Overwatch’s Failure at Casual Competitiveness

I briefly touched on the new mobile game South Park: Phone Destroyer in the first post I did for this blog. Since then I’ve put a lot more time into it and I’m actually enjoying playing it a lot. The game itself is a weird tower defense/RPG/beat-’em-up/card collecting hybrid where you, as the New Kid, have a deck of cards that you use with your phone to summon other South Park denizens. Collecting cards and upgrade items allows you to make your cards stronger like an RPG, and the main campaign is a side-scrolling beat-’em up where the cards you summon automatically attack enemies on-screen. If you, as the New Kid, die from enemies on screen, the level ends a la tower defense – but as long as you’re alive you can keep summoning your cards over and over ad nauseum to complete the level. It’s surprisingly fun and engaging for a free-to-play mobile game as one person observing me play it actually said “wow, that looks like it needs attention like an actual game and not a phone game.”

But what’s caught my attention is the competitive PVP mode of the game. The game’s system is set up in a unique way where the cards you can collect are gated behind PVP levels. I.E. the better you do in PVP, the better cards you have access to for deck-building. Since the game always matches you with people at your level, you’ll never fight against people with better cards than you, either. It lessens (and almost completely removes) the aspect of pay-to-win because even if you spend $100 before you have your first PVP, you’ll still only have access to the level 1 card pool. The only advantage you would get is having a ton of upgrade items to make the cards you do have better – but since the PVP is mostly strategical, you can still get beat by people with cards with lesser stats if they play right.

The best part of the Phone Destroyer PVP is that they made rank climbing very easy and casual play friendly. Each time you win a PVP match you get a star. In the early rounds it only takes 1 star to upgrade your rank, but as you progress it will take 2, then 3, then 4 and so on. If you lose a match, in the first few ranks you won’t lose a star to make it easier to climb at the beginning as you’re getting used to the game and PVP. But eventually you WILL lose a star for each match loss – however, you’ll never fall below your current rank no matter how many games in a row you lose. It’s very user-friendly, allows you to experiment with deck builds, and is also anti-frustration. Finally, on top of all this, if you go on a win streak of three or more games, you’ll get two stars with each victory instead until you lose. So if you build a deck that is wrecking everyone, you get rewarded by leveling up faster.

south park.png

Despite the name, this game has not made me want to destroy my phone.

Everything about the set-up of Phone Destroyer’s PVP makes it so I’m enjoying myself when I’m competing against other people. Even when I lose I’m not getting frustrated. And each match only takes 3-4 minutes at most which means I never feel like the match is dragging or my time is being wasted if I am losing.

Which brings me to the main point of my article: Overwatch’s competitive mode sucks.

I know, I know. It’s a bit of a jump to compare Overwatch – a AAA, highly-polished, continuously updated game with serious e-sport aspirations – to a mobile phone game based on South Park. There’s lots of differences – Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer game while South Park is single-player, Overwatch is a first-person shooter that requires delicate balancing while the balancing in the South Park is slightly more straightforward across cards. But the fact remains is that the team behind Overwatch has been trying to make this a competitive game (like I said, e-sport aspirations) but their competitive mode is absolute trash. I’m not talking about the player base either (although I could) – this is simply a critique on the choices Blizzard has made when designing their competitive mode.

So here’s how Overwatch’s competitive ranking mode works: First, the competitive mode is divided into seasons. After each season ends you get a set amount of “competitive points” based on your rank – except all you can get with these competitive points are golden weapons. Originally, there was going to be a week or more off between seasons for balance tweaking and general season changes – however the players complained about how long the break was, so now competitive season breaks are only for two-three days at most and almost nothing changes between seasons. Functionally, there’s no difference between one season and the next at this juncture.

This leads me into the second point – for each season, you have to play ten “placement matches” so (theoretically) the game can judge your skill and put you in the correct rank for your skill level. I say theoretically because what actually happens is the game just takes that information, discards it, and deposits you around the rank you ended the last season at. So you play ten games for basically no gain in rank or rating, and these games can take upwards of 15-20 minutes. It’s not unreasonable to spend 3-4 hours doing your placement matches for essentially no gain in placement (or sometimes even starting lower than you finished in the previous season). On top of all this, for a while Blizzard’s system would put you 200-300 Skill Rating points (SR – how Overwatch establishes rank, like the stars from Phone Destroyer) below what it thought you should be at. Then you would gain more SR for the first ten-fifteen matches after because Blizzard wanted to “make the players feel like they were accomplishing something.” Except if you lost the majority of those ten-fifteen matches, you’d end up lower than your rank for the previous season and have an even harder time climbing back to where you were.

So on to point three – as you gain SR, there are different ranks you can obtain – the lowest is Bronze and from there it goes up to Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Grandmaster. At 1500 SR you graduate from Bronze to Silver, and then after every 500 SR you rank up another level. But unlike Phone Destroyer, if you lose enough matches and drop below the required SR you will lose your rank. So say you played for a while, got above Diamond, but then went on a losing streak (which happens a lot in team-based games) and lost enough to get well below Diamond – you’ll end up deranked to Platinum. It actually disincentivizes you to play if you’re wavering close to losing a rank – especially since at the end of the season you will be likely placed around the same SR or below.

