Closing Post

I didn’t want this to be an “Overwatch Politics” blog.  But with the announcement of 2-2-2 Role Lock I’m afraid my time with the game is done.


However, with the end of the blog, that means I can say what I think, in all its mathy glory.


  • The cries for 2-2-2 are motivated by a desire for stability

  • Since it came out, Overwatch has been a “crazy,” “chaotic” game.  Hero diversity + ults + low time-to-kill (shooters are more lethal than, say, MOBA’s)  makes for an unpredictable environment

  • However the mob’s cries are misplaced.  They are right to desire stability.  They are wrong on how to achieve it.

  • The desire for two tanks is the best-aligned, but still off.  Tanks are good for two reasons:  they are less at the mercy of a chaotic game (high health creates leeway), and they can protect others from the ravages of unpredictability

  • except, that is, when they can’t.  A Rein is no protection against a Pharah, an Orisa is no defense against a flanking Genji, etc.

  • the desire for healers is most misplaced.  Healing is like heroin—the more you have, the more you need.  This is because healing is very expensive in terms of power budget, and healers are impoverished in other areas of their kit, leaving more openings for the enemy to deal damage, “requiring” more healing…and so on.  The place to solve the problem is at the root, in not taking damage, or being tanky in the first place

  • What players actually want is a sense of stability and predictability.  This is not a strange, esoteric concept—it’s core to Starcraft, for instance.

  • That said, how to create it is not always obvious or solvable by one player.  This blog delves into how to do it (hints:  escapes, cover, high health, and keeping in mind that attack is defense, and vice versa), but if you really want to know, you’ll have to read the damn blog.  Wanting soundbites is what got us into this mess in the first place.

  • Overwatch has the “team hero game” problem that DotA and other MOBA’s have.  However, OW’s design makes it more subject to that problem than MOBA’s.  MOBA’s  punt on it in a lot of ways.  The problem is that the “team hero game” problem is inseparably connected with what makes the game fun. (Read the link).

  • I can’t predict exactly what horrible dysfunctions will arise from this.  My track record seems to be like the stock market—I can say what will happen, but I don’t know when.  I predicted the rise of bunker back in Jun 2018 when Symmetra was removed, and it’s only recently gained popularity.  I can say that there’s more strategic variety in the so-called “damage” category than the others, which means team agency is going to be even more concentrated in those players than before.  Paradoxically, queue times for “damage” will go up even more as players realize this.

  • Thanks for all the fish.


What I Would Tell the Devs (Reference before going out of business)

(Author’s note:  with the end of this blog, I thought this should be out in the open.  I never finished it, but what’s here is good.)


Hi.  I’m writing this here because I intend to link to it freaking everywhere, forever, so if you found this on some Reddit thread or whatever, great.

Here’s the gist:  Failure to take Overwatch seriously as a hero team game lies at the root of nearly all problems, and the game will either get worse or merely stagnate and underperform unless this changes.  Blizzard—and the community—can absolutely still turn the ship around, but only by doing some things that have never been done before.  If they do, then the future is very, very bright.


Can I be the best version of myself, while still loving and being loved by others?

All humans have two drives that sometimes conflict: the drive for identity, self-definition, and self-actualization, and the drive for connection—trust, meaning, affirmation, and contribution to a greater whole.

“Hero Team games” such as DotA, LoL, HotS, and Overwatch provide the opportunity for both of these.  For identity, they provide sharply defined characters—larger than life, worthy of being called heroes.


Is Reinhardt, Defender of Germany, merely a “tank”?  Would Tracer describe herself as a “DPS”?  Is Winston unclear about his identity?

Heroes are distinct.  They stand out; they do not fit in a mold.  They are simply themselves; they defy categorization.  We yearn to know who we are—to lack doubts.  Some people take magazine quizzes.  Others play electronic make-believe.

Hero Team Games provide the player the opportunity to slip on an identity—and perhaps to express a bit of their own thereby.  Walking down the street right now somewhere is an accountant, or a cashier—but only on the outside.  Inside, they are more like a seven-foot tall German knight, or a mocking Latina hacker.

But identity alone is not enough.  It must be recognized, known, accepted by others.  And beyond that, people want—need—a sense of belonging, connection, companionship, acceptance, camaraderie.

They tore our family apart.

Thus the popularity of team games, as opposed to simple deathmatch.  People will whine and complain about, even insult their teams—yet there they are, playing team games in droves.

