It's possible to hit rank zero in Overwatch's competitive mode. Dale "Bacontotem" Brown knows. He's done it. There's a caveat, though: it takes a hell of a lot of work.
Overwatch's first competitive season's skill rating system graded people on wins/losses and their personal performance. Each player received a number somewhere between 1 and 100. Most players ended up between 40-50, the middle of the pack. Of course, nobody was content with their ranking. People always aimed higher, clutched at pearls of arbitrary numerical greatness. Well, almost everybody.
Dale "Bacontotem" Brown and a handful of others scattered across the world wanted to see the other side of the coin. They aspired, hoped, and dreamed of ... hitting rock bottom. Even if that meant pissing off a whole lot of people.
"After I got my ranking points," Brown told me in an interview, "it dawned on me one day: your average medium-skill person's probably going to be trying to show off, get started on Twitch, and everybody's going to be following all the high level players because there's just going to be a natural audience for them. I got curious: what's going on down at the bottom? I'm sitting there thinking, 'I'm not that great at these FPSes. Let's go see how bad it gets.'"
So began the journey. Brown decided to focus on Hanzo, mostly because he wanted to troll people who pick him to sate their dragon fetish and not, you know, to help the team in any meaningful way. Then, by losing match after match, he fell. He decided to document the whole process by way of streams and posts on Something Awful's forum. Naturally, patterns emerged.
"What I found was that the people in the 40s were much more willing to try and still work together because these are probably people like me who are winning some but losing more," Brown said. "Then when I got into the 30s, I was starting to see people who still have vague hope."
Overwatch's season one skill rating system was never intended to be a straightforward progression. Through hard work and diligence, you could slowly, painstakingly gain a fraction of a rank, but if you lost even a couple times in a row, you'd almost certainly take a nasty spill down the skill rating ladder. Ultimately, the system was meant to balance out. You were supposed to move up and down within a general ballpark of numbers. Blizzard didn't do a super great job of making that apparent, though. As Brown observed, that led to players with chips on their shoulders and burning mounds of salt in their hearts.
"In the mid-30s, I met the angriest people in the world," Brown said. "It's somewhere in that mid-30s and upper 20s [area], these are just the angriest people in the world. They think they should be doing better and they're really not good enough, or these are just people stuck on really bad streaks."
One of those extremely angry people accidentally turned Brown's Hanzo from a curiosity to a full-blown meme. "Some dude badly spelled Hanzo [in the in-game chat box] and just kept screaming, 'No Hanjo, Hanjo change please,'" Brown told me. "By the end of it he was even yelling at me over voice chat, 'HANZO CHANGE YOU FUCKING BASTARD.'"
Thus, Hanjo was born. Any time people asked Brown to switch characters, or even when they made less confrontational queries, for instance about his preposterously low rank, he'd reply with a simple phrase: "i hanjo."
How low can you go?
Overwatch's competitive mode season one skill rating system was designed to match players in ways that were, well, competitive. Obviously, that created a skill ceiling, but Brown discovered that it also created a skill floor.
"I bottomed out at about 18," Brown explained, "where I could still pick Hanzo and my teams would just legitimately lose either via me being a bad character or by everyone else being self-devouring because they were angry that I refused to switch characters."
At that point, Brown hit a wall. "There's so few players down there that I kept getting the underdog [skill rating] bonus, " he said. "I'd be with some mid-20s verses other mid-20s, but because of the underdog bonus, if I won I'd gain a whole three-quarters to a one-and-half ranks per win."
During Overwatch season one, it wasn't uncommon to hear players complaining that a win would get them hardly any skill rating, but a loss could force them down a whole rank or more. Brown chuckled as he told me that he'd essentially become the opposite.
All the while, Brown says he came up against players who shared precisely two qualities: they were astonishingly bad, and — because they were playing competitive — they were astonishingly serious about it. They'd curse and spit and yell about that motherfucking Hanzo, even though they — not Hanzo — were the authors of their own demise (and ranking).
"They are at the bottom of the barrel and are in complete denial about it," said Brown. "I started seeing things like matches where Pharahs didn't know how to fly, Junkrats who shoot themselves with their own grenades, and Meis who don't know how to fire. Every single Widowmaker makes me feel like I'm the best sniper in the world."
