Image credit: Blizzard.
It's a new Overwatch match, a fresh start. You've got a good feeling about this one. But then you get within spitting distance of the point, and suddenly Winston crashes down on you, Tracer sucks up your health pool like her weapon's a giant milkshake straw, and Genji chops up what's left -- all in the blink of an eye. It sucks! Welcome to the dive meta.
The highest echelons of Overwatch play have, for the past few months, been ruled by "dive" compositions. Basically, these teams select hyper-mobile characters like Winston, Tracer, and Genji (or, increasingly, Soldier 76) to focus offence on individual heroes and tear them to confetti in seconds. Often, another person playing as Zenyatta will put an Orb of Discord on the target, boosting the damage they take even more. Tanks like D.Va and Zarya and healers like Lucio round out the composition, shielding and healing the attackers, who are squishy on their own.
If a team communicates well, it's an incredibly effective strategy. Players who aren't anticipating a dive get absolutely melted, their ashes used to garnish Winston's peanut butter victory sandwich. You can understand, then, why some players find it so frustrating: losing to a dive comp isn't interesting or exciting. You're done before you even get a chance to put up a fight. Many players -- whether they play in higher tiers of competitive mode or watch Overwatch esports -- are sick of it.
So, Blizzard should do something about dive comps, right? Tweak some heroes, twist some balance nobs, delete Genji entirely? The issue is, however, far more complicated than it seems on its face. Let's break this down.
Diving into the deep end
The downsides of dive comps are a symptom of a sickness, not the sickness itself. In fact, taken on their own merits, they can be pretty fun. Where once tanks dominated Overwatch's meta, trudging forward and keeping fights relatively slow-paced, a dive comp battle is full of sprinting, leaping, and close shaves. I've seen some players say they prefer it to previous metas and hope it sticks around, and personally, I enjoy watching pro players duke it out with dive comps more than I did the other dominant metas.
Where dive comps start to become a problem, however, is in effective countermeasures. While a poorly organised dive comp will generally capsize against the rocks of a decent defence, a coordinated one can only really be countered by another dive comp. Previously dominant defensively-oriented comps like "triple tank" (where three tanks form the backbone, usually with Ana somewhere in the mix) lack the mobility to avoid a smart dive.
As a result, the current Overwatch meta -- especially in esports -- isn't really "dive." It's Dive vs Dive. Clash of the Dives. War For the Planet of the Dives.
Fans are clamoring for variety. Dive, many say, would be totally fine and even welcome if some kind of rock-paper-scissors dynamic enclosed it and at least a couple other equally viable team comps. So far, however, Overwatch's highest levels have been defined by singularly dominant compositions, rather than colourful chess matches where tactics shift to fit the needs of the moment.
A year ago, people were calling the 2/2/2 meta (two tanks, two healers, two DPS) "stale and boring to watch." Later in the year, fans called triple tank "the cancer meta." So dive has its own problems, but people also dislike it because, like previous dominant metas, it's overstayed its welcome.
Unfortunately, Overwatch's dominant metas have a way of snowballing. Top-level competitive players watch pros and decide which heroes are "on-meta." If other competitive players try to play off-meta heroes, they get chewed out. But the only way the meta can evolve (outside of a sudden, seismic balance change from Blizzard) is through experimentation.
Some players, however, refuse to go out on a limb because they don't want to risk losing precious rank points, and others either feel too socially pressured to switch heroes or realise they can't make anything meaningful happen without support from their team. So the meta stagnates. People will figure out a game-changing counter to dive comps at some point, but until then, high-level Overwatch remains a place where the hero pool suddenly becomes very shallow, despite how interesting and varied it could be.
There's obviously a pattern here: a new comp arises and becomes dominant at the expense of other comps' viability. Top-level Overwatch is briefly exciting, but then it calcifies into this scaly scab of a thing for a few months.
This raises a question: what role does Blizzard play in all of this? Did it design a game where the strategic possibility space is too narrow for more than one kingpin comp to thrive at a time? And is it failing to address that problem now, despite ample awareness that it exists? A vocal contingent of players seem to think the answer to those questions is, "Yes, duh. Why hasn't Blizzard pressed the magic button that fixes it yet?"
