Overwatch Esports has a Map Crisis

May 11th
written by Eden
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As has been stated many times before, esports did not begin with Overwatch. Within the most popular esport titles, there has been a consistent dynamic between the avatars of players within esports games and their corresponding capabilities and the world they operate in which form constraints.

I am not a map designer for esports and would therefore defer to the judgement of those more wise in this arena. If I crudely or incorrectly frame the factors that sum up to effective map design, forgive me. I would not raise my voice on the subject if the crisis was not so apparent and yet no one else has stepped forward.

Choices are the spice of any esport, or sport more broadly for that matter. Inevitably, there will form “defaults” or strategies which are close to optimal against a large enough share of possible counter-strategies. These are inevitable and even desirable because they form a fascinating anchor around which strategy revolves. These approaches become common and familiar, but there forms a dynamic where if an opponent leans on them too heavily, their approach is exploitable. This push and pull between conforming to the optimal while not being exploitable is a powerful dynamic that is compelling to the player and the viewer.

If a dominant strategy is not available, due to extreme symmetry for instance, then this anchor disappears and the optimal strategy may be arbitrary and no mechanism of exploitation may exist. A system where there is a default choice which no decision by the opponent would make this decision not optimal, is an example that breaks the dynamism of a game. The dynamism provided by strategic elements of a game is generated by a balance between these extremes.

We can be in awe of activities which do not have a strategic element, as they represent excellence, but these activities do not generate obsession in many. The nature of competition which compels is a combination of the technical skill displayed and the dynamism of reaching for a new way to win against your opponent in the dark.

With this underlying principle established, what are the components of this strategy within Overwatch? Overwatch is composed of a sequence of encounters between teams where one team prevents the other from gaining dominance to do what they want until dominance is re-established through a sequence of fights. There are choices around what heroes to use, what ultimates to spend and how to position in defense or how to approach.

As I have discussed in “Ultimate Economy is Dead”, ultimate choices are not an especially interesting STRATEGIC decision, but significantly execution driven. Composition decisions can form some strategic depth, but is less than ideal as a conduit. There are limitations of what a team is capable of running competently due to their roster, there are limitations due to complexity of balancing where compositions can easily become too dominant as a standard within a map, and there are game mechanisms like resetting of ultimate charge and requiring being in spawn that discourage extensive composition changing. Maps provide the substantial source of strategic options within the game which can be relied upon across teams and across metas to provide the spice Overwatch needs as a competitive title.

Blizzard’s decision to enforce single paths to victory does not aid in this problem. While many games have a single objective that decides a game (although not all), there are usually multiple intermediate paths to achieve this goal. In CSGO, there are multiple bomb sites. In League of Legends, there are many objectives on the map which serve as intermediate options as a step towards victory. Overwatch is not aided by having individual heroes significantly weaker when not grouped as a unit. This requires that any map choices with intermediate objectives to be close enough to each other that players are able to group within a reasonable period of time.

What we are left with is approach paths to an objective and intermediate positions which if captured will give an advantage and thus function as secondary objectives. These options must have success which are dependent on the opponents reasonable decisions.

In Overwatch, this balance seems to be placed at a lower level of importance to art. In fact, as maps in Overwatch have developed, they have become more and more extravagant with large degradations in dynamism for players. While it is welcomed to have different hero compositions appear on different maps, within these maps often the compositions and their corresponding strategies become increasingly enforced by map geometry and the dynamism dies. While winning is still an act of great skill, the activity loses the vigor of opponents finding a way to win, but rather merely outperform their opponent in the task at hand.

While the community may not recognize this fault, they cry out against maps becoming too long lasting or too often seen. Variety is wanted to provide a spice! What a torture it would be to see three maps played only for one hundred games. While this may provide an imitation of dynamism from this variety, it is ultimately unsustainable and hollow. A map if suitable for competition will never produce games that cease to capture the attention of a viewer. Instead the burden is placed on teams to master far more maps than any top esport ever, reducing the quality of these games twice over: first from their stagnant nature and second the inability of teams to hone their craft to their battlefield to the heights possible.

A perfect exemplification of the possibilities of better map design would be the high point of Meta Athena we remember with Mei wall antics. While being reliant on Mei being meta enough to justify the alternative approaches taken by Meta Athena and that even with these options they were somewhat niche and may not be long term strategies, they were incredibly compelling. When watching a team seeking a new way to exploit a map, they required the in game tools to realize these possibilities. The excitement we experienced with Meta Athena working within Overwatch maps is the exception that proves the rule. The maps currently are a source of stagnation of competition rather than the compelling feature they can become.