Snipers have a bad reputation: The class is infamous for standing back and picking off kills, all without contributing to the match objective. In Overwatch, that sniper stigma means that players consider heroes like Widowmaker and Hanzo to be nonviable competitively. For some players, straying from that norm often turns ugly.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
For weeks now, I've been hearing stories from people who say that picking Widowmaker in Overwatch matches opens them up to harassment from teammates, even if they're just playing for funsies. I've had people complain to me about the constant insults and slurs that they get for picking Widowmaker, and one reader even admitted that they can't see Widowmaker on attack without immediately messaging that player to urge them to switch characters. Social etiquette has emboldened Overwatch players to constantly monitor and micromanage heroes picked by the friendly team, and the experience can be awful for everyone involved.
One player, Jean Fauquenot, is constantly battling against the negative perception that his go-to character picks are destructive for his team. The current accepted meta is the "triple tank" strategy, where heroes like Reinhardt and Ana are popular selections, whereas snipers like Hanzo and Widowmaker are never used by pro players during tournaments -- a preference that filters down and influences what people expect to see within normal Overwatch matches. If you're not picking the predetermined "good" characters who historically win matches, it is easy for your teammates to blame you for sabotaging the efforts of your team.
According to stat-tracking website Overbuff, Widowmaker is Fauquenot's most-played hero, though he notes that he does switch to characters like Mei if he feels that the enemy team counters him effectively enough. With that strategy, Fauquenot currently has a 45 per cent win rate -- which is average. During the latest competitive season, Fauquenot has gotten close to "Master" rank on PC. Along the way, Fauquenot has gotten chat banned by teammates five separate times over the last year, and he claims the disagreements all stem from his hero picks, rather than actual toxic discussions.
Within Overwatch, all players have the ability to report one another using a set menu of choices:
If enough players report the same person, Overwatch will automatically punish the perpetrator, regardless of merit. It is a system that places the burden of judgement on Overwatch players, who are free to interpret infractions however they see fit. As you'll note above, the very first option is "abusive chat", and annoyed players will often select that off-the-bat, regardless of what the actual problem is. Chat banned players, as the name implies, lose the ability to speak during matches, and with each chat ban "strike", the length of the ban doubles from 24 hours, to 48 hours and so on. The entire thing seems counterproductive in encouraging a teammate to switch characters -- coordinating with your team requires communication, after all.
"Any pick of Bastion, Junkrat, Symmetra, Hanzo, Torjborn, Pharah, Widowmaker, Mercy, Sombra is considered a 'troll pick',"Fauquenot said. "I don't like that. I don't like that at all."
Overwatch is heavily marketed as a game that requires hero switching depending on the needs of your team. Players expect flexibility, and Blizzard encourages people to change things up as needed. The reality of Overwatch is a bit more complicated than that, of course.
People have preferences, characters that they're more comfortable with than others. Sometimes, common sense will tell you that your team "needs" a particular hero to attack or defend efficiently, but that may not align with your actual skill. Is it worth switching into a hero you're shitty with, rather than sticking with someone you're guaranteed to do work with? How do you know that the player screaming in your ear that the roster needs to be changed up isn't just lashing out, doling out blame blindly? Even if that person is right, if they're being nasty to you, do you give them the satisfaction of listening to them? If you're proficient in all the heroes, where does your personal enjoyment of the game fit in? To what degree do you sacrifice "fun" for the sake of your team?
Overwatch players are constantly juggling all of these considerations, and while "always be switching" has practically become a mantra among hardcore fans, things don't always work out that way. To wit, we recently got a tip about a top Overwatch player named Necros, who is ranked #58 in his or her region -- and Necros predominantly plays Genji. Genji, unlike Widowmaker, is taken as a "productive" pick, and with a win rate of 59 per cent, it seems unlikely that Necros invites as much harassment, despite the similar ultra-narrow hero focus.
