Overwatch has a lot going for it. Interesting heroes, a great feel, beer—the list goes on. It’s crazy to think that this is Blizzard’s first FPS. It is, however, conspicuously lacking in one area. It’s called “tick rate,” and it has an impact on the game’s responsiveness.
What you’re seeing/doing and what the server in a game like Overwatch registers are not 100 percent in sync. The server’s receiving input after input from you and other people, and nothing’s instantaneous. The tick rate measures how often the server updates per second. Per Eurogamer, Overwatch’s tick rate is, by default, 20.8hz. Games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Battlefield 4, meanwhile, set theirs at around 60hz. In a game that often comes down to split-second reflexes, that makes a big difference.
You might not notice this initially, but I’ll give you an example from personal experience. Last night, I was playing as Reinhardt. My shield got busted, and I was being chased down by a D.Va and a Mercy. Smelling blood, they got sloppy going for the kill. They were right in my face. Pinning D.Va would be easy. I hit my charge button and made contact... only to suddenly die. In the replay, my charge never happened. No sound effect or anything. The server instead registered one of D.Va’s shots hitting me before my charge ever began. That handful of milliseconds—tossed carelessly into the void—cost me my life (and a chance to look like a Real Cool Guy to people I’ll never talk to again). I’m not entirely sure if general latency or tick rate was more to blame (probably both), but this is the sort of thing that can happen when the local client and server get too out of sync.
Players have alleged that Overwatch’s comparatively low tick rate is responsible for ample missed shots hitting, for clumsy snipers with spaghetti for hands being able to play Widowmaker and Hanzo like assassins. They might be overstating the effect (it takes a lot more than pure sniping to play Widowmaker and Hanzo well), but there is a measurable delay produced by Overwatch’s tick rate. Battle(non)sense measured it in a video that’s made round after round after round in the more competitively oriented portion of the Overwatch community.
The takeaway? “After 40 tests, the highest measured delay was 105 milliseconds,” he said, having compared shots fired between two PCs on separate Internet connections. “On average I measured 90 milliseconds, and 67 milliseconds was the lowest measured delay.”
In the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing. But again, when pure, adrenaline-fueled reflex is in the mix, even a tenth of a second can be significant. With a 60hz tick rate, there’d still be a delay, but it’d be up to 30 milliseconds less.
You can play Overwatch with a 60hz tick rate, but only in a custom game mode. In a video announcing the high tick rate mode, lead engineer Tim Ford confessed that it can help “a lot,” even if you’re dealing with latency that might arise from, say, playing with people in another country. It won’t solve your latency problems, he stressed, but it will have an impact.
In the same video, Blizzard explained their approach to projectiles and server latency, pointing out that they use a series of predictive server-side simulation methods that are correct “an overwhelming majority of the time.” “You don’t need to lead targets based on your lag,” said Ford. “You just need to lead targets based on the velocity of the projectile. That makes all these projectile weapons feel really tight and responsive.” These predictions tend to favor the shooter over the shootee. The goal is to mitigate some of the problems born of latency and, presumably, a lower tick rate.
I reached out to Blizzard to ask why 60hz isn’t Overwatch’s default tick rate for the whole game. Unfortunately, despite fan complaints ever since the beta and renewed focus on the issue now that the game’s out, I’ve yet to receive a response. Players asked about it in a Facebook Q&A, but didn’t get an answer there either. (Update 3:20 PM: A Blizzard rep told me part of the issue is that, “Our game netcode is very different from other multiplayer shooters.” More specific details incoming, hopefully.)
If nothing else, it’s good that there’s a custom mode option for higher tick rate games. Thing is, it’s not a lot. For casual players it might not be the biggest deal, but what happens when Overwatch’s competitive mode launches? The uncertainty that arises from a low tick rate could convince high-skill players to climb other mountains instead of risking a fall that’s not even their fault.
Beyond that, the situation is puzzling. Perhaps Blizzard wants to maintain a lower tick rate so that more casual players can occasionally pull off crazy shots. Overwatch is, after all, aimed at a wider audience than your traditional hardcore FPS. Or maybe Blizzard concluded that Overwatch’s particular set of characters and abilities wouldn’t benefit all that much from a higher tick rate, that it wasn’t worth the resources. Maybe they didn’t want to put too much strain on their servers. At this point, I can only speculate. Here’s hoping Blizzard breaks the silence sooner rather than later.