Overwatch Too Heavily Necessitates and Rewards Speed, Mobility
Discussing individual hero balance, as well as how game modes and map design encourage mirror dive comps
Overwatch is an esport based on time with maps designed around optimal high ground, yet a select few heroes have the speed and mobility necessary to take advantage of these fundamental game mechanics. As a result, these heroes outshine their slower counterparts in pick percentage and viability. In their current iterations, the most mobile heroes are not sufficiently weak elsewhere to compensate for the advantage of speed and mobility themselves.
D.Va exemplifies this principle. Despite the overwhelming utility of her Defense Matrix, she would not be nearly as strong (and a relative must-pick at the moment) without her Boosters. Consider if she was immobile while using her Matrix; had no boost at all; or, could only more horizontally with her boost, similar to Tracer’s Blink or Reinhardt’s Charge. Suddenly it becomes possible to out-maneuver D.Va’s Matrix and more difficult for her to escape engagements. Conversely, consider if she retained her mobility as is, but had a significantly weakened Matrix. In either situation, D.Va becomes comparable to other tank heroes, like Reinhardt, Zarya, and Orisa.
Furthermore, the heroes intended to counter D.Va (i.e. those that can bypass her Matrix), like Zarya, are not effective in doing so because they lack the mobility necessary to consistently and effectively challenge the tank. For Zarya in particular, her usefulness is further compromised because D.Va works well with other mobile heroes, like Tracer and Genji, who more easily evade her Graviton Surge, and her ult can be eaten by Defense Matrix. Thus, it becomes more advantageous for a team to simply give themselves a D.Va’s Matrix and mobility than to run any sort of “counter.” Mirror comps emerge and the game becomes stale, both for viewers and players.
D.Va is not the only hero whose speed and mobility elevates their pick percentage. Lucio has been a must-have hero since beta because he provides something no other hero can and no other hero can counter, which is an aura speed boost. Even amidst nerfs to his speed boost (first its % speed buff, and later its effective range), Lucio has persisted because speed (1) benefits teammates’ aim, (2) makes teammates more difficult to hit, and (3), perhaps most importantly, makes it easier to engage and disengage.
As he is and as has been since beta, Lucio lacks significant weaknesses to compensate for the strength and uniqueness of his speed boost. He can easily reach high ground with wall-riding; his Sound Barrier is a universally viable ult; his aura healing is powerful and as unique as his speed boost; and, he is a capable stall hero in his own right.
No one else in the game can provide or nullify the advantage of a speed boost, which both teams need, and so Lucio has not fallen from the meta since beta. Anyone doubting his value need only to look at the way high-utility, but relatively stationary, supports like Ana and Zenyatta have been easily replaced by Sombra in recent weeks, while Lucio has remained a mainstay.
In the game’s current iteration, perhaps the best examples of balanced heroes (in terms of where mobility meets utility) are Tracer and pre-buffs Winston.
Winston’s Jump Pack is valuable for initiating fights for his team and disengaging when necessary. With it, he can reach otherwise difficult high ground like the top of the ship on Watchpoint: Gibraltar in an instant, as well as easily pressure teams’ backlines. His ultimate, Primal Rage, transforms him into an even more mobile, highly effective stall-machine. His primary fire requires no skill to use.
On paper, Winston is a strong hero, which can be said without even touching his (also valuable) barrier. But up until recently, the main tank had two major caveats: (1) his large head hitbox and (2) his vulnerability to Ana’s Biotic Grenade. As we now know, the latter weakness turned out to be a bug and the former has since been reduced.
The problem is that prior to these two buffs in particular, Winston remained viable in dive compositions, as he should be, without being as overpowering as he is now with a smaller hitbox and improved, stall-capable ultimate.
Comparatively, to compensate for her speed and evasiveness, Tracer has a low health pool at 150hp and her mobility itself has a high skill cap. Additionally, she lacks vertical movement.
Tracer is being hotly debated at the moment because of her high damage output and quick-charging, fight-turning Pulse Bombs, but the skill ceiling on her abilities is much higher than that of Winston or D.Va. As such, the skill disparity amongst Tracers is much greater than the skill disparity amongst Winstons or D.Vas, both for pros and run-of-the-mill competitive players.
In the interest of this article, Tracer’s mobility is not only more limited (i.e. she has no vertical movement) than her dive counterparts, but it is more difficult to use effectively, given her low health pool. The remainder of her abilities are similarly challenging when compared to the low effort, high reward abilities of Winston and D.Va, or even Lucio. Where post-buff Winston is mobile, difficult to kill, and relatively easy to play, Tracer is less mobile, easier to kill, and considerably harder to play.
Currently, the quickest, most mobile heroes are strong in a variety of other areas, as if their mobility is not an asset to balance around in and of itself.
Similar breakdowns can be done for the remaining dive/most mobile heroes, but it is more important to consider why speed and mobility are so powerful in Overwatch, and how they could become even more-so in the pro scene.
The viability of dive heroes comes down to (a) Overwatch’s game modes incentivizing stall compositions and (b) Overwatch’s map design rewarding mobility.
All four of the game modes currently played — assault, escort, control, and hybrid — are based around time banks, i.e. speed. Because whoever completes the objective fastest wins, every second bled off the opposing team’s clock counts. In fact, one second can be the difference between an extra minute to attack and a map loss.
As such, stall becomes a vital component of every team’s strategy. It is why D.Va is kept alive until the last moment, if possible, once popped out of her mech and why Mei becomes everyone’s favorite hero once a team begins to lose the second point on an assault map.
