Overwatch is a relatively very new game and therefore analysis has been somewhat scattered so far. I am writing this piece not to answer any incredibly interesting niche issue of Overwatch, but rather to lay down a broad principle which can be a lense to view a wide variety of situations. This can provide a common vocabulary and a set of basic axioms to rely upon for more deep analysis. What has been lacking is a framework to connect these isolated exercises to broader principles that can be more widely applied. This is an initial attempt to build a framework.
Effective damage theory is related to what determines a fight outcome in Overwatch. ‘Effective damage’ (ED) is the damage that can not be healed by the opposing team. The ‘efficiency of effective damage’ (Efficiency) is determined by how little wasted ED there is in a fight. Efficiency is often referred to as “focusing” or “targeting” although it is determined by more than merely having everyone shooting the same target. If you split 600 ED equally among six players, no one is dead and you likely have lost the fight even if you did more ED in the time interval.
The purpose of this theory is to take all aspects of fights and evaluate what they do to ED and Efficiency in different situations. This is useful because ED and Efficiency, while not trackable currently, are what should form the decision making of teams in a situation and are what determine fight outcomes. The value of this theory will only increase as we are able to measure damage dealt and healing done which make up ED. By comparing it to deaths, we’ll be able to tie it to the Efficiency.
Fights in Overwatch can be simplified into two categories. The first category is when there is a side that has a clear advantage in ED and the other where it is not clear from the circumstances. Before I delve into these two situations and what the ramifications are, I’ll first break down individual components of ED and how they are impacted by other components of ED in the game.
ED has damage in it for a reason and all other components will be discussed in the context of what it does for damage. Damage has two major impacts which scale off of accuracy in different ways.
First, damage obviously adds to ED assuming that any ED is being done. It becomes more volatile when healing is highest relative to damage done. For example, if you are doing 500 damage per second but the opponents are able to heal 450 of it, adding an additional 50 damage per second doubles the amount of ED your team is doing while if your team’s current ED is higher than this effect is less pronounced. Here is a plot to demonstrate how damage and the percentage change of damage change as it changes relative to healing.
On the x-axis of the above plot, it represents how much damage is being done as a percentage of healing of opponents. If below 100%, then none of the damage is going to ED. Past 100% of healing, 100% of damage then is translated to ED. The red line is the percentage change of ED from the increase in damage. Basically if you are doing less than what is healed, then you aren’t doing anything at all for effective damage. As you increase damage above healing your ED starts multiplying quickly because that extra damage is going straight to health bars while the existing damage is mostly getting healed.
Damage can also reduce your opponent’s ED through ‘suppression’. Suppression is often called ‘pressure’ by analysts. The damage scares opponents away from taking good position as they are more likely to take lots of ED and risk dying. In order to reduce that risk, they give up position, sacrificing some of their own impact on ED, finding what they believe to be an optimal middle ground.
The exact shape of the function is difficult to map but there isn’t a good reason to think it’s not relatively proportional to damage. For heroes that are less vulnerable like a tank, it takes more threat to induce suppression since the chance for Efficiency is lower and for more squishy heroes the risk of suppression is higher.
On the x-axis, it shows the damage as a percentage of the target’s health per second. This is relevant since it determines decision making around their positioning relative to terrain and teammates to not die. Suppression as a measure is degrees of suppression as it relates to decision making. While this is not great as a quantitative variable, it does range from 0% to 100% where at 0% you are free from concern and at 100% you are taking every action you can to protect yourself at the complete expense of maximizing your use to your team. Without suppression, fights would be like 18th century warfare where teams line up facing each other and then yell “FIRE!” and fight to the death without seeking safer positions.
Failure to be suppressed by the appropriate amount is a decision-making error rather than a mechanical failing and therefore is under the category of mistake. This is often times displayed in a great Winston that ‘knows his limits’ where he manages to cause havoc for the enemy teams but only situations where he is not exploitable. If players do not play in this way, then that is a mistake which will get its own category of impact on ED.
Note that for all aspects of Overwatch that cause differences in ED, the principles that work for an individual player work for a group of players or an entire team. A team’s total damage output increasing is most significant when being compared to a team that is doing less ED because the marginal increases or decreases in damage have more weight in determining time to kill than the average damage they do. Also, the total amount of suppression a team does increases as their overall damage increases.
Since there is not a significant difference in healing output given the amount of suppression in positioning for a healer, healing should be optimized to reduce the Efficiency and anything that doesn’t accomplish that really falls into the “mistake” category since it likely comes from decision making of who to heal when, rather than the execution of healing.
