Overwatch's Competitive Mode Is Depressing Right Now


A gloom has descended on Overwatch's competitive mode. For over a month, players have reported joylessly grinding through Season 5 to redeem their former competitive rankings, a result of Blizzard artificially depleting them. The community's reaction, which ranges from sorrow to toxicity, has been depressing to watch, but more depressing to participate in.

There's a reason why so many of us at Kotaku are infatuated with Overwatch. Those of us who play are enamoured of its players at their best, a capable, lubricated machine in which each part supports and empowers its neighbour. But be a masterful player, machine-like gameplay is not as important as working together. The beauty of Overwatch is the coming-together of six human strangers, all with the goal of coordinating and executing something very difficult within a short period of time.

And sometimes, achieving that something — moving the payload or capturing the point — means sacrificing your kill-death ratio or gold medals. It can mean choosing a supporting hero so a better teammate can carry or picking a shield-bearing tank to protect your more feeble damage-doers. Overwatch is a game about how empathy and compromise win out. Real life has no parallel.

A cloud of toxicity is passing over Overwatch's competitive mode right now, obscuring what makes the game great. Play a lot of Overwatch and it's impossible not to notice: People are being cruel in chat, mocking Blizzard's ineffective reporting system and rage-quitting matches. In part, that toxicity is due to perceived flaws in the way competitive mode works. Players are acting nastier because they feel hopeless, struggling to regain their lost skill rating, which has made playing Overwatch collaboratively even more challenging.


Competitive mode's skill ratings (SR) go up when you win games and play well during them. Overwatch is always making predictions about how well you'll play compared to an enemy team and to your chosen hero's average stats. If you exceed expectations, you'll get a bonus. For example, compared to your team, you might do the most damage as the hero Pharah (and win a gold medal for it), but not much better than the average Pharah in your skill tier, so you won't get rewarded the most possible, even if you win. Your SR will help the game's matchmaking algorithms sort out your teammates. The better your SR, the better people you'll play with. So it's a meaningful number.

In early June, I noticed that Overwatch's Battle.net forums were saltier than usual. After Season 5 launched, players flocked to the forums complaining — as they do — that their lower rankings were totally unfair. Hundreds protested that, last season, they placed in, say, low gold, and after winning the majority of their placement matches (with gold medals to boot), their SR clocked out in the low-silver range. It was a disgrace to the effort they'd put into the game, they said.

At first, seeing these posts, my impulse was to laugh. Of course a first-person shooter's forum community is adamant that they're better than they are.

Then I did my placement matches. Wow. After a high-spirited four hours of victories, weighed down by only three losses, my SR meter stopped climbing far earlier than I had expected. I confess I was furious. Starting from Season 3, we had known that Overwatch would place players at a lower tier.

But after grinding so much the last few seasons, and competing in an accurate tier with well-matched peers, my new ranking felt like an insult to my efforts. So last month, I reached out to Blizzard, whose PR people set me up on a phone call with Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer.

Mercer confirmed that Overwatch now ranks players about 200 or 300 SR lower than their "actual" play grade. "We do that to give you a sense that you are improving over time," he said, since victories would initially grant more SR than usual. Players could earn back their lost SR after about 50 games.


I'm about that many games in now and I can just nearly kiss the SR I had last season. There are a lot of factors: I solo-queue a lot, so I can get stuck with crummy teammates who won't switch heroes; I play popular (and much-requested) heroes who can receive less SR than others for wins; about a quarter of the time, I'm stuck with a toxic teammate who makes me upset; and, of course, I'm not always a great player. What I want to focus on, though, is the toxicity. Because in my experience, this season of Overwatch is the most toxic yet.

For people who care about SR, that number is a measure of worth, just like weight, grade-point average or salary. This season, players I've encountered in real life have confessed their SR in hushed, embarrassed whispers or as part of angry tirades against Blizzard as a company. Competitive mode regulars I encounter in-game are, quite often, sad, begging every new team to usher them into a higher tier. This pressure to perform makes losses all the more painful, wins all the more coveted and players all the more sensitive. And some, in their desire to redeem themselves, act outrageously by rage-quitting or insulting teammates. That, paired with Overwatch's opaque, and toothless reporting system, has made toxicity a nightmare recently.

