How hiring a pro Overwatch coach made me a better player

Knowing how to get better at Overwatch isn't always a straightforward process. I discovered this a few weeks ago when I started playing after a year-long break. Despite initially ranking gold in Season 10, I quickly plummeted to low silver and all the guides, videos, and Twitch streams in the world couldn't save me. Obviously, I'm by no means a pro—hell, I'm not even good. But I wanted to improve and was frustrated by how impossible that seemed.

Around this time, I was told about Gamer Sensei. It's a website where players pay coaches in various games like Overwatch, League of Legends, and Fortnite for one-on-one coaching. The idea really intrigued me: Could paying for Overwatch lessons really help make me a better player?

I reached out to Gamer Sensei, who graciously offered to give me a free one hour lesson with the coach of my choice. I went with one of their suggestions and booked a lesson with Nicholas "Shifty" Travis, the coach for the British Hurricane, an Academy team that acts like a talent incubator for the London Spitfire. He's an Overwatch pro with half a dozen first place tournament wins under his belt and is easily the most qualified coach on Gamer Sensei. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm glad I took the leap. Coaching won't be for everyone—especially since $20-$30 an hour is a big ask—but Shifty's advice was invaluable. 

Teach me, Sensei

WHO IS SHIFTY?

Coach for the London Spitfire Academy team British Hurricane, Shifty has over one and a half years of professional coaching experience. He's competed against some of the best teams in the world while nabbing first place in Overwatch Contenders: Season 1 - Europe and more.

Gamer Sensei isn't the first website to try and capitalize on the growing trend of average players hiring professional coaches. It's been a service that especially talented players have been offering for decades (I once begged my mom to buy me Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 lessons from some shady person I met online). But what Gamer Sensei brings to the table is a relatively intuitive process for finding, hiring, and scheduling a coaching session. There's even software you can download that has voice chat and screen sharing features.

It's not perfect, however. When booking my lesson with Shifty, I was a little confused by the calendar interface and whether a lesson was confirmed or not. Fortunately, coaches provide their contact info so it was easy to just reach out directly and set everything up.

Once we actually sat down for my lesson last week, I realized the big problem with Gamer Sensei's software (and to be fair, most screen sharing software like Skype) is that it doesn't share in-game audio. In Overwatch, sound is just as important as what you see, and Shifty needed to hear what I was hearing while he watched me play. We settled with me broadcasting on Twitch. It worked well enough, but the inherent delay meant Shifty couldn't give me in-the-moment advice. I'd have to wait until after my ranked match was over to hear any feedback. That didn't end up being a bad thing, though. It let me play more naturally instead of having a coach barking suggestions in my ear.

The cool thing about Gamer Sensei is that these lessons are structured however you want. While I opted to have Shifty watch me play and then discuss areas of improvement, a far more efficient use of time would've been to prepare videos ahead of time for us to watch together and go through. It's flexible, though, and coaches will even jump into a private match with you to run drills or try maneuvers.

Mousing about 

The biggest problem that most players have with Overwatch, especially if they're new, is having way, way too high of a sensitivity.

Nicholas "Shifty" Travis

As I booted up Overwatch and queued for a ranked game, my plan was to have Shifty critique my abilities as Zenyatta. Being casual, I'm the type of player who never really settled on a "main" character. I'm just kind of mediocre at everyone. I wanted that to change, however, and because I enjoyed support roles the most, I picked Zenyatta because I really like his 'Djinnyatta' skin and throwing orbs at people's heads is fun. The moment I entered skirmish mode Shifty immediately asked me to quit. "What is your mouse sensitivity?" He asked. Oh shit, I thought, I don't even know.

It's here that I feel the need to caveat this article by stating that I am not huge into FPSes. I play them a lot, sure, but it's not a genre that I take seriously. Because of that, I've never given a thought to my Razer DeathAdder's DPI or in-game sensitivity. But that was my first mistake.

"The biggest problem that most players have with Overwatch, especially if they're new, is having way, way too high of a sensitivity," Shifty explained. Of course, if you're playing a hero like Reinhardt that doesn't matter—and it's always up to the personal taste—but Shifty made some excellent arguments in favor of what felt like cripplingly low sensitivity.