Two Levels

I want to make it clear that this central conflict—between identity and belonging—is both the focus of the in-game story, and the out-of-game, real-life psychological needs players are seeking to satisfy when they play.  The story appeals to us because it mirrors our own internal conflicts.  We can learn about one layer by observing the other.

Why is there a “Conflict”?

Why is there a conflict between identity and belonging?  Can’t we have both?  Can’t we be all we want to be, while also maintaining our relationships with others?

It is not an immutable law that the two must conflict.  But often, they do.  As any entrepreneur or spouse knows, there is no guarantee that what we want to give is what others want, or that the world has on offer what we want.  A randomly chosen set of special-snowflake jigsaw pieces will probably not fit together.  It would seem crazy to expect that they would.  Most of us compromise our identities somehow to fit in, going along to get along; others fight, and suffer the consequences.

Given a Choice Between Getting Along and Heroes, the World Mostly Chooses Getting Along

And with good reason.

Most of the time, heroes are a bad idea.

Most of the time, for most people, identities given full expression are a bad thing, or at least unreliable and inconvenient.  “Heroes” are a risk.  If a hero is someone whose identity is given full reign, well…what if their identity is bad?  So we have speed limits, taxes, grades, performance reviews…and the Petras Act.

Overwatch Believes You Can Have Both

At Overwatch’s core lies the radically optimistic thesis that differences are to be embraced, rather than sanded off or hidden; that they can be a source of strength rather than weakness.  Many of the members of Overwatch, especially the later ones, are outcasts, or would be—a mutant gorilla, a failed pilot with a chronal disorder, a half-dismembered cyborg ninja, a Western outlaw.  In the outside world, there would be no place for them—they would be freaks; in Overwatch, they can be valued members of the team, as they are, for what they are.

This is not just a lore conceit.  This is core to the design of the game:

“…we want to welcome everybody into this universe in a lot of different ways; and one of the ways is making sure that we have different playstyles represented.”

“Overwatch should be an inclusive game space; it’s an inclusive aspirational universe.”  ~Jeff

But is it true?  Is this possible?   Can players really be trusted with this much freedom?  Can an organization like Overwatch, with as many misfits and oddities as it has, function without self-destructing?

So far, the answer to both questions seems to be…no.

Undisciplined Freedom Leads To Authoritarianism

In the midst of anarchy, authoritarianism suddenly becomes cool again.  Time and again, Blizzard has attempted to offer players more options, only for players to call for each other to be reigned in:

  •  At release, one could pick any hero in the roster; players revolted, and now the game has a one-hero-per-team limit
  • Players regularly call for League-style role enforcement, whether that be 2-2-2, GOATs, etc.
  • Patches to heroes almost never make them more distinct, always less so or the same.  From Widow damage, Zenyatta health, and Hog’s Scrap Gun in the early days, to the reworks of Mercy, Sombra, Hanzo, Symmetra, and Torbjorn, and the latest Brigitte/armor nerfs, every hero slowly tends toward Soldier:76 over time(see here).  This reduces freedom at the hero selection screen, but makes the game less chaotic for enemy players and unaligned teammates.
  • Most recently, I have heard calls for across-the-board nerfs to ults.  The nerf to Graviton Surge may be the first of many.

Player calls for reduced freedom are not motivated by malice, but are unsophisticated cries for order—order that they do not know how to create themselves.

Interlude: What about other games?

What is unique about Overwatch?

Overwatch is not the first team hero game.  DotA, LoL, HotS all give their players a good degree of freedom.  How do they solve this issue?

The most important part of the answer is that they don’t.  MOBA games are synonymous with nastiness.  Even where they do succeed, they do so by punting on the issue rather than solving it:

  1. Substantial portions of their gameplay are not team experiences.  Farming, choosing talents or items, traveling on a large map, warding, getting jungle camps, lane duels, ganks—all of these are solo or small-group experiences, but comprise a major portion of the game.  In addition, large maps with multiple objectives encourage players to split up and have duels rather than teamfights.  A “bad team” is no problem is they’re off in other lanes.
  2. Defender’s advantage of creeps/minions and towers/keeps, “softens” gameplay and discourages fights.  MOBA’s have towers and keeps that offer a strong advantage to the defender, placing a ceiling on how quickly the enemy can advance, even with a numbers advantage.   This both prevents teamfights, as the team with the disadvantage has a safe retreat point, and softens the impact of teamfights, as the winning team must push through imposing towers rather than simply destroying the throne/core/nexus.  (If the devs are looking for an interesting experiment, try an internal test mode where each team must have a pre-June-2018 Symmetra, but one team is encouraged to pick “weird” compositions.  Note how the slowdown relieves pressure on the picks of the other five players.)   TF2, with a defensive focus born of (relative to Overwatch) high lethality and slow movement, slows down the game in a different way.

