Together, but alone
I acknowledge that I’m far from a professional tier Overwatch player, but I would consider myself reasonably skillful, having previously dipped into Masters Rank in Competitive Play before time and rank decay took its toll. Now that I have begun getting back into it, I am once again beginning to recognize the fundamental elements of Overwatch‘s competitive design that are slowing my progress, and have since Competitive Play first began. This struggle has given me an understanding of the tension and subsequent toxicity that is currently plaguing the Overwatch community, although I try my very best to personally avoid it.
While I appreciate that Overwatch is optimally a team experience, I exclusively play its competitive mode solo. This is partly because most of my friends are too low rank for the game to even allow us to play the mode together, and partly because I’m an aggressive player who doesn’t want to subject his friends to his rantings. So, as a solo adventurer, my fate is left up to the machinations of the game’s matchmaking system to move me through the ranks.
This solo undertaking has lead me to realize that Overwatch‘s skill-based ranking system isn’t nearly as skill-based as it should be, which plays a hand in Overwatch—as popular as it is—being one of the most toxic multiplayer experiences out there. The developers have made efforts to remedy this, including pleas for the community to play its part. Even more recently, Blizzard announced that it is working on teaching the game itself to recognize toxicity, but these practices only go after the symptoms, and what we want is to cure the disease. Nothing is going to change until Overwatch‘s ranking system begins prioritizing personal skill over the success of the team.
It’s only a game, why do you heff to be mad?
Toxicity comes in many forms, whether it be vocal trash talking or by throwing matches. There is also no standard for what can and should be perceived as being being toxic, which is partly the reason why toxicity is too complex to be solved by the reporting systems the game features now.
Blizzard has directly asked the community to make efforts in being less toxic toward each other, but the system’s nature of holding everyone in a match to a semi-equal standard directly breeds toxicity. There is something intrinsically frustrating about being punished for the shortcomings of others. Granted, there aren’t in-match scoreboards in Overwatch, but when the multiple Gold and Silver medals you’ve earned in a match weren’t enough to prevent your team from failing to stick together or competently play their roles, watching a narrow loss cut away at your hard-earned rank can make any reasonable player seeth with resentment, and Blizzard shouldn’t make us feel bad about that.
Overwatch‘s competitive ranking system has undergone numerous adjustments since launch, but it has always favored a team’s win/loss when determining each participants’ increase or decrease in rank, over individual performances. Recently, this initiative has been taken a step further for Diamond Rank and above, devising it so all players on a team will see an equal increase and decrease in rank, regardless of how each player did in the match.
Matchmaking systems are intended to create matches as balanced as possible, which, in a perfect scenario, will result in victories for whichever players most stepped up their game. However, there will always be some inherent randomness in matchmaking, as the system’s ability to calculate a person’s skill on any given day is ultimately limited. This makes the reality of matchmaking as such that players will regularly land in matches where skillful play simply can’t prevent a loss. It may not be the case with every competitive game, but in an experience as heavily team oriented as Overwatch, the team will the greater cohesion will almost always claim victory.
The issue, in Overwatch‘s case, is the degree to which ranks of both high-skill and low-skill players are impacted, based almost exclusively on the outcome of the match. Most gamers will find that they can reach around, or at least close to, the rank tier they feel they deserve, but this is largely contingent on the time put in. For those without the appropriate time on their hands, a couple rounds of bad luck can set them back days or even weeks of effort, which is an imbalance that a simple shift to the ranking system could change.
Stop splitting the difference
Overwatch is, first and foremost, a team game. I respect that, and I do not believe that naturally skillful players should be rewarded for forsaking their team in the name of boosting themselves. That said, I believe changes need to be made if there is any hope of reducing the game’s toxicity. Overwatch currently shifts players’ skill ratings by around 20 to 30 points, depending on how well the player (or team, in the case of Diamond and higher) performed. If this scale was expanded, it could benefit those that put in the skill and effort.
After playing their role to the fullest, a losing player should only lose between 5 to 10 points, while demonstrating the same skill on the winning team should reward as high as 35 to 40 points. Inversely, players that are on the winning team but did little to contribute should only earn the minimal amount of points, while losers that are the most evident cause of their team’s loss should be downgraded the maximum amount. This would also require the removal of the reward equalization for Diamond and higher. This alternative would make skill rating more representative of each player’s skill, without demanding they rely abundantly on teammates or put in excessive amounts of time. In turn, it would take substantial pressure off of the tensions between players, notably reducing toxicity.
Even with a reduction in toxicity, incentivizing players to work as a team is still a priority. Having wins and losses result in relative rank additions and subtractions is an important mandate to maintain to an extent, but better valuing specific player actions could be change needed to appropriately differentiate between players’ impact on a team. The game’s current tracking metric is the five base stats and the medals players can earn in each, although this only scratches the surface of conveying the contribution each individual player makes.
As an example, if an enemy teams’ healers are healing exceptionally more than the average for their rank, a high number of kills on those specific characters should be weighted more than others. Another example would be character switching. Doing so is often both useful and necessary in matches that aren’t going your way, but it can undermine one’s ability to achieve medals in the stat categories. In a better ranking system, switching to a character that is provably more effective than the first would be a factor that ranking could take into account. These are just a couple of examples of numerous actions that could be valued in the better ranking calculations.
The fact that there is rank reward variance within individual teams below Diamond tier suggests that basic foundations of performance grading are already in place. Focusing the scope of this grading to include specific actions in addition to general play, while also expanding the rank tiers to be more indicative of the relative value of players’ performances, could organically incentivize players to act more in service of the team, conditioning them to learn what playstyles are most beneficial to the unit, instead of punishing them for ambiguous factors that may be out their control.
Are you with me?
Again, I understand that Overwatch is meant to be team oriented, and this alternative may go too far beyond that principle for Blizzard to swallow. But the fact of the matter is, Overwatch‘s competitive scene isn’t getting any less toxic. Both players and developers want a change. In concluding last year’s Developer Update video about toxicity, game director Jeff Kaplan asked the community to pat each other on the back, and remember that we’re all here to have fun. This is a nice sentiment, and the community does need to play its part in mitigating toxicity, but in a multiplayer that is so aggressively competitive, those resentful feelings, and the subtle actions that can manifest from them, can sometimes be too hard to stuff down.
If a more pleasant community is truly the goal, players’ efforts need to be better represented in the consequences of a match. This would undoubtedly take much technical and systemic work, and I wouldn’t dream of calling Blizzard lazy, but the developer simply can’t rely on its current practices if it wants the game’s toxicity to change at the desired rate.