Open Division, Contenders Trials, Contenders, and Overwatch League form the four pillars of Overwatch esports, and are collectively known as the Path to Pro, Blizzard Entertainment’s manufactured route to the highly coveted pro gamer lifestyle. In theory, the Path to Pro provides the infrastructure necessary for any player to hone their skills; be recognized; and, turn dreams into a reality – but in practice, the Path to Pro is crumbling at its foundation.
Competitive play, otherwise known as ranked, fails to provide adequate, worthwhile practice for those who are currently pro and those who are striving to become pro. Furthermore, for most pros and casuals alike, it is draining and demoralizing more often than it is fun, and the collective attention of average players is fading due to the steady release of newer, arguably better, titles. Without a drastically improved ranked system, Overwatch’s talent pool will shrink and stagnate alongside its viewership as prospective pros and viewers look to Blizzard’s competition for an improved gaming experience and corresponding esport. No matter the amount of money invested into Overwatch esports, its longevity is rooted in the long-term success of the game itself.
"Overwatch was marketed on a dream of flexible players and frequent hero swaps, but, in practice, thrives on predictable 2-2-2 compositions comprised of a handful of heroes"
The failings of Overwatch’s ranked system are well-documented and frequently lamented. “We all know how bad ranked is for practice,” said Brady “Agilities” Girardi on an episode of Inside Valiant, so casually and matter-of-factly that he might as well have been saying that the sky is blue. Visit any pro player’s personal stream and the rhetoric is overwhelmingly negative: ranked Overwatch is an experience so isolated and distinct from a properly competitive environment that it is often seen as a waste of time.
Players striving to improve their skills are left at the mercy of an algorithm that places four support mains on one team and Diamond players in Grandmaster games. Between one-tricks and team stacks, too many players of one role and not enough of another, most ranked games feel hopeless from the start. Rarely is a map played between two reasonably well-matched teams, and the importance of teamwork and communication in Overwatch means that individual players cannot reliably overcome their team’s deficits.
But, for ranked to facilitate the way competitive Overwatch is most effectively and commonly played, developers must first acknowledge that the game they ostensibly set out to create is not the one that currently exists. That is, Overwatch was marketed on a dream of flexible players and frequent hero swaps, but, in practice, thrives on predictable 2-2-2 compositions comprised of a handful of heroes, and most players – professional and otherwise – main one role and oftentimes specific characters. In competitive play, role flexibility is unrealistic and detrimental; the team that has the fewest players playing off roles (or exceptionally unviable heroes) is most likely to win.
"Ideally, competitive in any game should simulate or at least closely resemble professional play"
Thusly, for ranked to most reliably mimic a competitive environment, a role queue must be implemented, as well as separate queues for solo players and 2-stacks. Additionally, as a quality of life change, the option to eliminate two or three maps from an individual’s queue should be considered.
The benefit of these changes for esports is two-fold: firstly, they stabilize and bolster the Path to Pro by legitimizing ranked play and increasing the likelihood that skilled players can and will be recognized from the ladder and secondly, they keep existing fans personally invested in the game and, by extension, the esport.
Ideally, competitive in any game should simulate or at least closely resemble professional play because ranked play has a duty to function both as a breeding ground for up-and-coming talent and a training ground for established talent. Overhauling the current ranked system to facilitate higher quality games would make ranked more competitive and a more accurate reflection of skill. It would go a step further in cultivating an environment that allows players to perfect more than their mechanics, as well as spend less time playing off roles for the sake of a team and more time playing their chosen heroes.
For many of the same reasons, a reformed ranked queue would temper prevailing frustrations with Overwatch among average players. In requests for players to adopt a "positive mental attitude" and a revival of the ability to avoid players as teammates, Blizzard has offered only Band-Aids for players' bullet wounds. Furthermore, the removal of performance-based SR above Diamond rank will take several seasons to impact the number of one-tricks in Masters and Grandmasters. Subtly, players have been asked over and over again to love Overwatch in spite of ranked, not because of it, and that dynamic is not sustainable.
"Pro Overwatch should make fans want to play Overwatch"
The esport's long-term success is dependent upon fans and viewership, and we have already seen the Overwatch League's viewership dip precipitously over its short lifespan. Overwatch is no longer the only aesthetically pleasing, noob-friendly, FPS-adjacent game on the market, and its grace period is coming to a close. It is not unreasonable to expect that viewers have and will become disinterested in watching a game that they themselves cannot stand to play. Fortnite is taking the world by storm and it has yet to even touch the realm of esports. New titles are being released every day, and Overwatch will struggle to compete if it does not commit to tangible improvement to its ranked system.
Of course, integrating role queue or separate queues for solo players and duo teams is easier said than done. There are a lot of kinks and nuances to be worked out; roles themselves and the heroes that belong to each must be reworked, and if and how to discipline those who do not stick to their queued role(s) must be determined. All of this is at Blizzard’s discretion, although proposed solutions are abundant and accessible. Fundamentally, however, ranked must be overhauled for the sake of Overwatch and the longevity of its esport.
Thankfully, the game is still relatively young and Blizzard has made significant, vital concessions on its design in the past. One hero limit, which is so integral to Overwatch, was not added until several months past the game’s release, and time bank was similarly not a part of the original design. Adjusting the ranked system in order to more accurately reflect and facilitate the way competitive Overwatch is played would be yet another necessary improvement in the game’s short history.
"Overwatch is thriving on the novelty of the Overwatch League and a powerful marketing team"
Pro Overwatch needs casual (or, as the case may be, competitive) Overwatch to thrive. The Overwatch League can employ the best Overwatch players in the world, but those players will not matter if they do not have the fans and support necessary to make their careers thrive. Pro Overwatch should make fans want to play Overwatch, and conversely, ranked Overwatch should make players want to watch pro Overwatch. And it would help if when those fans tune into a pro player's stream, they are met with more than confirmation of their own abject disdain and loathing for the competitive system
For now, Overwatch is thriving on the novelty of the Overwatch League and a powerful marketing team, but as the popularity of the game wanes and the League’s novelty fades, Blizzard will find itself struggling to keep up with the competition and will perhaps find that it has lost the massive, passionate fanbase it requires to drive the esport.