Overwatch is not unique in that its players are especially malevolent or bad at teamwork; it is unique in that it puts so much of a spotlight on those issues.  Minions and creeps will not pounce on the slightest weakness, but opponents will.  Single objectives mean it is always team-fight-o’-clock.  The issues that were never solved, but made somewhat tolerable or ignorable in other games, can no longer be avoided in Overwatch.

Why Can’t Players Create Order?

Players want to cooperate.  We have two evidences of this.  First: team games are immensely popular.  Second, in-game, despite many incentives to the contrary, players regularly demonstrate altruistic behavior.

What then goes wrong?

Two things:  Players don’t know how to cooperate, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.


The Prisoner’s Dilemma, In A Thousand Forms

“The Prisoner’s Dilemma” is a thought experiment in game theory.  We reproduce Wikipedia’s description below:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).
Prisoner B
Prisoner A
Prisoner B stays silent
Prisoner B betrays
Prisoner A stays silent
Each serves 1 year Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays
Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years
Each serves 2 years
Prisoner B
Prisoner A
Prisoner B stays silent
Prisoner B betrays
Prisoner A stays silent
Each serves 1 year Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays
Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years


Strategy As An Act of Love

On my laptop, I have a sticker;finchchess

It’s from the show Person of Interest, in which Harold Finch, the pictured chess player, has invented an all-seeing AI with access to all security cameras, everywhere, its purpose to prevent terrorist attacks.  He teaches it chess — but what he really teaches it is that the world is not like chess, and that people are not pieces you can sacrifice:

Team games are different from solo games.  I’m fond of saying Overwatch is an RTS in FPS clothing, but there is one very important difference from traditional RTS: five other humans.

Any strategy that does not take this into account might fail for its blindness, but there are worse things than losing Overwatch games, and better ones than winning them.  Unlocking others’ potential, seeing them at their best, and making them feel valued.  Loving them. This is the highest use of strategy.

And perhaps, if we put that first, we will find new approaches open to us that others would have missed.

Overwatch — The Missing Manual

In many competitive games there’s a big hump to get over before you even can “play.”  In Starcraft, you have to learn to wall as Terran before you can do anything else.  Without that, Zerg and Protoss will seem “OP” and “unfair,” and the game will “obviously need changes.”  But it doesn’t—you’re just not over the hump.

This post is designed to get you, Joe/Jane Overwatch player, over the hump.  It is not a guide to advanced tactics or deep principles—those are elsewhere on this blog.  It is instead a guide to the basics, the things that will hinder you from playing the game if you don’t know them.

1.  Join a Team, Or Play With Friends

…is it really possible to build a shooter that…promotes teamwork and relationship and having fun with your friends? ~ Chris Metzen

The only common factor in your games is you.  Since you’re only 1/12 of the match, then, the only common factor in your games doesn’t matter that much.  This leads to wildly inconsistent results, and makes it hard to learn and improve.  Whereas, if you play with the same people, you have a much more controlled environment.  The scientific method depends on similar conditions.

Playing with the same people means you will have a much more pleasant experience.  Alas, people are often only nice to each other when they know they’ll interact with them more in the future.  And finally, playing with the same people gives you a whole new way to influence the game:if you see a solo queue teammate make a mistake, correct them, and they say, “OK” and learn from it—chances are you’ll play against  them next round, or never see them again.  Whereas with a teammate, everything you learn will benefit you even through other people.

Finding a team can be hard!  Many don’t even try.  Sadly, they miss out on the game as designed, and have a dull, frustrating experience.  Don’t be one of them!

All further steps depend on this one!  Make sure your team/friends understand this list as well.


2.  The Game Is About Switching Heroes

And then also, one just minor housekeeping note: we really encourage that when you play Overwatch to switch heroes often. Overwatch is not a game where you have to lock into a hero at the beginning of the map and then you can’t swap half of them. You can swap heroes every single life that you are out there. We actually encourage players to do that, it is actually the best and right way to play the game.
~ Jeff Kaplan

After joining a team, the most powerful influence you can have on the game comes through your ability to switch heroes.  You can do this at the beginning of the game, after you die, or simply by walking back into the spawn room.  Switching provides you with access to:flight, machine guns, AoE, invisibility, disabling abilities, long range, invincibility, automated turrets, energy shields, one-hit KO’s, teleportation, healing (both self and others), auras, mobility, traps, and ally buffs.  Get a feel for all the heroes, and pay particular attention to their “standout” qualities, the things that make them unique.  This will serve as a good start when pondering whom to switch to.  If the enemy can’t shoot up, for instance, you might want to think about switching to Pharah, who can fly.

