Blizzard talks about the past, present, and future of Overwatch's Competitive mode

PCG: Early on there was a lot of outcry over the perceived power of heroes like Bastion. How much of that boiled down to people maybe not understanding how to play Overwatch properly?

Mercer: Bastion is a very polarizing hero amongst our newer players who aren't expecting to come around a corner and get 'brapped' by his gatling gun. When you go way back in the beta and he had a barrier in front of him, he was still counterable. But we stepped back and were like, okay, how would players counter that and how good of a player do you need to be to perform that counter? So when we look at balance for any hero, we look at it wholistically. How does it affect our newer players, how does it affect our average players, and how does it affect our really insanely skilled players?

PCG: Right, but looking at something like being able to switch heroes freely to counter the enemy team composition, do you feel like you're doing a good enough job encouraging that kind of play?

Our general tuning philosophy is to make everything overpowered.

Mercer: There's definitely more we could do, but the community is getting smarter about the game daily. It's cool and scary at the same time. Trying to make the game as accessible as possible to new players is something that I think we'll never be done with. We'll always be looking for improvements to help players understand what Overwatch is about and how it works.  

PCG: I can only imagine it must be really difficult to, for example in the case of Bastion, know whether or not he's actually overpowered or if people just don't understand how to counter him. How tricky can that be when addressing feedback?

Mercer: That is a dark voodoo art. I wish we could say there's one thing we look at, but really we all play the game a lot ourselves and we keep a close eye on the feedback and understand who it's coming from. We also have a large amount of data that we look at like stats, so there's the anecdotes and the data and we take all that and we decide if this is an issue to solve right now or if it's just a flavor of the week kind of issue.

PCG: But there's also heroes like Zenyatta who aren't seeing a lot of competitive play right now either. Is that something where you're just willing to embrace, that some will be 'D' tier heroes, or are you wanting to make a game where every hero is an equally viable pick?

Mercer: Our general tuning philosophy is to make everything overpowered. We want players to feel like they could choose one hero, who might bring an amazing ultimate, but in doing so they're giving up another hero choice and that other hero could bring other different amazing things. It's interesting that you mention Zenyatta because there was a point where most all of the [competitive] teams were running two of him. We are definitely looking at further changes. When we made those changes back in the beta that took him from being played twice to not so much, we knew that was a pretty drastic change and we'd have to go back in the future and go hey, is there something we can do to make him better? That's something that we're looking at now for a future patch—him and is another hero who is cool but feels a little underpowered so we're looking at changes for her as well. Once we figure out what changes we want to make, we'll get those out pretty quickly.

PCG: Obviously a big draw for Competitive Play is some of the rewards. What can players expect to see in the future? Is it going to be more of the same? I mean, how do you top golden guns?

Mercer: That is an excellent question, and you're right, golden guns are pretty amazing looking! Something we've talked about is, because we have the competitive tokens we're giving out [as rewards for playing], maybe in the future we'll provide rewards that aren't as expensive as the golden guns. So we're talking about other potential rewards we can give that will allow players to see some rewards more often. We just don't have a concrete idea of what that might be, but we do have the flexibility of adding more stuff in the future.

PCG: Blizzard has such a strong legacy with competitive games, is Overwatch something that you're going to be pushing to be a big competitive game in league with Starcraft or Hearthstone? And how will you get it there?

Mercer: There's already been a lot of tournaments taking place, and we're really excited about it. The competitive scene is developing super rapidly, and the game is a lot of fun. There's still work to be done in terms of making it easier to watch, but we have a lot of ideas for that. Going forward, there's going to be some really exciting stuff that we can’t quite talk about yet.

PCG: Now that the game has launched, is there anything that's really surprised you about the players and how they're engaging with it?

Mercer: Oh, wow, how fast they've learned and are adapting. Our game has only been live for over five weeks, and how good the players are becoming and the way the community is developing is super exciting. There's so much fanart and everyone loves the memes, they just popped up out of nowhere. You're seeing "Play of the Game" videos based on last Sunday's Game of Thrones [warning: huge spoilers through that link]. It's all just happening so fast.

PCG: Why do you think that is?

The thing we need to be very careful about is we need to make sure that whatever mode we add to Overwatch is a good mode for Overwatch.

Mercer: There's just a lot of Blizzard fans, but with Overwatch what you really see is that there's a lot to like in the game. There's these characters that are relatable and there's so much variety and so much representation—male and female and around the globe. It feels like such a global game which is something I think our fans really appreciate. It feels like there's something in the game anyone could really latch onto and could say "I associate with that."

PCG: Obviously Overwatch has been a pretty big success both financially and critically. Because it was essentially salvaged from Project Titan, were you expecting it to take off as well as it has?

Mercer: I'm really proud of the team and the work we've done and the success. It's really great to see so many people having fun playing the game. But when I look at the numbers, it's nice but it's not what's important to me. For me, I worked really hard with a great team and made a great game. And people are having fun, that's good to see.

PCG: One of the few criticisms against Overwatch is just how slim the content is for the game right now. Even with Competitive Play, there's still not a great deal of diversity in the maps or objectives. Are there plans to expand the types of gameplay modes?

Mercer: Short answer to that is yes, we definitely are looking into adding additional content in terms of game modes. The thing we need to be very careful about is we need to make sure that whatever mode we add to Overwatch is a good mode for Overwatch. There's been some other gameplay modes that have been suggested, like capture the flag, and we're not sure those modes are a right fit for Overwatch with 21 heroes and all the crazy abilities they have. What we're really focusing on is trying to find cool, fun gameplay modes that work within Overwatch. That's been tough, but we totally agree with the criticism. It's something we know we can work on in the future and we're trying to figure out ways to provide that. Competitive Play, as you noted, is one big step towards that.  

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.