Competitive Play in Overwatch is about to fundamentally change with the launch of Season 21 on March 5. In the meantime, and a new feature called Hero Pools has already hit the Public Test Realm (PTR) on the PC version that drastically redefines how players grapple with ongoing shifts in the game's meta.
Competitive video gaming may never be the same. Especially if other games follow suit and copy Blizzard's latest innovation.
The 1.45 Public Test Realm (PTR) update was added to Overwatch Tuesday. These PTR updates are only accessible by PC users until they roll out to Overwatch’s main servers and consoles with the launch of Season 21 in a few weeks. They include a few minor quality-of-life updates and some additions to the Workshop mode, but by far the most unprecedented change is the new Hero Pool system that will ban a rotating list of heroes each week.
This new facet of the hero-selection process has the potential to completely redefine how both pro and casual players alike approach team composition and overall strategy, and it also sets an interesting precedent for live-service competitive games like Overwatch that have a substantial pool of playable characters.
At its core, Overwatch is all about team synergy. The most skilled players pick a combination of heroes that naturally complement each other, who can effectively work together to achieve a common goal. Maybe that involves jumping on one enemy and doing enough burst damage to eliminate them quickly to provide an edge. Maybe it's protecting a key teammate whose abilities are crucial to winning a fight. At any given time in the game's meta, one of these strategies tends to rise above the rest and is considered to be the best for a certain time.
Blizzard publishes balance changes to Overwatch periodically to balance out the roster and prevent any certain strategies from becoming too dominant. This phenomenon, generally referred to as “the meta," usually dictates which heroes get picked most often. Hero Pools are a somewhat extreme attempt at balancing out the spread of playtime across the game’s 30 heroes.
Here’s how Blizzard plans to roll out this sweeping change to Competitive Play, how it will work, and what player are saying about it:
How do Overwatch Hero Pools work?
Hanzo mains, don’t freak out. You’ll still be able to play your favorite arrow-shooting samurai in ranked mode, but you might have to temporarily pick up another DPS hero when he inevitably gets banned for one week at a time.
Hero Pools will prohibit players from selecting "only a few" characters within the game’s ranked competitive mode each week but the "vast majority of the hero roster" will remain available for play. In other words, something like two to four characters won't be available in Competitive mode for one week at a time.
Based on what Overwatch insider Naeri tweeted on Tuesday, the bans will consist of 2 DPS, 1 tank, and 1 support, but that might not be a hard-and-fast format. Considering the game currently has 16 DPS, 8 tank, and 7 support characters, the proportions here make perfect sense.
“Throughout the season, we will be adjusting the types of Hero Pools available,” stated Overwatch community manager Josh Nash in the patch notes. “In addition, it is possible we will also adjust the frequency with which they change.”
It's hard to predict what they mean by "types of Hero Pools" exactly, but it might mean that all support characters or all tank characters are removed some weeks. This also means, however, that Blizzard intends to remain flexible with the scope and duration of Hero Pools. Bans could last days or weeks.
Are Hero Pools a permanent change to Competitive Overwatch?
No. Blizzard was transparent about the fact that Hero Pools might only happen with Season 21. “It is important to note that Hero Pools is a new feature that may not last past this initial season,” Nash wrote in the patch notes.
If the concept completely flops or doesn’t work as intended, then it might be removed from the game entirely or adjusted for future seasons.
What do players think of Hero Pools in Overwatch?
The hope for Hero Pools is that players of all ranks will play a wider variety of heroes and develop creative team synergies that exist outside of the same repetitive compositions dictated by the meta. This holistic approach seems well-intentioned, but many of the initial reactions to Hero Pool as a forced concept are skeptical.
Overwatch streamer Flocculency tweeted that the cons of Hero Pools outweigh their potential benefits. The biggest problem she sees is that it might pull focus away from underlying balance issues, something that Blizzard may be trying to ignore.
For example, say Baptiste is picked more than any other support hero when he is not banned. Developers might be tempted to simply ban him more often instead of nerfing him or buffing other support heroes like Mercy or Moira. This might make Overwatch more balanced overall the week Baptiste is banned, but it doesn’t directly address balance issues with the character.
Another obstacle standing in the way of Hero Pools is Overwatch’s population of one-trick players who have their "mains" and don't play anyone else. These character specialists have either dedicated countless hours to mastering one character or simply enjoy playing them more than anyone else in the roster. Either way, these are the players that Hero Pools will upset the most.
Twitter user Alsagone posted a screenshot of in-game data showing that they've Mercy for three times the amount of time he's played any other hero in the game. At that point, their skills with any other hero pale in comparison to their skill with Mercy, so if Mercy is banned for a week, it would mean Alsagone would either need to risk decreasing their Skill Rating (SR) by playing heroes they aren’t comfortable with or just stop playing that week altogether.
Imposing these two extreme alternatives to players didn’t sit well with Overwatch fans so far. Many wonder why Blizzard doesn't simply implement a Draft Pick mode like League of Legends or Dota 2 where the players elect what heroes are banned for each round.
“I think hero pools aren't a great idea,” tweeted James Justus. “In competitive Smite, there are hero bans, which let each team ban certain characters before the game starts. I think that this would have been a much better option.”
Hero Pools in Overwatch are still obviously a new, unrefined feature that will evolve in the coming weeks before it leaves the PTR and hits the full game on all servers, but for the time being, all those Hanzo mains out there might want to start brushing up on their Genji skills just in case.
Hero Pools are now live on Overwatch's PTR on PC.