Principal Game Designer Scott Mercer on Overwatch's Competitive Mode and Future

Seven@xsevenFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2016

Blizzard Entertainment, Inc

Last week saw Blizzard release the highly anticipated Competitive Mode patch to their hit game Overwatch and with it, the launch of Season One.

As each fan completes their first ranked games, Overwatch developers work hard behind the scenes to calculate the player's Competitive Skill Rating—a difficult task for programmers, and a hard pill to swallow for some gamers.

Overwatch, unlike other team-based titles in the competitive games space, allows players to switch characters, and roles, throughout the match. This feature, while it provides great gameplay, adds layers of complexity to the determination of a player's contribution to the round. Competitors aren't ranked solely by kills, assists, or damage output, but by a multitude of factors, including character-specific and overall team performances.

In honor of Season One, Bleacher Report's Seven, armed with questions from the Overwatch Reddit faithful, dives into the Competitive Mode launch with Principal Game Designer Scott Mercer.


Bleacher Report: In the determination of player Skill Ranking, how much is based on individual performance versus the win ratio of the group?

Scott Mercer: So, that's a very complicated question. The vast majority of it is the win-to-loss ratio, but there are a lot of other factors outside of personal performance as well. For instance, were you an underdog, playing against a team that the system believes is better than you? If you win in that case, you’ll actually get more skill rating. It also works the other way around; you receive less if you win against a team that’s not as good.

The personal stuff is a factor, but it’s not the biggest factor. How that system works, it is trying to take into account things that help out the team—it’s definitely not just doing damage or getting kills.

Is it perfectly balanced? Maybe, maybe not. That’s why we’re looking at the data to see how much people are going up and down in the rankings. We are listening to player feedback and taking that into account as well, especially in situations where they feel it doesn’t seem fair, because we do understand in a competitive system that fairness is important. 


Reddit: Is skill ranking related to competitive MMR or is it possible to have two players where one has a higher skill rank and the other has higher MMR?

Mercer: The skill rating is tracking MMR very closely. At any one instance is it possible for there to be divergences? Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but a majority of the time it tracks pretty closely on a match-by-match basis. It’s not something you really have to worry about, especially over the amount of games in a completed season.


B/R: How do you handle the weighing of individual skill ranking and performance in a game where a player's contribution splits across multiple characters and team functions? For instance, if I play McCree and Mercy in the same match, they serve very different roles.

Mercer: We are tracking how much of a match you are playing as a particular hero, but each hero has their inputs into performance measured differently. We don’t want to make it so there’s any one way to game the system by picking a specific character. We want you to pick the character you have fun with, want to play and helps the team out so you can get a win. The personalized tracking is just a factor on top of that. But again, we’ll monitor it and make improvements as we go along.


B/R: Do you rank individual performance differently if a player is solo queuing versus someone joining in with a group?

Mercer: Nope.


B/R: At the end of the season, will players get a notification, much like in Hearthstone, telling them they finished in the top x% of players regarding skill rating?

Mercer: We’re not sure exactly what that message is going to say, but there will be something at the very end because we’re going to give an additional set of rewards, like competitive points, depending on where you are ranked.

We know about that idea, but we’ll have to see, it’s still something we’re trying to figure out.


B/R: With the top 500 player rankings, how are you incentivizing people to play matches after they’ve reached the top ranks?

For instance, I make it to rank one early in the season then decide to stop playing for a month to ensure I don’t drop; does rank decay over time or does it stick for the entire season?

Mercer: We want to put in a system where if you stop playing for a certain amount of time, your skill rating will start to decay. Specifically, if you go inactive after a certain amount of time, you simply can’t be in the top 500 leaderboard, no matter what.

We definitely want to make a situation where you actively have to play to get onto that top 500 scoreboard.


B/R: Will we see map pools rotate each season, especially with the release of new content?

Mercer: That’s an interesting idea, but we don’t really know. It’s something that’s completely up for discussion for later seasons, but there are other questions and things we’d like to address before we get to that stage of “we have a lot of really awesome maps.”

It’s something our other games have done, like Starcraft has rotating maps, so it’s a completely reasonable question, but it’s just not something we’ve thought too much about yet in Season One. However, we’ll absolutely discuss it in the future.


B/R: In CS:GO we have a system called Overwatch which allows players to watch the recorded matches of players reported for cheating; it’s a self-policing, more humanized way of dealing with hackers; will we see anything like this for Overwatch in the future?

