Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch and Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege were massively successful in their respective spheres during 2016, but they face comfortable stagnation in competitive play unless their developers set their sights on a different way to balance in 2017. These team-based, character-focused first-person shooters will have to broaden their horizons past the characters that make both games so enticing.
Overwatch benefited from gargantuan pre-release hype, an impressive developer pedigree and an at least partial glimpse of what a diverse game can look like from a AAA developer. Overwatch’s characters are the stars: coming in different races, colors, body types, accents, roles and most recently, sexualities, you can’t not be a fan of at least a few of these precious babes. The diversity in Overwatch’s character design is welcoming to many folks who wouldn’t otherwise play it, especially those who aren’t into FPS. Unlike other shooters, you don’t actually have to shoot anyone! Striking a balance somewhere between Team Fortress 2’s classes and MOBA archetypes, Overwatch gives players options to be the hero they want. Love for the cast has taken over Tumblr, Twitch and Pornhub with equal fervor.
Since its conception, however, the competitive shooter has never functioned as Blizzard intended. The first trailer included character intros showcasing unique abilities that counter other characters’ specialties. Standard play is six-versus-six, allowing both teams to pick a variety of characters from the game’s current cast of 23. The official Overwatch twitter account would consistently list potential counters with the refrain, “Hero switching is a main element of Overwatch.”
All of those sound great, but are completely disconnected to the game’s competitive reality. Throughout the pre-release beta, there were no hero limits, which led to pro players adopting three-pair teams such as double Zenyatta, double McCree and double Winston. For the entirety of Overwatch’s life, almost half the roster in Overwatch has sat at less than a 10% pickrate. Which heroes fall into this D/F tier has fluctuated immensely over the game’s release, as the vast majority of Blizzard’s balancing efforts have come in the form of buffs and nerfs to just the cast, but the number of characters has not. I don’t bring this up to denigrate Blizzard’ balancers, as they’re actually among the best in the business. This is the company responsible for Brood War, StarCraft II and Hearthstone. They know their shit.
Soon after a dominant strategy emerges, such as the currently oppressive triple/quad tank strat, Blizzard works hard to take these characters down a notch. It won’t be long before Playable Test Region (PTR) changes go live to deal with these overpowered tank-heavy lineups. Still, this does not help solve what is commonplace in competitive Overwatch: little variance in team composition. Some character switching does happen. It’s not nearly as free-form or essential, however, as Blizzard’s marketing might have made it seem. Across all of Overwatch’s map types—Assault, with two sequential capture points; Escort, with a payload that must be pushed across the map; Hybrid, which combines Assault and Escort; and Control, with a King of the Hill-style large capture point—there is a common thread: the abundance of choke points.
Even a cursory glance at “map design and choke points” on r/Overwatch gives you a plethora of results on frustration with the geographic feature curiously common to Overwatch’s globe-trotting map locations. Since chokepoints are used in all maps, teams inevitably have to struggle through a single funnel at some point; as such, it makes sense to almost always move as a complete team and organize your attack as a limited number of “pushes” within the allotted time limit. When a push fails, you’ll sometimes see one or two characters switch to try a slightly different strategy. Switching doesn’t happen in general because you lose charge you’ve built up for characters’ counterplay-resistant Ultimate abilities. It’s hard to underestimate how important these abilities are.
It didn’t take long for many players/analysts (yours truly included~) to rightfully point out that no hero limits would homogenize team composition. Why the hell would you pick a variety of characters when you could just select multiple of the best characters? While a lot of players initially complained about reducing the “number” of potential team compositions with hero limits in place, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who opposes it today. Perception of “toxic” and “annoying” team compositions was so strong that a single-hero limit was even added for the casual-focused Quick Play.
But it’s to Blizzard’s credit and Overwatch’s strength that they’ve been very receptive to player input. There’s no greater example of this than the removal of competitive Season One’s terrible Sudden Death option in favor of Time Bank in Season Two. Spearheaded mostly by Team Fortress 2 veterans, Time Bank helped alleviate the random nature of Sudden Death and created a framework that made tourney play for Overwatch possible. Before it, competitive Overwatch was just a mess. But again, character variety has continued to languish. Those same TF2 players have offered potential solutions such as adapting TF2’s popular 5 Capture Point-style maps where both teams begin with two points and then fight to secure a neutral middle point before they can encroach on the other team’s territory. Different objectives and sub-objectives would allow different characters to shine in different ways, which is really what Blizzard intended all along.
As it stands, Overwatch is just too confined.
It feels counterintuitive, but to improve the variety of characters used in competitive play, Blizzard will have to look beyond the cast they’ve put so much time and love into. While the heroes of Overwatch encompass the world over, the maps, gametypes and variables that house them feel as small as an anthill. The goal to create a game with more than one or two dominant strategies revised and reproduced every competitive season is a noble one, and would allow Overwatch to reach a potential never before seen in this wonderfully juicy game.
Rainbow Six Siege is the other standout competitive FPS from 2016, although with an entirely different origin story. Released in December 2015, Siege was initially panned by critics as a bland tactical FPS. All the elements are there—one tap-kill headshots, Tom Clancy’s logo plastered all over and a reverent reproduction of existing counter-terrorism units. The big difference in Siege is destructibility (well, that, and a TV commercial featuring a smoldering Idris Elba (that certainly wasn’t the main reason I started playing, uh nope)). Bullets, explosions and impacts will deform, destroy and break open walls and barricades to an absurdly granular degree.