Yesterday, Overwatch YouTube channel Your Overwatch interviewed Jake Lyon, a professional offence player for the USA's national team, in a video that's been making its way around the community. In the video, Lyon explains what he thinks is wrong with Overwatch's SR system: "Right now, if you're playing and you're getting great stats, the system's saying, 'Good job. Keep doing what you're doing.' But in an esports context, they couldn't be less relevant. No one cares what your damage is in an esports context. Are you out of position and dying at a key time and losing your team the point?" Lyon goes on to say that what makes a good Overwatch player — and wins games — is teamthink, which encapsulates empathy, strategy and attentiveness to others.

"These things can never measure your decision-making, your choice of when to switch heroes," Lyon said. "And these things can be just as — if not more — impactful to actually winning games than having a high accuracy. Any system that's gonna prioritise statistics is a system that's gonna miss the whole story. . . I think at the end of the day, that's a really frustrating feeling for some players — when their teammates aren't playing to win, but rather to maximise their statistics. It doesn't feel very rewarding when these players are in this individualistic mindset: 'Well, it's fine, because as long as I do a ton of damage, I won't lose too much SR.'"

There isn't a stat for teamthink. There are gold medals for damage, eliminations, healing, objective time and objective kills, but there are no medals for empathy or team strategy. And as long as gold medals are how Overwatch rewards personal performance, players will pursue them in at the expense of the less quantifiable skills that actually do pave the road to wins and, maybe, SR redemption (and will lead to less toxicity for everyone).


Your Overwatch's video resonated with players on Battle.net who had been wading through endless sad posts about competitive mode. "This forum is depressing," an Overwatch player wrote there last week. "Is there anyone that is actually happy to be playing this game?" Another replied that they really do love Overwatch, which is what makes playing it now, with its recent toxicity, so frustrating.

But on "one of the days I was tilting really badly and feeling like the world was mowing me down," they wrote, they looked up their stats on OverSumo, an app that scrapes competitive data. "On days I'm chill and focused I am performing anywhere between a Diamond and GM level on my good char[acter]s. But on the bad day, I was barely doing silver on Mercy because I was tilted. It makes you really realise how much attitude can affect you."

Players who feel enslaved to their former competitive tiers, grinding out gold medals in hopes of feeling less crappy, can fall victim to the sort of depression and, often, toxicity that's been haunting the community. The only thing that can pull players out of this mass gloom is being good to each other.


    i agree 100%. i played overwatch since beta on ps4 and participated in every season so far and my rank just kep dropping every season. i'd grind out my rank.. for it only to be thrown away next season.
    when they announced game of the year edition i bought it for pc (i had just bought a new xps so was keen to get back into pc gaming) and i've really enjoyed this season.. im mid gold.. but i know next season i'll get placed in silver :( and i'll have to grind again

    I feel like there's continual drama when it comes to competitive mode. Meanwhile I'm just having fun playing Quick Play and Arcade Mode on and off with friends.

      Agreed. A friend of mine continually wants us to play competitive, but I'm not all that interested in it. At least not yet. The fun just gets sapped out when you're placed in matches with higher tiered and more experienced players. The few times I've tried, I've been sent private messages telling me I suck and that I lost the game for the team. Quick Play is a far more enjoyable experience for me, and I've never had bad player feedback through it.

        me and 4 friends from work used to play almost nightly quickplay and arcade and used to have a lot of fun mucking around. we would try competitive every now and again for shits and giggles. season 3 was fine for that. then we tried again in season 4, there was 4 of us and two randoms, and we just got bombarded with salt and vitriol to the point that im the only guy that still plays overwatch anymore as the attitude was so sour that it ruined the experience for them.
        quickplay and arcade are definitely where the fun is at and ive met some really cool and fun randoms online in those modes.

      This! Just play quick play! It's a fun game who cares about rank! If it's your job or something then competition is important but otherwise have fun!

