Nobody likes change, least of all gamers. We get a stark reminder of this whenever a major patch is rolled out to any popular ‘live’ game. Even when change is demonstrably for the better, there will always be fans that cannot let go of their past experiences with a game.
In the days since we heard that Overwatch will be adopting a role queue into its matchmaking process, we’ve seen Blizzard’s hero shooter once again become a touchpoint for outrage and elation, with hot takes pouring in about how the forthcoming changes will kill or save the game.
I believe that role queue is a necessary step in Overwatch’s evolution, but like most contentious topics, this one can’t be boiled down to a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ binary. There are certainly some cons to this change, but also a few misconceptions of it. So put down your pitchforks, and let’s take a look at the state of Overwatch.
To understand the discourse around Overwatch’s latest changes, we need to look at the Overwatch League. It has been a massive project for Blizzard, with investment in the billions and regional franchises being set up across the globe. Blizzard’s commitment to the League continues to be a point of ire for fans who have no interest in esports, but for better or worse, the success of the game is inextricably linked to the League, just as the League lives and dies on the relevance of the game.
To blame role lock on the Overwatch League entirely is a fallacy
Viewership of the League has been in decline ever since the start of its second season back in February, due largely to the stale ‘GOATS’ meta. With some exceptions, the vast majority of team comps in the League have used three tanks and three healers, essentially rendering the damage roles, which are more conducive to flashy plays, irrelevant. Teamfights in the 3-3 meta are slow, almost laborious wars of attrition that are quite simply not as fun to watch.
While damage dealers have slowly been creeping back into the metagame, it’s not been enough to pull the League’s viewership out of freefall. Therefore, the switch to an enforced 2-2-2 composition has been on the cards for some time. What has caught some off-guard is Blizzard’s choice to apply the role lock to the game’s live servers so soon after the League. Understandably, this has led many fans to blame the change entirely on the League, but this assumption is a fallacy – one that has been dispelled by game director Jeff Kaplan himself.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
To blame role queue on the League is to assume that all is well in Overwatch’s ranked play, which as most dedicated players know, is far from the truth. Competitive Overwatch has never been perfect but satisfaction with what is supposed to be the most important part of the game has been in sharp decline over the past year.
Former pros including Seagull, Dafran, and XQC have vocalised the growing frustration at high levels of play. Many agree that no matter the technical skill of players on your team, there are overpowered compositions – of which GOATS is a prime example – that will simply roll over any opposing team. And it’s not just high-level play that is suffering: Silver, Gold, and Platinum tiers are plagued with their own sets of issues. Speaking as a very average player, I often find myself forced into roles that I’m not comfortable with to complete the makeup of a balanced team, and subsequently underperforming.
The state of Overwatch has also led to some heroes getting disproportionately hated for ‘ruining’ the meta. Scorn has been heaped on Brigitte for having too much offensive power for a support hero, which is a huge shame, because she is very fun to play. Role queue will lead to heroes having more clearly defined roles, starting with reworks to Brigitte and Reinhardt.
As Kaplan rightly points out in his developer update, 40 seconds is an unreasonably short time window to assemble a balanced team, and there is a tremendous amount of social pressure in that process. When SR is on the line, things can get very heated, very quickly. To put it bluntly, the way teams are currently laid out fosters toxicity. For some gamers, this isn’t a problem, but there are those of us that feel genuinely put off by this stressful environment and have resorted to staying in Quick Play to avoid it. Having everyone enter the game with assigned roles will go a long way to relieve these social pressures, as well as ensure that everyone can enjoy the game by playing the heroes they are most proficient with. It’s not a complete cure to toxicity, but a radical lifestyle change that will benefit the social experience.
Kaplan says that role queue is not specifically intended to stamp out the 3-3 meta, but a lot of fans aren’t buying it. It does seem likely that the dominance of this meta at least accelerated already existing plans. Without launching into a detailed analysis of why 3-3 has come about, it boils down to the fact that as the roster of heroes has grown, the game has become more difficult to balance – the sheer volume of buffs, nerfs, and reworks we’ve seen recently is testament to that. It’s the reason that games like Dota 2 and League of Legends have ‘pick and ban’ systems; without some limit on which heroes are picked, there are simply too many variables at play in a roster this large to ensure a balanced game every time.
No more tanking your rank
Alongside the matchmaking changes, there will also be an overhaul of the current ranking system. Currently, players have to complete ten placement matches at the start of every season to earn a skill ranking of Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, Grand Master, or Top 500. Which rank you land in is heavily determined by whether you win or lose your placement matches, so a lot depends on having a cooperative team. This means solo players are basically tossing a coin every time they enter matchmaking.
If you’re a team player, you will often find yourself having to fill roles that are required for a balanced composition. Damage, tank, and support have vastly different playstyles, and if you are simply filling any role that is required, your skill rating is going to vary greatly from match to match. Players who do this will typically find their skill rating suffers when playing heroes with which they are less confident, which leads to getting stuck in the same rank, season after season.
Now, you will be assigned a separate skill ranking for each role you play, so players won’t have to try and ‘instalock’ their main hero to ensure the highest possible skill ranking. They’ll be free to experiment with playing different roles without having to worry about their rank dropping. For example, I could easily maintain a Platinum rank in support, but would probably end up in Silver for DPS. Instead of averaging out in low Gold, I can now get an accurate assessment of my skills in each job. Your competitive points are now also separated by role, so it’s going to get a whole lot easier to grab those sweet golden guns.
Not-so quick play
One aspect to role queue that has raised eyebrows is that it is not only rolling out across competitive, but quick play matches as well. Many people have taken issue with this, which I can sympathise with, but Blizzard’s reasoning makes a lot of sense here, too.
Those lamenting the death of flex aren't looking at the bigger picture
Since season one, all gameplay changes in Overwatch have rolled out across both modes, with the aim of keeping parity between them. Blizzard’s goal here is to get as many players as possible playing competitive, so the transition for new players into ranked play needs to be as smooth as possible. The danger with only enforcing role queue in competitive play is that new players would get accustomed to an entirely different metagame, with different favoured compositions, and then be even more out of their depth in ranked.
Those who want a more free-form, casual style of play will still have the Overwatch Arcade. Quick Play Classic will be a permanent fixture there, allowing players to continue playing quick play without restrictions, with the added incentive of being able to earn extra loot boxes. The addition of endorsements to the Arcade means that Quick Play Classic will be just as feature-complete as the default mode currently is – in fact, it will be more or less identical.
To say that role queue limits the creativity of players is not only an oversimplification, it is also undervaluing the efforts that Blizzard has made to keep the game fresh throughout its life-cycle. Let’s also not forget about the Overwatch Workshop and custom game servers, allowing fans to take Overwatch into whole new genres and beyond.
The Overwatch team has thought long and hard about why and how they implement role queue and has made sure to address as many concerns as possible, providing solutions for every kind of player to have an overall better experience.
Role queue will create exciting new possibilities for Overwatch’s ever-expanding hero roster, as well as making it a fairer and more welcoming game. Those lamenting the death of flex aren’t looking at the bigger picture. As tank and support roles grow, the options for flexing will only get better. Though flexing mid-game produces exciting moments in the upper echelons of play, where the necessary game sense exists to pull it off, it’s not a crucial tactic for most players. Killing it is a shame, but a price worth paying for the positives that role queue will bring.
Role queue is vital for the ongoing health of this game, and might just give it a whole new lease of life. No doubt there will be a large contingent of lapsed players returning to the game when the new matchmaking system is rolled out proper, even just to give it a try – and they will find a revitalised Overwatch that remains, after all these years, the definitive hero shooter.