Finally, you don’t gain a lot of SR per match – it’s usually in the 20-30 SR range. Meaning to gain 500 SR and go up a rank, it could take you anywhere from 18-25 wins to go up a level. As I said earlier, games can take 15-20 minutes to complete, so you’re probably looking at a minimum of 5 hours of play time to achieve those wins – and that’s only if you win them without ever losing. Because every time you lose, you lose SR as well; and you lose SR at the same rate – it’s about 20-30 SR down the drain per loss. Here’s an example: let’s say you take 2 hours of your night and play eight matches of Overwatch. You end up winning five games and lose three, which means you’d have a net gain of about 40-50 SR, most likely. But the next night, you play for 2 hours and only win once and lose the other seven games. You’re looking at a net loss of 100 SR, minimum. I watched a professional streamer today comment than he played competitive Overwatch for 4 hours straight on stream and at the end of his stream, he had gained exactly 1 SR point due to the spread of wins and losses.

Four hours. One SR point. And this is a guy who plays video games professionally and has time to play it for 4+ hours every day of the week. That’s ridiculous.


This is also ridiculous. It is also the only Overwatch screenshot I had on hand that wasn’t accidentally taken.

The entire system is broken from a casually competitive standpoint. As a player, Overwatch is wasting my time if I try to play the competitive mode. You never feel like you’re progressing or getting better – you just tread water. People who are skilled at the game rise to the high levels and stay there. People who are mediocre stay in the middle and make no attempt to get better because they have no idea what they are doing wrong. And people who are bad at the game stay in the lower levels – they could be improving, they could not be. But they’ll never know because they just see the Bronze/Silver rank over and over and never escape it.

Blizzard, from a game design standpoint, should be making their players want to spend time in the competitive mode. Instead, every decision they’ve put into the mode makes it frustrating. There’s no lower limit – you can go from best rank to worst rank and streamers have done it simply to showcase a “Bronze to Grandmaster run” to excite their fans. You can earn a rank and then have to re-earn it two months later. And a losing streak can be demoralizing to players who only have a few hours every week to play games because it will take just as long to earn that back. One season a while back, I spent a good six hours playing Overwatch just to boost myself from Gold to Platinum. It’s all I did for the whole day (besides laundry) and at the end of the day sure, I reached Platinum, but it was exhausting. I shouldn’t have to set aside a full day just to feel like I’ve accomplished something in a video game I’m playing for fun.

And that’s why I say Overwatch is a failure at being “casually competitive.” In the e-sports scene, there are professional competitive teams that pull off amazing plays and are super fun to watch. Those people are professionally competitive and put hours upon hours of time into the game because that’s how they make their money. They’re getting paid to win at these games. But for a casually competitive person – a person who just wants to play for fun, but still wants to win and feel like they’ve achieved a victory of some sort – Overwatch is the equivalent of a treadmill and we’re all hamsters running without going anywhere.

It sucks because the game is fun. I love Overwatch – I’ve sunk over 200 hours into the game since it released in May 2016. But in the last few months my playtime in the game has dramatically dropped off. After spending four competitive seasons being initially ranked in Gold and fighting to get to Platinum (and succeeding – every season I ended in Platinum), I finally got ranked in Platinum after placements at the start of one season. Then that season I had a losing streak, got deranked into Gold, and because I had the nerve to not play Overwatch anymore for the rest of that season (due to both playing other games and just having a life outside of video games) I started the most recent season even lower in Gold, and then proceeded to end up on another losing streak that put me close to Silver.

And that’s when I realized I didn’t owe Overwatch any more of my time: as much as I love the game, the game doesn’t respect me. And just like anything or anyone else in the world, if you don’t respect me or my time I’m going to drop you. I’ve earned a Platinum rank five times over. I know I’m a Platinum level skill player. But this game now wants me to invest entirely too great an amount of time to reach that level yet again. Instead of me being in Platinum and working on improving my skills to reach the next level of Diamond, I’m now stuck being frustrated at having to climb again and again and again. And it’s just not worth it.

If they added things like:
-not being able to go below certain SR after getting to a certain point
-not being able to lose rank after getting to a certain point
-changing the win/loss SR ratio so you can progress easier

Or even maybe they could just straight up redo their ranking system so it feels like you are progressing instead of treading water. It’s weird saying a big game developer should take its cues from a smaller, mobile game – but the fact is Phone Destroyer did competitive PVP in a good way and if Overwatch was designed even half as well I’d probably still be playing it.

I know they want the highest ranks to be an achievement for the skilled players. But you alienate a good chunk of your player base when your ranking system is a mess that makes it feel like you’re a victim of randomness instead of making you feel like you’re improving your skill.

So thanks for the good times, Overwatch. But until you fix your broken ranking system, I’m going to be playing Phone Destroyer if I feel competitive. Or literally anything else when I just want to have fun.