We can, however, explore the relative value of healing in different circumstances. Generally, the less damage in a fight, the stronger healers will be, since they are able to shrink a larger portion of opponents damage from becoming ED.
Note before when we showed that damage differences have a larger impact on ED when damage is closer to healing capacity. This seems like a contradiction because healing is strongest in these circumstances, but it isn’t. While the volatility in time to kill is highest, overall time to kill is SIGNIFICANTLY longer when healing is near damage done.
So we’ve discussed that healing is strongest when there is less damage for opponents since then healing will be closer to damage, but it doesn’t prevent suppression really and has less impact the more damage opponents do. So why is healing good when it is not particularly optimal at winning a slugfest between two teams for winning the ED battle early in a fight? Well, first, healing may be powerful because healing abilities provide more healing than other abilities provide other forms of damage mitigation. Secondly, healing is the only thing which can increase health after it has been sustained (pretty obvious). While things like barriers can decrease the suppression on your team in the moment, suppression is related to the hero’s health pool because it makes you more vulnerable. Healers, by bringing players on their team back to full health, can reduce suppression on them during windows of recovery when fighting is temporarily halted, which is a time when all other forms of damage mitigation are useless.
Mobility is a component of what makes up “tempo” of a team, which is key to understanding fights in Overwatch. Despite mobility not actually causing damage, the existence of different levels of mobility do impact fights. Generally, mobility increases your team’s ability to have high Efficiency and reduces your opponent’s ability to have high Efficiency. Therefore it increases suppression for opponents and decreases it for your team since you are able to more efficiently escape situations before death and opponents are less able to escape from your team.
Mobility typically should be strongest when teams are doing the most ED both for your side and for the opponents since at that point the value of reducing opponents Efficiency or increasing your own Efficiency has the most leverage on fight outcomes. Because of this dual amplification, mobility is set up to be very impactful to fights relative to its overall strength since the most important point in every fight is when both teams are of maximum strength and first blood will tip the balance. Your Lucio speed boost on your team allows you to be less vulnerable moving through open spaces and reduces your team’s suppression while at the same time lowering your opponents ED through suppressing them since if they overextend you can chase and focus a player down.
Barriers serve a dual purpose. They reduce ED for the opposing team because they prevent damage, but they also reduce suppression because they can reduce the Efficiency which changes the calculus for players that can be more aggressive behind a shield than if there were no shield. Barrier placement should be decided as a balance to gain as much reduction in ED as possible while keeping the interest of reducing the Efficiency and the suppression that can come with it in mind. Failure to do this falls into the mistake category since it is likely a decision-making error rather than execution. The only possible exception to this is if an Orisa is trying to do basketball style 3 point shields.
Similarly to healing, barriers gain strength the less damage the opposing team has. However, unlike healing they gain strength relative to the prowess of doing damage of the opposition because the differential in damage done to the shield between a good and bad damage dealing opposition is pretty neutral while without the shield there would be more variability in damage done.
‘Crowd control’ is a bit messy as a term but it typically has the pattern of forcing movement upon your opponents and are therefore quite dynamic and skillful. There is a well established understanding of what crowd control is so I’ll assume that there is an intuitive definition we can use. There are many crowd control abilities but some include Roadhog’s hook, Lucio’s boop and Ana’s sleep dart.
Crowd control has the primary goal of increasing Efficiency for your team. This increases suppression of opponents as they must avoid more positions they might take in a fight to not be exploited by crowd control.
Crowd control like damage output is very skillful and increasing effectiveness of crowd control roughly proportionally increases the amount of suppression and increased Efficiency provided. Crowd control is strongest with the more ED on your team.
Disables I define as abilities that stop teams from doing things. The best examples of this in Overwatch are DVA’s defense matrix and Sombra’s ultimate. These abilities directionally have similar effects to barriers in that they prevent damage from occurring and reduce suppression. Disables can also impact other things than damage (Sombra’s ultimate turning off abilities that do more than damage) and the impacts of those scale in the same way as those things themselves. So for instance, disabling healing is more effective when your team has less damage because the healing on the opposing team is strongest then.
Disables have the unique property of being strongest when the opposing team has the most damage output however. Similarly to barriers and unlike healing, disables are more efficient vs opponents with higher prowess at doing damage. Because of this, disables are inherently the most efficient at the critical early stage of the fight out of equivalent amounts of shields or healing. Failure to use disables properly also falls into the mistake category since it is likely a matter of decision-making rather than execution.
Last but not least, I have mentioned mistakes many times above. I separate mistakes as failures of decision making as opposed to mechanical failures of damage or crowd control. Therefore for barriers, disables, healing, and a hero’s chosen level of suppression, these are all lumped into this category where they deviate from correct decision making to optimize ED differential and the Efficiency for your team and opposing team to win the fight.
