One of the most impressive things about Overwatch is how Blizzard has handled support play. Gliding around the battlefield as Mercy is anything but boring, especially when you pull off a massive resurrection and turn the tide of battle. Luring your less-than-observant opponents into a turret infested trap room as Symmetra never gets old either. Picking a support in this game doesn’t feel like a chore, because you aren’t just playing second fiddle to your “core” heroes. You’re not only a valuable member of the team, you’re a dangerous member of the team.
The freshly released hero Ana is no different, in this regard, from other support characters in Overwatch. Like Zenyatta, she has a formidable mix of aggressive and protective capabilities. Her Biotic Rifle, like D.Va’s pistol, releases a fast-moving projectile with no drop, and can both heal allies and deal damage over time to enemies. When Ana aims down the scope, her weapon fires in hitscan mode a la Widowmaker. The healing is quite substantial, especially when applied in tandem with her Biotic Grenade ability. If a teammate is hit by the grenade, he or she is healed and receives additional healing from all sources for the next few seconds. Enemies affected by the grenade’s blast can’t receive healing for a short period, an effect reminiscent of Mortal Strike from another Blizzard hit, World of Warcraft. This ability is extremely useful if it explodes on the mark, though aiming it takes some getting used to since its effective radius is tiny.
Ana’s varied skillset comes complete with a control ability, Sleep Dart, which does exactly what its name suggests for 5.5 seconds on a 12 second cooldown. Damage of any kind done to the affected opponent will wake him or her up immediately. Like Mei’s freezing abilities or Reinhardt’s Earth Shatter, Sleep Dart is great for canceling enemy animations, or for immobilizing the target while your allies take potshots.
Ana’s ultimate, Nano Boost, looks extremely strong on paper, but it needs good team coordination to use effectively. It takes quite a while to charge up and only lasts for 8 seconds, giving the targeted ally an additional 50% damage, 50% damage reduction, and 30% movement speed. When combined with say, Mercy’s damage boost on a Bastion, it has potential, but it’s also easy to misuse. Several times already, I’ve used it on a D.Va, who naturally decides to use her ult just as I do, wasting the Nano Boost altogether. Other times, my chosen ally appears indifferent to the fact that I’ve just used my ult on them, and runs around a corner to hide with full health. Such failures would be frustrating if not for the incredible joy of watching a boosted Reinhardt go on a roided out rampage.
Playing Ana has been a lot of fun, and despite several gripes, I adore the hero. Sadly, her release also rubbed salt in the festering wound of support players everywhere: competitive mode. If one of Overwatch‘s great successes is how much support play is incentivized, one of its terrible failures is competitive mode’s near hostility to Mercy, Lúcio, and now Ana mains.
I absolutely despise almost ranking up several wins in a row, only to have the system repeatedly stop a tick short of recognizing my efforts. Laddering is so frustrating that I often quit playing supports for the night, as it only takes me a single win to rank up as say, Reaper, even though I’m much more effective as Mercy. I realize that Blizzard intends for players to situationally switch between heroes quite often in competitive. Still, for those whose playstyle favors support heroes, Overwatch can become incredibly discouraging.
My main complaint with Ana’s play-style is that she just doesn’t feel like a sniper. Her Biotic Rifle’s non-scoped projectiles are more than fast and accurate enough to tag any target, so she hardly ever needs to use her scope. In my experience, she’s best played closer to the front lines than a Widowmaker or Zenyatta, since her powerful Biotic Grenade and Sleep Dart are difficult to use from a distance. Blizzard could widen the power gap between the scoped and non-scoped rifle, perhaps by compressing the huge hitbox for healing allies with a non-scoped projectile. They could also slow the projectiles down and subject them to gravity (similar to Torbjörn’s rivet gun), and compensate for the nerf by increasing the damage done while scoped. I understand why her headshots don’t deal extra damage up front, but maybe the devs could increase the duration of the damage over time effect, or reduce some of the healing received by the target when domed.
Any of these ideas, by themselves or in conjunction, would go a long way toward establishing Ana as a support-sniper, not just a support. They might also strengthen her kit, because as of right now she’s a tad underpowered compared to certain heroes like the newly buffed Zenyatta. Maybe she will show her true strength when played by professionals, but I think it’s more likely that Blizzard is erring on the side of caution and knowingly releasing a weak character.
That doesn’t excuse the terrible attitude players in competitive mode have toward the new hero. Time and time again, I’ve seen Ana players, myself included, disparaged for simply picking her, regardless of performance. This bias against “flavor-of-the-month” heroes isn’t new to online gaming, but the difference with Overwatch is the woefully inadequate report system, which entirely fails to curb toxic behavior. The result is that even an effective Ana player will likely have a thoroughly miserable experience in competitive mode. Not only is it way too difficult to climb the ladder with her, she’s also a magnet for poor player conduct.