Early in your Overwatch career, you should aim to solve most of your problems by switching.

3.  First, Stay Alive

Overwatch has a diverse cast with countless abilities.  You can come up with all sorts of wacky things to do.

But none of them matter if you can’t stay alive.

Staying alive benefits your team as well—you are one more friendly on the field, helping them in ways obvious and non-obvious.  A retreat point, a distraction, an obstacle for the enemy—you can be very valuable when alive.  But not when you’re dead.

The best ways to stay alive for beginners are:  by staying far away from enemies, by staying in cover, by using shields, and playing characters with “escapes,” or quick movement abilities.

A word of caution: a common trap new players fall into is overestimating the necessity of “healer” characters.  Healer characters pay a price in other areas and have many weaknesses, dragging down the team.  It is strongly suggested that your team have no more than one “Support” character at a time.  If you find yourself consistently taking a lot of damage, you should consider using cover or distance better, or switching heroes, instead of asking more of your team to pick healing characters.

4.  Make The Game Less Random And Swingy For Yourself And Your Friends

Overwatch games tend to “snowball” — that is, when one team gets an advantage, even a small one, it can often turn into a slightly bigger one, and then a bigger one than that—like a snowball rolling down a hill.  The danger of risky plays is that if things don’t work out, you’ll give the enemy a slight advantage, with which they can get a snowball going.

Instead, you want to play so as to prevent and slow down snowballs.  The best way to do this is to stay alive, help your team stay alive, and neutralize (not necessarily kill, which might be more trouble or risk than it’s worth) enemy threats.  Shields, cover, mobility, and disabling abilities are helpful here.

This makes the game smoother and more predictable for the rest of your team.  This is great!  It means they will have an easier time understanding and reacting to what’s going on.  In turn, they will do so for you (you did #1, right?), making the game less chaotic for you.

That’s it!

If you keep these principles in mind, you’ve got a good foundation  from which to work.

Thinking Less, Thinking Better

Thinking Is Hard, Let’s Not Do It

There is a misconception about strategy—that it requires lightning-fast calculation, taking a million different factors into account, integrating them all, and coming up with incredibly specific and minute answers.  The idea is that strategy means you think faster than your opponent, keep more things in your head, and are just that smart.

I call this the “Sherlock” theory of strategy, after the movie, where Sherlock’s fights are meticulously choreographed in his head beforehand:



This sort of thing is fun to see, and very occasionally you can even pull it off in 1v1’s, and make a mindgames video for youtube.  But this is not a route that leads to consistent performance.

We don’t win by fantasizing about thinking faster.  We win by accepting our limitations, and changing our mental models so that even someone as slow as us can get good results.

Quick, how many letters are in the following shape?

a       h       n      q

f       k       l        i

j        b       p      m

c      o       g       d

Did you count them one-by-one?  More likely you multiplied 4×4=16.  Imagine if it were a 10×10 square instead—someone who didn’t know about multiplication would be astonished seeing someone else “count” so fast.

Multiplication isn’t good because it makes us focus on every detail.  It’s precisely the opposite: it’s good because it lets us ignore a lot of detail.  We get to think less, and still get the right answer!

So this post is about multiplication, for Overwatch.  Mental models to help us win, by ignoring some pieces of information, and paying closer attention to others.  We think less, but our thinking is focused on things that matter.

A Preview of Mental Models That Will Help Us Think Less

Value and Its Conversion

In this model, we think of two competing economies, that produce all sorts of goods that may or not be convertible to each other.  They both want to “buy” the Supreme Ultimate Good: time controlling the point/payload.  But this is sort of like Tetris in that they can also sabotage the enemy economy.  The benefit of this model is that you don’t have to think “How do I win” (that’s hard) but simply, “How do I produce convertible value?”


In this model, we think about fields, defined as “areas of space interesting enough to care about.”  Bastion’s field of fire is one, Winston’s shield is another—but it extends to less-obvious ones, like “The space where Orisa can survive and still be threatening.”  What’s great about fields is that we can ignore the characters and think about space, which is often simpler.   Bastion/Orisa is a good example here:  there’s a whole class of problems we don’t need to worry about.  (“What if they switch their Soldier out for a Zen?”  “…then we’ll mow him down too?”)

