Overwatch meta breakdown: The defenders

Widowmaker, a character from Blizzard's new IP Overwatch, is deadly when she has a clear line of sight but can also easily fall prey to tunnel vision. Provided by Blizzard

Blizzard's newest game, Overwatch, officially launched last month and within a week of release, already had seven million players. What's more, this is a game that went the traditional sales route rather than the increasingly common free-to-play one, meaning that all those players plopped down a minimum of $40 to play Blizzard's newest IP.

Even before launch, there were a healthy number of professional Overwatch tournaments, populated by some of the biggest teams in eSports. With Overwatch's audience growing and Blizzard's focus on increasing the competitiveness of the game -- as seen by the game's just-released Competitive Mode -- there's an opportunity for Overwatch to flourish as an esport. Any spectator sport, whether it's hitting a ball with a large stick or dispensing an animated fighter with a Shoryuken, quickly develops its own internal strategies and trends as the players become more experienced and the sport becomes more refined. In gaming, we refer to this as "the meta," an endlessly evolving state that forms the backbone of tactics employed in the game.

The Defense heroes, in Overwatch, play an undersized role in competitive Overwatch relative to how they're used in pub games. Offense is the name of the game when it comes to elite players, and given the number of King of the Hill maps that are played, it's not surprising to see the Defense heroes take a bit of a back seat. Why? King of the Hill, at an elite level, is an offense-focused mode. Yes, a team that captures the point is technically the defender, but given the layout of most King of the Hill maps, which is decidedly non-linear at the center point, turtling and defending a point is typically a losing strategy. So in tournament Overwatch, Defense heroes essentially become a specialist class, heroes that have some use, but are never the backbone of a team's lineup.


BEST MAPS: Dorado, Route 66

Widowmaker can be deadly when she has clear sight lines, especially considering in most of the occasions she has that direct vision, the other player is at a disadvantage in retaliating instantly, something you can't say for another linear hero such as Bastion. So if you need to guard a specific area at a particular point during the match, a skilled Widowmaker can be a valuable defender.

There's a catch, of course. Widowmaker's strengths also essentially make her a fairly predictable character. Once you know a map well enough to know where those best sight lines are and you know the other team has a Widowmaker, you also have excellent guesses where she is and what she's doing. While the Grappling Hook allows her to escape to a degree, escaping, given how specific her general use is, is just as good for the other team as killing her in many cases. In a King of the Hill match, Widowmaker's tunnel vision leaves her helpless against Reapers and Tracers.


BEST MAPS: King's Row, Hanamura

The other sniper (for now, at least). Hanzo has excellent mobility and is good at stopping large, slow targets (Roadhog) or the turret classes. The big problem for Hanzo, however, is that he's a far more inconsistent hero, even for a skilled player, than Widowmaker is. Widowmaker has weaknesses, but her sniper rifle is a hitscan weapon, and for a sniper, hitting what you want is obviously a highly desirable thing.

Hanzo's chief benefits just don't usually provide much trouble for an elite player. The Scatter Arrow is unpredictable, the Dragonstrike gives ample warning, and top players aren't just going to run into a choke point black ninja-style so that blind arrows kill them one-by-one. Even with a predictable location such as a payload, tourney players aren't just going to stand in a clump around the cart waiting for Hanzo to spam them.


BEST MAPS: Hollywood, Dorado

When you need to defend a very specific area, Junkrat's one of the most powerful heroes in his game. He's a non-linear hero in that his Frag Launcher grenades can come in at all sorts of different angles and caroms and they can do their damage blindly, something a hitscan hero can not do. And in a more claustrophobic map, Junkrat's ultimate has a good chance of reaching a group of bunched heroes.

What prevents Junkrat from being a staple is that rather than have opposing heroes he's weak against, he has several that are nearly hard counters to him, meaning that when a Junkrat is getting value on a map, there's a time limit until someone switches up to one of those counters. There's very little Junkrat can do against Pharah; while an amazing Junkrat player could theoretically hit Pharah with a grenade with some regularity, if Junkrat is in a position to hit Pharah, Pharah's in a much better position to hit Junkrat. Widowmaker can also easily hit Junkrat without being in any danger at all and Reaper can just ignore a lot of Junkrat's choke point domination.


BEST MAPS: Volskaya, Hanamura

There's no hero with more of a separation between how pros use him and how regular players use him than Bastion. If you've played any Overwatch, you're well-used to Bastion dominating pickup groups that are poorly coordinated and getting a lot of Play of the Game highlight reels.

In competitive, it's a different story. Bastion's almost never played simply because a skilled player can deal with Bastion's fire far more easily and the relatively low skill cap of Bastion means that a skilled Bastion can't play that much better to compensate. Bastion has some -- very limited mobility -- but when he's dangerous, he's immobile (except when he's using his Ultimate) and that leaves him flankable.

For Bastion value, you essentially need to have Bastion in a position where he's unlikely to be flanked, like behind a corner or in front of a wall, and in a situation in which the team's pretty static -- Reinhardt is an excellent Bastion protector -- but if he's protecting Bastion, he's not moving and protecting others.


BEST MAPS: Anubis, Volskaya

The other "artillery" character, Torbjörn also suffers from a lack of use in tournament play. He's a bit harder to flank than Bastion since he can "watch" the turret's back from a position in which he can also repair it, and he can move on if his turret dies. But the upside of Torbjörn is a lot less, simply because the damage per second can match Bastion's.

Torbjörn does have situational value in that he has different weak/strong heroes than Bastion does, which gives you some flexibility if you decided you do want a fairly stationary turret character. Genji, a terror to Bastion, is a lot less threatening, with the reflect less effective against the turret. If you're up against a good Reaper and/or Tracer, Torbjörn suffers the same issues that Bastion does.


BEST MAP: Hanamura

If you're a big fan of Mei, I'd advise you not watch too many tournaments. Mei has been one of the bottom-tier heroes in competitive play going back to the very start of the closed beta. Her most useful skill, her Ice Wall, is good at slowing down the other team, but there's another thing that's also good at slowing down the other team: killing them.

With so many characters with mobility and the Ice Wall only lasting for 4.5 seconds, the utility is limited at high levels of play. The Cryo-Freeze is a nice skill, in that it makes her invulnerable and heals her, but the problem is that it only heals Mei. The other team most likely would prefer her to remain alive rather than the player switching to a more useful Offense hero.

I actually enjoy playing Mei a lot in pub games, but without a buff, new maps/modes that reward her various freeze abilities, or a powerful new hero for whom Mei is a significant counter, don't look to see her much at elite levels.