Thoughts on Overwatch Balance – The McCree and Widow Nerfs

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Now that Blizzard has released Overwatch’s first balance patch, it seems fitting to talk about balance within Overwatch and gaming in general. Since McCree and Widow have been balanced, I wanted to explore some of the other ways to make Hero diversity better within Overwatch’s competitive metagame.

Why Balance?

Balance within the game will lead to the development of a healthy and diverse metagame. Every game developer should push for an ideal balance where every unit and strategy is viable and fun to play, even if this goal is ultimately impossible to reach.

In September of 2015, YouTube streamer Day[9] released a video on the multiplayer design in CS:GO. In it he outlined four major elements for all multiplayer games and the last of these elements Day[9] called “Content”, in which he asked, “is there space. . . to give variety to the experience?”. Content becomes significant in a game’s replayability; players will not get bored with the game as quickly because there are a variety of different interactions to play around. For example, a game with nine heroes will only have eighty-one hero match-ups, compared to a game with one hundred heroes, which would have ten thousand possible unique match-ups. The game with one hundred heroes has more diversity, which in turn, gives the game more possibilities for unique experiences. This is best seen when comparing Team Fortress 2 to Overwatch; both games are fun, but it’s likely Overwatch will have longer shelf life than TF2 because of the increased possible match-ups between heroes and team compositions.

The problem with content brings the issue of balance, because the more content there is, the more a developer has to balance. Imbalance within a game negatively impacts diversity; instead of having one hundred heroes to play with, players are limited to a small percentage of viable heroes because everything else is too weak, which limits the overall possible experiences and can make the less fun to play. As such, the goal of balance is to allow players to play as many different heroes as possible in as many different possible strategies, this creates as many unique experiences as possible which will, in turn, create a game with greater longevity.

Of course, that is the ideal situation, however, rebalancing heroes might not always be the best way to address a problem within a metagame.

Let the Players Do the Work

Ideally, when a strategy becomes too powerful, there should be tools within the game to balance that imbalance. The perfect example of this would be Starcraft: Brood War, which has been a competitive game for longer than some gamers have been alive. While the last balance change to Brood War was in May 2001, many professionals still play it, even though the game has been balanced for more than a decade. While Brood War is an exception, it is an example of how a meta can develop that allows for many different strategies to be effective.

This method of balancing is probably the most difficult and it goes against the most common method of keeping a long-term playerbase. Blizzard needs to continue to release new content for Overwatch (heroes, maps, play modes) and as such, the balance will always be in a state of flux. The advantages to static balancing is that it would eliminate the issue of power creep, which can become a burden for games as they continue through their lifespan.

Buff the Hero’s Counters

Speaking of power creep. . .

One way to effectively balance a hero is to buff the heroes that are most effective against him. In McCree’s case, Blizzard would have needed to buff the tank classes so that they were no longer susceptible to his damage, however the main issues to this sort of development is that it becomes an arms race. In this case, tank heroes get buffed but they might become over powered, so Blizzard has to buff the counters to tanks (e.g. Reaper) and even if those buffs are small, the power of each hero would begin to grow, until it becomes a numbers mess (think World of Warcraft before the stats changes with Warlords of Draenor).

This method can be effective, however: If Mei or D.Va were strong counters to McCree, they could potentially become buffed, as those heroes are not readily in the meta. A buff to counter a more powerful hero could equate to a more healthy meta.

Build Game Modes that Limit Heroes

There has been a lot of praise for Highlander-style competitive matches in the past few months. There is a lot of credence to these ideas, as a hero cannot warp a game through multiple picks, and that the game becomes much harder to balance with the potential for more diverse team compositions.

Team Fortress 2 played with a similar type of game mode, where heroes were limited to 2 of each class with 1 hero limit designated to Demomen and Medics (because they were too good). If I were able to choose a way of balancing the game through modes, I would suggest this design. It would be ideal for a couple reasons; While it eliminates the 6 hero cheeses, it also eliminates the unfun all-Tracer defends that only work to slow the stopwatch. It would also allow for double-hero compositions to still have a place in the meta. However, as the hero pool for Overwatch grows, multipile hero composition balance might be too unwieldy for Blizzard to manage.

Another option, which could be fun to experiment with, would be to have each of the teams ban one or two heroes from the game at the beginning of each map. While it might mean some player’s signature heroes would be permanently banned, it would free up strategies and increase diversity. Say a team that wants to play a pair of Pharahs on the second point in Hollywood, they could ban Widowmaker and the opposing team could see the strategy the first team was attempting to deploy and counter it. Both teams then have to work around from their issue and if any hero becomes too strong, they will not make it past a banning phase.

Balance Through Game Modes

What I am most interested in, regarding finding ways to balance a hero, is experimenting with more dramatically designed maps. I would like to see a map where McCree would be useless, particularly on a narrow payload, or a very aerially focused map. Hero diversity can be pushed by extreme map diversity.

Currently, King of the Hill style maps favor very mobile team compositions. While some players may argue that it hurts diversity, if those mobile heroes are only particularly useful on the King of the Hill style maps and do not see as much play on payload or assault maps, then they have a place where they excel in the metagame, but do not warp the entire metagame as they are specifically used for specific game modes.

If every hero has a place within the play modes, then teams can focus on modes they are stronger on and it would create more tension the map draft at the beginning of a match.

Platform Based Metas

In the same way game modes shift the focus on heroes, platforms can do the same. As Jeff Kaplan announced on Reddit last week,  Torbjorn will receive a 30% damage nerf as a result of aiming being less effective on consoles. I do not know if Blizzard intends to have all platforms balanced and competitive, but the idea of having certain heroes be intrinsically weaker because of the interface issues might also allow for those metagames to develop in different ways.

Nerfs: A Last Resort

In his Eurogamer interview Kaplan bemoaned the term Nerf, and I think he is right. Nerf is a kind of ugly word, with all sorts of negative connotations (nerd rage being the main offender), and it is this writer’s opinion that many games overnerf too swiftly. What is overpowered in one weekend’s tournament may be countered in the next without the need for swift and brutal balance changes.

Nerfs should be Blizzard’s last resort, especially as the heroes in Overwatch were designed with strengths and weaknesses in mind. Ideally, a hero that is being overused would be countered by the community, but in the case with McCree especially, he never had weaknesses that could be easily exploited. There is no incentive to try to counter a McCree because he had no counters, which necessitates a nerf.

The curious thing about this balance change, was that Widowmaker might not have needed it. While I had suspect Widowmaker might need a rebalance later on (particularly as the professionals become exceptionally skilled), I did not suspect Widowmaker to have been rebalanced so quickly, but I am happy with the result. This balance is predictive, not reactionary like the McCree nerf and while I am happy that Blizzard responded to feedback on imbalance, I am more excited to see Blizzard working with their own data to try to answer a problem before it starts bringing the game out of balance.

I am looking forward to the changes Blizzard will make. As a company, they are usually pretty fair in their ability to wield the nerf bat, and level-headed toward the changes it could bring to the game. How Blizzard handles their mistakes is important, especially as new heroes are introduced which could, yet again, throw the game out of balance.

Content Writer - Overwatch
I am a longtime gamer, first playing Magic: The Gathering, then World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, Dota 2 and now Overwatch.

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