Attack Is Defense, Defense Is Attack

A Pharah is not the same as a Zarya.  Except…are they?  Both are strong against enemy concentrations, both are good allies for a Genji or Moira.  We need a certain level of understanding from the team for these to be quite equivalent, but once that’s there, it can become much easier to just throw a comp together and have it work.

Safety First

This is really a flavor of “Value Conversion,” but it’s so important that it deserves its own entry.  Thinking about our own and our team’s survival first is a way of breaking up the (very complicated) problem of an Overwatch game into pieces:  the survival piece, and then the contribution piece.


These Models Work Together

I wish these things were completely sequential.  But they’re not—they’re interrelated.  On the bright side—the better you understand one, the better you’ll understand the others.

The Wolfpack Comp, And Beyond

One of the things that makes Overwatch hard to learn is that it’s hard to tell when you did a good job or not.

An overenthusiastic Winston jumps into the enemy backline and stays a little too long.  His Ana, determined to keep him alive, valiantly keeps him in her sights and keeps healing him.  Because of this, she doesn’t notice the Reaper right behind her, and dies.  Winston squeaks out a kill and jumps out, but then dies to Reaper.

The Winston might feel alright about this.  After all, he went 1-1.  But a) he had help, and b) his Ana died for it.  So he actually did terribly, but will he recognize this?   Probably not.

Hog-Reaper-Mei-Soldier-Pharah-Moira is my favorite “learning” comp, as it keeps everyone’s expectations in line with reality.  Everyone (except Mei and Pharah, to an extent) gets much quicker feedback on the result of their actions—Reaper is not going to be able to keep a straight face while blaming Moira for not healing him across the map, etc.  And surprisingly, the comp does have the tools to deal with pretty much everything.

Against teams that group up, where there’s room to flank, this team is well served by spreading out and taking potshots until there’s an opening—usually as a result of an enemy misplay, an ult, a lucky pick, a Mei wall, or some good Pharah hits.  Then a snowball naturally forms from players taking advantage while remaining safe.  Hence the “Wolfpack” name.

There are two principles at play here that apply in broader Overwatch:

1. Avoiding commitment until you have a sure thing.  A lot of running away, taking cover, managing panic buttons (Icicle/Wraith), and remaining at range in this comp.  I’ve talked about commitment before, but the important thing to remember is that commitment can take many forms.  In a bunker comp, for instance, simply standing somewhere is a commitment, because they can’t retreat easily.

2.  Accepting value in a variety of forms, and in small increments.  It’s very easy to feel like you’re “doing nothing” in the early phase.  But in actuality, you’re getting a lot of gains—you’re getting position, you turn that position into disruption, the enemy breaks their formation (or eats AoE damage, or gets split by Mei), the enemy wastes cooldowns—and then things start to get moving.  The real story is that you were making progress the whole time, just failing to notice it.  Learning to recognize “hidden” value is an essential part of OW.

How Teams Learn To Coordinate

Teamwork is hard.  Really hard.  Most people who’ve had experience with team sports have either undergone a lot of disciplined practice on plays (volleyball, football), or play in a pretty undifferentiated mass, where every player does basically the same thing (soccer).  When players and characters are diverse and strongly differentiated, then teammates often hate each other.  Trust me, I know—I played DotA.

Families fight.  Lovers quarrel.  Teamwork is a special shiny unicorn you see once every seven years, not the default outcome.


If any one of these six becomes self-sufficient and additive rather than subtractive…it has no effect!  All the value just gets sucked up by the rest.  If he tries to stop leaking value for them to waste, they may even get mad at him!


It’s easiest to make this change as an individual, because you get a tight feedback loop that’s easy to comprehend


Where before a single person cleaning themselves up would be dragged down by the rest of the team, now a single person accidentally messing up will likely have his mistakes covered for by his team

So how do we make it work?


  1.  Each part of the team must become self-sufficient, and stop dragging down the team.
  2.  Each part of the team must try to contribute as much value to the team as possible, in a way the team can use, while remaining self-sufficient.
  3. Only at this point will it be beneficial for the team to play with each other, learn how each other play, and trust each other
  4. After quite a bit of [3], the team can start to rely on each other.  But not before.

