The Overwatch League is in the middle of their third season, a departure from its first two in a number of ways. New for 2020 was the traveling schedule of home matches in cities across the world, a scheduling decision cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the hallmark of Overwatch League’s third season is a return to online play, but that’s not nearly the biggest difference in the league.
This season has brought a distinct change in the meta, or overall strategy and the heroes that each team chooses to play with. Traditionally metas have dominated games like Overwatch. It’s impossible to perfectly balance a game and as such certain characters are going to feel more powerful than others. Bring them all together and you can create some unstoppable combos, which is why Blizzard-Activision is constantly updating and balancing the game to help shift it away from overused metas.
Despite Blizzard’s best efforts, the first two seasons were dominated by metas with most matchups turning into a six-on-six of the same heroes every single game. What wasn’t helping matters for the Overwatch League, in particular, was that while the main game played by ordinary gamers was constantly updated, Overwatch League would frequently play on older versions with older meta combos.
“This is actually one of the things that did not change in response to moving online.” said Jon Spector, vice president of Overwatch League. “In the first two seasons we had stages where the regular season was sort of broken up into quarters. In that structure we made a decision where we’d say ‘Hey stage one was going to be played on this version of the game.’ Even if throughout stage one the game got updated we wouldn’t update it on OWL.”
This year, however, the league shifted to a more traditional regular season with no mid-year reset, which meant as the game updates so will the league itself. This creates an exciting opportunity when it comes to new features being added to the game. Yes, there are constant balance changes that players have to adjust for, but if a new hero is dropped into the Overwatch universe it could completely alter the balance of the game itself. Someone like Echo.
New heroes are a huge part of the Overwatch experience. They’re an opportunity to play with a new set of skills and potentially change the game, and while it may take an ordinary gamer years to fully understand how best to utilize new characters, the pros have quickly figured out how much the new build changes the game itself.
“It was awesome seeing Echo,” Spector said. “From a viewership and a fan perspective we think it’s really important, and our fans appreciate seeing the pros play the same game that they do, and so the closer we can have OWL to what you and I play at home we think is for the better.”
Watching pros utilize Echo can also help regular gamers build strategies for play on their own time, an important lesson that can be taken from a league no longer competing on older builds of the game. Spector said this switch was intentional, and the results have been encouraging to say the least.
“We wanted to come up with a different logic that felt fair and consistent that the teams and players could prep for,” Spector said. “What we’ve done is basically outline for them typically when the game receives a new balance patch or in this case a new hero: ‘Here’s the process of the timeline by which we would then move that into the Overwatch League.'”
The addition of Echo has helped create a lot of excitement in these online-only matchups, as each team utilizes her ultimate ability — to copy a hero on the opposing team — in a completely different way. Do they want the bulkiness of a tank or the potential of an extra support ultimate? The flexibility has helped create more differences among the teams and disrupt matches from falling into the same patterns from earlier seasons and matchups.
Another concept helping to change things up are the Hero Pools, which “removes” four heroes — two damage dealers, one tank, and one healer/support — from the game for one week. The move has completely changed the strategies teams have to use in different situations. Even when teams use the same hero compositions they’re using different styles on different maps: One team might go with the Winston-D.VA tank combo to dive on to their opponents while another might use an Orisa-Sigma double shield combo.
“A lot of season two in 2019 was about teams racing to sort of perfect a specific meta or specific strategy for months on end,” Spector said. “The introduction of hero pools but also things like Echo, I think, shift the emphasis more toward rapid innovation and experimentation and trying to theory craft.”
The goal, Spector said, was to force pros out of the metas and strategies that seemed unavoidable and to experiment with something new. And through the league’s third season it’s been a clear success in both diversifying the strategies in-game and the entertainment value for fans watching at home. Seeing the pros adapt to the game’s changes has helped others playing to do the same because, as Spector pointed out, for many watching Overwatch League is part of their process in improving their own game.
“I think for eSports as well the goal generally is one of the most consistent reasons you see when you talk to fans” said Spector. “Why do you watch this sport? ‘I want to get better. I want to learn. I want to see what the pros do.'”