Competitive Play: A Season in Review
Competitive play has been out for some time now and while the system is pretty solid so far it's definitely not without its flaws. Blizzard's interaction with the fan base has been great though and has this writer surprisingly optimistic for the future of the game mode.
In order to get to the meat of competitive play, you must first complete 10 placement matches. Each match result slowly determines your starting rank. Later I found the placement matches would become fairly important, as it seemed the system was designed to take great pains in keeping players at their originally placed rank. I ended my placement matches receiving a bunch of gold medals and a 7-3 record.
How it works
After what I felt to be a respectable performance, and speaking with friends on where they ended up being ranked, I figured I might be placed somewhere in the low 60's. I was surprised to be ranked 55, but thought "Ok, not bad". The journey to the higher ranks is where the real fun is supposed to be anyway.
How the system ranks you seems straight forward at first. Every match rewards a certain amount of points or experience which governs whether or not you rank up or down. Win a match and gain points/experience, lose a match and lose points/experience. You're supposed to receive more or less experience per individual performance as well as whether your team was "favored" to win or not. My experience with this design concept was mixed during my playtime and I'll explain why.
My first 45 games or so resulted in a 30-15 record. Most of the time I was either solo or duo queuing, with a few people joining me for three and four queues near the end of the play session. Judging off other game's rank systems, you'd think with well over a 50% win rate I'd have ranked up quite a bit, right? Wrong. After 45 games I ended up ranking three times to 58. Wins and losses seemed to vary wildly in awarded experience and it felt like a frustrating grind where one loss meant a full derank and three wins MIGHT reward a rank up. Again, Blizzard has said the design is such that you're awarded more or less points based on whether your team is favored to win as well as individual performance. What was odd, though, was that I was consistently being awarded gold medals and felt I was performing well in my role. In fact, right now I'm ranked in the top 500 of medals earned. Because of the way the system was while I played - winning felt great, but losing felt frustrating due to the perceived amount of variance in experience gained and lost coupled with my perceived individual performance.
After reaching rank 58 I ended up going on a 6 game losing streak where I fell all the way down to 52. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of ranks to lose after fighting through 45 games just to rank up a mere three times. This was easily the most dissatisfying of my time spent during competitive play. MMR hell is definitely alive and well in Overwatch. Over the course of my fall I saw a near never ending stream of off meta hero selections such as Torbjorn, Bastion and Hanzo, players refusing to ever switch characters regardless if the team comp needed a different hero or not, little to no communication via text or voice and a hand full of leavers as well. This is where I really started to think that win/loss streaks held more weight than slow, consistent play and that individual performance barely mattered. Needless to say I was pretty frustrated after the losses so I decided to take a break for a bit.
Trio Queue's the charm
Over the next day or so I decided to read some strategy guides from GosuGamers' own scr1be (article) and watched Seagull's (youtube) pro level ranked play. Coming back to competitive I felt refreshed and must have picked up some tips because I ended up going on a 9-2 run pulling my rank back up to 59. I would have been 60 if it weren't for the final match going to sudden death. Most of these games were with a duo queue partner, but halfway through we were joined by another friend of ours for a three queue. While three queuing we had closer, more enjoyable games where the rest of the team was more inclined to work together and use chat since there were already three people chatting anyway. The wins felt rewarding and deserved, while our two close losses felt like they could have gone either way. There were only a few times where we stomped the other team and overall everything felt good. Since Overwatch is so heavily weighted on teamwork, three people seemed to be the perfect sweet spot between not having enough effect on the game (1 or 2 queuing) and pushing ranked play to a borderline scrim type situation (4, 5 or 6 queuing).
To recap - I had some ups and downs while playing. I ranked up from 55-58 in about 45 games. I fell to 52 over the course of about a 6 game losing streak. I was put off by the amount of games it took to rank up vs down and during my fall to 52 I was almost ready to quit because of the lack of teamwork in MMR hell. Climbing back up to 59 was smooth and enjoyable, especially with a team of two other friends, which brought about better communication as well as overall hero selection. Over the course of my time with competitive play I came up with some ideas for improvement.
My biggest problem with competitive play was the "feeling" of the system itself. The system seemed to want to keep me at the same rank I was awarded after placement matches. Individual play seemed to either not matter or reflect very little in my overall rank. Wins seemed to net much less exp than losses took away while streaks had a disproportionate effect on ranking up or down. All this could be on purpose with Blizzard wanting to place more importance on your ability to win or lose rather than individual skill. That's fine, but the problem with this type of system is that it just felt wrong to take so long to rank up with over a 50% win ratio just to fall so quickly after a comparatively small losing streak. Something seemed incongruent with the system, resulting in a frustrating experience.
Other problems compounding the imperfect "feel" of competitive play were how sudden death, overtime, hero limits and map selection worked. Sudden death felt like a coin flip for winning or losing and no hero limit only compounded that problem. Too often during sudden death or overtime players resorted to cheese strategies such as multiple Bastion/Reinhardt combos on defense or Tracer spam to keep overtime everlasting. Finally, map selection was non-existent in competitive play with players queuing into a random map choice. Multiple professional games have used ban/select systems in the past and using such a system for Overwatch ranked play would be a big improvement.
After reflecting on my competitive play experience, overall l I feel good about it. The system is off to a strong start and Blizzard's built a solid foundation. Competitive play does have its flaws though - something Blizzard isn't ignoring. Following community criticism Blizzard has been doing a remarkable job of listening and working to resolve issues. They've already spoken out addressing most of the aforementioned concerns. Jeff Kaplan has previously talked about the competitive play system including how it feels and sudden death here and you can read Blizzard's responses to other issues here (one hero limit), here (more about one hero limit) and here (leaver fix).
The gist of what they plan to do is to make overtime increasingly rare, removing sudden death all together and enforcing a one hero limit. They haven't talked about plans for dealing with issues of how the system feels, how players are ranked within the system or the lack of map selection at all, but with the changes they're already planning I'm excited for the future of the game mode. Could these also open competitive play to other issues? Perhaps, but with how Blizzard's been communicating and responding so far I'm confident the game will continue to move in the right direction.
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