Lately, I've been hearing a lot more "Great ult!" and "Thanks for switching!" in Overwatch than "Get wrecked, you useless piece of s***." After toxicity in Overwatch's competitive mode reached critical saturation last season, this season, which began September 1st, has felt markedly more positive.
Doom and gloom marked Season 5 of Overwatch's competitive mode, thanks to a combination of unforgiving skill ratings (SR) and a reporting system that seemed pretty toothless. For a while, we've known that Overwatch's competitive mode algorithms have placed players in lower rankings than they deserve.
That way, Blizzard figured, that sweet, sweet rush of climbing SR would act as a reward. But the desperation to climb rankings apparently sparked some bad behaviour from those who felt personally offended and self-conscious. From what I saw at the time, players often refused to switch heroes, blamed each other for poor play, insulted teammates or rage-quit.
Playing collaboratively seemed out of the question in these matches, which were poisoned by bad attitudes and, sometimes, straight-up harassment. And when I threatened to report the more egregious of these players, the response was less often fear or regret and, more often, "Make my day!". An opaque reporting system with few clear repercussions was apparently a tacit go-ahead for toxicity. (Only a month ago ago, Blizzard implemented a reporting system for consoles).
Now, it looks like the tides have started to shift. Overwatch fans are making an effort to champion good attitudes. Players I've queued up with in competitive mode have been eager to switch roles for the optimal team composition instead of stubbornly refusing to bend to the majority's chosen strategy.
We congratulate each other on well-thought-out plays, and especially when they're pulled off through coordination. Only one person has been openly rude to me in the many dozen games I've played and that person was swiftly told to shut up and promptly muted by everybody.
It's made grinding for SR way, way more fun, which a wealth of "GG WP" ("good game, well-played") in "All" chat confirms, even after a loss. And it means that I've already made a lot of new friends from solo-queueing this season — all of whom I bonded with because we were so fed up with last season's toxicity.
I returned after a month and a half harassment-inspired hiatus refreshed and ready to sharpen my skills, and thankfully, I found a community excited to have me. The vibe is good in Overwatch's competitive mode right now, from what I've seen, and it looks like the player base is generally on a path toward improvement. (Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment.)
So, what made Overwatch's competitive mode slightly less of a bubbling cesspool of gamer-rage and more of a lovely little pond of good vibes? A few things. First of all, Blizzard rejiggered Overwatch's competitive mode so it's a little less ruthless.
In August, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan explained that, now, competitive placement matches rank players at just about where they should be — not hundreds of SR lower, where their egos wilt. Also, players are receiving more SR per win.
That means they won't while away the whole season struggling to redeem their former competitive ranking. So, there's been a lot less desperate rage in team voice chat.
Less tangible, but perhaps still effective, were bold statements and well-communicated actions by Blizzard meant to drain toxicity from the community. The reporting system is now harsher and its effects are more felt.
Over 20,000 players received emails confirming that people they had reported had been punished as of a few weeks ago, according to a recent developer update video. Blizzard also said they'd start banning players permanently who had been repeatedly banned for multiple seasons of competitive mode (good riddance!).
In September, Jeff Kaplan appeared in a video to deride the crueler members of Overwatch's community, but also, to issue a threat that might appeal to the more antisocial type of gamer: "We want to make new maps, we want to make new heroes, we want to make animated shorts," Kaplan said.
"But we've been put in this weird position where we're spending a tremendous amount of time and resources punishing people and trying to make people behave better."
For those less persuaded by good-will and completely reasonable requests to have some base-level empathy, perhaps a bid to their love of cool new Overwatch features could curb harassment.
As a solution, Kaplan suggested not being an arsehole. It sounds trite. But then, Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson noticed on /r/Overwatch that one player decided to listen to Kaplan's plea and "be nice": "I started to be nice. Really nice. Overly nice," wrote the fan on Reddit. He later reported, in response, that "other people started being nice, too! It cut through the salt like water."
I wonder how widespread this simple realisation was and am trying not to trip over how pathetic it is that so many people didn't think to compliment teammates.
All over Overwatch forums, players are poking their heads out of the SR grind to ask, "Am I the only person who hasn't played a toxic game this season?". Cautiously optimistic, these players are slowly realising that they are not alone in their desire for friendly online gaming experiences.
Lately, the social pressure against being a shitty person in Overwatch has helped form small clusters of like-minded regulars who are more vocally resistant to toxic behaviour. Because of that, we friend each other and play together, always expanding to include others who are, at base, not shitty to strangers.
I've received many, many more friend requests this season, and whenever I ask why someone decided to friend me, they say it's because they too enjoy being a positive force in Overwatch's competitive mode — and they love the game.