    Absolutely on point. This has been exactly my experience over the past season.
    In previous seasons, where I felt frustration at the SR ranking system but continued to play competitive whenever I could, this season my play time is starting to wane. I think that's largely because I'm percieving a decrease in people using voice, greater toxicity and more broadly, this general malaise you've identified. It used to be that I could loose 4 matches straight but then play one match where the team was talking, friendly and adaptive and even if we lost, it still felt like everyone did their best and I would turn off my PC feeling good. That ain't happening so much for me and I'm always cautious to use my experience as a baseline for anything, so reading this makes me feel a little vindicated.
    I hope Blizzard is paying attention to this - really feels like they need to work out a way of adding a positive bias towards encouraging team think.

    Glad I'm not the only one, I have been loving and playing Overwatch non-stop since launch, but this season I just....stopped? I was only checking in to stop my skill decay but even that hasn't got me playing lately. I really focused on playing Ana and assumed I had just got bored with that one hero but the player base has really seemed to be nothing but salty players who go mental at the first sign of things going against their team. It's exhausting to play with.

    Saying it's depressing is such a good way to put it. Hopefully Blizzard can make some changes to help (I don't know what that would be), as it truly is a great game. Welp, back to Hyper Light Drifter and Rayman Legends for me!

    I don't play Overwatch, but reading articles about it made it sound pretty toxic even before this.

      It's just competitive play that has the toxic aspect to it. Quick Play (a casual mode) is much more chilled and there's no ranks to worry about.

        Maybe not on PC, but on Xbox One at least Quick Play can be just as toxic as competitive.

          I play mostly on Xbox One, thankfully quick play hasn't had those issues for me, but competitive definitely did. Lately I've been playing with a group of friends on the same team, so perhaps that's reduced the likelihood of toxic feedback.

          I've had a few people on PS4 get salty in Quickplay too. Have to remind them that QP is for fun, save the salt for competitive. With that said I've fallen victim to getting frustrated/blaming teammates when on a loosing streak.

          I haven't seen or know but the report feature for PC, can it only be used for competitive or can they report in QP too? hopefully not, QP is where you should be able to freely try new Heros.

        The major problem with quick play for a lot of people is that team comps typically consist of at least 3 of Genji, Widowmaker, Hanzo, McCree and Tracer, and more often than not all of them. The right hand side of the character select screen seems to be missing from most people's game clients from what I can tell.

        This means every QP game is the same, and no one is really putting effort in to play the objective. You cant call people out on this because "its just QP, go play comp if you want to try", and people dont want to play tanks/heals because they have to play them more in Comp. Therefore games are typically 1 sided stomps which are not fun.

        It's actually MORE competitive in Arcade, since lootboxes are on the line typically. I'll jump into Arcade to just mess in Mystery heroes or w/e but most of the modes arent my thing, and unless you have a group the Custom games are usually just gimmick games that suck with randoms...

          I thought you couldn't pick a character if someone else had already selected them

            You are correct, what I meant was there is always 1 Genji, 1 Widow and 1 Hanzo on my qp teams, which is half the team slots already.

              Oh right! Yeah i tends to try to pick a class that other people aren't which is usually tanks and healers in my short experience!

      This article is pretty clickbaity, it makes OW look like some kinda of toxic wasteland - 4chan in video game form. I still have a lot of fun with the game, and positive interactions outweigh negative interactions by a mile in my games.

    why play a game that haunts your soul and is depressing

    self infliction?

    I always see 2 really big problems with comp.
    1) A lot of the people playing competitive aren't playing for the joy of competition, they are playing for a badge.
    2) So many people are selfish with their hero selection, they pick for themselves and not for the needs of the team (inclusive of not switching to counter).

      In regards to point #2, I find that the people who are so insistent on building a team which aligns with the meta of more skilled players is less likely to win than a team built on the "play the hero you're best at" strat. People also get caught up in wanting 2 healers & multiple tanks but there's no point if the person playing these heroes is only 60% skilled at it when they're closer to 90% skilled at another hero who will better suit the team. People SHOULD be selfish when they're picking heroes especially in gold/silver.

      The people who climb the ranks are the ones who are consistently skilled at more heroes and can fill the voids or are playing in teams with friends who are able to be skilled at a broad spectrum of heroes.