I knew most FPS pros prefer aiming using a mouse with low sensitivity on mouse pads that could double as table cloths. This requires the mouse to travel much further distances across the pad, which is why pros also aim using their entire arm instead of just their wrist. I also knew that playing this way meant being able to track targets more accurately since your aim is steadier, but what I didn't know is that using my wrist to aim introduces some troubling patterns in my mouse movement.

It's much harder to move in straight lines when mouse movements are anchored by your wrist. If you're tracking a target across a horizontal plane, it's easy to make your movement more of a convex shape than a straight line. Aiming with your arm allows for a greater and more accurate range in movement. It definitely takes some getting used to, though, because turning corners or turning 180 degrees requires much more effort. 

In favor of trying this out, I dropped my sensitivity from 15 to 5. I was still using 1800 DPI because I couldn't find the Razer software to change it and I didn't want to waste time. My sensitivity was still much higher than most pros, which Shifty estimated usually use 5 in-game sensitivity and 800 DPI. "Basically, the higher sensitivity you have, the higher your margin of error is for [landing shots]," Shifty said. With that settled, it was time to actually play.

Lessons learned 

Just below this paragraph is the complete video of my game that Shifty spectated. This way, you can have a reference point for where his advice is coming from. I'm taking a risk by sharing this with you, so by clicking play on the video below you are entering into a legally binding contract in which you agree not to roast me in the comments. Breaching this contract will result in hurt feelings and loudly complaining to my significant other that the internet is mean. You have been warned. 

Note: the video didn't record audio from my microphone, so while I was talking occasionally, you'll only hear my teammates and Shifty.

It wasn't my worst game of Overwatch, nor was it my best—especially since I was adjusting to aim sensitivity a third slower than what I was used to. After it concluded, Shifty asked me how I felt I did. I admitted it was a mediocre game for me, and I was kicking myself for mistiming a few of Zenyatta's Transcendence ultimate abilities. Other than that, I thought I did OK.

"I would say that was probably your third biggest problem," Shifty said, immediately shattering my confidence and making me wince in shame. "Your accuracy isn't bad with Zenyatta, but you have two very terrible habits that you need to focus on fixing immediately."

The first of those lessons was that I never once used Zenyatta's alternate fire.

Shifty assumed I just didn't know it existed, but the truth was I just thought it was garbage. Being able to constantly sling orbs of destruction at my enemies seemed far more useful than wasting seconds charging up several to unleash in one big barrage. But if I knew what I was talking about, I wouldn't be paying someone to teach me Overwatch.

Zenyatta's right click is so powerful, it carries Overwatch League teams and is needing a nerf.

Nicholas "Shifty" Travis

"Zenyatta's right click is so powerful, it carries Overwatch League teams and is needing a nerf," Shifty said. "That's how powerful it is, and you didn't use it a single time. When you use your right click, it is the best when you are poking around a corner or angle where you think someone is going to be, or if someone is using an immune ability. You can't shoot that person, so what am I going to do? I can sit here on my butt and wait until they get out of that immune ability and start left-clicking them or I can save up five balls and throw them all at their face as soon as that ability ends."

It's something that I had honestly never considered, and as Shifty pointed out, there were two enemies I could have used that on. Whenever Mei self-heals using Cryo-Freeze, I can time my charged up orbs of destruction for when she breaks free—that one is obvious. But I didn't realize that Zenyatta can counter Reaper pretty effectively by charging his orbs when Reaper uses Wraith Form to get close. As soon as Reaper materializes, I can blast him away. "That should be a complete death sentence for Reaper ten times out of ten," Shifty said. "It is such an important ability that one-shots pretty much any non-tank hero."

It turns out, I wasn't so good with Zenyatta's primary firing ability either. "You hold down your left click like you're a Zarya and you just chase people," Shifty said. "You do not shoot that quickly. You do not have a laser beam. You're holding down left click when you do not have the openings for those shots. You want to shoot more like a McCree and less like a Soldier 76. That way, each time you left click it's more purposeful." It's true. In heated teamfights, I really have a tendency to just spray and pray with Zenyatta and hope for the best.

In order to fix this, Shifty recommended I practice poking more often—charging up my orbs behind cover, darting out to unleash hell, and then popping back into cover. As for my left click, I just need to start being more intentional with my shots.

