Overwatch team Meta Athena takes advantage of Bastion's Sentry mode.
In any competitive game or sport, the rules can change, and competitors have to adjust their strategies. But usually, rules change between seasons -- not in the middle of one.
Blizzard's Overwatch changes a lot, even by video game standards. The patches hit every few weeks or so. Sometimes it's a little balance tweak, sometimes it's a much more comprehensive update, like a new character or a new map. Last October, Kotaku pointed out that Overwatch's frequent patches could negatively affect the burgeoning competitive scene, because a patch can suddenly make the character a pro plays stronger or weaker.
In the past, every Overwatch tournament has had to take patches as they came, and participants have had no choice but to deal with them. That's been the case whether Blizzard is co-hosting the tournament in question or not. Now, for certain Blizzard-hosted tournaments, that rule has changed.
The Overwatch Carbon Series, which Blizzard co-hosts, is still pushing through patches as soon as they drop. The Carbon Series began on February 22, and unfortunately for the players participating, that was right before patch 1.8 (often referred to as "The Bastion Patch") on February 28. On March 3, Blizzard rushed another patch out the door that rolled back some of the issues with the Bastion update, but by then, competitors had already wrestled through Week 2 of the Carbon Series (Feb 27 -- March 1).
Blizzard did nothing to delay these patches for the players. Throughout the Carbon Series, commentators have pointed out that the matches do not take place on any special tournament server, which meant that the pros competing have had to deal with the unpredictability of the changing game. This also means teams can pick Orisa, a completely new hero -- which Preston "Juv3nile" Dornon of Renegades did, two days ago.
A different Blizzard-hosted tournament, APEX, has had the privilege of using a special server that handles patches differently. That's been a new development for competitive Overwatch.
Partway through APEX's Season 2, right before the implementation of the fated Bastion patch, Blizzard moved competitors to a server that didn't have patch 1.8. This patch-free tournament realm is called the "Overwatch Professional Region." In an interview with Dot Esports, Overwatch esports manager Trevor Housten said it will only be offered to "select high level competitions moving forward."
Two of APEX's commentators, Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, also confirmed the change during tournament broadcasts that week. Compete reached out to Lonnquist, who pointed out that the use of a tournament server is already standard in Riot Games' League of Legends, a game that he's also professionally commentated upon: "League of Legends has followed this method for a long time now, and it's nice to have in Overwatch as well, since having a new patch that might have balance issues/bugs (like the Bastion patch definitely had!) drop randomly on the day of a tournament match really causes issues for the competitive integrity of the game."
That's exactly what happened during APEX Season 1 last November 15, before the move to the tournament server. That day, a new patch hit the game and left teams scrambling. This patch included subtle changes to several characters, most notably D.Va and Ana. On November 21, only a few days later, teams EnVyUs and Rogue were on tap to face off.
Up until that point, EnVyUs was pegged as the tournament underdog. Some unexpected roster changes had left the team understandably off-balance. Ronnie "Talespin" DuPree had left the team partway through the tournament for mysterious reasons, and Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangohod hopped aboard as a last-minute replacement. Luckily for EnVyUs, the sudden patch ended up working in their favour -- or, rather, it ended up screwing over their opponents.
A player on EnVyUs' opposing team, Jonathan "Reinforce" Larsson, explained in a post-mortem about the tournament that the patch had impacted his team's chances. In practicing with the patch in the days before the match, he and his teammates realised that the subtle changes to D.Va (among other characters) had changed the types of counter-moves that Larsson could perform as his usual main character, Reinhardt.
In his words: "I was essentially a shield-less Reinhardt, that would just get super punished for my charges, and unavailability to fire strike due to D.Va's Matrix. I felt powerless." The solution, at least temporarily, was to try Winston (who is not Larsson's preferred character), and also, to think more outside the box with Reinhardt: "I've personally not played Reinhardt so far from my comfort zone in my life."
Rogue's preparations didn't end up working, and EnVyUs won the match and advanced to Season 2 of APEX. It's impossible to say whether EnVyUs would still have won if that patch hadn't happened -- but it definitely changed the way the game played out.
Then, Blizzard changed the rules. During Season 2, every team moved to the tournament server, right before patch 1.8 dropped. The same week that the competitors over at the Carbon Series were struggling with the Bastion patch, the teams at APEX were playing inside a time capsule, still using their old strategies.
Unfortunately for EnVyUs, this new rule didn't benefit them in Season 2. They had thrived in spite of the unpredictability of Season 1's sudden patch drop, but their luck ran out. Meta Athena, a little-known Overwatch team, came from behind and knocked EnVyUs out of the running.
More importantly, Meta Athena benefited from the fact that Blizzard chose not to implement the 1.8 Bastion patch, since their team used Bastion in specific formations. Had the patch been applied for Season 2, Meta Athena wouldn't have been able to have Bastion get a headshot when in Sentry mode. Playing the game without that patch, Meta Athena could still do formations like this one:
It's possible that Meta Athena could have still dominated other teams even if the patch had been rolled out, but they wouldn't have been able to use that particular Sentry mode strategy. If they'd been playing in any other tournament (like, say, the Carbon Series), they wouldn't have had time to figure out which new strategies would work best. They would have had to adjust on the fly and hope for the best.
But at APEX, all the teams got two weeks to practice with the new patch behind the scenes, because the implementation of the patch got delayed until after quarterfinals.
Getting two weeks to practice with the new patch sounds a lot more fair than just throwing players into the ring with no idea what they're up against. It's also closer to the way that other long-running competitive games, like League of Legends, have chosen to operate, although League teams have clashed with Riot in the past over the effects of the game's disruptive patches.
The big problem for competitive Overwatch is that there is no consistency between tournaments when it comes to patches. Now that Blizzard has chosen to create a special situation in which the Bastion patch got delayed at APEX, a new precedent has been set, but it's an uneven one, since not every tournament will have access to Blizzard's tournament server.
Compete has reached out to Blizzard for a comment about their policy on this and has not heard back. In any case, Blizzard needs a consistent rule. Giving teams two weeks to adjust to a balance patch seems fair, but it's only an option for players participating in tournaments that have access to Blizzard's servers. Most Overwatch tournaments couldn't delay a patch even if they wanted to, since they don't have access to a patch-free server, and they can only get access if Blizzard deems them worthy.
It's all up to Blizzard to decide which tournaments will get to use these tournament servers, and that could end up deciding which tournaments are considered more legit than others. It's also up to Blizzard to decide which patches get implemented right away on their tournament server, and which ones get delayed. No matter what they decide, it's going to be unpopular, but they're going to have to come up with clear standards if they want a fair playing field in competitive Overwatch.