      The ones who contribute to the toxicity are the people who mains Reinhardt & demands a 2nd healer then switch to Zen/Ana who they're not great with & then proceed to die and yell at their teammates because the person who switched from dps into the Rein role is also not great at it. Meanwhile had they stayed as Rein they could have captained their weird team build quite well despite having a Torbjorn on attack. Leave the meta for the masters.

        The toxicity comes from those who demand things anyway. Any player who demands that another player select a hero that compliments their own pick usually creates the negativity and tilt anyway.

        When you make your character selections, pick who you like that's fine, but if your team has no healer and you are the last person to pick, well, the choice should be easy. I know that's what I do.

        If you choose to play competitive then you choose to be part of a team. A large part of Overwatch is about countering your opposition. If you are working as a team then part of that is countering and picking a team that's not meta but works together.

          If there's no healer and you're last to pick but aren't any good at healers, you should say "is anyone else able to heal? i suck at healing" and seeing who changes and pick a hero you're good at that best fits the team.

            If that's the case and everyone is working as a team then, perfect. That's not being selfish at all. That's acknowledging your shortcomings and doing what's best for the team by letting them know. If you choose to lie because you want to play dps, that's different.

    My problem is that everyone else I play with is rubbish, and always dragging me down =P I've always thought competitive mode goes against the nature of what they were trying to achieve with the game. If I play comp, I just try to not let the SR get to me (which is hard being that I'm competitive by nature).

    The toxicity on the Xbox One version is rampant at the moment.

    I did my placements across the first couple days of this season, and did surprisingly well - 9 wins, 1 loss, placed 2847 which was 40 or so higher than where I ended last season.

    But then almost every game since placements has seen a thrower, a quitter, a smurf on the enemy team playing far above their main account's skill level, or a combination of all three.

    Almost every. single. game.

    It's made progressing almost impossible. Thanks to all the throwers, quitters etc I dropped down to the 2300s and only just recently managed to claw my way back over 2500. Am currently sitting just a smidge over 2600.

    Just last night the team I was on were torn apart by an enemy Genji who was clearly a smurf (level 30 in game and their Xbox Live Gamerscore was less than 500) and who decided to send several of us abusive and mocking messages while the match was still in progress.

    Blizzard need to do something about the plague of smurf accounts currently on console. Make it like it is on PC - make it mandatory to link a Battle.net account so if you want to play on multiple accounts, you need to buy multiple copies of the game.

    Even if you get the rare match that doesn't have any throwers/quitters/smurfs, more often than not you only have a couple of teammates in chat, if any.

    Without the ability to chat with your team via text like you can on PC, Blizzard need to make team chat mandatory in Competitive on consoles with no option to leave it. If someone's being abusive/annoying, you can still mute them.

    At the end of the day, though, how is it fair that your personal SR drops because of teammates that throw/quit/don't communicate?

    Since you can't control what the 5 other people on your team do, there should be two different SRs - one for you as an individual player and one for you as part of the team.

    Last edited 11/07/17 1:44 pm

      I agree that Team Chat should be forced for competitive play. having a teammate tell you about a flanking enemy or someone to allocate targets is a huge advantage over a team that can't communicate. I get that not everyone likes to chat but even being able to hear the callouts is an advantage.

        I'd go one better and say that you need to be in chat (not xbox chat but the overwatch client chat) before you can actually queue for comp. Either that or have a pre comp lobby where you get a chance to sort picks, have a chat to your team mates and/or leave if someone is being difficult.

    Overwatch's fundamental problem is that; losing feels terrible and winning only makes you feel like your breaking par. I stopped playing the game because of this. Competitive was the worst thing that happened to the game.

    The last week is the first time since launch that I've actually questioned whether I actually like Overwatch anymore. Several key issues have caused me to stop having fun:

    1. If you're not playing Competitive, you dont have to try. I dont play competitive much because I usually play after work and dont want to deal with people complaining and nagging in voice chat/throwing games. I'd rather just play QP. Having said that, if you play QP, everyone instalocks 5 dps and then we/the other team gets stomped, because people are "practicing" or just off killing people and not focusing on what you're supposed to be doing. You cant complain about it either because "its just QP"...

