Overwatch 2 is celebrating its one-year anniversary today, October 4, 2023. Below, we examine how it has struggled to overcome one of its biggest balance challenges.
Overwatch 2 released on October 4, 2022, replacing the original game with an updated, free-to-play version of the shooter. While the sequel kept much of the original's DNA, the biggest change was the shift from a 6v6 structure to a 5v5. This change saw the Tank role reduced from two players to one, and while this change has some upsides, Blizzard has struggled to keep the Tank meta balanced or fun since the switch. This has prompted outcry from the community, looking for an improved meta or even the return of 6v6.
Overwatch has been, and continues to be, a game won and lost based on counter-picking. Overwatch players are not locked into whatever character they pick at the start of a round. Instead, whenever you respawn or enter the spawn room, you have the option to swap to a different character with little to no consequence, only forgoing any progress toward unlocking your Ultimate ability. This means an important part of the strategy is swapping to have an advantage over your opponent. If both enemy Damage players pick close-range heroes, you might want to pick Pharah so you can fly above them, out of range. When you do this, they will likely switch to hitscan heroes so they can shoot you out of the sky.
While this constant swapping might sound frustrating, Overwatch had a solid strategy for avoiding this problem: Teams are limited to two of each role. This restriction typically means that only one person will need to switch to counter a pick, or negate the counter entirely. If one person picks a short-range hero and one picks a hitscan, the Pharah counter-swap is less beneficial. The same can be said for the Support role as well. This always meant that skill could overcome a direct counter, since you have a partner in your role to back you up.
However, counter-picking has become much more prevalent in Overwatch 2, specifically for Tanks. With only one Tank on each team, having an advantage over your opponent by counter-picking is no longer just an advantage, it's a necessity. There are multiple Tank matchups that are completely lopsided. For example, D.Va has a defense matrix that consumes all projectiles shot in her direction, which allows her to reduce damage to her team. However, Zarya's primary fire is a beam weapon, which ignores the defense matrix. You have a Tank that completely negates the other's single defensive ability. If there were two Tanks, D.Va's teammate could play a shield Tank to block Zarya's attack, but with only one, D.Va just has to switch.
Most Tanks in Overwatch 2 have a matchup where they have either a strong advantage or completely negate the opponent's ability kit. Ramattra's primary attack damages through shields when he transforms into his Nemesis mode, making a hero like Reinhardt, whose main ability is a big shield wall, much harder to play. What was originally just a strategy, one that could be overcome by teamwork and skill, is now a key part of the game.
Being forced into a cycle of counter-switching as a Tank can be frustrating for a number of reasons. First, it makes building a team composition much more difficult, since neither the Damage nor Support heroes can build around your pick or vice versa, since you will likely need to change. Second, it's hard to feel like you're getting into a good rhythm with your gameplay, since you need to switch Tanks and play styles so frequently. It also makes it much more punishing to try and stick with a single hero to learn with them and get better, since you will likely get countered.
A competitive match as a Tank in Overwatch 2, at pretty much any skill-level, typically involves switching almost every time you die, depending on what your opponent is doing. If you pick Reinhardt, the enemy might pick Orisa, since her abilities can keep Reinhardt from getting into attack range. You might switch to Zarya, since her beam ignores Orisa's javelin spin, which negates projectiles. This might cause your opponent to play Reinhardt, whose shield can block Zarya's beam. You can switch to Orisa, but that just starts this whole cycle over again. This issue punishes players who have spent time becoming great at only one or two Tanks, since you now need to know most of the roster at a reasonable skill level.
"Off Tanks" and the tragedy of Roadhog
Another reason playing Tank in Overwatch 2 suffers is that there are multiple Tank heroes who are much more difficult to play at a competitive level. In the original Overwatch, players put Tanks into one of two categories: Main Tank and Off Tank. The distinction is that Main Tanks are good at, well, Tanking damage. These are the bigger heroes with strong defensive abilities, like Orisa and Reinhardt, who are great at defending their team. Off Tanks are those that are better at dealing damage and causing general chaos. This would include Roadhog, Wrecking Ball, and Doomfist--characters with high damage output that could dive the opposing team.
