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/defence 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 not, at heart, 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 that 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. On top of that, 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 a ton 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 levelling 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 spoilsport.

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 have 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 fibre 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.


    I made someone unsalty last night by making them laugh. I've also seen teammates admonish another for swearing and going over the top.

    I've only played 3 competitive matches so far but all three have been pretty close, good fun, and there was no show of toxic behaviour from either team.

    Overwatch is not, at heart, a game designed for this kind of high-stakes competition
    This is exactly why I don't see it as the next big eSport. Overwatch is designed around making everyone feel like they're good at the game, so the end result is that the best players can only pull so far ahead in terms of skill and they're going to look like they're comparable to the average player.

      I don't know about this, there are some characters that have massively high skill ceilings and the differences between you/me vs a pro playing them is pretty insane.

      The most obvious characters that have this effect are Gengi, Widow and Pharah. You think you are doing well until you watch a stream and it legitimately will make you feel super down on how you played them.

        I definitely agree with Widow and Pharah, but at this point I've had to deal with so many good Genji players that I don't know if a pro would really stand out much.

        A good example of what I'm talking about with other characters is that Korean girl who was whomping people as Zarya. She was playing really well and did an amazing job, but it didn't really look that different from some random doing a decent job (other than less deaths, obviously :P ).

        It's easy to feel the difference between player skill in game, but watching it just lacked the spectacle of other esports.

          Have you ever watch much of seagull or any of the pro teams competing in the tournaments on twitch? There is some insane game play to be seen there I recommend checking out somtime

            I've only seen a scattering of other stuff, so I'll give them a look and see if it changes my mind :P

            No way, A_Seagull is a legendary TF2 pro. Always sad to see such a huge figure in the (sadly quite tiny) scene switch to Overwatch, but I guess Valve started supporting the comp. scene way too late for the likes of him to stick around.

          I think its true with a lot of the characters that dont have a lot of movement capability, but I think the "faster" ones become very easy to identify whether they are about to kick in teeth.

          You should give competitive TF2 a watch then, it's like a slower paced quake tournament. People have said TF2 was unsuitable for competitive play for years (I obviously disagree), but if high skill ceilings are what you want TF2 is right up there alongside CS:GO, but with a more colourful and interesting visual style that makes it a lot more fun to watch in my opinion.

          If you're interested in checking some comp TF2 out, this has to be one of the greatest plays I've ever seen: for setup it's Australia's only team (iM) up against America's 2nd team (mix^) at the i55 internation lan, the highest level of competitive TF2, loser is knocked out of the competition, the winner of this round takes the whole match. Both teams have Uber and iM are defending their last point, watch what happens to the ubercharges as measured in the top left and enjoy. https://youtu.be/KpDRCs78gqE?t=2564

    Its hard to see Overwatch as a competitve shooter in its current setup... Blizzard makes games that are broad spectrum to both casual and competitve players. And at its heart its a casual game, the hit boxes and netcode favours the shooter that the rate of headshots is way off when the hit box of an arrow can hit a person in the head while they are still in cover... this doesnt feel tuned to competition, its tuned for entertainment.

    Its funny to watch Hearthstone competition the best player results are not consistent cause the entertaining cards are the most random, the best game stratergies still require random draw of cards to complete synergy combos that can be shattered by a single top deck of an opponent... despite all that people still think and push it to be competitve because its popular. Will be interesting to see if overwatch is an esports juggernaut based on its competitive game mechanics or its player base popularity.

    I feel like this article shows a severe lack of understanding of competitive gaming.

    I agree Overwatch is poorly suited to high-level competitive play, but then again MOBAs are even worse in that regard, and they somehow became the most popular competitive games out there so...

    1. There's no reason the skill rating system should be primarily individualistic. For exactly the reason it's almost entirely dictated by wins and losses in CS:GO. Making it too individualistic encourages selfish play, as you point out. And in CS:GO whether you win or lose is mostly dictated by the other 4 players on your team if you solo queue, yes. Which is why teamwork and communication is important even in pub matches. People generally understand this in GO and once you're out of the lowest tier of ranks almost everyone on your team will have a microphone and use it. If that's not the case in Overwatch, that's a problem with the community, but not with the game from a design perspective. Your other option is to never solo queue into competitive and only play quick play unless you have a full team. For people actually interested in high-level play this is usually the best option.

    2. "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."

    Why is it unfair? And no, we don't know how this is going to end. Level tells you absolutely nothing about how good a player is. Players who have thousands upon thousands of hours of experience in team-based shooters will come in and be mopping the floor by the time they're level 3. People who don't or who have only played more casual shooters like CoD/Battlefield will still be getting destroyed by those people even if they're level 130 and have many more hours in Overwatch in particular.

    This seemed like a weird point to me for this article to bring up because the lack of any meaningful relationship between time played and skill is a well-known fact in the competitive shooter community and has been since forever.