    2. Blizzard's dumb as shit balance policy. Blizzard seems to like "balancing" characters by overnerfing them and then months later bringing them back up. I used to play a ton of Roadhog, and I personally thought he was in a good place after the Jan/Feb hook changes. But no, he was still "Broken" according to battle.net forums. It's not that he's particularly bad now, but he's just not fun to play anymore. He's not interesting anymore. This, along with Reinhardt being actually broken (charges/Earthshatter are just wtf, hammer doesnt register half the time), and previous shenanigans with Dva/McCree/others, I have had to learn new characters seemingly every time Blizz releases an update.

    3. Events burnout. I suppose the whole RNG behind lootboxes is the real problem here, but I actually got sick of trying to get items during the last event. Now they are repeating the Summer games event soon, so unless they release a bunch of new content with it, I'll probably just miss it since I got most of the stuff last time. All their event game modes btw are fun for 2-3 games and then get old really fast. They seem cool, but usually they arent balanced properly or too easy or w/e.

    4. Tracer.

    5. Super slow content release. Yes Blizz polishes what they release to amazing levels. But there's only so many times you can play Hanamura/Dorado/whatever before it gets tedious. We have had 4 new characters and 3 maps in a year. Ana required significant changes to get her working, Sombra's release was botched significantly and required changes to make her viable, Orisa is just uninteresting and rips a bunch of moves from other characters. Doomfist looks really fun, but looks buggy at the moment and will probably need balance changes. There are currently WAY more DPS on the roster than tanks/healers, which means a massive lack of variety. There also hasnt been a new Escort map since inception. Why they decided we needed yet another 2cp map is beyond me.

    This is sounding like I'm super negative about the game. I'm really not, I actually love Overwatch. But right now in it's current state, I feel like it's the worst time to play. So I'm taking a break. Hopefully Blizz continues to work hard on it and maybe I'll get back into it down the track.

      So much yes, well until I got to... Tracer... as a Tracer main, I dont understand this. We can basically be one or two shotted by by pretty much every character in the game. Funny enough I die more to stray objects than being killed. That is how strong even junkrat balls, scatter arrow, traps and the like can be. Every buff that comes to other characters impacts Tracers survivability. I find the game now is doubly hard playing hard due to a lot of those annoying 'balances' you talk about

        Actually, I find tracer to be pretty balanced, I just dont like the character design/personality/voice. Probably should have clarified that. She's actually pretty well balanced and Blizz uses her as an anchor where the other balance changes are typically balanced around, or thats what they say anyway...

      I still cant get over their anniversary thanks to the community being the most expensive set of loot box items yet.

      How is that rewarding the community?!

    The huge drop down in tank after a real good placement was a real dick kick for me.

    I haven't played since the double xp weekend. It kinda killed it for me. I probably sound "entitled" but the double xp rate was just fun; going back to the normal rate killed my interest.

    Probably just suffering from burn out, maybe I'll check it out again come Doomfist or the next event.

    Coming from a League of Legends background, the "toxicity" on OW is relatively non-existent. Was I disappointed when I did well in placements and only got mid-gold? Yes. But now I'm a few games off diamond, and it's been a fun journey. In 90% of games people are all wanting to work together and fill roles, but I make sure I always start by offering to fill, and then the two or three people who "instalock" roles can just do their thing without tilting the whole team. Instalock Genjis/Hanzos/etc will always be around, you can either complain or you can work with it.

    Really, the overwatch system works fine. Better to place everyone too low initially than too high. And if you play regularly enough, everyone will end up where they're supposed to anyway. Everyone just thinks they belong higher...

    I am a low tier player, silver. This season I doubt I will make it out of bronze.

    I am 33 with a full time job and lots of other stuff to do. I would be lucky to get 10 games of comp in a week!

    And this is why I don't play comp much anymore. I played since season one, highest I got was mid-plat and I knew I couldn't breach higher then that and I was ok with that. Then follow season my placements put me in low bronze ... I means seriously .... that really demotivated me, this season im told end silver and have very little motivation to do it.

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