Overwatch 101: What you need to know about Blizzard's team-based shooter

Ben Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment

It's back.

Starting this weekend, the Overwatch League will return via online play with 10 matchups over two days. If you're a traditional sports fan with an itch for something to watch, the game might be a little difficult to follow, with players using powerful abilities constantly and the screen exploding with colorful animations.

For those of you who are first-time viewers -- or if you just want to refresh your memory after the league's two-week hiatus due to the coronavirus -- we've got you covered. Here's a guide to all things Overwatch, from what the game is to how it's played and what to watch for as the league starts back up.

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What is Overwatch?

Released in 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment, Overwatch is a first-person multiplayer shooter, set in a future where a conflict between robots and humanity necessitated the creation of a task force, conveniently called "Overwatch." In the game's primary competitive mode, players are arranged into two teams of six and compete on a variety of maps and game types.

How is the game played?

First, let's go over the game types. Overwatch currently has 21 different maps -- basically, areas in which the actual game takes place. Those maps vary wildly in size and construction. One map may find players escorting a priceless artifact through the streets of a futuristic African city; another has them fighting over a small piece of territory in a research station on the Moon. These maps are split into four different modes:

  • Assault, or "2CP," has one team attempting to capture two control points on a map within a limited time frame. Once the offensive team captures both points or runs out of time, the teams switch from offense to defense and vice versa. The team that makes the most progress toward capturing their opponents' points wins. Assault maps can either be over very quickly, with one team holding its opponent scoreless and having to capture only part of the first point themselves, or they can go into multiple overtime rounds with both teams capturing both points over and over again. This mode often features desperate last stands -- so long as at least one defending player is on the point, the attacking team can't make any progress in their capture percentage, so good teams will try to cycle their heroes in and out to delay attackers for as long as possible.

  • Escort is another mode in which the two teams alternate offense and defense. In this mode, there is a mobile payload -- usually representing some important object in Overwatch's story -- that the attacking team has to escort past three checkpoints. Once they reach the third checkpoint or run out of time, like in Assault, the two teams switch sides, and the former defenders now try to do better than the attackers. Like in Assault, so long as one defender is close to the payload, it won't move, so attacking teams need to win their fights decisively in order to make progress.

  • Hybrid is a combination of Assault and Escort. The attacking team needs to capture a point, like in Assault, and then escort a payload, like in Escort. Some of the more popular maps in the game, like King's Row or Eichenwalde, are. Hybrid modes, as they allow for a variety of strategies to work depending on whether players are trying to capture or escort.

  • Control is essentially a King of the Hill mode. Teams fight over a central location and attempt to gain control of it for a certain amount of time, represented by percentage points. Once a team reaches 100%, the next round starts in a wildly different part of the same map. Teams have to win two out of the three sections of the map in order to claim victory. Control maps usually feature extremely wild and fun overtime matchups, as teams are both often able to push the control percentage to 99, resulting in a winner-take-all final fight.

In the Overwatch League's current setup, teams face off in a best-of-five series in which they play in maps from the previous game types. First one to take three maps wins the matchup.

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What about the heroes?

Overwatch's roster of 32 heroes differentiate themselves in a number of ways:

Health is how much damage the characters can take before being eliminated. Tracer, a tiny British pilot who zips around the map, has 150 health, while Roadhog, an enormous Australian man with a gas mask and a shotgun, has 600. Certain characters also have armor, which reduces the amount of damage they take, or shields, which act like health but will regenerate on their own if the character doesn't take damage for a short period of time. Characters that are physically larger (and therefore easier to shoot) tend to have more health.

Damage is how much health the character can take away with their main weapon. Some characters do small amounts of damage very quickly; others do large amounts of damage all at once. Some characters are excellent at short ranges but struggle at long ranges, while others are the opposite.

Abilities are where characters really start to stand out. Some characters, like the aforementioned Tracer, have abilities that allow them to move quickly and unpredictably, dodging fire and attacking from unexpected angles. Other characters, like Pharah or Mercy, are able to fly for a limited time, adding a vertical dimension to the game. Many tanks, like Reinhardt or Orisa, are able to deploy large barriers to protect their teams from harm. Supports, like Lucio or Baptise, have abilities that can heal their teammates and prevent them from dying. Not all abilities are created equal (some, like Ana's Sleep Dart or D.Va's Defense Matrix, are extraordinarily powerful when used by a skillful player), but utilizing your character's entire suite of abilities is extremely important.