If the Overwatch dev team wants their game to bask in the eSports spotlight currently hogged by League of Legends, Dota 2, and CS:GO, they need to address these competitive mode (and other) problems immediately. The issue isn’t that support players deserve better rating (they don’t), it’s that the nigh impossibility of climbing with a support hero represents a fundamental disconnect between competitive mode and the game’s design philosophy as a whole. Blizzard needs to decide if supports are too easy to win with, or if their matchmaking system simply doesn’t give them enough credit. Until they make this choice and patch accordingly, supports will become more and more underrepresented in ranked games. Hopefully, once every game is filled with 12 Hanzo mains who care more about MMR than winning, Blizzard will wake up and realize that their system is choking the variety out of a hero pool they worked so hard to balance.
In an enormous blue post last month, Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan explained the game’s matchmaking system on a basic level, which not only takes into account queue time, ping, and grouping, but also the following:
“In Overwatch, whether your MMR goes up or down is contingent on winning or losing. But there are a number of factors that determine how much that rating goes up or down. For example, what map you’re playing on and whether you were attacking or defending is factored in. We know the win rates on attack/defend on all of the maps and we normalize accordingly. Not all wins and losses are equal. We also look at your individual performance on each of the heroes you played during the match. Everyone has better and worse heroes and we have tons of data showing us what performance levels should be like on those heroes. We also look at your opponents and whether or not their matchmaking rating is higher or lower than yours. These are just a few of the things that are considered when determining how your skill should go up or down. At no point in MMR calculations do we look at your win/loss ratio and win/loss ratio is never used to determine who to match you with or against. We are not trying to drive your win/loss percentage toward a certain number (although the fact that so many people are at 50% win rates makes us extremely happy). All the system does when it comes to matching on skill is attempt to match you with people of a similar number.”
This paragraph is a monument to the most painfully over-engineered system Blizzard has ever produced. The developers love to talk about how complex their matchmaking is, and how many factors it takes into account when determining player skill. That’s all great in theory, but the reality on the ground is that competitive is a mess. Sometimes, a simple system is best, because at the end of the day, the most reliable metric for player skill is still win-loss ratio. Blizzard is trying so hard to reinvent the wheel that they’ve lost sight of that essential fact, and the game suffers for it. The matchmaking system is being twisted to correct for gameplay imbalances, and this is undermining its ability to rate players objectively.
Kaplan argues that “not all wins and losses are equal,” but I’d counter that they should be in a properly balanced game. When Icefrog, Dota 2’s legendary designer, notices that players spawning on the Dire side of the map win more than those on the Radiant side, he fixes the map. He doesn’t beat around the bush and change his matchmaking algorithm to award less rating to Dire-side players, he focuses on the root of the problem, imbalanced level design. Blizzard should swallow their pride and learn from Icefrog: rather than endlessly fiddling with their matchmaking system, they should fiddle with their actual game instead. Are certain heroes way too easy to win with given their mechanical demands on the player? Then said heroes are not balanced, and should be buffed, nerfed, or reworked accordingly. Are defenders on a given map heavily favored to win? Then the map is not balanced, and should be renovated accordingly.
This game’s developers need to stop hiding behind the matchmaking system, and start attacking these problems at their source, Overwatch itself. Perhaps more than any other developer today, Blizzard should understand the dangers of letting a multiplayer game stagnate. Overwatch‘s maps are works of art, and altering them is of course difficult, but you can’t convince me Blizzard’s artists and modelers aren’t payed enough to retool them when the balance team requires it. If it’s a question of sentimentality, Valve’s Dota 2 designers have made substantial changes to a map far older and more beloved than any of Overwatch‘s levels, and the world hasn’t ended yet.
I understand that Overwatch is a deep game, and that each modification I’ve suggested is its own jumbo-sized can of worms to open. However, Blizzard’s reputation was built by opening each worm-infested can one by one, sitting the worms down in a corner, and laying down the law like an angry father. The point of this tortured analogy is that Blizzard’s never shied away from making tough decisions about their games. In fact, Overwatch was born because Blizzard made a very tough decision about Project Titan. My sincere hope for Kaplan and his crew, then, is that they live up to their company’s legacy by making tough decisions until the day Overwatch‘s servers shut off.
In the mean time, I’ll continue playing Mercy and Ana in casual mode. Overwatch has served me my first portion of ladder anxiety since I played Starcraft 2, and I’m in no hurry for another taste. It’s a shame, because competitive mode is and should be the definitive version of the game, yet it’s plagued by imbalance and toxicity. Kaplan recently expressed disappointment with the 1-100 rating system, but in my eyes this is a distraction from competitive Overwatch‘s worst flaws, which are every bit as present in gameplay as they are in matchmaking.
I want to be frustrated because I flubbed a clutch play, not because my hero’s vast invisible hitbox got tagged around a corner by an erratic Hanzo arrow. I’m ok with being irritated about losing as Mercy, despite casting an epic resurrection at the end of the match. What I’m not ok with is winning that very same match with the same play-of-the-game ultimate, but not ranking up because I’m apparently less useful than the payload-camping Bastion I was buffing the entire time.
I love Overwatch, and I’m glad that Blizzard appears to be listening carefully to the community. I just hope they can parse the meaningful complaints from the frivolous ones before next season. Ana’s quickly becoming one of my favorite heroes, and I’d love to ravage my opponents with her awesome abilities. Unfortunately, in ranked’s current state, I’d only be ravaging my own MMR.