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Overwatch and the 2-2-2 role lock - how did it come to this?

At the end of a busy week for Overwatch fans, in which the Shanghai Dragons shocked the Overwatch League with their stage 3 victory and Blizzard unveiled the 2020 OWL schedule, the topic causing the hottest debate among the community is the 2-2-2 role lock.

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After almost four years of allowing players to assemble teams using any combination of Overwatch's diverse cast of heroes, a "2-2-2 role-lock" would mean every Overwatch team must play with a fixed composition of two tanks, two healers and two damage-dealers at all times.

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The topic is divisive, as it would mark a fundamental change in how Overwatch is played and has major implications for the Overwatch League and its audience.

Before looking at the pros and cons of the role-lock, it's worth recapping on the qualities that make Overwatch unique from other esports titles, and examining how Blizzard are trying to control a mess of their own making.

Related: Overwatch League Stage 4 Preview

A unique mess

Among all the headshots and hammer-swings, it’s important to remember that Overwatch is a game of objectives, not a game of eliminations. This is what makes it different to many FPS titles and "looter shooter" games. Furthermore, there are no MOBA-style bans during hero selection. Overwatch players can change their hero at any time during the game, and team composition is completely fluid. In fact, any team not changing their composition to compensate for enemy composition, map terrain or ult economy is basically playing Overwatch wrong.

You can't 'level-up'...

Overwatch is unusual in that heroes do not "level up" as in MOBA or RPG games. Players cannot purchase items that give them additional powers or acquire new skills. They do not pick up new weapons. The hero as it is played for the first time is the same as the hero played by the pros in the Overwatch League. In a sense, that's what makes Overwatch such an elegant proposition. You are given a fixed set of tools and your team must solve a problem against a team with the same tools.

...but you can 'team-up'

There is a small caveat to this, though, and one that is crucial to the 2-2-2 role-lock debate. Heroes' abilities can be enhanced by their team-mates. A Lucio team-mate can give you extra speed; a Mercy can boost your damage output; a Brigitte can give you extra armour. Even more, a Baptiste can make you unkillable, an Ana can stop the enemy team from healing.

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And this is where the role-lock debate begins - how do you protect the long-term integrity of your game when teams are free to create an unpredictable cocktail of hero abilities? How can you add new heroes to your game when there is no way to know all the possible ways their abilities could be abused?

A simpler time

It wasn't always this way. Blizzard's initial view on the subject of hero-limits seemed pretty clear: Overwatch was a sandbox. In the pre-beta release, teams could pick whatever they wanted. Want six Bastions on your team? Go pick six Bastions. Want an entire team of Mercys? Knock yourself out. These were the golden days of "no-hero limits".

After early feedback, Blizzard reluctantly changed the rule so that only two of each hero were allowed on a team. However, the sight of double-Lucio speed boosts and double-Reaper/Mercy compositions forced them to relent, and the now familiar "one-hero limit" was added.

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The concept of 2-2-2 - "2 tank, 2 healer, 2 damage dealer" - as an aspirational ideal composition has been soft-coded into the game since launch, with players being scolded on the Hero Selection screen when their team seems unbalanced, but that's as far as Blizzard went to force the "ideal" team set-up.

Fast-forward four years to 2019, and we find ourselves in a situation where Blizzard appears determined to implement a rigid lock on team composition.

So, what happened?

What would make a games developer change its attitude from "you can play what you want" to "you must play in this composition"?

The knee-jerk answer to this question is: "GOATS happened".

As the GOATS meta - the triple-tank/triple-healer composition - became popular across all levels of Overwatch, Overwatch League viewers began to tune out. Rumours soon surfaced that Blizzard were stepping-in to force a more viewer-friendly spectacle for their flagship esport and arrest the tumbling viewership.

But that's really just half the explanation. So what really made them flip flop on their vision for Overwatch?

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Along came Brigitte

When there were just 21 heroes, managing distinct hero roles wasn't problematic.

As new heroes were added, though, their core function began to blur and their purpose became hazy. When it seemed like nobody wanted to play Overwatch in the healer role, Blizzard created Moira, a hero who quickly blurred the distinction between healer and damage-dealer. For the first time, it seemed like Blizzard were tooling their heroes with the explicit goal of changing how the game was played. In doing so, they spawned a monster.

The following year, the "Dive" meta was prevalent across all levels of Overwatch. Dive’s distinctive feature was an aggressive, high-speed, coordinated attack on enemy healers. It was a devastating strategy, and led many people to complain that Overwatch had become unbalanced. Players began to leave the game.

And, then, suddenly there was Brigitte.

