Lessons from Overwatch

Introduction

If you know much about me, you will know I am a huge fan and player of Overwatch. If you don’t, I love Overwatch. My girlfriend and I are avid players and followers of the game, having started playing at the end of 2016. Since then I have spent hours playing, watching, attending live matches, and observing professional streamers on Twitch. To validate my time spent playing the game, I want to describe what I’ve learned in a series of key lessons. 

Note: This post is a bit introspective because while I have learned these things, I have yet to internalize them.

  1. Learn to operate in a complex environment
  2. Technical skills aren’t everything
  3. Keep levelling up
  4. Work better in a team
  5. Understand luck

Overwatch Overview

This is a high-level overview of the game to provide some context.

Overwatch is a 6v6 team game, focused on accomplishing a shared goal such as capturing and protecting an area on the map or escorting a payload (vehicle) from one end of a map to another (like American football). There are many game types, each one sharing the same basic structure. Two six-player teams try to achieve their goal while preventing the other team from doing the same.

Each player selects a character (hero) with unique abilities and roles. These could be tanks whose role is to create space for the team, supports who heal the team, and damage-dealers who eliminate the enemy team. There are about 10 different heroes within each role. Matches take place across multiple maps, varying in their layout and flow, verticality, and aesthetics.

Overwatch League and Ranked Play

Overwatch League (OWL) is like a formal sports league, with 12 teams and pre-set rosters competing on a regular basis. These teams learn each others’ strengths, weaknesses, playstyles and communication habits. This allows them to work together, formalize strategies, and create a stronger team.

Ranked Play is for us Overwatch amateurs. A matchmaking system puts together two evenly-matched teams of six players who likely have no prior history together. This makes some of these lessons more applicable, as you have no control or insight into how your teammates will play.

Key Lessons

Learn to operate in a complex environment

Each match of Overwatch is a complex and dynamic environment – there are lots of moving pieces you interact with both as a player and a team.

Learn the Meta

One of the key components of Overwatch is the meta (shorthand for metagame). In game design, the metagame is typically the elements surrounding the core game itself, such as progression systems, character creation, incentives, etc.

Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.
In Overwatch, the meta reflects how teams are structured and composed. You can select how many of each role you have (tanks/supports/damage-dealers), as well as which heroes within each role.

Each hero has unique skills creating strengths and weaknesses against specific opposing heroes and even environments. For example, a flying hero may be best suited for maps with lots of vertical space. When a new hero is introduced, a new map is added, or there is a tweaks to the characteristics of a hero, the meta can shift dramatically. When one hero falls out of favour, there are cascading effects across all team compositions to consider. This involves second and third-order thinking, requiring you to traverse the chain of events when thinking about which team compositions you plan to run. This is something the game designers likely consider extensively before making changes. As I will cover later, this has effects on both you as a teammate, but also you as a player; you need to consider how your team will adapt, but also how the opposing team will as well.

A simple comparison for those familiar with chess, would be having the movement patterns of the pieces change every few months. This would require changes in strategy, and at times a complete rethinking of how you play. Additionally, if new pieces were added, say a jester and a soldier, you would need to consider how you compose your team based on your opponent and your own strengths. Should you add these new pieces to your starting lineup, replacing a few pawns? This adds tons of complexity and decision-making to the process, creating a deeper game experience.

Understand How The System Evolves

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus

Each time you do something, it’s as if it’s the first, because you are approaching it with the knowledge and experience of past attempts. In Overwatch, over the course of a single game, the enemy team will be constantly adapting based on each encounter. Their strategies may evolve after a failed team fight, but maybe their team composition too. You need to be just as flexible as them, even trying to be predictive to get ahead of their changes. The ability to read the enemy team allows you to stay in a power position. 

Each encounter you have with the enemy team provides both sides additional information and opportunities to adapt and improve. One of the common flaws players make is not switching to a better counter-hero sooner. This drains the clock and puts their team into a desperate position as they scramble to capture the objective. This stress can quickly lead to a toxic situation.

Technical Skills aren’t Everything

The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of miniskills.

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow

I commonly hear “My aim/reaction time is really bad” from people who don’t play video games or those who struggle to improve at Overwatch. While this is an important component for success, it’s not the only one. There are many heroes who are less aim intensive, but have their own unique mechanics for you to master.

