Overwatch League’s latest big change is great for viewers

The core playstyle gradually started to shift over the season as teams experimented with counters, often with Sombra’s powerful EMP ultimate disabling enemy abilities. Shanghai Dragons and freshman squad Chengdu Hunters also often bucked the trend by respectively running a DPS-heavy lineup and a team composition built around Wrecking Ball.

But the demands of an evolving game and a widespread desire for change helped bring about the formal demise of GOATS. Blizzard says the role-lock system had been in the works for over a year and that killing GOATS wasn’t the main goal. “We’re in the middle of [a big shift] anyway that’s happening very naturally through hero balance,” Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said in a video announcing the move. “We don’t believe that a rule like this is intended to target any one specific [strategy].” Regardless, even if GOATS wasn’t the direct target, role lock has eliminated it for good.

Tanks and support heroes are extremely important to a balanced team. But more damage dealers means there’s more scope for flashier plays. DPS players who’d largely been forced to ride the bench or take on an unfamiliar role for much of the season were able to start playing heroes more suited to their skills, which inevitably made matches more exciting.

Blizzard brought in the 2-2-2 change for Overwatch League stage four at the end of July and players on public servers at around the same time. It’s not entirely a positive move, because it means we’ll lose some of the wilder strategies, such as London Spitfire opting for a quad-DPS crew or Vancouver Titans tank player Sangbeom “Bumper” Park switching to archery master Hanzo. There’s also the chance that we’ll see teams rely on the same lineups, but for now, at least, there’s a lot of diversity in hero selection, particularly on the DPS front.

In stage four, fans saw a lot more use of snipers, dual-shotgun wielder Reaper, cybernetic ninja Genji and high-flyer Pharah. In particular, OWL teams used Mei much more than in the past, when she was often selected to stall on an objective. Her icy, crowd-control abilities pair well with those of Orisa and Roadhog’s to quickly eliminate an opponent — or counter a similar combination from opponents. With a wider array of characters making it into OWL matches, fans are getting to see a broader variety of playstyles. That kind of flexibility and diversity in strategies is supposed to be a core part of the game.

We also saw OWL damage dealers switch heroes a little more often to counter an enemy. Let’s take a quick look at a match from the final weekend of this year’s regular season. Once Atlanta Reign got a glimpse of Dallas Fuel’s defensive setup on King’s Row, Andrej “Babybay” Francisty swapped from Reaper to Symmetra.

While long considered a sub-optimal character among pros (she was the only hero not used at all last season), she was enormously effective here. The damage output of her Photon Projector beam ramps up the longer it’s focused on an enemy target. With the Fuel clustered so close together, Babybay and his teammates ripped through the opposing Mei Ice Wall, Orisa shield and the Dallas team to capture the first point in no time. The broadcast team also suggested Symmetra will be featured more in the next dominant playstyle (or “meta”), which seems likely to be oriented around shields.

The Fuel’s Dylan “aKm” Bignet then switched from Reaper to Pharah, who can easily dodge Symmetra’s beam and slow projectile attack with her jetpack. In response, Babybay switched to McCree and shot aKm out of the sky with the cowboy’s revolver. Both switched a couple more times to try and gain the advantage.

That’s classic Overwatch, which hadn’t been on display in OWL too much this year prior to stage four. With Babybay and aKm’s deep knowledge of the game, ability to play so many heroes at a high level and knowing exactly when to switch, it made for an enjoyable one-on-one duel.

The re-emergence of damage heroes is good for fans for another reason. The Command Center spectator option on Twitch had plenty of teething problems at the beginning of the season, though it proved to be an effective way to switch between pros’ perspectives and help fans see more of the big plays. A replay system on PC goes even further, allowing devotees to observe matches from any angle and in slow motion. That’s especially useful for kills that happen in a flash.

Big upsets, like those we’ve seen in recent weeks, have added some excitement to matches too. Washington Justice went 2-19 through the first three stages as they endured a torrid time in the GOATS meta. When star DPS player Corey Nigra (who simply goes by Corey) was freed from playing Zarya with the role-lock switch, that all changed. With the help of his incredible accuracy on snipers Hanzo and Widowmaker, the Justice had a 6-1 record in stage four. That included a stunning 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Titans, one of the league’s two best teams this year.

Florida Mayhem had an equally bad record until stage four, then they went 4-3, including a win over the Spitfire, last season’s Overwatch League champions. The Reign thrived too, with a 7-0 record in stage four.

On the flip side, the New York Excelsior struggled to adapt. Some consider NYXL the best team overall throughout the league’s two seasons and they’re this year’s Atlantic Division champions — but they suffered a pair of 4-0 losses, their first ever, as they went 3-4 in stage four.

The fan-favorite Shanghai Dragons also floundered after their fairy-tale rise from an 0-40 season in 2018 to win the stage three title, beating the league’s three strongest squads one after the other in the stage playoffs. They squeaked into the postseason after a dismal 1-6 stage four, and might struggle to make much of an impact there.

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