Play of the Fortnight: The Overwatch Competitive Grind

Overwatch Season 3 has ended and Season 4 began this week. Across the globe, Overwatch players everywhere are starting their placement matches and beginning this season’s work towards the upper ranks. With the new season, Overwatch matchmaking is on everyone’s minds.

In this Play of the Fortnight, we’re going to explore the effects Overwatch’s matchmaking and competitive systems have on the state of ranked mode right now. Is the matchmaking having a negative impact on player skill growth? And how do player attitudes play into that?

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Competitive Matchmaking

How Does Matchmaking Work?

Before we can go in-depth on a discussion about matchmaking, we need to understand it. In the simplest sense, Overwatch uses a hidden MMR (matchmaking rating) system to cluster players of perceived similar skill together, as well as competitive ranking. There are a lot of other factors: Jeff Kaplan has spoken at length about the Quick Play matchmaking. This will, of course, differ slightly from competitive but the general idea is the same.

For example, Blizzard wants players to be in a match as quickly as possible, with similarly skilled players, similar ping, and equal group sizes. This is true of all game modes.

And How Does Ranked Itself Work?

Another important precursor to this discussion is player ranking. How does Overwatch’s ranked system work? To describe it easily, players gain points for winning, and lose points for losing a match. If your team is the “underdog”, by having a lower average skill rating than the enemy team, you will gain more points for winning and lose less for losing.

The fact that players generally gain more points than they lose leads to an interesting problem. Even if it’s by a very small margin, this can make a huge difference.

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Grandmaster Grind

The Grind to Grandmaster/Top 500

The problem is in the sentence above: the “grind” to Grandmaster or Top 500. Grind. Consider that word for a moment. Think about its connotations in gaming. Generally, the word “grind” is associated with some MMOs in which players have to put huge amounts of time into completing repetitive tasks in order to progress. Often it’s linked to leveling up, sometimes it’s also connected to getting gear to help players tackle more powerful enemies.

This leads us to one question. Why is the word “grind” associated with a competitive FPS?

And this is where the current Overwatch competitive system starts to break down a little. It’s not a unique problem: most competitive games face a similar issue. It’s also not an easy one to solve. But the problem remains. Players feel that they have to grind out their rank. They feel like they have to “do the time.”

 

But Why is Grinding Competitive a Problem?

There are two parts to this issue. The first is that players almost unanimously agree that grinding just isn’t fun. It takes a certain type of gamer to enjoy doing one repetitive thing over and over until they get what they want. Not everyone likes that. In fact, a large amount of players don’t enjoy it in the slightest. That makes the “grind” to Grandmaster and Top 500 a bit of a negative experience.

Now comes the second, and possibly most controversial part of the problem. Some people will not want to hear it, so I’m just going to say it and get it over with. Not everyone is meant to be Grand Master or Top 500.

There, I said it. There is this prevailing attitude by Overwatch players, and gamers in general, that the goal of competitive is to get to the top. But it’s not. It’s never been the goal of competitive play, and it’s never been Blizzard’s intention for players to “grind” out their ranking until they’re all fighting over the Top 500 spots. That idea would be ludicrous. Besides the fact that it’s not realistic, some players simply aren’t good enough to be up there.

Play of the Fortnight: Blizzard's Goals for Overwatch Competitive

The goal of Overwatch Competitive

From Blizzard’s perspective, the goal of Overwatch competitive is to get players where they’re supposed to be according to their skill level. Bonus points if they have a positive experience while doing so. Players will be spread across the rankings, with most falling in the middle around Silver and Gold, maybe Platinum.

There would be no point in having such a wide range of ranks if the aim was for everyone to eventually end up in Grandmaster. It just doesn’t make any sense.

 

What is Wrong with this Attitude?

There are so many reasons why this attitude is a problem, and why the current ranking system contributes to it. The biggest one, as we mentioned earlier, is the fact that players receive more points for winning than they lose for losing. This means that, no matter what way you swing it, a player who has a ton of time on their hands will just be able to grind out their ranking until they reach the upper echelons. There may be diminishing returns after a while, but I’ve yet to find any confirmation of this.

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Competitive Grind

Take two players as an example. They’re both about the same in skill level, but one has a lot more time to dedicate to playing Overwatch competitively. They have the same approximate win rate. To simplify things, let’s say on average they win three points for a win, and lose two points for a loss. Player A plays half as many games as Player B in the same amount of time. Assuming their ratio stays around 50/50 and they earn roughly the same amount of points as they progress, Player B will climb much more rapidly than Player A. This is logical: Player B has played more games.

However, the attitude that players have is that if they put in the time they will climb. It’s almost a given. Got placed in Gold? No problem, just grind out some competitive and you’ll make it to Platinum. Then Diamond. Then who’s to stop you going further? It’s just a matter of time.