People who simply rely on their technical abilities to progress often hit a plateau with their SR (skill rating). They will hover in the same range over an extended period of time, leading to frustration and possibly burnout. These plateaus can be hard to breakthrough because players are typically unaware of the other skills they can improve upon. This is often where people give up or realize they don’t want to commit the effort to this endeavour. “It’s just for fun now” they say. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just not the focus of this piece.

Other important skills in Overwatch are positioning, communication, strategy, and general awareness. One way I have found helpful for improvement is to focus on an intrinsic or process-oriented goal, as opposed to victory, an outcome. This gives you something to personally focus on throughout the match as a means to improve such as over-communicating, or practicing your aim and positioning. These things do not rely on the team for success and can give you motivation when losing because you are still getting better.

As in life, these non-technical skills are some of the most important skills to learn. They are transferrable to other heroes in the game and often to situations outside the game. Highly skilled players are often able to switch to different heroes and still perform at a high level. While this is partly because of mechanical skill, it is mostly because of non-technical skills such as teamwork, game sense, and communication.

Communication is one of the most important parts of the game, especially at high levels when you are not familiar with your teammates. Once you reach higher levels of play, shot-calling (someone taking a leadership role and calling shots) becomes more common. People no longer fight for the position and learn to listen to those willing to speak. At lower levels this can be frustrating because everyone believes they know best and most people haven’t figured out the best ways to proceed yet.

One simple way to improve performance is to over-communicate so your team is constantly aware of what’s going on. One of the most frustrating things is not knowing where your teammates are, who has died, etc. Lots of this information is available to you if you take the time to look around, but when you are focused on your own performance/in the midst of an engagement, it’s hard to perceive other information. By constantly communicating important information such as enemy positions or when allies/enemies have died, your team can make better decisions.

Levelling Up

Deliberate Practice

One of the most effective ways to continually improve at a skill is through deliberate practice. This involves identifying and isolating areas you need to work on, and finding ways to practice intentionally with a tight feedback loop (getting feedback on whether you are succeeding or not). This requires actual commitment and time to the skill, something many people are unwilling to commit. I find this especially common with a video game, as people’s perspective is often “I am only playing for fun, why would I practice?”. These are the same people who will complain about never improving at the game. They see a game as solely for playing, and matches as the way to get better.

People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless…


Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in Peak

Overwatch presents multiple ways to practice technical skills through a training arena and custom game modes. It is common to see professional players warm-up before playing, or practicing against custom-configured bots to work on their aim. They may spend hours doing so, sometimes on a live-stream, but often not. This leads many viewers to believe that simply playing a lot will get them to an elite level, as opposed to continuous practice.

Non-technical skills as discussed above are harder to practice as they require the coordination or presence of a team. Without having a group of people you are able to consistently play with, you will need to be creative with your feedback mechanism. All of these require reflection upon your performance as a means of feedback. Some of the ways I have seen work involve:

  • Creating a recap of each match you play in a spreadsheet (who you played as, your team composition, the match result, general notes)
  • After each death, figure out why you died. It is often a symptom of being out of position or unaware of the larger situation/enemy presence
  • Watching recordings of your gameplay to identify your mistakes

Finding Room To Grow

I heard or read an anecdote somewhere and it has stuck with me ever since. It was talking about college sports players (I remember it being basketball but I am not sure) and their mindset when they enter the professional league. Most players assume they are at the top of their game when they graduate college – they are young, fit, and in their prime. They believe all they need to do now is learn to perform well within their team. Whether this is a true anecdote or not, it really resonated with me on both a personal and gaming level.

I believe this is a parallel of the fixed vs. growth mindset: people don’t see themselves as needing to, or able to get better. If you accept and believe you know nothing, and you have endless amounts to learn from your teammates and enemies, you will grow much faster.

Work better in a team

Overwatch is such a team-focused game that even the scoreboard system does not show individual ranks. This would lead to comparison of contribution and not benefit anyone. After having played a few matches, you will quickly realize they you can’t do everything on your own. You need to consider the needs of the team in terms of hero selection, but also how you will all play together. This may mean taking on some of the thankless roles such as support. These players are crucial to a team’s success but often fly under the radar because they aren’t making flashy plays like the damage dealers. You quickly learn to put the team’s needs above your own if you wish to succeed.