Siege was continually held back, however: the game was plagued with cheaters. Cheating was so pervasive that it allegedly happened in the game’s own pro league without any consequences. This completely undermined any real competitive ecosystem for the game, from casual play all the way to the highest echelon of competition. Siege excitement waned, especially in direct comparison with the aesthetically-similar FPS titan Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But when all seemed lost, something happened. On July 25, 2016, Ubisoft pledged to support the game for the long-haul and introduced a massive amount of changes for Siege’s Third Season focusing on the health of the game. The largest improvement was the adoption of the premier anti-cheat software BattlEye. Almost overnight, player confidence skyrocketed and Rainbow Six Siege became a major player in the competitive FPS scene.
Since the patch, Siege has seen a renaissance; critics say “Siege has turned into one of the best shooters around,” it’s “the most innovative FPS of the last 10 years” and “it’s time to accept that ‘Rainbow Six Siege’ is the best multiplayer shooter, ever.” Player count has soared and the game can now be regularly found just under the top 10 featured games on Twitch. Even folks who don’t play it recognize now Siege’s dankest meme, the LORD TACHANKA. Siege marches forward into its second year of support, including eight new operators from Spain, Hong Kong, Poland and South Korea, in addition to four new maps spread out over four seasons.
Competitive Siege consists of two teams—Attackers and Defenders—fighting over bombsites in a number of maps inspired by real counter-terrorism operations from around the world. While Attackers have superior weaponry and two remote-controlled drones they can use to gather intel and smoke out adversaries, the Defenders are allowed to prepare the location with reinforced walls, boarding up windows & doors as well as other fortifications. Defenders get to choose the bombsite they want to defend, and along with a map-wide camera system, they get to determine where and how they’ll engage the Attackers. At its best, Siege outshines every tactical shooter on the market. Matches are a delicate dance of imperfect intel and limited resources driving each player to make strategic decisions at every turn. Sound design is paramount in Siege and destructible environments force you to rethink verticality and angles in a way that other shooters just can’t offer. Communication with teammates is your main lifeline.
Still, Siege faces the same problem that Overwatch does: while the game is focused on a variety of operators of different races, genders and backgrounds, competitive play does not see much team variety. Although 28 present operators are divided between Attackers and Defenders so that attacking and defending rounds feel distinct, the pickrate of many operators on both sides is abysmally low. After all, why deviate from a core set of operators who do the job well enough most of the time? Much like Blizzard, Ubisoft has focused most of its balancing efforts on tweaking operator values and abilities in an effort to make them all viable. They’ve continually done a great job at knocking down overused operators and buffing the weak ones, too.
Like Overwatch, operator balancing will never fully solve a dearth of character variety. We can, however, find other positive changes: the round timer reduction from four to three minutes in online ranked play. This is equivalent to the timer used in the Pro League, and drastically changes how Attackers must approach the objective. All of their movements must be purposeful and they cannot rely on choking-out the Defenders by holding angles and pushing slowly into the bombsite anymore. Since the change, pro players have been able to practice with different operators and team compositions way more often instead of only in Pro League and scrimmages. The efficacy speaks for itself: the recent ESL Pro League 6 Invitational Qualifiers on PC had the most diverse operator usage in Siege history.
That’s very encouraging, but Ubisoft can do more. Most maps have four different bombsites the Defenders can choose from, but some of them are completely unviable, making the choice more of an afterthought than anything. The most dominant optic in pro play is the ACOG scope, offering a 2.5x zoom while aiming down sights. Since it is used the most, weapons that aren’t able to attach an ACOG (and by extension, operators who don’t have any weapons capable of equipping them) are used significantly less than those that do. Improving the viability of certain objectives and attachments would easily lead to more varied team composition!
Ubisoft has already shown they’re comfortable experimenting with “arbitrary” balancing decisions to improve operator diversity. When a defending team succeeds in protecting a certain objective, they are locked out of choosing that same objective location for their next defensive round. It’s a small but important way to ensure that pro play isn’t simply the same team composition and strategy each round. Siege could easily take notes from Dota 2’s peerless character balancing (2016’s The International 6 tournament showed 104 of the 110-hero cast used) and offer both Attackers and Defenders a single operator to ban on the other team per round. Dota 2’s massive character selection gives way more leeway for banning characters, but Siege could definitely support a single character ban per team. What makes Dota 2’s drafting so important is that it lets both teams try to execute a strategy while also limiting the opposing team’s ability to counter your own. Siege’s operators are designed as soft-counters to each other, so denying the enemy team from having a specific advantage would let pros try out new strategies that wouldn’t otherwise be viable. And if banning a single operator was ever too oppressive, Ubisoft could just follow their own lead! Prevent teams from banning the same operator they chose during the previous round.
This is to say nothing of Siege’s other modes–Hostage and Secure Area–as they are very similar but simply inferior than Bomb, hence why they aren’t played in the Pro League. Ubisoft has the potential to change these gametypes significantly to offer different gameplay and chances for different operators to shine. Of course in game design, the simplest balancing solutions are the most desirable and updating these modes would take a lot of time that could be used to create plenty of other content.
And on some level, that’s what both Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege are all about, right?
As multiplayer-only first-person shooters, they survive on continued player interest through new characters, new modes, cool outfits to show off, dank winposes and more. Interesting and engaging high-level play is key for them to thrive as spectator sports, and there’s no better way to keep people entertained than showcasing a huge variety of strategies. Overwatch and Siege will likely continue to be the best competitive FPS games in 2017, but they have not ascended to their full potential. All that’s required of Ubisoft and Blizzard is to unchain themselves from their beloved characters. For both games, the light is certainly ahead in 2017. But it’s a quiet, familiar one.
We’re ready for a new dawn.
Liam Conlon is an insufferable enby who likes reading Dota 2 patchnotes and complaining about Street Fighter V. While they don’t have as much time for tournaments anymore, they still claim to be the best Project Justice and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Heritage for the Future in America. You can find their work at Loser City, Women Write About Comics and more. They seldom tweet @Flowtaro.