Ultimates are game-changing abilities that are only available a few times per match. While regular abilities can be used every few seconds, Ultimates have to be charged up before usage. Ultimate charge can accrue slowly on its own, but players can increase it very quickly by doing damage or healing their teammates. A single well-timed Ultimate can win a fight on its own. Genji's Dragonblade allows him to easily slice his way through an entire team, Wrecking Ball's Minefield can set up devastating combos and deny the enemy access to an area, and Zenyatta's Transcendence can allow his team to survive even the most lethal damage. Proper use of Ultimates -- whether on their own, in combo with other Ultimates or in response to an enemy Ultimate -- is the key to winning games in Overwatch. Some of the most exciting times in the game come when the crowd is anticipating a player utilizing his or her character's key Ultimate, either winning the fight or seeing it cruelly shut down by smart play from the opponents.

How are the teams constructed?

Though the categorization of Overwatch's 32 heroes has undergone many changes since the game's release, right now they're split into three types: tank, damage and support. Teams must select two characters of each type to be played during the match but can switch freely among their categories during the match: For example, a tank player can start off as one tank but switch to another tank if the original choice isn't working out.

While we won't break down every single one of the game's heroes, here's how the main roles distinguish themselves.

Tanks are like the offensive linemen or centers of the game. Physically much larger than their counterparts, tanks generally have large amounts of health and armor. Broadly speaking, tanks are divided into two categories. Main tanks excel at making space for the team to operate in, whether they do that by drawing the enemy's attention away from other players (like Winston jumping into the enemy team's backline and attacking their healers) or by simply employing an enormous shield for their team to take cover behind (like Reinhardt). Off-tanks allow the main tanks to do their job by taking space -- in other words, securing the space the main tanks have made. A Reinhardt simply walking forward and holding up his shield will quickly get focused down and eliminated, but if he has a Zarya as an off tank, her Particle Barriers will absorb damage for him and let him get close enough to the opposing team for him to be able to hit them with his Rocket Hammer.

That being said, the definition of "main tank" and "off-tank" is fluid, and you can very easily have two of both at the same time, but certain combinations (Reinhardt and Zarya or D.Va, Winston and D.Va, Orisa and Sigma or Roadhog) tend to synergize well.

Tanks are easy to spot -- they're the largest heroes in the game and are almost always on the front lines.

Damage heroes are like 3-point shooters or cleanup hitters. Although every character in the game can do damage, damage heroes focus on it almost exclusively and are designed to secure eliminations (or "picks") quickly.

More than half of the game's heroes are in the damage category, meaning there's an extremely wide variety of play styles among them. Snipers (like Widowmaker or Hanzo) excel at long-range combat and can often eliminate another hero with a single head shot, but they can struggle against shields and are at a disadvantage when enemies get close. Flankers (like Genji, Tracer or the soon-to-be-released Echo) have movement abilities that let them roam around the map and isolate vulnerable targets. Brawlers (like Reaper or Doomfist) love a close-up fight but are vulnerable until they close the distance. Other damage heroes don't fit neatly into those categories -- like Pharah, who can stay in the air indefinitely with careful ability usage and lobs rockets from above, or Bastion, who can transform into an immobile turret with the most devastating gun in the entire game. For the most part, damage players usually focus either on hitscan heroes like Widowmaker or McCree, whose shots hit other players immediately, or projectile heroes like Hanzo or Mei whose shots have a travel time.

Damage heroes can be spotted all over the map, depending on the hero.

Support heroes are arguably the most important in the game, roughly akin to catchers in baseball or soccer goalies. While they also vary quite a bit in what they bring to the table, a support is going to spend much of their time preventing their teams from dying. All supports have the ability to heal their teammates from damage they've taken, but do so in different ways; for example, Ana shoots her teammates with her Biotic Rifle to heal them, Zenyatta places an orb on a single teammate that provides constant healing, and Brigitte heals her teammates in a wide area by doing damage to enemies, while having emergency armor packs she can distribute to single teammates.

The Support categories are fluid and are open to heavy debate among the player base, but in general, main supports focus primarily on healing teammates, while flex or off-supports provide other abilities besides healing. The aforementioned Zenyatta, for instance, doesn't provide enough healing to work as a main support, but his damage output can rival even damage heroes, making him an excellent pick as an off-support.

You can usually spot supports playing behind their team, using tanks as shields and making sure they can quickly heal damage heroes.

Which heroes the teams select is a key part of Overwatch strategy, both in terms of how the heroes work with each other and how they work against the other team. A team that tries to play a Widowmaker and Hanzo against a double-shield tank line of Orisa and Sigma is in for a bad time, as they'll have trouble finding angles to make their shots count. A team that plays Reinhardt without a Zarya or D.Va to protect him as he makes space or a Lucio that can speed him into melee range is asking for trouble.

By the same token, pairing an Ana with a Genji can provide a powerful Ultimate combo, as her Nanoboost can turn his already-formidable Dragonblade into an unstoppable force, while opposing teams can try to save Ultimates like Lucio's Sound Barrier or Zenyatta's Transcendence in order to protect themselves from such a combo. It's a little like switching out personnel or packages in a football game in order to counter what the opponent is throwing at you.