On the other hand, given the anonymous nature of matchmaking, you also need to learn to play on your own. This doesn’t mean abandoning your team, but having initiative/autonomy to figure out what to do in order to help the team succeed. It’s difficult to consistently rely upon teammates for support at all times, so you should have a backup plan and be able to save yourself if necessary.

Become Egoless

Given the complexity of scenarios which occur throughout the course of an Overwatch match, it is hard to identify a single player as the cause for success in a match. There are countless micro-moments leading to a team’s victory. As a result, you need to learn to share the victories and the failures with the team. Everyone on the team has a role to play and contributed to the win/loss, even if you can’t directly see the impact. It’s easy as a player (I am extremely guilty) to believe you’re carrying the team even though you’re not. You are completely unaware of your teammates’ actions because you aren’t seeing them. This may frustrate you and lead you to believe your team is useless, speaking from experience. I have learned that high-stress team-based games aren’t for me. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to running and swimming, solitary sports where the only person responsible is you.

Flex for the team

Overwatch provides a great case for having both breadth and depth, specifically when it comes to your hero pool (the variety of heroes you are able to play competently). Team composition is extremely important in Overwatch, meaning you need to be able to fill a variety of roles. 

In sports there are different positions (forward, defence, kicker) and in offices there are different roles (manager, salesperson, line worker) who contribute to the final product. If an office had to staff a new office and they brought over 20 managers from different locations but no actual salespeople/line workers, it would be a failure. Everyone would have a single skill set and they would be unable to meet the needs of the business. In these situations, flexibility is highly valued and rewarded as you are able to extend beyond your job description and contribute wherever the business has gaps.

In Overwatch, there are special players who are considered ‘flex players’. These players have a wide-ranging hero pool (breadth) that they are able to play proficiently (depth). They are valuable for a team because they can run more unique strategies and respond to opposing strategies more easily. Playing in ranked matches, flex players are able to select the hero that best helps the team, instead of solely who they want to play.

When you’re in a learning environment, this may mean you need to learn to play new heroes in order to become more flexible. It’s easy to forget what you are currently good at is not all that you will ever be good at. Give it some time.

Understand Luck

There are many uncertain elements within an Overwatch match that are outside your control, such as latency (lag due to network connection), general distractions (life), and who you are grouped with as teammates. Sometimes you get unlucky – your teammate gets called away because there is a fire alarm in their apartment and you lose as a result. In these moments, it’s truly unlucky. Other times, you have a great strategy or play but for one reason or another it fails. It’s easy to judge a decision by its outcome, and this is often the wrong move.

There’s this word that we use in poker: “resulting.” It’s a really important word. You can think about it as creating too tight a relationship between the quality of the outcome and the quality of the decision. 

Annie Duke in The Resulting Fallacy is Ruining Your Decisions

It’s important to separate the decision quality from the outcome quality, something that is hard to learn but extremely valuable. For example, if as a player you decide to flank the enemy team but fall into a trap laid by the enemy Junkrat, that’s a bit unlucky. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to flank anymore.

I have noticed on streams that most players say “Oooh, unlucky” whenever they lose. As soon you as start to recognize/acknowledge luck, it’s easy to blame every poor outcome on luck. It quickly becomes a crutch during failure and a blocker for improvement. When things happen because of luck, that means it was out of your control and there is nothing you could have done. No changes necessary!

It is rare if not impossible to always have the perfect decision in a complex environment given the number of moving parts. If you pretend that luck doesn’t exist, that everything was because of your own decisions, you can begin to see opportunities for improvement in decision-making. Whenever something goes wrong in a match, try taking full ownership of it and figure out why it was your fault. Maybe you should have been there for your teammate but you got distracted trying to make a flashy play on your own. Maybe you thought you could do it all yourself and in the mean time, let everyone on your team down.

While it’s not always the case that it was your fault, if you want to get better, faster, you should try pretending it was. Luck exists and is an important element of complex environments, but it’s better to act as if it doesn’t exist.

Conclusion

I wrote these lessons in an abstracted way that can be applied more readily to learning, work, or team dynamics. Most of these lessons aren’t new, but I have observed them in a non-conventional setting. One of the more interesting parts of decision-making is being able to view different spheres through different lenses. Seeing how these principles apply to Overwatch provides me insight for my own improvement, but also develops my understanding of why people behave the way they do and how we can get better.


Do you play Overwatch or any competitive video games? What have you learned from them?

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