    3. You talk about longer matches with less ZOMG NUMBERS ARE GOING UP!!!~!!!!!!! at the end as being out of line with Overwatch's design in the rest of the game. That's probably a fair point. OTOH serious competitive players tend to be less interested in seeing numbers get big and more interested in getting good at the game. Remember when games started to introduce weapon unlock systems and ranking systems and the competitive community collectively laughed at these stupid casual games adding a rank-grind in the name of letting the idiots who played them feel good about numbers getting bigger?

    For the most part the competitive community still feels that way.

    Which brings us to the core problem: The problem with the idea of coming up with a competitive mode that's suitable to Overwatch's spirit is that Overwatch's spirit is that of a casual game. Half of the characters have a Win button, for goodness sake. Frankly the only reason to include a ranked mode is that 'eSports' is all the rage right now and it will allow Blizzard to print more money. The fact that the game itself is built to appeal to a casual market is also a way for Blizzard to maximise their income. Going down the well-trodden path of what a competitive mode should be is the safe bet and Blizz are smart for following it. If they made competitive mode dumbed-down to fit better with the rest of the game, they'd have a harder time convincing people that OVERWATCH IS A SERIOUS BUSINESS ESPORT FOR HARDCORE PROGAMER LEETPWNERS. That would hurt their bottom line.

    In short; there's no way to make a competitive mode for Overwatch that actually makes sense. But Blizzard is doing the right thing for their sales.

    Last edited 04/07/16 1:46 pm

      i agree mostly with this...

      but all in all.. i prefer competitive mode than quickplay.. even in solo queueing..

      at least i don't get 3 ppl picking widowmakers straight off the bat.

    I've played about 35ish comp matches now and there has only been a couple of games where there's been some overly aggressive people. Now I only play in a team of 6 and thus typically get matched against a team of six, so believe it's lessened to an extent. Only times I have seen it have been during sudden death when we've won. Sudden death sucks as it currently stands so can sort of agree when people get annoyed by it. But all in all it's been pretty good, i think the Aussie servers are a lot better than the American servers too. The odd couple of times I've played on the American servers it has been a lot worse.

    I've played around 20 or so competitive matches (while dreaming of a golden Reinhardt hammer). I've met and played with people that were incredibly friendly and needed practically no communication to get the job done. Then I've met those that blame the whole team for mistakes or refuse to help balance the team by changing class. There is a greater sense of hostility in the player base here as everyone is most likely worried about their rank dropping. But as things have developed I've met a few friends playing competitive and since then our groups have been less hostile and more forgiving. Its probably a case of vocal minority over silent majority at times and its not like the season is going anywhere anytime soon, so hopefully we'll see competitive become a bit friendlier in general for those matched in random teams.

      I've only played about 10-12 competitive matches which is basically nothing but almost every game I have gotten into has had good communication and has been non hostile save one or two players who have been shut down by their team and the opposing team.

      I find the real toxicity is coming from QM where even though I am on point/flanking/healing or whatever I get hostile players telling me to git gud, delete my account or that I am he worst x they have ever seen.

      It's is water off a ducks back but seriously behaviour like this does bring the level of enjoyment down a whole lot.

      I enjoy all types of wins and losses and I try and learn from my mistakes and get better when we are getting stomped. Or try and work out a new flanking strat with a team with really solid defence or hell even try my hand at a character I haven't been terribly successful with in the past all for the sake of being better at the things I suck at. The last thing one should have to be criticised for is trying to improve.

      I am also one of those guys who will tell someone to learn some manners/sportsmanship when I see one of my team mates say gg ez or stomped.

      Short end of it is Blizzard need to address toxicity in the game before it turns into a LoL scenario. Because when every player is a sore loser or bad winner it makes the game less fun for absolutely everyone.

        What could blizz do to address toxicity? They can't stop people getting salty and toxic without cutting communication from the game like heathstone

          This is the tough point. Do you go nazi and risk losing a lot of your player base or do you go light handed and risk losing the other half. In competitive I think there is a solution of adding report player for poor conduct and if you get x amounts of reports you are prohibited from competing for a week and if you keep getting hem then you risk getting removed from the season.

          For just your normal QM is becomes much harder to do. Because what penalties are going to discourage that kind of behaviour? Do you simply remove voice/chat from that player and risk them trolling in other ways like Mei blocking everyone?

          Realistically I think they need to do like a dev think tank and get a good amount of feedback and work out a way that satisfies the majority of people.

          I personally liked the idea ages ago that bnet tags were going RealID but that proved very unpopular with the vast majority. But hey if people have their names out there then anonymity can no longer breed toxicity. But let's not open up that can of worms again... It leads to no where good.

        Yeah I agree that it definitely is a problem even in QM. I had someone calling me a 'noob' and a few other less than friendly names for getting potg by flanking his turret and taking out his defences. But in that case even his own team turned on him so I guess part of it would be finding a way to fix the attitudes of toxic players by everyone else trying to diffuse situations if they seem touchy.

    Sounds like the same MMR hell of HOTS where you can win 6 in a row and go up 2 ranks lose one and drop 1.5...