A typical setup in Overwatch would have one of each, with one Tank focused on defending the Damage and Support heroes and the other going for kills or general disruption. With the swap to a single Tank, some were reworked or changed to better fit. Orisa got reworked, Zarya can now give out defensive bubbles more frequently, etc. Not everyone got changed or improved for this new structure, and their kits fundamentally don't work well as a main Tank.
For example, Wrecking Ball is in an odd place currently. His entire kit is designed around moving quickly, so he can dive into an enemy's backline and kill one or two non-Tanks, before retreating and repeating the process. When there were two Tanks, the other one could focus on the main objective and defending your Damage and Support heroes. Now, playing Wrecking Ball means your team is defenseless at nearly all times, so you have to be playing at an extremely high level to justify the pick. The same can be said for Doomfist, another Tank focused on diving. Due to the increased difficulty in playing these heroes, they aren't picked very often, and when they are, your teammates will be quick to complain in chat.
Roadhog is in the worst position of all and is almost impossible to play effectively and has been that way since the launch of Overwatch 2. Roadhog has a chain hook, a shotgun, and healing breather. He has a large heal pool, but no shields or armor, so he's relatively easy to kill. In Overwatch, Roadhog was an Off Tank and could be a menace due to his ability to pull enemies in and shotgun them, which was enough to kill most non-Tank heroes. The downside is that his only defensive ability, his heal, only benefits himself and not his teammates, unless he was standing in the direct line of fire, where he could absorb some of the damage meant for them.
In Overwatch 2, Roadhog is far too easily countered to be usable. There are a number of stuns and other abilities that can easily negate his heal, making him far more vulnerable. The only meaningful changes Blizzard has made to Roadhog was to first make it so his hook-shotgun combo would only kill if you hit a headshot, before making it so it cannot kill without additional shots or teammate support. Roadhog's main combo was nerfed, but he has not received any buffs in the time since. Blizzard has said that a rework is coming, but having one of the original Overwatch heroes be difficult and unrewarding to play in competitive matches for an entire year is incredibly frustrating.
This focus on counter-picking and more defensive Tanks also punishes players for specializing in the more aggressive Tanks. Most hero-based games encourage you to get great with a select few characters in each role, which makes this swap meta feel even more frustrating. In my 600 hours of play in the original Overwatch, Roadhog was my main Tank pick. In Overwatch 2, I haven't played more than a dozen games with him, because it just isn't viable if I want a decent chance at winning.
The upside of 5v5
While the Tank class has been negatively impacted by the change to 5v5, it's important to point out the areas where the switch from 6v6 to 5v5 has improved Overwatch 2. Removing the second Tank drastically decreases the overall health pool of each team, shortening team fights. Skirmishes in Overwatch would last long enough that anyone who died could respawn and return to fight before it even ended, creating long wars of attrition. Maps also feel much bigger and more open after the change. Tanks are the largest characters in the game and much of the role is based around trying to control an area and zone out your opponent, so only having two on the battlefield instead of four creates more open space.
This change has also improved the Damage and Support roles, giving both more freedom on how to approach a fight. Damage characters would previously need to focus far more energy on taking down the enemy Tanks, and Supports would need to spend much more time healing with two large health pools on each team. Now both roles are free to implement other strategies, like flanking, with far less consequence.
Where do we go from here?
Unfortunately, there aren't any easy solutions for this problem. There is no shortage of players who have asked for 6v6 to return and have been doing so since the launch of Overwatch 2. While it would fix some of the current issues with playing Tank, most of the heroes have been changed or tuned to work in 5v5, creating a mess for the balance. Reworking heroes takes time and, as recent seasonal updates and new Tank releases have shown, 5v5 is very delicate when it comes to Tank power levels. The moment one Tank gets a bit too strong, the entire meta shifts around them. The most recent examples are Zarya and Orisa, who both got minor buffs at the start of the Invasion season and became a common sight in most competitive matches.
Blizzard needed to spend more time reworking heroes, especially Tanks, before making the switch to 5v5, but hindsight isn't helpful here. As new heroes get added every other season, it seems as though Blizzard might need to take a page out of Rainbow Six Siege's and Apex Legends' playbook and have a season focused on improving the game instead of adding new content. Ultimately, Overwatch 2 is in need of some major changes to the Tank role in order to create a less frustrating experience.