Why is Overwatch so resistant to role lock?

Is 1-2-3 the future of Overwatch? We need to look to the game's past to answer that

Overwatch introduced 2-2-2 role lock in Summer 2019. Every team is now required to have 2 tanks, 2 supports, and 2 damage heroes. This change put an end to the 3 tank, 3 support composition of GOATs. It also created a more organized ladder environment, removing the possibility that your team would have a solo tank or solo support. While this change was received positively, there have been issues. Jeff Kaplan addressed some of these issues in a recent forum post.

Current State of Role Lock

Players who queue for the damage role in Overwatch will be familiar with this sight.

Jeff Kaplan Role Queue 2-2-2

Others who play with role lock in games such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV Online will notice a recurring theme. Players seem to enjoy damage-dealing heroes more than any other role.

Can we blame them? Overwatch offers 31 heroes, 51% of whom fall into the damage category. Maybe you enjoy a fast paced, mechanically intensive experience, so you choose Tracer. If you’re more into methodical and strategic play, the careful placement of Torbjörn’s turret may appease you. Regardless of how you want to play, there are a plethora of options in the damage role. Some of the options even overlap; McCree is a mid-range hero with a revolver, Hanzo is a mid-range hero with a bow. Damage players can choose heroes from the most diverse role in Overwatch.

On the other hand, the tanking role has 8 measly heroes to choose from. Each of these heroes has a very unique play-style, with few overlapping. Players interested in an aim-intensive tank will find 1, maybe 2 tanks that fill this niche. The boredom created by a lack of heroes has compounded over time with meta shifts. This leaves us with an astounding number of damage mains and low numbers of tank players.

Jeff Kaplan Tanks

Where are the Tanks?

The lack of tanks in Overwatch could be attributed to two things: diversity and play-style. Lack of diversity comes from the previously discussed lack of options. Play-style is driven by the meta. Currently, tanks play tightly around an objective. They move like chess pieces through the game map, covering each other’s weaknesses and amplifying strengths. This style of play contrasts dramatically with players familiar with the fast-paced dynamic nature of Dive. Instead of out-sustaining an enemy on an objective, Dive focused on isolating and eliminating individuals quickly.

Many players attracted to that fast game play hesitate to enjoy the methodical play of Orisa or Sigma. These players prefer making flashy plays that focus on mechanically impressive feats rather than careful ability usage. During the GOATs meta, damage heroes were buffed in an attempt to make them relevant. These heroes are now capable of outputting insane damage, easily melting tanks. When a player chooses Winston or D.Va, they can be labeled as throwers.

Jeff Kaplan Goats Meta

Changes to Role Lock

It’s no wonder that so many players are leaving Overwatch. The current meta game has very few elements of the marketed FPS. In a recent forum post titled “Blizzard save your game! Go 1-3-2″, players expressed a desire to change role lock to 1 tank, 3 damage players, and 2 supports. Blizzard designer Jeff Kaplan responded, discussing a potential 1-2-3 role lock.

Kaplan and his team have apparently already ruled out some role lock alternatives. 1-4-1 put too much pressure on the solo support. 2-3-2 had to be dismissed due to the performance load of 14 players in a match.

The playtests under a 4-1-1 comp were terrible. The problem was the solo support.

– Jeff Kaplan

Issues with 1-3-2

Overwatch has 2 different roles for tanks. There are main tanks; tanks with shields that command space. Then there are the off-tanks, whose design is focused more on the utility they can provide to the main tank. Zarya is an example of an off-tank. Her bubbles provide utility to Reinhardt, making them a commonly paired set of tanks. If only 1 tank was allowed in each match, this role of off-tank would need adjustment. Kaplan addresses this, explaining a situation where Roadhog was moved to the damage category and given less health and utility. Main tanks could be given more health and control over the match. I imagine a raid boss Reinhardt would be incredibly entertaining to play, but it may not match the design of Overwatch.

Another issue brought up is reliance on teamplay. As the game has evolved, more teamplay has been required to win matches. 1-3-2 lock would reduce the teamplay by creating more damage 1v1 situations. Some players don’t see this as an issue, and would rather Overwatch return to less reliance on playing as a team. Players can only speculate what a 1-3-2 role lock would look like, because the changes would be so dramatic. It may look like the end of Stage 3 in Overwatch League’s 2nd season, a moment enjoyed by many.

Jeff Kaplan Stage 3 OWL Season 2

Is 1-3-2 the Future?

Possibly. Developers rarely comment on forum posts without some sort of motivation or direction in mind. Kaplan may have commented this as a “heads up” for players. The amount of time they have spent internally with this system points to a serious consideration. Developers would not spend 2 months on a system that wasn’t at least considered.

Personally, I believe a change like this would connect to Overwatch’s initial and core FPS audience more, but could ostracize the current player base. Some players do enjoy the slower, more tactical game play of the current meta. The lack of balancing for 2-2-2 has already been a complaint from many, and a new role lock system would create entirely new challenges. Whichever solution is chosen, I think it needs to be made with haste. Most people find long queue times frustrating, and that frustration is driving players away.

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