Do We Really Need Overwatch Hero Bans?


by in Overwatch | Feb, 1st 2020

Overwatch hero bans are all the rage these days. It seems like everyone has an opinion on the matter. Those who care for a ban system and those against it are making substantial arguments. We already know Blizzard will try to solve Overwatch’s ever-present meta problem by introducing hero pools, but one must wonder whether that’s enough.

It’s certainly an attempt, which is what everyone wanted to see from Blizzard, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Overwatch hero bans are a far more traditional method (or solution, rather), but it comes with its laundry list of problems and caveats.

What Do the Overwatch Hero Bans Mean?

Either way, Overwatch hero bans is a fascinating proposition. Overwatch has had many distinct metas. Many of them were downright disgusting. GOATS immediately comes to mind as something excruciatingly boring to watch and even worse to play. With three tanks and three supports running around beating each other to death with slow and drawn-out swings, minimal skill expression was involved. Of course, the best teams in the world still managed to differentiate themselves through stellar cohesion and split-second decision-making, but a staggering number of viewers and players stepped away from the game because of it. Blizzard, as is often the case, reacted too slow.

But banning a hero like, say, Brigitte, would be an immediate fix, would it not? Simply negating a couple of heroes from the game would force teams to adapt and entertainment would, therefore, increase tenfold. That makes sense on paper, but not much in practice.

Blizzard cannot introduce a pick and ban system in a game that has 31 heroes. Quite frankly, that’s a small number. It’s perfectly acceptable in general play, but once you start banning heroes out, there aren’t many alternatives. There are eight tanks in the game with just seven supports. To make matters even worse, not all of them are viable. It all boils down to the strategy a team wants to go for, and the map they’re playing on.

If each team gets to ban three heroes (a fair number overall), then the entire hero pool shrinks to just 25. That’s not enough, no matter how you slice it. If each team has two bans, that’s slightly less problematic, but the point still stands. You can’t have strategic depth with so few heroes.

By comparison, Dota 2 has 119 heroes, with League of Legends leading the charge with 148 (at the time of this writing). Bans came into competitive League when the game already had well over 100 champions. Even after 10 bans, professional players still have an immense number of picks at their disposal. They can then ban according to the meta, their weaknesses, or the opposing team’s strengths. They can prioritize certain picks, strategize depending on which side of the map they’re playing on, and even focus on individual players to push them off of their comfort picks.

In League of Legends, the pick and ban phase is often incredibly exciting, not to mention incredibly important.

If the system gets implemented in competitive Overwatch, it could effectively kill the game entertainment-wise, especially for viewers. That’s a luxury that Blizzard still cannot afford, given Overwatch’s meager hero pool.

The Inherent Problem of the Hero Bans

Overwatch hero bans won’t change much. The problem is in the game’s overall design and its foundation. There is always one meta that prevails. We had dive comps, GOATS, double hitscan, and, as of late, the double barrier comps with Sigma and Orisa. There are so many distinct moving parts in Overwatch that balancing it requires immense effort — something that Blizzard is yet to deliver on.

You can’t introduce heroes like Brigitte, Baptiste, and Sigma — heroes designed to redefine the meta and change the way the game is played — without encountering a couple of severe problems. In many ways, this also touches on the topic of power creep. A hero like Sigma didn’t skyrocket in popularity because of his stacked ability kit. He brought a lot to the table, all the while being virtually counterless. Without any significant glaring weakness, there’s no reason why teams would opt to play anything else.

There’s no more strategy involved as it’s not about who’s more creative or who has the best counter prepared. Instead, everyone plays the exact same thing and the team that executes it better will get the win. If it’s a fun meta, then okay, not many people will complain, but as there are a natural ebb and flow to these things, the meta is bound to shift to something less entertaining over time naturally. Then you’re stuck with the same problems without any option to solve them other than nerfing a couple of heroes to the ground.

It is a cyclical conundrum, and it’s a thankless one at that. Blizzard nerfs one thing which, in turn, makes another overpowered. Then we’re back to square one until the next set of nerfs is shipped to live servers.

