Overwatch Team Fights 102 — Tanking

Feb 19, 2017 · 9 min read

This is a continuation on my series of articles about a framework for thinking and talking about competitive, practiced, team Overwatch. You can catch up on the basics of what makes up a team fight, or dive in with me and apply those ideas to some more specific examples below.

What I want to cover next is a deep examination on responsibilities each of the roles a member of a team will have. Some roles come with the hero you’re playing, or the slot in the lineup (Tank, Support, Flex, Fragger) you’re filling. Others come from the logistics of playing with 5 other human human beings.

For the following conversation I’m going to try to divorce myself from talking about any one specific meta. Instead I will seek to define the roles commonly needed on a team, and I will often use examples of heroes that often fill those roles. Unfortunately, the more specific I am about heroes here, the more this document will be susceptible to the ravages of time and the Blizzard developers.

What is a “role”

In my mind a team has a set of services it needs to provide to be successful. For some examples: There needs to be front line protection, there needs to be a safe place to run to when being harassed, there needs to be a way to recover HP, there needs to be a destination set and a chosen path to get there, there needs to be a way to kill targets. These are basic requirements that are always present. A role is a designation given to the person who is expected to provide a subset of these services during a match. You need not only fill one role, you can shift between roles on a single hero, and definitely on a single team. A role is therefore independent of a hero’s class: Tank, Support, Offense, Defense. Its also somewhat independent of the hero’s kit: what abilities they have available. Instead a hero’s kit affords them what roles they *can* fill depending on the choices the controlling player makes.

What role defining choices can the player make? You can change your positioning within the team, you can change your communication with your peers, you can change your priority of abilities and priority of targets. Priority of targets extends not only to the enemy team but to your own. Communication doesn’t always mean voice comms either. It can be through clear positioning on purposeful movement towards something. For instance a Rein running forward with his shield down is one of the clearest ways I’ve ever heard someone ask for a speed boost from a Lucio.

So when I start to talk about roles below, I’m often going to talk about what services I expect you to be providing for your team. I will provide examples with heroes, but the heroes I list need not be exhaustive.

Here are the roles I believe commonly exist on a team during a match:

  • Center of Mass Tank
  • Guardian
  • Core DPS
  • Flanker
  • Tied Support
  • Free Support

Today I intend to cover the first two roles here. Center of Mass Tank, and Guardian. I will follow up quickly- with Core DPS and Flanker, followed shortly after that with Tied Support and Free Support.

Without further ado…

Tanks are surprisingly variable as a class in Overwatch. Where they are variable is through their mobility how their kit offers protection for your team and ability to punish the enemy. Ultimately the service that distinguishes a Center of Mass Tank is their ability to define the front line of a team. Teams usually follow an arrowhead shape and the center of mass tank is the tip of that arrowhead:

With a the center of mass tank or tanks providing a “shadow” for the rest of the team to comfortably operate in

The most common hero that occupies this role is Reinhardt because of his consistent ability to cast a large and comfortable shadow of protection for his team. This shadow of protection provides a safe retreat space and a place for DPS to unleash damage from. When attacking, you generally want to be moving this shadow forward, on defense you’re ideally trying to hold this shadow in place. You’re looking to provide your team the largest, safest space you can for them to operate in. This will often be a trade off. You can see in the screenshot above, the Pharah and Solider are right at the edge of the protective shadow, and want that so they can get angles on the attackers. However they will want that shadow to be there, so they can return to safety to receive heals or to comfortably handle a flanker without worrying about damage from down range.

Reinhardt is phenomenal in this role because his shield provides a shadow of real protection in that the other team without special abilities cannot put damage on players that are in the shadow of his shield. However this shadow can also be provided through perceived protection.

At higher levels you’ll find that people respect enemy abilities more often, for instance Hogs will try not to hook a target near an uncontested Zarya because they know their prey will likely get a bubble. The Zarya in this case is providing perceived protection. This respect is learned (partly why its more common at high levels) by having the Zarya actually do that to them enough times that it shapes their behavior. This can happen at the macro scale, between games and even seasons, and at a micro scale within a match against great players who can adapt their play insanely quickly. This means that to offer your team perceived protection means showing the team that you can flex your kit when needed.

Perceived protection usually has some caveats in that it requires an ability to be off cool-down in order to pay off the other team’s fear. This means actionably you shouldn’t use all of your abilities at the first sign of trouble because you have then collapsed the potential of perceived protection into a short burst of real protection. Instead spread it out, mix in a Zarya bubble with a Rein shield. A large part of your role here is to have your team not play scared. You provide the area of protection by establishing a confident front line. By occupying that space confidently you actually increase your strength because you message to your team behind you that its safe to come in. Its somewhat of a chicken and egg here, because even a Reinhardt pushing forward by himself will be quick work to eliminate without a team backing him up. Instead you need to move your arrow head forward by moving forward with confidence and affording your team the comforts of a shadow of protection. In turn their presence establishes enables you to safely continue to push forward.