Oh, and if that level of strategy wasn't deep enough: Every week, the Overwatch League bans one tank, two damage and one support hero from among the most-played heroes of the previous week. In previous seasons, teams had usually settled on a set of six characters that were considered the most powerful combination and rarely deviated from that lineup. These bans, known as Hero Pools, are an attempt to counter this.

How does the Overwatch League work?

Now at 20 teams, the Overwatch League is in its third season and, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, had planned on basing its season around homestands. Previously, nearly every match was played in Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, with a few trips to Dallas and Atlanta for experimental homestands in 2019. OWL was supposed to really go global in 2020: Homestands were planned in England, France, the U.S., South Korea, Canada and China.

Unfortunately, concerns over the coronavirus postponed a number of Chinese homestands right off the bat (all of the Chinese teams will be playing for the first time this weekend), and the pandemic forced the league to postpone the rest indefinitely. Now, teams will be split into Atlantic, Pacific and Chinese divisions, with teams playing other teams in their divisions online until further notice.

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Each team is supposed to play 28 matches, with the top six teams making the playoffs and the next six after that fighting for the No. 7 and 8 spots. Teams split prize pools for the playoffs, with the champions splitting $1.5 million on top of their salaries.

Who should I watch for?

Though it's still a young league, Overwatch League has it share of legitimate stars:

Jay "sinatraa" Won is the 2019 OWL MVP and a damage player for the San Francisco Shock. He usually plays heroes like Tracer, Genji and Doomfist, although during 2019's three-tank, three-support "GOATS" meta, he excelled at Zarya.

Corey "Corey" Nigra is a damage player for the Washington Justice and one of the reasons Team USA won the 2019 Overwatch World Cup. The Justice struggled last year during the three-tank, three-support meta, but once Corey got to break out his signature Hanzo, the Justice dominated their opponents. Corey also stars on Widowmaker and McCree.

Lane "Surefour" Roberts is a veteran damage player for the Toronto Defiant who specializes on Widowmaker, Hanzo, Sombra and Reaper. Surefour was the lynchpin of perhaps the greatest play in Overwatch League history, when he remained in spawn as Brigitte while his team did a wide flanking maneuver. When the other team had rotated positions to counter them, Surefour quickly switched to Widowmaker and, before they could react, had sniped down two players to easily win the fight.

Kim "Haksal" Hyo-jong is a damage player for the Vancouver Titans, the 2019 Rookie of the Year and one of the few players who can make Genji work even when he's not a strong pick. If you see Haksal dash into the air when he's playing Genji, you'll know that a huge Dragonblade is bound to follow. Haksal also plays Pharah, Doomfist and Mei.

Bang "JJoNak" Sung-hyeon is the 2018 OWL MVP and perhaps the best support player in the game. In Season 1, he single-handedly made Zenyatta a force to be feared, hitting shot after shot and often outdueling damage heroes sent to take him out. He also plays a mean Ana.

Grant "Moth" Espe is a support player for the San Francisco Shock, and last year he had the highest teamfight win rate (58%) in the game while playing Lucio. Moth also plays Ana, Mercy and Baptiste for the Season 2 champions.

Park "IDK" Ho-jin is a support player for the Hangzhou Spark and one of the most flexible Lucio players in the league. While he occasionally plays Mercy and Baptiste, IDK's sneaky Lucio boops can catch even the best opponents totally off-guard.

Lee "Twilight" Joo-seok is a support player for the Vancouver Titans and one of the best Ana players in the league, particularly when it comes to using her Sleep Dart to take opponents out of the fight. He also plays Zenyatta.

Baek "Fissure" Chan-hyung is a main tank player for the Vancouver Titans. He has cycled through a number of teams during the short time the OWL has been in existence, and even briefly retired, but despite those difficulties he remains one of the league's best Reinhardt and Winston players.

Menghan "Ameng" Ding is a main tank player for the Chengdu Hunters and commonly referred to as the "Yottachad." Chengdu were one of the only teams to reject the three-tank/three-support team composition last year, and Ameng's play on Wrecking Ball (a super-intelligent hamster inside a spherical robot) was a major reason why.

Kim "Fury" Jun-ho is an off-tank player for the Philadelphia Fusion. While he was on the London Spitfire, he was probably best-known for this blink-and-you'll-miss-it denial of opposing Zaryas' Graviton Surge Ultimate ability.

Fury's also the first player to get a kill with Torbjorn's hammer, so he's got that going for him.

Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon is an off-tank player for the Shanghai Dragons and the only female player in the Overwatch League. Back before she was a professional, her aim was so good that several players accused her of hacking -- and some of them quit when she proved she wasn't. She's a backup for Shanghai and usually plays Zarya, D.Va and Roadhog.