Most teams go straight to [4], assume that [2] is easy (it’s not, it’s really not), and never even think about [1].  They often do a good amount of [3], but they don’t get much value out of it.

A moment’s thought should suffice as to why [4] can’t come before [1].  If your teammates aren’t self-sufficient and might be dragging the team down, how can you rely on them?  And if you are relying on someone who drops the ball, and someone else is relying on you…it’s easy to see how things can go south really quickly.

1. Each part of the team must become self-sufficient, and stop dragging down the team

Things you should not be doing when aiming for this:

  • asking for help
  • telling other players what to do
  • needing a specific action from other players (“We need a shield tank,” etc)
  • dying
  • complaining

If you’re not doing any of these things, you can be pretty sure that you’re not dragging down the team.

Note that it is not required to “pull your weight” in terms of kills or damage or whatever to be considered not dragging down the team.

Q:  Why so serious?  What’s wrong  with a player who drags down the team in some areas, but performs brilliantly in others?

A:  Three things:  counterplay, caps, and fragility

  • Counterplay: Counters do matter in OW.  If a teammate is playing Genji and the enemy team switches to Symmetra, Torb, Winston, Moira, Brigitte, and Orisa…they’re just gonna have a real hard time.  They won’t be able to perform consistently, which is a must (also: see Waterlines).
  • Caps:  There is only so much a character can do.  What does “performing brilliantly” even look like on a Mercy?  Well—a Mercy can really only be said to be playing “brilliantly” when the enemy team is chasing her.  What if they don’t?  Yet it is always detrimental if she is dragging down the team by dying, raging, etc.
  • Fragility:  Imagine an assembly line with six steps.  Each step has a 10% failure rate.  What is the failure rate of the overall line? It’s not 10%—it’s 46%.

Q:  What are the hardest/most counterintuitive things players will have to do when doing this?

A: Two things:  not helping, and learning to switch off of squishy characters when necessary

  • Not helping:  Drowning people are dangerous.  In many situations, one player will come to the defense or aid of another, and both will die.  By coming to that player’s aid even when it means death for the rescuer, the “drowning” player is denied the feedback they need to effectively learn #1.  In solo queue this is just kind of a dick move, but on a regular team you will actually be around them long enough to benefit from them learning, so it’s absolutely worth it.
  • Learning to switch off squishy characters when necessary:  It’s a dangerous world out there.  Sometimes there’s just no room for a squishy robot monk, or a bio-sniper.  Players need to value their own survival over the idea of helping their team, because if they’re dead, they’re not helping the team.

2. Each part of the team must try to contribute as much value to the team as possible, in a way the team can use, while remaining self-sufficient

This is hard.  This takes some thought.  We start with a constraint—don’t drag the team down—and now we’re trying to see what the max we can do while adhering to that constraint is.

But it’s where the magic is.  If you don’t know what to pick, the way to do it is by asking yourself: “How can I contribute the most in a way my team can use, without dragging the team down?”

You’ll mess up.  You’ll learn that gee, it can be really hard to stay alive as Bastion.  You’ll gain a fondness for Orisa, Winston, and Moira.  And sometimes you’ll realize that you’re playing too cautiously, and that the enemy Widow is wrecking your team and gee, no one is guarding her, and you’ll switch to Genji and ruin her life, in utter safety.  Or that the enemy is playing very defensively and it’s Junkrat time.  And thanks to your experience with [1], you’ll learn to recognize that your teammates have a deathwish, but maybe you can compensate for their recklessness with Brigitte, or Zarya, or D.Va.  After all, if it’s important for you not to die, it’s probably important for them not to die too, right?   And then you’ll learn how to actually keep players alive, compared to the conventional wisdom.  Sometimes Bastion or Sombra are the best “tanks.”  You’ll notice that certain characters are win conditions, and sometimes the best way to contribute will be by protecting/neutralizing them.

You’ll also have to do some hard thinking about how to contribute in a way that your team can use, and what they lack, and how you can provide that while staying alive.

…The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do. . . .

3. Only at this point will it be beneficial for the team to play with each other, learn how each other play, and trust each other

[1] and [2] are hard.  Easier with a coach, but still hard.  Balancing the two requires a lot of unlearning, experimentation, and failure.