Zarya with bubble and D.va with defense matrix are both tanks that currently provide great perceived protection with discipline. Winston with the potential of his bubble can also provide some, but so can Genji with a deflect. This means that while Winston and Genji can provide this service they do not really fill this role. Instead they can fill the Guardian role.

Guardian’s are heroes that are actively concerned with the protection of the other roles. You might be saying “well Zarya is of course a guardian then because she bubbles others so therefore protects them”. Yes, she can fill this role, but what distinguishes a guardian from a CoM tank to me is that while the CoM Tank defines the front door, the Guardian keeps danger out of the house. What a guardian is focused on is countering flanking or diving play, or supporting and encouraging your own diving and flanking, or giving extended cover to a hero that is moving away from the shadow of protection.

If your team has ever been destroyed by a Genji who is killing your soft targets, and you switch to Winston to counter him: You were swapping to fill the Guardian role. Another example you’ll see with this are McCree dealing with Pharah and Tracer. This is important to note because it need not always be a “Tank” class hero that is filling this role! Although its not always about countering specific heroes. The point here is to use your kit to protect heroes that have little in the way of self preservation. Supports are major consumers of this service, but it can also be heroes that are ulting, heroes that poked or extended away from the group, divers that are returning home. The goal as a guardian here is to prevent the other team from taking low heroes and turning them into picks. As we asserted in the 101 of this series, having 2 heroes alive with low HP is almost always better than 1 with almost full health.

A Guardian as defined is one of the softer roles here because often filling the role of guardian will not be a full time job, and they will often fall into the role of perceived protection to their team (especially when the CoM tank dies), or putting dps into the opposing team.

Wait aren’t there other roles?

Yes. Well, at least, there are other services that need to be provided. However these services are more one offs related to the physical difficulty of playing with 5 other people who can’t hear your thoughts.

Deciding when and how to do big positional moves, or when to apply or intentionally not apply your teams ultimates is hard to do as a group of 6 people under extreme time pressures. Making those choices in the moment is hard. A good shot caller will prep your decision making before the fight, as well as give you signals during the fight. Even though we defined the tip of the arrow head and the definition of the team’s position as something the CoM tank does, the shot caller is in charge of directing that. Additionally calling paths to take to get there. This often means that its not the tank doing this because of a lot of context required that tanks are missing by not always being able to look behind them. You’ll usually see tanks do a subset of this, but the shot caller likely being a DPS or one of the supports in the group.

Commonly in competitive play all six people are doing this because no one person knows the comfortable hero pool of all six people. However on a practiced team, often you’ll have a pool of team compositions to pull from. What the meta manager is doing is looking at the other team’s comp and what is working and not working and will make the call about hero swaps. This often is rolled into the same shot caller from the previous section but you can hear can be done by any player on some teams.

This is less about in the moment focus fire, and more about identifying outstanding player on the other team. This is a very important skill that I suggest everyone put time in learning: Identifying who is the carry on the other team and who is through circumstance being a carry on your team. I intend to write an article about how to do this in the future, but for the time being I just want to list this as a service that is invaluable to have provided to your team.

Ok! I’m a Guardian main now…

Usually in discussions on Reddit, Twitch and Discord, people will often assert that its bad to have mains because of a constantly evolving meta and the requirements of counter picking. They will usually say this, but then tell you who they main in the same breath (Mei forever). I think its pretty clear to see that there is a wide set of skills required for each of these roles. Of course there is a wide variety of skill required for the kits involved. Naturally you’re going to have a variability in personal performance between heroes. There *are* going to be heroes you’re best with which are (if you’re honest with yourself) likely in a common role or related roles as enumerated above. However before you label yourself a specialist, “I’m a CoM Tank only!”, I would recommend you play the other positions with this new appreciation for team responsibility in mind. Get a feel for what services you want out of your teammates which will allow you to know how to provide them when you play.

What will probably happen is that you can build a library of heroes that fill roles and sets of services that you’re comfortable offering a team.

What is up next?

Core DPS and Flanker DPS and our two flavors of support Tied and Free. However, I did want to stop for a second and say thank you for reading. My first article got a much larger reception than I expected. I have reshaped what I’m writing somewhat to try to appeal to a larger audience, hopefully you continue to find the framework that I use to discuss Overwatch valuable and make discussing it more tractable.


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Overwatch player and competitive team coach. Lets play and talk some Overwatch.