To keep his losing streak alive, Brown began handicapping himself as much as he possibly could. "I was at the point where I was sabotaging myself so hard," he said. "I was on PC playing at a lower resolution, at a 30 frames-per-second cap, and on a console controller with all the settings shifted down to the absolute minimum so that my response time would be super low and horrible."
But even that wasn't always enough. So Brown enlisted help. He kept an eye on people in other parts of the world who were clearing trying to tank their ranks, and he also helped other Something Awful members bring theirs down to his level. "That's like my whole Battle.net friends list now," Brown said. "If Blizzard wanted to get rid of all of us, they would pretty much just look at my list."
Naturally, he met some Characters.
"One of the guys who beat me to rank one is on my friends list," said Brown. "His name is WorstReaperNA. He started about two weeks before I did on his descent, and he is much, much more hostile. He's even telling teams, 'I'm literally the worst Reaper and I beat you. What's going on?' I've accepted him as this dude who is role-playing as Reaper, only he's literally the worst Reaper. He's canonical, as far as I'm concerned!"
Not everybody in Brown's suicide squad is a dick, though. There's a quiet guy from Brazil who just plays. There's a Korean guy as well, and he also doesn't say a word as he stalwartly clings to his skill rating of one.
There are others, though, who are more in line with Brown's own sensibilities. "[Two of my friends] are part of our trademark naming scheme. Widowmaker is now Window Maker, and Tracer is Tracker."
It took months, but Brown ultimately pushed his skill rating down to one — and then below it. Blizzard, clearly, had not prepared for such a dogged pursuit of failure. Instead of granting him a shiny new rank, the game just reset his progress at rank one.
Brown made other discoveries about how the system fell apart at low levels, too. For instance, he'd often get matched with significantly higher ranked players because there were so few people populating ranks 1-10, but those people wouldn't get jack for their troubles. "Underdog protection is so extreme in some of these matches that people are only getting like 5 XP for a 20 minute match," he told me.
Other players, meanwhile, took to accusing Brown of being a booster — that is, somebody who tanks their rank and groups with friends so that those friends, even if they're ranked 50 or 60, can play against people in the 20s and 30s and reap the skill rating rewards of a "great" performance.
Despite other people's rage (and the fact that he truly hit the absolute bottom of the skill rating system), Brown said he never stopped having fun finding new and unique ways to lose.
"You can do the strangest gimmicks and see what you can getaway with," he told me. "For me it's all about seeing how hard can we push the enemy team and still lose the match. How close can we push that little dial going around to victory and still let it go at the last minute, to make it look like we're not trying to lose it?"
"I think it was last Tuesday I accidentally won a match, and so we had to spend another eight hours grinding back down to rank one," he added.
Blizzard's made some serious changes to the skill rating system for competitive mode season two (which kicks off at the start of September), things that will hopefully clear up practices like boosting. Despite big differences like a 1-5000 skill rating system, tiers, and the inability to group with people far outside your skill rating, Brown says he does, in fact, plan to continue Hanjo-ing his way to the bottom in season two.
"A tthe very least, I'm gonna do season two, and I may or may not do a season three," Brown said, adding that if season three kicks off around Christmas, he'll be too busy at work to put enough time into Overwatch shenanigans. "This is assuming I don't get banned in the process, because I guarantee I'm getting at least reported at least once a match."
Given that his circumstance is pretty crazy, I asked Brown if he thinks Blizzard is aware of him. "I have made myself known to Blizzard," he replied. "The night I hit rank one, I tweeted them the screen cap of it. Other people replied to my tweet, and 80 per cent of them were, 'This guy should be banned.' I'm fine with that. Most people are not going to get the Hanzo joke. If you got matched against my Hanzo, you did something wrong."
If nothing else, Brown and his friends haven't been banned yet. That's a good sign. Irate foes have asked Brown if he hopes to gain some form of tangible in-game reward for his troubles, but that's not it either. He wouldn't mind an "I Hanjo" voice line for shits and giggles, but it's not a make-or-break part of his plan, which he describes as a "bad player safari."
"I'm already at my end game," he said. "I'm enjoying my end game. I'm watching people go, 'Oh shit, it's Hanjo. I'm bad at this game.'"
"People are pissed," Brown added. "I wish more people would embrace the 'I Hanjo' way of thinking. A victory comes from enjoying the match, not winning or losing. Whatever little text pops on your screen, it doesn't matter. It matters that you had fun doing it."