In an attempt to assuage those concerns, Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan recently published a lengthy post on the game's forums. The crux of his argument was that the top-level meta only represents a particular group of players -- "the top 3rd of all players," he said, and even then, they play catch up with pros for "weeks if not months."
Kaplan doesn't feel like it's Blizzard's place to meddle with the meta. "I do not agree with the philosophy that we should just make balance changes solely to shift people off the meta," he wrote, noting that he feels like, right now, the game is balanced. "The game team should be constantly evaluating balance and making changes that are actually needed because a hero is unbalanced. But making changes to a hero because their pick rate is too high or too low is not my idea of responsible game balance."
He added that he prefers to see a game's meta shift either because the game is unbalanced and Blizzard makes a change to balance it, or because players sussed out a new strategy. He called the latter "the best-case scenario," but admitted that it can take a lot of time.
Kaplan also isolated an idea some players have proposed: a MOBA-inspired pick-and-ban system that allows teams to forbid their opponents from selecting certain heroes. This would add another strategic layer to the game and require teams to vary up their hero selections. Seems like a great solution, but Overwatch isn't a MOBA -- at the moment, it also has significantly fewer heroes than LoL or DOTA 2 -- and Kaplan doesn't think a pick-and-ban system fits the game his team made.
"I prefer to think that Overwatch allows you to be creative, which is different than forces you to be creative," he explained. "I don't want to watch the best Genji player in the world play Zarya -- I want to see him/her play Genji. And also, seeing how many of you 'main' heroes because you love them, I don't want the game -- or your opponent -- telling you you're not allowed to play that hero."
Kaplan closed out his post by saying that he understands the desire for more variety at Overwatch's highest levels of competition, and he hopes multiple viable comps will blossom over time. He added that there will probably be a new meta in a few months, and it will come with its own complications. "If you're the type of person who feels like the meta should shift every 2 weeks, then you'll probably be sick of that meta and wishing it was back in the good ol' dive comp days," said Kaplan. "I just caution against wanting change for the sake of change."
Already, there are signs that Overwatch's meta is about to evolve. Sombra, Pharah, and Mercy have started making more appearances in recent pro games, and a change to Reaper's "life steal" ability has made him significantly more survivable. The latter development is especially big, because Reaper is a nightmare for Winston, who often functions as the vanguard of dive comps, leaping in and sowing chaos among enemy ranks. If Winston's getting countered at every turn, what happens next?
Then, of course, there's Doomfist, who's on Overwatch's public test realm right now and will probably punch his way into the live game in a week or two. At first, people had him pegged as another asset to the dive meta, but his combo attacks double as mobility skills, meaning that he can't actually deal much damage if he wants to leap away from enemies and survive encounters.
In Doomfist's first pro appearance, a special PTR exhibition match between Meta Athena and new Korean team Ardeont, Meta Athena tried out a handful of non-dive compositions that attempted to account for his vulnerability and offensive potential. They had some early success against Ardeont's dive comp, though they did not win the match.
While dive comps could evolve to account for Reaper, Doomfist, and other wildcards, it seems likely that a new meta will arise sooner rather than later. The question, then, is whether or not that new meta will allow for multiple, varied comps to rule the roost. History says the answer is "probably not." That's a problem on multiple levels, especially with Blizzard's much-ballyhooed, now officially Bob Kraft-endorsed Overwatch League on the way. A sport with little strategic variety and months-long bouts of stagnation is a hard sell to the mainstream audiences Blizzard and its extremely wealthy partners are trying to court. Don't get me wrong: matches can be fun to watch, but it doesn't take long for deja vu to set in.
Perhaps, though, that's just the nature of the game Blizzard has designed. In his post, Kaplan pointed out that there are many games with metas that are set or evolve slowly, pointing to everything from Team Fortress 2 (back in the day) to baseball as examples. "This doesn't mean the game isn't balanced or fun or fun to watch," he said. But Overwatch is not Team Fortress 2 or baseball, and it's following a very different path from both of those games.
Blizzard's simultaneously pushing it to be one of the world's biggest esports and a game that's fun for the majority of its audience, who are not even remotely close to being esports pros. It's a complicated balancing act. As for where Overwatch will end up, that's anybody's guess.