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Brigitte was unveiled in mid-2018 as "tank-support" - a further blurring of the hero categories. As a healer with a powerful shield and armour packs, she became affectionately known as the "Tracer-Macer" for her ability to counter the Dive meta and to survive enemy attack without constant peeling from her off-tanks.

Brigitte delivered on Blizzard's hopes and shifted the meta away from Dive. But her skill set straddled the categories. Her armour packs and rally made team mates with deep health-pools almost unkillable. Her shield bash made it impossible for enemies to flank or dive. When her abilities were combined with a Lucio speed boost, she could move quickly from the back line to the tank line. Brigitte’s category-blurring skills laid the foundations for the GOATS meta.

By now, the character boundaries were irreversibly blurred. We had "healer-tanks", "damage-healers" and in Wrecking Ball, a high-mobility chaos tank. Baptiste was added as a "combat medic", with an immortality field that Blizzard hoped would herald a new meta of DPS play, but ultimately spawned a bunker meta of unkillable Bastions.

Blizzard had tied themselves in knots and every effort to clean up their mistake seemed to further perpetuate the mess.

So, why do people think 2-2-2 is good for the game?

Advocates of the 2-2-2 role lock say that it's an essential requirement for the long term development of the game. For Blizzard, balancing existing heroes has become a nightmare and many maintain that it will be impossible for Blizzard to add new heroes without skewing the balance of the game in unexpected ways. Advocates say that a role-lock reduces the number of possible hero combinations by a huge amount, resulting in a manageable hero ecosystem.

For the Overwatch League, the prospect of a role lock means that teams can recruit players in the knowledge that the meta isn't going to shift suddenly and leave them with a bench of expensive and unutilised talent. A 2-2-2 role lock means that every Overwatch League team will always need a full complement of healers, tanks and damage dealers, and will provide teams with some protection as the fledgling esport develops. For players, it will also provide added job security.

OK. So, why do people think 2-2-2 is bad for the game?

Opponents of the 2-2-2 role lock often point back to Overwatch's origins as a sandbox game. At its core, Overwatch is a game in which any team can field any blend of heroes at and any time. Many of the most exciting plays in Overwatch history have come from teams devising weird compositions that nobody expected. By requiring each team to stick to a rigid formation, Blizzard are killing off the key creativity of the game and taking us a step closer to an "all aim, no brain" play style.

Even those who support the idea of role-lock point to the imbalance that exists between the hero categories. While DPS players may still be free to flex on many heroes, both Main-Tank players and Off-Tanks are extremely limited in their selection, which may deter casual players from their games.

Furthermore, there's an argument that the impetus behind the changes are wrong. Primarily, Blizzard are exploring the nuclear option to clean up the mess they made by creating heroes who blurred category lines. There's an argument that role lock is only required because Blizzard created genre-breaking "tank-healers" and "battle Moiras". Secondly, many feel like Blizzard are imposing a game-wide rule as a knee-jerk reaction to ensure there is never a repeat of the GOATS meta and to protect their financial investment in the Overwatch League.

Ironically, the meta that appears to have broken the GOATS stranglehold is a triple-DPS composition blending Pharah, Widowmaker and Doomfist. It can't be lost on Blizzard that the wildly entertaining team compositions displayed by Chengdu Hunters and Shanghai Dragons would be impossible in a world of 2-2-2.

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Ultimately, the argument is that professional Overwatch League players are effectively paid to find vulnerabilities in a game. While locking down 2-2-2 may stop them from creating unbalanced team compositions, creative players will always find some way to use game mechanics in unintended ways.

Are there other options?

Prominent members of the Overwatch community have tested the idea of MOBA-style bans and picks, and the results of their tests seem quite promising. As an alternative to a rigid role-lock, it seems like the idea could have value, particularly at a competitive level.

For casual play or ladder matches, others have tested a pre-game lobby, similar to the current "looking for group" feature in which players can discuss team composition prior to committing to play as a team. This would help teams to voluntarily form better rounded compositions without requiring a hard rule.

Or, in fact, a time for heroes?

Well, we wait and see. Most probably there will be an announcement in the next 24 hours that a 2-2-2 role-lock has been implemented in the PTR test environment which will come into effect for Stage 4 of the Overwatch League, and just in time for Season 18 of Competitive Play.

There is a chance that Blizzard might hesitate at the last minute and use the World Cup as a testing ground for the 2-2-2 role lock instead. This would allow stage 4 of the Overwatch League to continue with the flourishing triple-DPS meta and would allow Blizzard some wriggle room to back out of the idea at a later stage. Although it has already committed to a "big announcement" on July 18th, it's not impossible that they will use their stage to reveal Hero 31 instead.