Bans in games like Rainbow Six Siege and Heroes of the Storm enable players or teams to exclude characters at the start of matches, preventing opponents from selecting ones who dominate specific maps or the overall meta. Overwatch fans have been calling for a similar system in their game of choice for some time now, but so far Blizzard has opted against doing so.
That will change during Overwatch Season 21, however. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan revealed in today's developer update video that Blizzard is implementing a "Hero Pool" system, similar to bans, and it's coming to Competitive Play. The big difference is that instead of banning characters on a per-match basis, excluded heroes will be selected by Blizzard every week, in order to "prevent players from stagnating on any one meta too long."
"The Hero Pool will only last for one week, and then there will be a new Hero Pool," Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan explains in the new developer update video. "There will be some heroes that will not be included in the Hero Pool. For example, in the first week of the Hero Pool, let's say Season 21 had just started, maybe Orisa, Sigma, Mei, and Moira are not in the Hero Pool. Players will have to think of a new strategy that doesn't involve those heroes, and that will last for one week, and then the Hero Pool will change."
Kaplan emphasized that the Hero Pool will only be active in Competitive Play, not Quickplay or the Arcade, and also noted that nothing is carved in stone. Depending on how it goes, Blizzard may make changes to the system, such as lengthening or shortening the durations, or even enabling more ban-like per-match exclusions. He also confirmed that the Overwatch League will adopt "a version of Hero Pools," details of which will be revealed in an upcoming blog post.
Another interesting change on the way is the addition of an "Experimental Card" to the Overwatch menu. Kaplan says in the video that the development team has faced criticism for responding too slowly to complaints about balance issues. Blizzard generally relies on the PTR for testing, but it's not the most reactive system, and new content and updates on the PTR often tend not to be changed very much before going live. The Experimental Card will enable more frequent and aggressive changes by making a PTR-like environment, which is currently restricted to players on PC, readily available to everyone.
"This Experimental Card will be some number of changes—they might be related to hero balance, they might be related to other things, we might be testing changes to the way one of our game modes works, like the Control game mode and how it works in Competitive. It doesn't have to be balance related—but the Experimental Card will come up every now and then when we want to test something. And it will give all players of Overwatch, not just players who want to go to the PTR but all players including console players, will be able to use the Experimental Card to test changes out."
Another big benefit for players is that because the Experimental Card is in the live game, any progress you earn will count toward levels and special event progress. Kaplan also said that while the PTR is generally focused on bugs and stability, the Experimental Card will be more about looking at gameplay changes and player reactions to them. The first Experimental Card is expected to be up in a few weeks.
Kaplan also said—warned, maybe—that Blizzard is changing its "philosophy" about Overwatch balance changes. Previously, balance changes have been focused on the game's "stability" for all players, but going forward it will balance "more frequently, more aggressively, and be less concerned with trying something out, and maybe pulling it back later."
"We're going to try some pretty aggressive balance changes," he said. "We're going to balance more aggressively, target the meta, and moving you off of the meta as frequently as possible."
Kaplan also touched on some smaller changes coming to Overwatch, including the ability to pin and share replay and a "light refresh" of career profiles—a "major overhaul" is coming in Overwatch 2, "but that's way further down the pipe." Blizzard also has plans to step up its anti-cheat efforts in the next update, 1.45, which is expected to go live in early February.