My second biggest mistake was communication. 

"Communicating with Zenyatta is critical," Shifty said. "I didn't hear you call out a single Orb of Discord target. Zenyatta is a natural-born shotcaller." This was another thing that made me embarrassed because I had never even considered that it'd be a useful thing to do. Here's this debuff that makes even the sturdiest enemies melt under fire, and I wasn't letting anyone know who I was using it on. How stupid!

Shifty was quick to explain that doesn't mean calling out every time I discord a target, but learning when it's pivotal to have the team focus fire on one specific, weakened enemy. That ended up being a big reason why we lost. Our attempts to capture the second point on attack were rebuffed largely because we kept splitting our damage across too many enemies instead of focusing them down one after the other. It's a problem that a lot of teams have in ranked solo queue, and one that, as Zenyatta, I can help solve by calling targets who have been hit by my Orb of Discord. 

But my problem with not being communicative goes much further than not calling targets. During the round, the enemy team's Reaper was able to harass our supports unchallenged multiple times. As Shifty pointed out, not once did I or anyone take the initiative to raise this problem with the team. "That Reaper had one trick and he used it over and over and over again and you guys did nothing," he said.

It was obvious that I needed to take more of an active role in my team. Honestly, because I knew I was bad at Overwatch, I had a tendency to just shut up because who was I to say anything? But that mindset ended up being far more destructive than I realized.

I'm really bad at timing Zenyatta's ultimate ability.

This one was so blatant even I knew it was a problem. Shifty explained that, with Zenyatta, his ultimate is best saved to counter an enemy's ultimate instead of using it proactively. Instead, he said, I should bait out an ultimate from the enemy Reaper and then nullify it with Transcendence. The other time to use it is when you really need to win a teamfight, but you need to be cognizant of what ultimate abilities the enemy team might have waiting.

This and my lack of communication bleed into a much larger problem of not gathering intel on the enemy. Rarely did I pop open the score screen to see what ultimates my team had or what composition the enemy team might've changed to. And I wasn't even trying to anticipate what the enemy might be doing or when they might pop an ultimate ability. It's those less tangible skills, Shifty told me, that really separate good players from bad, and I had no idea I should be practicing them. I had read a ton of guides in preparing for this coaching session, but their focus on specific characters or maps meant there was loads of general strategy that I was completely ignorant of.

In the end, we spent nearly 30 minutes going over everything Shifty saw wrong with how I played. I'll admit, it was a little discouraging at first—but his advice was constructive and actionable.

Put me in, Coach! 

Even if I don't have aspirations of going pro, learning from one was worth it.

The niche group of players open to paying someone to coach them is probably tiny. Unless you have dreams of making it into Overwatch League, it might seem like wasted money, but my time with Shifty feels like anything but that. While I wouldn't turn our coaching sessions into a weekly activity, even just doing it once has had a huge effect.

Did it help me climb my way back up to gold ranking? No. But the hour I spent being critiqued made me (painfully) aware of what my weaknesses were and how I could improve. That kind of awareness is impossible to achieve from just watching pros or reading guides. Hell, studying your own replays will only go so far if you're ignorant to what you're doing wrong, which is all too possible.

For the first time since I started taking Overwatch more seriously, I feel like I have a roadmap on what I can do to improve. And, yes, I am already reaping the benefits. In the week since that session, I've taken a much more proactive role on my team. I'm calling shots, kindly pointing out flaws in our strategy, and definitely letting my team know when a Reaper is getting in my face. It's contributed to some nice wins in that time—especially in key moments when I used Orb of Discord on a target and called it out so the team could focus their fire.

While I haven't noticed an immediate improvement in my ability to land shots with either of Zenyatta's firing modes, I'm definitely feeling like a better teammate. And that, in turn, is making my time in Overwatch much more fun. Of all the benefits I was expecting, I never suspected that hiring a coach would make me enjoy Overwatch more, but it has. It's made me a more passionate, attentive player. As soon as our lesson concluded, I was itching to get back into battle and start applying all this new knowledge. I guess that makes sense, though. Unless you like losing, games are more fun when you're good at them. So even if I don't have aspirations of going pro, learning from one was worth it.