Indeed, stalling is and must be a component of every team’s tactics, if not the primary objective. The reality of the game is that forcing protracted, lengthy fights with hard-to-kill heroes in an effort to deplete the opposing team’s time bank is a legitimate strategy, even if these fights are clear losses from the onset. This is a mechanic that some teams have always exploited well (Selfless and Rogue come to mind), but more will come to prioritize, despite stall comps not being fun to watch or play.
The stall potential of each hero is seemingly overlooked when making balance changes, and it is this lack of consideration that will prevent an utopia in which every hero is viable and played regularly. Instead, the meta will always trend towards mirror compositions comprised of the few heroes best suited firstly for stall and secondly for burst damage output.
The triple tank comp thrived on this premise for a long time because it was both beefy and had reasonably high damage output, but it has since faded from pro play in the wake of buffs to the quickest, most mobile heroes. Attempts to revive it — Vietnam, for example, attempted a tri-tank defense on King’s Row this month — have failed because the comp so obviously lacks mobility.
This is fine when everyone lacks mobility (e.g. everyone is running tri-tank comps), but when five of the opposing team’s heroes can reach high ground in an instant while your team is a sitting duck behind a Reinhardt shield, suddenly this version of a stall comp fails.
Even on KOTH, where high ground is typically limited and thus less significant, the team with a Reinhardt will lose out against a dive comp because dive heroes can easily maneuver around and ignore his shield.
Furthermore, he cannot evade Pulse Bombs (or ults in general) as easily as D.Va or Winston; his shield is his best defense and makes him even slower; his Charge is harder to hit against smaller, quicker heroes; and, his shield is most effective when used in conjunction with other stationary heroes who, again, are vulnerable to the virtual omnipresence of dive heroes. His inability to engage in and disengage from fights easily, or even efficiently access high ground, make him a poor stall hero.
We saw Team Finland fall to this dynamic in the World Cup, despite having a top-tier Reinhardt player in Fragi. The slowest, least active heroes are simply outclassed by the most mobile, especially in survivability. Not even ults like Earthshatter and Graviton Surge, which are better for kill conversion, can overshadow the value of stall potential in Primal Rage and Self-Destruct.
The current combination of dive heroes is best suited for stalling because they (1) can reinforce their team, or return to a fight, more quickly than others; (2) take longer to kill than most, either because of sheer health points or elusiveness, or a combination of the two; and, (3) most can use their ultimates independently without being considered a waste or overall detriment to the team.
Primal Rage and Self-Destruct are the best examples of the latter. On day one of the World Cup qualifier in Sydney, Japan pulled a quick, surprising second hold on point A of King’s Row against Portugal. This was possible because they were able to regroup as six before the final tick was secured, and because they had Primal Rage and Self-Destruct available to stall.
Japan ended up committing Nano Boost and Sound Barrier once the fight looked winnable (and, ultimately, it was), but had they only used Primal Rage and Self-Destruct, then died staggered deaths on the point, then minutes would have been bled off Portugal’s clock. In order to end the fight quickly, Portugal would have had to commit more of their ultimates which, even still, would have benefitted the defending team in the long run. Those two ultimates would have been a good trade for extra minutes of “defense” — if you can call dying efficiently defense.
Neither of the two ultimates committed would have been missed in the next fight the way that a Graviton Surge or Earthshatter, both of which are expected to result in kills, would have. This can be said of Pulse Bomb as well because it charges so quickly. However, even Dragonblade, Tactical Visor, and EMP can be used independently. Ults in dive comps do not necessarily need to be combined to be effective, though support ults are not going to be used frivolously.
This is not to say that ult economy does not matter in dive comps, but that its significance is diminished because ults are not frequently combined, nor are all expected to produce kills. On defense, stalling a point is just as valuable and that is wherein dive heroes’ strength lies.
Finally, maps in Overwatch are designed around advantageous high ground, which is intentionally time consuming to access for heroes without mobility.
This high ground is important because it provides a positional advantage and an escape from fights, should one become necessary.
The rooftops of Hollywood, the ship in Watchpoint: Gibraltar, the orange beams on Horizon Lunar Colony, etc. are all time consuming and, in some cases, completely inaccessible to slower, immobile heroes. On Hollywood, players have to use slow, RNG-based elevators to reach the rooftops, which are completely necessary for optimal positioning.
Comparatively, mobile heroes can easily reposition themselves in a fight when necessary. This is incredibly important on maps like Numbani and Dorado, to name only two, in which the ability to transition quickly and easily between mirrored high ground is vital.
While AKTM of Team Japan had some success on Dorado with McCree, this vulnerability was plain when watching him separate from his team and take the long, slow walk up the stairs to high ground to use his ultimate, only to be instantly jumped on from across the map and deleted by his dive opponents. Heroes like McCree simply lack the mobility necessary to live without excessive support and will never be out of reach of dive heroes for long.
Overwatch’s maps are expansive and full of uneven topography. Whichever team can take full advantage of the most amount of a map will always be in a better position than their opponents, and the heroes best suited to this task are the quickest and most mobile.
In conclusion, Blizzard has designed maps and game modes based on speed and mobility, yet only given a select few heroes these attributes. With recent buffs to said heroes, a return to mirror-matched dive compositions of metas past was inevitable.
Stagnated, mirrored, and stall-based gameplay is not one viewers are anxious to watch, nor players anxious to play. The solutions to this dynamic are numerous and extend beyond simply lengthening defensive spawn timers in specific situations — though it is definitely a start. As the Overwatch League comes into fruition, Blizzard should look to minimize the power of stalled objectives and mobile heroes if they want Overwatch to be an exciting spectator esport.