Overwatch 2’s change to 5v5 is a bold, scary but ultimately exciting new direction

Tanks for the memories

Overwatch isn’t a stranger to change. Over its now five year lifespan, it’s seen massive structural shifts. Some forget that when the game first launched, there were no hero limits to team composition. More recently, it restricted choice further for the health of the game by implementing the two tanks, two DPS and two support role lock. There aren’t many, if any games like Overwatch, and perfecting its formula has been a long, half-decade process for Blizzard.

Overwatch 2 inevitably is a new opportunity for the team to implement its biggest changes, and it’s one they’re taking. During a two-hour PvP focused livestream, Overwatch’s new Game Director Aaron Keller guided viewers through the new experience, the biggest undoubtedly being that the sequel would be moving from a 6v6 to a 5v5 standard. Now, games will be played with two DPS characters, two supports but only one tank.

The question now becomes, what does that mean? Well, to be frank, a lot. While change has come and gone, this is the biggest divergence Overwatch has ever seen. Whether you are a paid pro or a casual player, the game will feel different.

The core of this change means that the off-tank sub-role will likely disappear. Off-tank has always been an odd concept in Overwatch and not one that is defined in the game. While many barrier heroes like Reinhardt, Winston and Orisa are designed as ‘main tanks’ and the first port of call for the front line, off-tanks like Zarya, Roadhog and D.VA are much more hybridised. They generally do more damage than main tanks but are also expected to help relieve some of the pressure being applied to the front and backlines. Not unlike a Tight-End in the NFL, their job changes moment to moment depending on the need.

Changing to just one tank will make the idea of a ‘support tank’ less valuable. Teams will need a front-line and a presence that at least performs some of the jobs of the main tank. Mainly, creating and taking space. However, one thing to keep in mind that while the classic ‘off-tank’ might die, these characters won’t. Every character in Overwatch now is making the jump to the sequel. In the presentation, it was clear that many of the tanks have seen a massive rework and buff to facilitate the loss of a whole player.

In fact, while the idea of the off-tank is going away, the focus of the main tank seems to be shifting somewhat too. During the livestream, Lead Hero Designer Geoff Goodman spoke about how such wild tank diversity is being brought into one role.

“Once we started going to one tank, what direction are we pushing tanks at?” says Goodman. “Are we trying to make Roadhog much more static defensively and have big barriers or something to protect his team, or do we want more of the opposite and take the Reinhardts, Orisas and Sigmas and actually give them some more aggression and feel a little more like a D.VA. We definitely opted for that latter route after playing because it’s more fun to have the extra speed and aggression”

This probably gets at one of the bigger reasons why were are seeing this change to the game as well. Tanks in Overwatch, hell, in almost any game where they are present, aren’t that popular. It’s a tough job. You’re crucial to your team, but also doing a lot of hard, unflashy work. You take punishment and take space so your DPS players can feel like superstars. While some love the job, it’s clear that not enough have taken the role to heart.

Overwatch artwork
Overwatch. Credit: Activision Blizzard

Keller explained during the livestream, “Tanks can be problematic. A DPS hero is simple. They are shooting, but a tank has abilities that can be noisy or when stacked with other tanks can cause problems for other teams to try to overcome and counter. A great example of that is two main tanks on the field. Sometimes that can be very oppressive to another team.”

“With five players there is a great chance of certain people being able to carry. Whether that is the tank on the team or the DPS, there is just one less player on the field you have to take care of. Each player now has the opportunity to have a larger individual impact on their own team.”

The current state of tanks in Overwatch and the enthusiasm to play them has created significant issues for the game’s health. Most notably, you see this manifest in unreasonable queue times. If you are solo-queueing as a DPS player in Overwatch currently, it’s not uncommon on certain platforms to wait 10-15 minutes for a game. By removing one tank role, it should help more games get played.

However, more so than just cutting a player and hoping it cuts queue times, the team appear to be trying to make the prospect of playing tank more enticing. By nature of there only being one on the team, it appears most tanks are getting a sizeable buff. From what we saw during the livestream, Reinhardt now has two Fire Strikes, more control and can cancel his charge. Winston now has a ranged railgun type secondary fire. Zarya now has two bubbles for herself and two for teammates. While all of these are subject to change, it highlights that tanks are going to be supercharged in Overwatch 2. While they will undoubtedly take more punishment being the only tank player, they will also deal a hell of a lot more too. While getting players to play tank might be hard, getting them to play the big bad boss for a team may be distinctly more enticing.

Overwatch – Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

This also helps with one of the biggest issues Overwatch has contended with during its whole lifespan – its readability. Especially as more and more heroes have been added to the game, it has a huge visual cluster. On that, Keller said during the livestream: “If you think about it, there is a lot going on in an Overwatch map. It’s incredibly fast-paced and we’ve always tried to make our combat easy to read and very understandable. Even with all the work we’ve put into that, sometimes it’s just hard to track what 11 other players are doing on the battlefield. Removing two of those simplifies everything and allows players to understand everything that is going on around them and make better choices.’

The higher end of the player base may mourn the loss of the finer points and delights of having that elusive ‘synergy’ between a main and off-tank player. However, this move appears like it should be a win for many others, provided it’s implemented correctly. This is the biggest rebalancing undertaking this franchise has ever seen, and it’s bigger than the tank role itself. Almost every character in the game will be affected by this and likely see tweaks and changes to them, be it the amount of damage they deal to the amount of healing they can output. How do you stop Widowmaker from taking over a map with fewer shields and off-tanks pressuring her? How do you stop Reaper ploughing through the main tank? What if two healers focus entirely on the tank and create an undamageable monster? These all need consideration.

Regardless, one thing does seem apparent, this is a flag in the ground for what Overwatch 2 is going to be. It suggests a team that is moving to be much more action-focused. This seems like a recentering of the game around its shooter roots. Tanks will do more damage, DPS will become more important and while they will be juicy targets, supports will only need to focus on one tank, allowing them to dedicate resources to other objectives.

It’s a huge change, but one that entirely shakes up everything we understand about the current live game in one way or another. Its success will hinge on the details of execution. Right now, it’s impossible for anyone outside of the development team to know how this feels. Any reaction to how it will play is pure speculation. However, Overwatch 2 with this change should see some of 2016 magic return as the community once again has to figure out what this game is. With one change, the team has reinvigorated one of the things people miss from the initial Overwatch launch: discovery.

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