But if you do them, and your team does them, then [3] will be a magical experience.  Your team will still make mistakes, but they’ll know they made mistakes (hint: it’s definitely the fault of the player who died, and possibly the fault of others as well), and they’ll be on much firmer footing in figuring out what they should have done.  In truth, because balancing [1] and [2] are so hard, you and your teammates will come into this not having fully learned it, but you’ll be able to share what you’ve learned with each other, and it will fit.  Much Overwatch conversation is like two chefs sharing tips—except they’re talking about different dishes, and neither of them knows it.  But now you all have the same objective, and you’ll be able to communicate effectively (outside the game).

4. After quite a bit of [3], the team can start to rely on each other.  But not before.

Sometime during [3], something amazing will happen:  you’ll make a mistake, get caught out, flat-footed—and then this will happen:

Did you see how Reaper saved McCree there?  Something like that will happen.


And why shouldn’t it?  Haven’t you spent a good amount of time being paranoid about your own and your teammates’ survival?  And hasn’t every member of your team been doing the same?  It’s just another day at the office.


What’s awesome is that I’m actually failing to describe everything that’s great about [4].  Because [1] and [2] are hard enough and deep enough that you’ll learn some things I can’t describe here—which show up in [4].  Suffice it to say that [4] is an awesome (as in: steamrolling teams, having them try to counter you, and steamrolling them again) place to be, as a direct result of [1], [2], and [3].

Tolkien’s Eucatastrophe and Overwatch

Both The Hobbit and The Return of the King end with climactic battles.  The Forces of Good are surrounded and outnumbered, Smaug is in the air, and Gollum has the Ring, the Nazgul soon to take it.  All hope seems lost.

And then…

“The Eagles are coming!”

Bard hits the long-whispered weak spot in Smaug’s hide, Gollum stumbles into the Cracks of Doom, and the Eagles arrive (in both books) to save the armies of Middle-Earth.

This climactic structure was no accident.  Tolkien had a word for it: eucatastrophe.  “eu” meaning “good,” and “catastrophe” meaning, well, catastrophe.  It is “a joyful turn in a narrative when all seems lost.”

Tolkien believed it was central to myth, but we are interested in it for another reason:  it is one of the ways a game can go that ends with you winning.  In fact, we can make it happen, if we adjust our play.

Why should this be?

Earlier we talked about the Resource Model, wherein we conceive of aspects of the game as resources, to be traded, leveraged, protected, invested, converted into each other, etc.

It’s that conversion that’s of interest here.  If we acquire a resource advantage through open play, and we keep taking our winnings in a form that leads to a big finish, but we only take enough in the short term to keep us hanging on, then our state in the game looks like this:


What kind of resources would we need to win suddenly?  Ults, duh.  Rez is most thematic. What could we give up (that isn’t permanent) while charging a big ult?  Space, shield or tank health, cooldowns—we’d also need a way to bait the enemy to come close, so our big ult mattered.  Perhaps an Orisa-Torb-Winston-Zen-Brigitte-Sombra defense—strong against flankers with Torb-Winston-Zen-Brigitte-Sombra, and strong against anything not-Bastion at a distance.  The enemy would have to commit to deal with this, and while they’d be unlikely to have much trouble approaching, killing everything would be another matter—especially if they kept retreating slowly to buy time (and ult charge).  Eventually the enemy team either makes a move and gets EMP’d, or they move even earlier and just lose the pitched battle vs Torb-Brigitte-Zen-Orisa.

What I want to point out here is how little coordination this requires.  When “crazy stuff happens,” there is a very simple rule that everyone can follow: back up to safety if you need to, and then take advantage of any opportunities you see.  Winston-Brigitte-Torb-Orisa are a very tanky quad, and they protect Zen quite well, so they have a bit of breathing room that means they can back up, not having died immediately.  Sombra is of course the Queen of Safety.

This pattern—playing it safe and capitalizing on enemy mistakes—is the bread and butter of the game.  It doesn’t always look like eucatastrophe (often the pattern occurs in smaller doses on in a shorter time frame), but it’s the pattern to get comfortable with.

Common Misconceptions For Teamplay

The trouble with the majority of Overwatch advice is a lack of context.  Much of what you hear is good advice…30% of the time.  The other 70%, it will lose you the game.  Even worse is when you can’t tell beforehand which it will be!


One common area where this happens is how you should play in relation to your allies.

Dysfunctional Relationships

Yes, seriously.  This isn’t an attempt to be cute.  The mistakes we make in real-life relationships have their analogues in Overwatch play.

Before You Ask Others To Change, Change Yourself

Your teammates, not being as intelligent and attractive as you, likely do not read this blog.  Thus, you must take care of your own play first, in such a way that you are contributing even if your team is useless, and that is compatible with someone else’s play if they do know how to play.