"The violent insults are one thing I can deal with but they are often followed, ironically, with griefing behaviour," Fauquenot said. "It is very common to have a Mei blocking my line of sight." As evidence, Fauquenot provided an Imgur link full of exchanges where people shit on him for playing Widowmaker, including screenshots of players idling in defiance toward him:
As far as players are concerned, Fauquenot absolutely deserves the chat bans. In a forum thread where Fauquenot complained about his situation, one stranger who kept getting matched with Fauquenot chimed in, saying:
I remember losing so much MMR back when I was Diamond because I kept getting matched with you. Hopefully that was countered a bit by the times I got matched against you too. /salt
But seriously the issue isn't even your lvl of play as Widow (which frankly is surprisingly low given all your hours with her, last time i checked i believe your winrate in competitive was 47%), it's the fact that you will never swap away from her for any reason. You're not a team player, you go into competitive expecting others to tank and heal for you and won't adapt, ever. You've had teams plead you to take something else, we were clearly losing and we all made swaps to try a different strategy but you alone will never swap away from Widowmaker. The truth is that you're not the kind of person people want to be matched with, that's why you keep getting reported.
It would not surprise me if many people feel the same way; the issue is complicated. But even if Fauquenot is in the wrong here, even if he's deluded himself into believing that his teammates, not his penchant for Widowmaker, are the problem, something is still amiss. Even Blizzard can't decide whether Fauquenot's bans are valid or not.
Blizzard has overturned a couple of Fauquenot's chat bans, because he's technically not being abusive in chat:
Blizzard has, at other points, decided that the bans are warranted:
Blizzard's citing of the code of conduct, meanwhile, only mentions the need for communication, appropriate names and lack of cheating. The closest thing that encapsulates the problem is "toxicity", which, while a very real problem in multiplayer games, is currently too vaguely defined to be useful. What of the immediate toxicity against Widowmaker, does that not count? If players are expected to forgo "toxicity", why is it more of an unspoken rule, rather than an official one that players must actively understand and adhere to before playing? Couldn't all of this social drama be avoided if Widowmaker were designed better, so that players don't hate her existence outright? Blizzard, for its part, told Kotaku that it has no updates regarding potential Widowmaker revamps. A Blizzard rep told us that they do, however, have plans to improve the experience:
While we're not going to go into detail on how we determine when someone is violating our policies, we can say we're constantly working to improve our reporting systems and banning procedures to ensure we're treating everyone as fairly as possible. As part of this ongoing process, we've been working on some updates that should give players better, more robust reporting options as well as allow us to provide more tailored penalties (based on the violation), and we're looking forward to rolling them out soon.
"This kind of issue is not new," Fauquenot said. "League of Legends has been dealing with it for years and tried to find the right equilibrium. They recently divided their ranking games in twice. One queue for solo/duo in which players pick a role they want to play so that the team end up following a meta composition and one 'flex' queue made for players playing in group where they are free to pick any role... and if Blizzard has an opinion when it comes to picks, if they believe some picks deserve a ban, then it should be implemented in-game."
Fauquenot also noted that Overwatch could use incentives to actively promote good behaviour, especially since chat bans in particular are obviously not solving the problem. Once again using League of Legends as an example, Fauquenot noted that the MOBA has an honour system that players can use to reward people for being skilled, cooperating and being polite. At the very least, Fauquenot would love it if punitive measures had some sort of warning attached to them, rather than outright bringing the hammer down on people who have been reported enough.
"[Measures like these] did not seem necessary at first because the community was very nice and tolerant but as soon as the competitive play appeared the toxicity of the community raised like crazy. And that was to be expected, as players find themselves under pressure," Fauquenot said.
"I understand why many people do not like to play with me," Fauquenot said. "For most people the perfect teammate is the one who adapt his pick to his team and never play what he wants, listen to all the orders of his teammates and always stay nice and focused... I never insult anyone, I always focus on my game, I communicate, mostly to call the kill I made so my team know how to react. But I play both what I like and believe to be appropriate even when it is not a popular opinion, and it's never a popular opinion."