    Yeah, tis not perfect.
    Have not seen too much toxicity, opposite in fact.
    But damn do they need to fix the leaver system. Also even up the skill change from win/loosing.

    Hero stacking shouldn't be allowed. Two Lucios and four Zaryas? *Shakes head, rubs salt in eyes*

    I played 4 games last night. In the last game we had the most toxic player that I've met in OW.

    We were a competent team, playing against a very good team and were losing, not being smashed but losing all the same. He was going off his nut because "our healers were ******g useless" and because he had "3 gold medals". I'm almost 100% that you gold medals mean nothing if you can't coordinate with your team mates, attack and push as a team and adapt and change strategy to suit the current situation.

    Also your "gold" medal means nothing if its for the most deaths. Leaping into a group of 6, popping your shield and dying straight away. I don't know any support class that could heal you with that affair.

    Safe to say after he yelled, screamed and slandered us all, we all left the chat party, left the group and regroup'd without him. Promptly deleting him from our friends list. The toxicity is already there, it's already live.

    Completely agree. There should be a limit to 2 of the same heroes in competitive mode. Also 6 soldiers is a fucking nightmare when you are facing an ultimate every 15 seconds. Or 6 helix rockets all smashing your tank.

    I just don't get some people. In regular play it was bad enough when we had the selfish players, but for competitive play I have to wonder why the hell are they even playing in this mode. I expect everybody to be trying their hardest, instead I get a Tracer constantly zipping forward and getting one-shoted, refusing to switch to another hero. I see someone suddenly switching to Torbjorn and smacking their turret when a Reinhardt has been on the opposing team since the start of the match, then blame everybody else for not keeping up with him.

    I have no problem with losing, I love a very close, contested match even if I do lose. But I hate being in a team with selfish players, only concerned with improving their imaginary K/D ratio, who believe that their one strategy will work, even if it's failed every match until then.

    Not all of it is bad, some people are willing to switch up and make call outs. Last night I even played a game where I suggested the Mercy player switch to Zenyatta after I noticed they increased their tanks, soon I see Zenyatta on the field debuffing the Tanks.

      I have been lucky I guess every match I've been in bar 1 we have had amazing players who just get it. Really tight matches and very little fevered egos. I just got out of a game where I made a suggestion to double up on a pharah to time Ults and push back on the last point on Gibraltar and it ended up holding them off the point. Then our turn to push at the very end someone told me to Winston up, I did albeit very poorly but enough to put pressure on the opposition and let my team manoeuvre into a more favourable position and get the payload to the end.

      A lot of people don't realise this game is about being flexible to the situations you are presented. And that is amplified tenfold in competitive where losing has a lot more impact than QM.

      I have always found the most inflexible people to be the most toxic when it comes to this game. Can't figure out how to kill that tracer or genji? Don't worry just abuse them and make them feel bad at doing a great job. I guess most of these people are so dissatisfied with their own life that they need to take it out on someone without fear of reprisal.

      Wish I could get into games like that but so far on Xbox it's all been selfish people, AFKers, quitters, and non-talkers. My rating has dropped 5 points already as a result and I'm on the verge of just calling it quits altogether.

    I expected people in competitive play to at least use mics on PS4 a bit more. But I suppose they are probably all squaded up even thoigh that isnt overly helpful for the rest of us trying to communicate with them. I've only done the initial 10 rank matches but would have been nice to see a bit more infomation then just giant green ticks for a win and big nasty red X's for a loss. I hope blizzard intends to tweak it all quite a bit.

    Last edited 04/07/16 9:44 pm

    It's completely borked on Xbox right now. Hardly anyone ever chats in team chat so coordination is virtually impossible meaning most of the team goes off and does their own thing like they're still in Quick Play. If you're up against a team that's all chatting and coordinating, it's pretty much a guaranteed loss.

    People regularly go AFK and regularly quit games entirely (I've even seen some quit mid-match to go off and play GTA5 instead!) leaving the remaining team members facing an almost certain defeat which also results in your ranking going down.

    It's very frustrating to see your ranking drop because someone decided to go AFK or quit the match outright to go play something else. Your personal ranking should NOT drop because of things that are very much out of your control.

    Console players just aren't used to Competitive Play modes in games like this. Blizzard should have realised that from the start and made some concessions to make up for that (such as adding a new player when one quits, ensuring everyone is in team chat before a match starts, etc).

    And the matchmaking is completely borked too. Our full team of 6 rated 45 was somehow matched against a team rated over 70 (which counted among their number a level 345 McCree!). Needless to say it did not end well so of course we ended up with losses (we were actually matched up with them 4 times in a row!) and drop in ranking.

    It needs a major overhaul on consoles so as to better cater to the console player mindset.

    Broken hitboxes, 20 tickrate, unbalanced classes, very linear small maps, an "I win" button that can wipe an entire enemy team by pressing q. This isn't the same blizzard. Game wasn't ready to be released. But fanboys will be fanboys.

    Any person that's been playing fps games for years can see it's a running joke to say this is a competitive game.

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