Mistakes tend to act a lot like damage for the opposing team, so review the section on damage and mistakes work in similar ways but for the opponents. Therefore mistakes are worse vs opponents that do more damage and have higher relative impact also when ED for opponents otherwise would be closest to 0.
While terrain is not a source of ED directly, it has major impacts on fights as has been mentioned above. I want to emphasize this specifically because it plays a significant role in Overwatch. Generally there are three components of terrain to consider. The first component is chokes. If a team is moving into a fight in a predictable way, this increases both the ED that can be done and slightly reduces Efficiency although this trade-off is almost always worth it. Second, the difficulty of being hit and the ability to easily get to cover or escape reduce the ED of opponents, reduce the Efficiency of opponents and also reduces suppression. Third, health packs are clearly strategically important and the rules for it work similarly to healing more generally.
Putting it all together
All of the above are general tendencies of components of ED and how they scale. Conditioned upon the fact that a particular hero with a disable is viable in a situation, the hero is strongest near the beginning of fights and against opposing teams that have high damage outputs. Because the disables are good vs their high damage output and getting an early edge is critical in the fight to stop the opposing team from getting an edge and their healers gaining relative strength in the fight, this should be best vs opponents with strong damage output and a lot of healing. This does not ensure that going with disables in situations that opponents have strong damage output and a lot of healing is optimal. Game balance does not always allow everything theoretically optimized to be as good as less optimized but potentially just generally stronger options.
By staying within the viable compositions in a particular meta, you can use these general trends to design a composition that will be efficient vs the opposing team while setting the stage for some point in the fight where a power advantage will emerge and the fight can be taken.
Most Important Rule of Effective Damage Differences
Very few things are as significant as a difference in the number of heroes alive and able to provide their share of things which impact ED for a team. Keep in mind that typically when both teams have the same number of players alive in the fight, EDs are relatively close so there isn’t a large differential in time to kill (although even modest differences can make fights very one sided). Once a player dies, that difference widens into a chasm and it becomes difficult to regain the ED advantage. Generally all strategies for fights is about how to maximize the chance that you gain a man advantage which usually results in victory.
Unequal Effective Damages
If you are choosing compositions correctly, then there should never be a situation where there is a general difference in ED on average throughout a game between the two teams if they are of approximately the same skill without a sufficient trade-off in the Efficiency which makes up for it. In the case of a skill difference (different levels of execution of damage and crowd control as well as the rate of mistakes), this can shape a game and is likely to not really solvable, although the principles of decision-making still apply to maximize the chance of winning. The more common cases are when there is a difference in ultimate economy, where one composition is more reliant upon their ultimates than another team or where a composition relies on Efficiency like a composition built around discord orbs or roadhog picks to win fights.
In cases where there is not a reasonable probability of gaining an ED advantage before a man advantage is established, the only win condition becomes Efficiency. Since time is on the side of the team that has the ED edge, the priority is to prevent the team at the disadvantage from having too high of an Efficiency edge. In this situation, the team with the edge has to make a judgement call whether to prioritize Efficiency themselves or to prevent the Efficiency from the opposing team. This decision typically comes down to the level of suppression provided by the team typically. If the suppression is high enough that the aggression to try to focus down a target will be effectively countered (for instance Lunatic Hai’s backline is a great example where this is the case where they have great mastery of crowd control and damage output which both increase the general levels of suppression they provide) then this is the correct option. If your team does not have this because of composition or player skill, then it is better to aim for Efficiency yourself to try to trade and extend the length of the fight where your ED edge will eventually win the fight.
This situation favors the team with the ED lead when there isn’t a sufficient advantage in Efficiency since the team with the ED advantage at worst can mimic the team going for Efficiency and have more ED to bear and at best rebuff the desperate attempt and win outright.
Somewhat Equivalent Effective Damages
While theoretically there is always a team that SHOULD have an ED lead, if teams ED is close enough, then mistakes and uncertainty in the levels of ED make it impossible to truly evaluate the advantage. In these cases, the teams can both either choose to prioritize ED or Efficiency in the fight depending on the circumstances. As the fight progresses, the situation will change where a team gains a clear advantage in effective damage. At this point, the decision making turns to the above situation.
This theory is meant to provide a framework for evaluating EDs of teams and then the ramifications in terms of appropriate team decision making in the face of differentials that emerge. This does not provide many concrete answers for specific cases. It hopefully provides a framework and a vocabulary for analysis to hang findings on to build a cohesive view and vocabulary for analyzing fights in Overwatch.