Should Blizzard Have Legislated Roster Sizes for the OWL?

November 13th
written by Karahol
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We are one month away from the Overwatch League pre-season and all rosters have been announced. Jerseys are now being sewn. The arena is getting prepared. However, the undertaking is huge and there are serious concerns remaining to be addressed. One of them is: Is Blizzard’s policy to allow teams to have varying roster sizes properly thought out or could it cause problems?

First of all, let’s try and guess why Blizzard allowed for team owners to be able to assemble rosters of varying size in the first place. One reason is definitely related to money and the budget each team owner was willing to provide. Since they haven’t released any info yet as to what kind of budgets the teams had to work with or the final salaries of the players (we know only the minimum salary that players are entitled to), or the prices at which they were acquired, we can only assume the extend to which this specific side of team building affected the number of players signed by each team. I would imagine it’s quite significant.

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Secondly, this option definitely shows that the organizers of the Overwatch League are probably not even sure themselves if 12-man rosters are the way to go now, and possibly in the future too. The game is still not entirely figured out. Having more than 7-8 man rosters hasn’t been tested in the professional scene before the Overwatch League extensively. The only thing that comes close was the APEX Seasons that allowed teams to field substitutes, limited to one swap per match, and Contenders S1 NA playoffs. Twelve (12), as a number even, reminds everyone of traditional sports rosters that have starting and secondary lineups, so as to make sure that they have substitutes to cover every possible scenario (injuries, illnesses, fatigue) that could affect the team’s performance during the season. But, in traditional sports, the roles are standard. You don’t expect to bring in someone that provides something new to the roster, apart from being better than his predecessors in their respective role. Such a notion doesn’t apply in a game like Overwatch, however, where there is no standard role. The three big categories (DPS, Support and Tank), or four if you include the FLEX one, fail to grasp the complexity of the hero swaps during a game and the addition of new heroes, with different mechanics, calls for new players that have mastered them. Some skill sets don’t transfer well from hero to hero.

Still, whatever the reasons might have been in the end, the decision to have rosters of different sizes could cause issues, if not handled properly. The biggest of them concerns the substitutes and how they should be implemented in matches. If Blizzard allows for teams to swap all 6 players from map to map -the entire roster, in other words-, this could give teams with more numbers a small advantage over teams that can’t do that. On the other hand, if Blizzard limits the number of substitutes per match to a very low number, let’s say two players per match, then rosters with 10-12 members will have more benchwarmers. I wholeheartedly hope that they have let teams and coaches know beforehand how this specific aspect of the tournament will be handled. I expect that the rulebook was the first thing handed to them before forming rosters, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Blizzard structures or adjusts the rules as I write this down .

How the above choices will affect the broadcast time should be factored in, too. Allowing for too many roster changes per map could mean that the downtime between maps is higher than the one we are used to so far. On one hand, this allows for commercial time, but on the other hand, some maps can end too fast, resulting to an imbalance of gameplay time and downtime. It’s a very delicate situation, since time banks in Overwatch are dynamic and match duration varies. We got a taste of that during Contenders S1.

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All in all, it is my humble opinion that enforcing same size rosters should have been pursued from the start. I don’t see the need for more than 9 man rosters, to be honest, given the hero pool, Blizzard’s hero release schedule and the roles that players cover. 6 core members + 3 substitutes, one per role, would be a very good start for me. If afterwards it was deemed necessary to increase the roster sizes, it could happen. Same size rosters would make sure the substitute rules affect all teams the same and that Blizzard could adjust them at any point without much trouble. It would also help with performance evaluation better, because having rosters  of varying size and allowing teams too much freedom in the swaps increases volatility. Finally, the current number of players signed (including the infamous Sado) is 113, which is closer to 108 (9-man rosters) than 144 (12-man rosters). Therefore, some teams have already adopted this logic and some of them have a very long history in the scene.

I will be waiting to see how things unfold once more information is made known regarding the league’s format.

 Photos and images are courtesy of Blizzard.