Mercer: Will we create a system like that? I really don’t know. We are doing a lot right now in terms of detecting hackers, getting rid of them and banning them. Specifically, what we’re doing and the details of that, that’s something that’s best not discussed, but it is a super high priority for us to ensure players are all on an even playing field.

Players also have the opportunity to report something out of the ordinary; there is a reporting system within the game, that goes through and can trigger an investigation into the game. We have a lot of tools to look at it and figure out if it really is a problem.


B/R: The tick rate debate. Currently, the client update rate is 20.8 times a second, but many have called for an increase, nearly threefold, to 60 times a second as it provides a “more accurate” competitive experience. Any plans to make the increase, or perhaps allow it in competitive matches?

Mercer: We do have the ability to play at the higher update rate, what is referred to as 60 tick, for custom games. That’s something that has been experimented with.

It’s not simply just the matter of turning a dial from 20 to 60; we want to make sure by making that change we don’t inadvertently cause other issues, especially for competitive players who would be using it the most. We’ve been very cautious about deploying it, but we’ll reevaluate it in the future as we feel more confident about the system.


Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

Reddit: What was the reason behind choosing level 25 as the barrier to entry on Competitive Play?

Mercer: We definitely wanted to make sure that people had played Overwatch enough to know all the different maps, the map objectives, not necessarily know every hero, but had at least played against all of them. Overall, we wanted players to have a solid foundation in the game before starting competitive play.


Reddit: What are the rank distributions after Day 1 of competitive? How many people are below 40? Above 60? What's the median? It’s only been a day, but are you seeing players’ ranked distribution land about where you would like?

Mercer: I’ve been in interviews all morning, so I haven’t looked at the data yet. I’ve heard anecdotal reports from various streamers and the ratings they got. In terms of what the curve looks like, I don’t have that yet.


Reddit: Regarding Competitive Point rewards, how much, or in what range can players expect at the end of the season? Obviously, shiny golden weapons are of the highest importance.

Mercer: We’ve talked about it and players of the highest tier of rewards would be given enough competitive currency to just buy a golden weapon outright, basically given 300. As for the various tiers of rewards and what they get, that’s something we haven’t completely set in stone yet.


Reddit: Do plan to reduce or eliminate the loss for teammates when an individual leaves or disconnects? For instance, losing a match with only five players on your side.

Mercer: If someone leaves really early in the match, like within the first 30 seconds, a message will pop up and give players the option to leave early without a loss or leave penalty. If they play the match and they leave early on, the person who leaves not only loses but is given a leave penalty.

After a certain amount of time, about one minute, if the person doesn’t come back, other people can exit without a leave penalty, but they still receive the loss. We don’t want people to feel they have to play out a match that is heavily stacked against them and not very fun.

That’s one of those things where we understand it doesn’t seem fair, but the alternatives are actually worse.

We don’t want to create a situation where the right thing to do while losing is to try to convince someone else on your team, in any way necessary, to leave. The possibilities and space of what that entails can get pretty nasty.

While it’s unfortunate, and something we dislike, we feel that in those situations we need to give players a loss. It’s a balancing act, and we totally understand that it doesn’t feel great, but we think it’s the right choice.


Reddit: Does Blizzard have any plans to increase the amount of Player XP in Competitive Play?

Mercer: Well, our competitive games do take longer to play, but match time is something that’s factored into the XP distribution already. In terms of giving a specific bonus for playing competitive, that’s not something we’ve talked about yet.


Reddit: Does Blizzard have any plans to introduce a Pause feature, similar to that found other MOBAs, in professional matches or custom games?

Mercer: Yes, we definitely want to do it, but I don’t know exactly when we might have that available.


Reddit: What do you think of the popular team comps in pro play? What strategies did you all think internally would be more prominent, and what new strategies surprised you?

Mercer: To be honest, when designing heroes or thinking in terms of competitive play, we didn’t think about what comps we would see. We’ve been playing the game competitively now for years in development, and certainly, there were things we thought “this hero is amazing at this”, but then the same would be said about another hero.

It’s hard to say; we know that Mercy is great, her ultimate can really turn the tide, but at the same, there are comps we’ve seen that don’t run Mercy. Right now, as far as professional team comps, we just sort of want to be surprised, we want teams to try out all these different things. Especially when it’s this early on, we’ve only been a live game for five weeks.

Adding hero limits is something that’s come up, but we really want to see the teams try different things, see what’s good and see what’s bad. 

It’s still early; we’ve had to make changes to heroes and meta is always changing. Almost nothing would surprise us at this point because all the heroes do have something that’s amazing about them.