This Year’s Hottest New MOBA is… Overwatch?

Is Overwatch really a MOBA in disguise? Find out the startling design similarities between this year's hottest FPS and e-Sports' mainstay franchises like League of Legends.

If you’re reading this on Gamasutra chances are good by now you’re playing Overwatch – and if you’re not – stop reading this article right now and fix that. It’s one of the most entertaining games to come out this year, and quite possibly this decade.

But Overwatch isn’t what it seems to be at first glance - or play. Most people who pick the game up liken it to Quake or Team Fortress. Because most people think Overwatch is an FPS (first person shooter). And superficially they’re right. The game is played from a first-person perspective, and the ability for CS:GO-esque, twitch-accurate aiming is certainly important to some heroes’ play styles.

But the game’s best kept secret is that Overwatch isn’t an FPS. No. Overwatch is a MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) in disguise. Before you slam your controller or mouse to the ground in outrage, here’s why: Overwatch has far more in common with DOTA than Doom. And the title’s unconventional genre blending is also the key to its success.

First, let me prove exactly why Overwatch is a MOBA. Every MOBA has three essential elements; the draft, push-lane maps, and improvable abilities - and each is present in Overwatch.

DRAFT: Every MOBA involves a draft phase, in which teams select from a pool of heroes, each with unique skills and abilities, to develop an optimal roster against the opposing team’s line up. Sound like Overwatch? The only difference between Overwatch and a classic MOBA, like League of Legends, is that this drafting process is repeated again and again over the course of a single map – creating a dynamic pacing more in line with Overwatch’s high-octane gameplay.

PUSH-LANES: The next key element of a MOBA is objective-centered, push-lane gameplay. Players guide their heroes through a variety of map paths, engaging in pitched battles as both teams struggle to optimally position their heroes against enemy incursions.  Combatants constantly shift location - laning and rotating - to try to outmatch the opposing team.

Sound like Overwatch again? Sure, the maps don’t necessarily have three OBVIOUS lanes – but take a look at a Defense map like Hanamura and it’s not hard to see that each objective has a triad of entry points to barricade. Other maps, particularly Payload-style maps – where teams must advance a bomb towards the enemy base – are even more literal in their MOBA-ness. Sure, you’re escorting a car rather than blowing up towers, but the core mechanic of a constant, pitched battle driving towards the enemy’s home base is essentially the same.

IMPROVABLE ABILITIES: The final key elements of a MOBA is using your hero’s unique combination of skills and abilities to outplay your opponents. And, as you outperform your competition, you accrue resources – like experience and gold – cementing a mechanical advantage.

Overwatch again? Every hero has unique abilities, with classic isometric skill shots replaced by first-person aiming. And more importantly, heroes do improve over the course of the battle. “Charging your ultimate” is just a simpler, faster paced style of building up to your “R” Ultimate or equipping your champion. It plays off of the same underlying gameplay structure: accruing mechanical resources for playing the game well.

Now I know what you’re thinking at this point. But Overwatch is played from a first person view! You aim at things! It’s an FPS! But perspective is superficial. As I’ve just demonstrated, Overwatch has all the essential elements of a good MOBA. And if you’re so hung up on the “use-mouse-to-aim” style of interface, try playing a hero like Reinhardt or Symmetra and tell me aiming is really that crucial to carrying your team to victory.

Once we see Overwatch as a MOBA, we can understand the secret of its success. Because, as a general rule, MOBAs are intimidating to play. They have entrenched communities, games take forever to play, and improving often involves intricate talent and item decisions that are entirely opaque to all but the most skilled players. But by taking FPS-pacing and adrenaline-rich simplicity, Overwatch has brought the MOBA genre to a whole new market.

Overwatch is still the incredibly high skill cap, tactical game we all love. It’s just in a fresh, slimmed down, higher-octane skin. As both a MOBA and FPS fan I couldn’t be anything more than thrilled to see such a beautiful reinterpretation of my two favorite gaming genres and applaud Blizzard for bringing a new audience - traditionally wary of the MOBA genre - into the fold.

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