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Are you Meta? An Overwatch analysis

This is a general look at the shifting meta of Blizzard's game Overwatch and how it applies to professional players and casual players. Examine current themes and practices for evaluating meta in online games.

The year is starting off strong in 2020 for all those Overwatch fans out there with the return of the Overwatch League. If you don't know what that is it's the professional Esports league representing Blizzard's game Overwatch and it is full of the world's "best" players. In my opinion, these players are better than I ever will be but there are still talented players outside of these teams, but that's not what I want to talk about here.

As I was watching the opening games I couldn't help to notice a few things about their gameplay versus mine. I already knew that they were better mechanically (the play on PC, I play on Xbox) but also their game knowledge and teamwork is something else. These players do things I would never think to be possible in the game and it's these small optimizations everywhere in their gameplay that begins to set them apart as gods in the game. We obviously all know that they have really good aim when playing, given watching their Widowmakers never miss headshots, but there's something else that I was noticing that actually makes all of them the same, and its this concept of "the meta". This is a term used in the gaming community as an acronym for "most effective tactics available" which can apply to games differently but in the case of Overwatch it is shown through their hero choices on each map. Claiming a hero is "meta" is to mean that they are better in this situation than any other hero, or than their hero counterpart, and this can get pretty deep when thinking of team compositions and role differentials (tank, damage, support). There is no one person who says "this is the meta" and that decision just becomes a reality, when in fact the players of the game decide through interactions what is the best possible advantage in this situation, then developers can go through and modify the game which will change the meta unintentionally through balance updates and modifications.

What does this mean in relation to professional players? Well if you've been keeping up with the games you'll notice certain trends in the character selections, some map-specific, but in general they usually the same on each team on each map, give or take a few pocket picks. The best example of this that I noticed was the constant use of the hero's Reinhardt and Mei, roles tank and damage respectively, and how every team almost always has them and that is meta. Reinhardt as a tank is a very clear advantage over a lot of the other tanks on a team due to his shield capacity being the largest and him having a very powerful control ultimate ability. Mei as a DPS provides almost pseudo tank qualities by having 250 health points compared to the standard 200 of normal DPS heroes, as well as a wall of ice that blocks incoming damage and abilities, and also has a very powerful control ultimate ability. As you can see there are similarities in these heroes and they are both meta in their categories. Now I am not a professional Overwatch player, but I have a very good understanding of the game and in lower-ranked brackets, this meta may not be the same. The Overwatch ranked system, similar to many other games, is a numbered scale from zero to four thousand plus with a medal association of Bronze to Grandmaster. I play right around the middle mark of platinum rank (2500 to 2999 SR), and there are similarities in our hero selections but there are also vast differences. The meta in lower ranks can vary wildly compared to higher ranks and here's why: the meta is decided by players and their skill level. We will assume professionals and high-rank players are at the top skill level of what the game can take and therefore are all the same and lower ranks have varying skill levels with every player on each team. What this means is the pro players will be relying on the advantages of the game's mechanics and heroes combined with their skill level (which cancels out with the opposing team) to win games. Therefore they will choose the heroes that give them the greatest advantage. On the flip side, lower-ranked players have variable skill levels which can drastically change the outcome of a match based on the hero they chose against the enemy team. For example, Doomfist can be seen as a high skill hero, but if you are good at playing him and your skill level is higher than your opponent's, then you will win the match-up no matter the hero is chosen, to an extent. Here's a little equation to try and visualize the team balance and game outcomes, and keep in mind there are many variables to consider outside of this, but this is a general outline.

This is to say that the meta isn't always dominated by the professional scene and there are still many things to consider such as map bias, randomness, or additional player-specific data. The meta in all games is varying in a similar method to what I have outlined, although some additions may be required based on mechanics and features.

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