 

Isn’t that how Overwatch Competitive Should be?

Again, the attitude of a large portion of the Overwatch community seems to honestly believe they’re destined for the Top 500 of their region. And it’s not entirely just to do with cockiness. It’s not just players thinking they’re better than they are (though that is a problem all of its own!). The way the current system works does kind of reinforce that idea.

The problem here lies with the fact that they consider it a matter of time, not a matter of skill. Time is much easier to measure than skill, and players truly believe if they just spend enough time bashing away at their rank, they’ll make it to the top.

 

Average is a Dirty Word

One of the most concerning facets of this attitude is that being average is a bad thing. In reality, it’s literally the opposite. Being “average” simply means that the majority of players sit around that point. Look at the bell curve of Overwatch. You can find examples of it on Master Overwatch. The majority of players sit between Gold and Platinum. There’s a secondary spike at the lower border of Diamond.

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Tiers

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Overwatch or even gaming in general. “Average” is a dirty word to many people. Everyone wants to be special or exceptional, and there’s no shame in that, but it’s simply not realistic for everyone to be better than each other. In fact, it’s impossible.

It’s not a good thing if everyone starts to cluster higher and higher up the Overwatch competitive tiers. Everyone has to be sorted somehow, and matchmaking will suffer if large numbers of players congregate in one tier. There will simply be too much variety in skill levels for it to make sense.

 

What Happens if Everyone Gets to Climb to the Top?

Blizzard has already had to “fix” the ranking system several times. They admitted that too many players were placing too high. This was giving those players a bad impression of the competitive system and was inherently making the experience of their teammates poor as well. First, they expanded the tiers from a 1-100 system to a 1 – 5000 system. This gave more flexibility to player placements.

That wasn’t enough, and players in the mid-rankings were placed lower when it came to Season 3. This was because Blizzard identified that too many players were hovering in the middle but higher than they should be. Bronze and Silver were too empty compared to Gold and Platinum, which were overpopulated if anything.

This is exactly why the attitude of everyone being higher ranked becomes problematic. If everyone ends up in the top two tiers, it’s not going to stay that way. Blizzard will have to do yet another compression, pushing players lower down the ranks and forcing their placements to be lower than before.

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Reaper

It Feels Bad to Drop in Rank

What do players experience when Blizzard does these “compressions”? They place significantly lower next season. There’s no doubt that seeing your lovely rank drop is quite upsetting. Luckily, if you’re anything below Master during the season, even if you drop in SR you won’t see your badge change. This means if you’re in Diamond, you’re in Diamond even if you have a massive losing streak that drops you below 3000 SR. Until the end of the season, that is.

Blizzard seems to have kept things mostly the same for the beginning of Season 4. After completing their placements, players will likely see themselves in roughly the same place as they were towards the end of the last season. However, if they have to change the system again in the future due to too many players being in one tier or another, many people may see their ranking drop significantly.

This feels bad. If Blizzard is aiming to make its players feel good about their decision to play competitive, they don’t want people ending up in ranks they don’t belong in. But at the end of the day, players who really don’t want to be in the middle and strive to get to the top, even if it’s possible, won’t consider that.

 

The Competitive Grind Becomes a Catch-22

Competitive becomes a vicious cycle. Players who have the time to grind out competitive matches will do so, and they’ll strive to be higher ranked. Some of them will make it and deserve to be there. Some will make it there through sheer force of will and time investment even if they’re not the best players. Many, however, will fall short of their competitive goals and are massively disappointed with the result.

Then, if they do make it where they want to be and Blizzard decides to shift the competitive environment to keep the distribution realistic, the disappointment is all the more intense. Players see their ranking drop and wonder why.

Play of the Fortnight: Overwatch Feels Bad to Lose Rank

Blizzard doesn’t do this because they want to be the bad guy. They do this to make the competitive scene realistic, fun, and even.

 

Conclusion

While massive improvements have been made to the Overwatch matchmaking and competitive scene, there’s a long way to go. Blizzard has made huge changes and is constantly acting on feedback from the community. But as with any system, especially one in its infancy, there are flaws that are difficult to resolve.

As it stands, the community has an attitude that “average” is bad, and that pushing hard to get to the top will allow them to reap the rewards. And despite how overly optimistic that can seem, the current competitive system doesn’t completely discourage that viewpoint. This can lead to disappointment when the ranking system is changed and players see their ranks drop significantly.

Now that Season 4 has started, what changes would you like to see in Overwatch competitive?

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About Psyche

Psyche is a loud, obnoxious gamer, streamer and writer from Northern Ireland. She formerly worked in the games industry as a community manager and eventually project manager. When she's not writing about games, or playing them, she's working on her first novel. RPGs, books, a cup of tea, and talking about outer space are the ways to her heart.