First Priority: Be Independent

This does not mean you need to be off 1v1’ing opponents.  Actually the only thing you need to do here is to not die.  

The important thing here is to not be wrong about what your allies are going to do.  If you find yourself saying “[Teammate] should have [done X], that’s why I died!” then the problem is you.

You need to take this seriously.  If this means switching to a character you’re not comfortable with:  Welcome to Overwatch, get comfortable.  It is likely that you’re measuring your performance wrong anyway—you’ve likely picked up bad ideas about what good performance even means.  Well, here’s a start:  it means not dying, and not using your allies as an excuse when you do.  Other things come after that, but none of them matter if you can’t do this.

Second Priority: Contribute as Much As You Can

The nature of your optimal contribution* here—protection, space control, healing, flank control, sustained damage, flank exploitation, internal security, demolition—will vary depending on compositions, game state, map, ult status, etc.  What does not vary is that this comes after “not dying, regardless of ally actions” in priority.


Just as important as what to do is what not to do.  Here are common mistakes that make it difficult to stay alive and contribute:

Interpersonal Mistake: Telling Your Allies What To Do

You can’t control other people.  Further, they don’t like it (or you) if you try.  I know (very well) that it can be tempting, but you must avoid this, for several reasons.

First, when you’re learning, it’s likely you’re using it as a crutch to save you from taking a really hard look at your own play.  What you should be asking yourself is:  making no assumptions about what my team will do, what can I do to stay alive and contribute?  The ability to answer this correctly and consistently is valuable, but must be learned through trial and error.

Second, you’re probably telling them something wrong.  They have different information than you do.  Stay in your lane.

Third, it takes away from your larger goal.  You don’t want people who have to be micromanaged—you want your team to strike as onenaturally.  Believe it or not, this is consistently achievable—it arises organically when everyone on the team follows a few simple rules(these ones, in fact).  Thus you want to teach the rules, not specifics.  And you can teach general principles outside the game, in a relaxed environment, rather than in-game when you’re stressed.

Interpersonal Mistake:  Letting Your Allies Tell You What To Do

I’m sure your teammates are the nicest people in the world.  But if what they’re telling you will lead you to die, or contribute suboptimally, you should not do that thing.  If they want a Zen but can’t/won’t protect him, play Moira.  If they want a Winston but the enemy team has a Bastion, play Sombra.

In solo queue—(why are you playing solo queue?  Get on a team!).

On a team, this can require some adjustment from your teammates, especially if they’re used to the tank-dps-healer paradigm.  Be diplomatic, show them this post, and stand firm.  The phrase, “I feel like I’d contribute more on —-” is magic here, especially because it’s true.

Remember:  you are leaving them alone, and asking them to leave you alone.  And then, you are trying to contribute, consistently, to advantaging your team in the overall game state.  If everyone does this, and trusts everyone else to do this, you simply win.


*Especially on newer teams, it is likely some form of open play, that helps your team get ahead in resources: evasion, defense, protection, space control, harassment

How To Actually Learn This Stuff

This blog has a bunch of theoretical articles.  However, I’d be lying if I said that reading them all, constructing a perfect model in your head, and then showing up having learned kung fu was a good path.  It’s not the one I took.

Here’s what I did:

  • I was there when the game was announced, and I listened carefully.  I’d advise anyone reading this blog to read the full transcript (4 pages).

  • When I finally got access to the game, I regarded switching as my main tool of influence on the game.*  I had this in mind:

And then also, one just minor housekeeping note: we really encourage that when you play Overwatch to switch heroes often. Overwatch is not a game where you have to lock into a hero at the beginning of the map and then you can’t swap half of them. You can swap heroes every single life that you are out there. We actually encourage players to do that, it is actually the best and right way to play the game.

~ Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch Unveiling, page 4

  • I refused to compromise on the idea that dying is always a sign of something wrong.  Looking back, this was very helpful

  • I refused to let others tell me what to play, and I refused to tell others what to play.


Then I just did all that consistently, while I tried to find models or intuition that would help me simplify the complex situation of a game, without losing important information.


So if you’re reading this blog: the first step is not to memorize everything you find around here, but to just:

Once you do that, you’ll start to run into the problems for which this blog is the answer.




*I no longer regard switching as my most powerful tool, but rather as the second most powerful tool.  The most powerful “tool” at your disposal is your team.  You can organize, teach, and inspire them, reaping benefits x5 rather than x1.