Now, on the one hand, introducing a ban system is far from a bad thing as a bit of experimentation won’t hurt anyone. On the other — as evidenced throughout history — teams will simply create a micro meta which will lead to everyone banning the exact same heroes. In other words, bans wouldn’t introduce more diversity, as teams would still adapt and come up with a consensus on how the game should play out on any given map or game mode. It would be true regardless of the number of bans each team would have at their disposal.

Blizzard has made too many questionable choices with their recent releases, and it feels like there’s no going back. Plus, the fact that teams are always on the lookout for new and game-breaking metas is a natural thing. It’s present in other esport titles as well.

A couple of bans each game wouldn’t change the way the game is played, nor would it negate the inherently bad design and gameplay choices Blizzard originally made.

It would be best if Blizzard created two separate solutions, one for the Overwatch League and another for casual play. It’s okay if you can’t apply the same approach to both types of competition. After all, they offer two vastly different experiences. Maybe a pick and ban system is the perfect solution for casuals and a horrible one for professionals. Maybe there’s a third option overlooked? In any case, there needs to be a proactive approach to solve the problem, or at least stand a chance of solving it.

Unfortunately, Blizzard isn’t known for being quick to react. Hopefully, that’ll change going forward. A couple of recent posts from Jeff Kaplan certainly create a slightly positive outlook, but until we see it in action, we’ll remain reserved.

The Viewing Experience

It’s no secret that the Overwatch League is of the utmost importance to Blizzard. It is a monumental undertaking, and its success (or potential failure) could leave a permanent mark on esports. If there’s even the slightest chance of Overwatch hero bans making competitive play less engaging, then they should try and find an alternative route.

The fans and viewers across the globe adore specialists and mechanical phenoms. That’s why we all tune in — to have our minds blown regularly. Teamwork is nice and all, but it doesn’t move the needle. That is perhaps one of Overwatch League’s biggest strengths. The fact that it always allowed for mechanical expression. The best and most talented players stood out which, in turn, allowed them to amass cult followings. Without such skill expression, you’re ending up with a product like Heroes of the Storm, and we all know how that one turned out as an esport. (hint: it didn’t)

Imagine banning out McCree or Widowmaker whenever Do-hyeon “Pine” Kim started for the New York Excelsior. That’d be heresy! The Overwatch League is banking on its biggest stars, and that’s perfectly normal. Skill expression should reign supreme in such a competitive esport, and by stifling their ability to dominate and style on their opposition, these superstars would be far less effective and entertaining — this would effectively make Overwatch a much less exciting esport.

Pine The Best McCree in Overwatch League

Speaking of Pine, the hitscan specialist retired in no small part because he didn’t see much playtime during the Overwatch League’s sophomore season. His biggest strengths became virtually unusable in the season where GOATS reigned supreme, which meant basically warming the bench for months on end. The team didn’t even include him in scrims as they didn’t have a good reason to. Imagine being one of the best and most mechanically talented players in the world — a professional competitor, to boot — and not being able to play because of factors outside of your control — what a depressing thought.

Of course, teams would ban out the biggest threats each game, and because it would mostly go in order of impact, heroes like Genji, Widowmaker, Hanzo, McCree, and Pharah would be the first on the chopping block. Y’know, the same heroes that have the best highlight reels and provide the most entertainment.

Such a would in no way benefit Blizzard or the viewers. In that sense, it’s better to have a heavily flawed meta that’s still entertaining, than a perfectly balanced one that doesn’t excite as much.

Overwatch… Hero Pools?

Blizzard promised change. Yet, no one knew what the legendary developer planned. Fortunately, Jeff Kaplan and the development team recently revealed their solution: hero pools.

Developer Update | Experimentation & Hero Pools | Overwatch

Overwatch hero pools are coming to live servers with Season 21 that’s scheduled to begin on March 5th. The dev team also promised to react accordingly, so if the community dislikes hero pools, they’ll remove the whole thing entirely and work on another solution. A more frequent patch cycle is also being planned. Such a thing is long overdue but better late than never.

Are hero pools the solution? They might be, although it feels like they’re just a band-aid fix, rather than a full-fledged solution. Hero pools might work well in casual but completely falter in professional play. Or vice versa. It’s an interesting idea overall, although we still need to see it in action before coming to any conclusion. In any case, seeing a more proactive Blizzard is a refreshing (and highly welcome) change.

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