How weekly hero pools will affect Overwatch and the Overwatch League

How weekly hero pools will effect Overwatch and the Overwatch League (2:35)

The Overwatch League will adapt weekly hero pools next season. What does this mean for teams across the league? (2:35)

Activision Blizzard announced a change to the competitive landscape of their game Overwatch on Thursday, introducing what they are calling hero pools.

Hero pools, which will be implemented in competitive online play and the Overwatch League come early March, are a game-changing format that the company hopes will bring diversity and more counterplay to their leading esports title. While the first month of Overwatch League will be played as normal, Week 4 will see the introduction of hero pools, where a select number of heroes will be banned from competitive play, creating a rotating cast of heroes every week. Those banned heroes of the week will be chosen from data taken from competitive play, where some of the most played heroes of the previous week will see the bench the following week.

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Overwatch League and competitive play online will have differing hero pools. For the Overwatch League, the banned heroes will come from the data collected from the previous two weeks of play.

"It's not going to just be what tank is played the most," Jon Spector, vice president of Overwatch League, told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "We're going to take several [heroes] that are getting significant playtime in OWL matches and we'll put them into a pool, randomly pulling out from that pool one tank, two damage and one support hero."

What does this mean for Overwatch League? Well, almost everything. Since the league's inception, concrete metas have been followed by a majority of the league, beginning with the "dive" meta of early 2018 where teams needed to have specialists on heroes such as Tracer and Winston. From there, balance shifts have brought on new metas, most notably the "GOATS" meta that occurred for almost all of the 2019 season, where teams mirrored each other in trying to master the clinical composition.

Hero pools are the end of these stagnant metas. If teams lean too hard into one composition and everyone begins playing a certain style, the next week some of those heroes will not be available. This will force teams to adapt every single week, giving us situations where one week the go-to composition is reliant on heroes diving the backlines and the next might be all about shields, heals and wars of attrition.

Along with hero pools, there will be more frequent balance changes to the game that coincides with the Overwatch League.

"You might have a situation where Week 1 [Zenyatta] is a little [overpowered] and played all the time, so in Week 2 Zen gets pulled," Spector said. "By Week 3, Zen is available again but there has been a [quick] balance change and Zen's discord orb is a little less effective than it was and now maybe [he's] played half the time. I don't think any one of these things by themselves is necessarily a silver bullet, but when you start to pull all these factors together, I'm super confident we're going to see a lot of diverse team [compositions] and a lot more different strategies."

If a hero is banned one week, they must be eligible to be played the following week. And since hero pools are dictated by two weeks of data, a hero banned in Week 1 would have to be significantly played by almost everyone in Week 2 to see it banned again for Week 3. Blizzard is hoping that the coupling of more quick balance changes and hero pools will be the end of any hero being played exclusively by every team when it's eligible to be selected.

Hero pools is Blizzard's way of bringing excitement to a league that has had a tumultuous offseason, losing broadcast talent and having no new additions in terms of heroes or maps, the league patiently waiting for the release of Overwatch 2. Every week, something new will be brought to the table, and no longer will a team be able to skate by only knowing how to execute one style.

The Washington Justice were one of the worst teams in the "GOATS" meta but came alive when the game was switched to a 2-2-2 format that allowed more damage-dealing heroes to be played. Star offensive player Corey "Corey" Nigra dominated games on damage heroes such as Hanzo. That won't happen in the upcoming season. Teams will be challenged to be quick on their feet every homestand, with the best all-around roster, in theory, ultimately becoming the champions at the end of the year.

While hero pools are exciting, they might also take away the mastery that we've seen in previous seasons. By the time 2-2-2 was implemented, we'd seen the Vancouver Titans and San Francisco Shock master and perfect the triple tank, triple support meta that was "GOATS." It was artful to watch the two teams dance around and know the perfect timings for everything to do with the six-character composition. We won't have that anymore in the world of hero pools, as the added travel schedule and a rotating cast of characters could bring on sloppier play.

For all we're losing in mastery, I think it's a move that needed to happen. A ban system that was discussed, where each team got a few hero bans per map, was an intriguing idea, but would it have really changed anything? From what we've seen in previous seasons, the most likely outcome would have been mirrored bans throughout the league with the most overpowered heroes getting the ax while teams figured out the strongest six-character composition with the remaining choices. With hero pools, teams are forced out of their comfort zone.

An important note Spector brought up in his interview with ESPN was that teams were too zeroed in on certain compositions. Due to how much Overwatch League teams practiced, experimenting with heroes to beat the ingrained meta just didn't happen. If any team had figured out the triple tank, triple support meta before the inaugural finals, that team would have rolled to victory. A lot of the innovation was coming from the amateur and Contenders leagues, where they were the ones doing the experimenting, which is how "GOATS" came to be in the first place. The Brigitte-centered super squad wasn't popularized by anyone in the Overwatch League but by a team in Contenders Trials, which then was picked up by the major league teams for almost an entire year.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the Overwatch League's main weakness was its lack of diversity in matchups. Styles make matchups. If everyone plays the same thing, regardless of how well one team can master a single style versus another, things start to blend together. While adding a slew of new tanks and supports would have been the ultimate solution, that was never going to happen.

With hero pools, styles will take shape and teams will need their own path to navigate the never-ending rotation of heroes. It might be messy some weeks. Other weeks some of the compositions that teams bring out might be completely awkward, falling on their faces the second a game begins. But as Overwatch League heads into a new era of weekly homestands and a new exclusive streaming home on Youtube, a radical change needed to be made. You can't say this isn't radical.