit of the game,” although he admitted that he does “think people know what role they want to play before they play.” Gamer tears spelling out “I bought the game; I’ll play it how I want” have flooded Overwatch’s competitive mode for the past three years, justifying some players’ decisions to choose a fourth damage-dealing hero even when nobody had yet chosen a healer. Fans of Overwatch’s esports league pressured teammates in lower skill rungs to emulate popular pro play compositions—like three tanks and three supports—without summoning the same level of coordination and accuracy.
A lot of the time, the most stressful couple seconds of a match were between queueing up for it and the game starting. All of this in the name of freedom or self-expression or something.
I have queued up for twenty or so competitive games since the feature’s beta launch—it is coming to Quick Play September 1, too—and each time, I felt a great calm knowing not only that there were two support heroes on my team, but also that there were two players who had queued up for the game intending to play support. (Although, admittedly, the queue for damage-dealers was much longer than for tanks and supports, which could have led some to switch to playing a healer.) Still, in this new system, no one was bullying anyone else to switch off their favorite hero, Hanzo, and onto Mercy, whom they’d only placed twice. Composition balance arguments were something I’d come to expect in Overwatch since its launch, but as of earlier this week, that argument that was blissfully absent from 100 percent of my matches. The most demanding anybody got was asking for a shield or a hitscan hero to counter some specific enemy hero.
Mandating a two damage-dealer, two tank and two support composition might only feel radical if you’re part of the problem: that is to say, if you’re an uncooperative teammate (an oxymoron if you really think about it). There’s a reason why pros have been asking for this for months in the Overwatch League. Tank heroes absorb damage for the team and shape the contours of battle. Damage-dealers pave the way forward for tanks and protect support heroes. Support heroes keep everyone alive from the backlines. Galaxy brain the game as much as you want, but at its core, and especially for the average player, this is how a team-based hero shooter should work. And if you were ever in doubt, Blizzard has said as much with its recent update.
Alongside the role-queue feature, Overwatch also introduced separate competitive mode skill ratings for each individual role. It’s unlikely that players who “fill”—or, play whatever role they deem necessary to complete a composition—can perform all three roles at the same skill level. So players now play five games per role to determine at what competitive level they perform in that role. After this week’s patch, I felt strongly that, for the most part, players were performing their roles on par with how I performed in mine. (Except for the literal child I encountered who was playing on his older brother’s account.) The only major frustration I did encounter was that, if someone wasn’t putting in the work, I couldn’t trade roles with them.
Like a surprise bucket of cold water on a hot day, comparing numerical representations of my skill difference between tank and damage-dealer was refreshing and extremely rude. I placed higher in the tank role—my main role—than I had ended the last competitive season, which included all roles. Yet I placed lower in damage-dealer role, even though I was pretty sure I was killing it. After emptying a tablespoon of salt on my keyboard about how many gold medals I’d earned or whatever, I actually started to self-examine. Overwatch had graced me with the information to discern a weakness. After a couple of minutes, I got over feeling demoralized and began to practice my McCree and Reaper more.
When Overwatch launched, it allowed players to pick the same hero as many times as they wanted. Sometimes, a team would consist of six Bastions. Now, thinking back, that was nuts. In some years’ time, if Overwatch remains popular, we might think the same of the time before role queue.