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With the next stage of the Overwatch League being played on patch 1.34 that is currently deployed on live servers, GOATS seems out for the count. While we can expect teams to still run the composition on certain maps and more so towards the beginning of the stage, a fresh take on compositional archetypes seems to be inbound. Is the meta really only determined by the state of the game we are playing on? Why are we so slow to innovate?

The Olympic rings of Metas

Most metagames are cyclical. At the start of a meta, an innovator takes an idea and runs with it. Then copy cats come in and try to overtake the inventors and outperform them at their own game. Finally the elite find nuances and keep honing with incremental changes until the capacity of the composition are unrecognizable from the version of the initial inventors. This works until someone finds a solution to the established meta through higher level understanding and inherent talents of their team to play a particular style that counters the established meta composition, or much more frequently in esports, a severe enough balance patch gives new ground for innovators to surpass the established meta. Then the cycle starts anew.

Interestingly, often regions may develop their own interpretations or may even have their very own meta game. In this way, through separation of ecosystems both in tournaments and competitive play, they develop apart from each other. Given our fairly secluded competitions in terms of the different contenders regions and then from Overwatch League, at times metas may not get the chance to test out who is top dog and regions are bound to the eye-test. Ideas get stuck without the ability to test them against the real world and because of this Overwatch may enjoy several different metas at any given time in different regions. Wherever touching points in the form of international tournaments do exist, however, change is may be forced by the demonstration of the perceived superiority of a meta.

In Overwatch, these are few and far in between historically. Post APEX season 3, rarely did we have cross over competition where the finest teams of each region got to test their meta interpretations against each other. The introduction of international play for contenders regions in the form of the Atlantic Showdown may help filter out bad meta interpretations more quickly. That said, one has to be mindful not to overrate the outcomes of those weekend events between only a few representatives of a scene. It’s still possible that a more optimal meta interpretation from for instance Europe may lose to a North American one over the cause of a weekend because of an underperformance of a specific team. Ideas are best tested through high amounts of repetition and score keeping and in Overwatch those only tend to happen within the respective leagues.

Meta is a mood

Given the above mentioned uncertainty of the tournament structure and patch cycles in Overwatch, teams really only take an educated shot in the dark and see what sticks. Too complex is the game by nature, too volatile are the patch cycles, too little cross-testing of ideas is facilitated by the tournament structures in Overwatch for the meta to be an optimal interpretation of what the game is like. Even in extremely well researched games like Starcraft:Broodwar, metas changed years after the last balance patch and with only new maps changing the strength of strategies.

For a composition to become meta, it needs to be strong against the established meta fairly early in its development, then needs to be sufficiently hard to counter by other compositions when they themselves had limited time to refine. It follows that metas aren’t the most optimal solution for a game’s state, not even at the highest level of competition. I’d argue they aren’t even the best attempt given the resources available to any given region. They are likely to be as much a social and psychological phenomenon as they are results of the state of the game.

Game developers have known for a long time, that sometimes the patch notes and the subliminal message of (in our case) a hero being better or worse is a major factor in seeing them pop up in future metas. In those cases, it isn’t as much about how much better a hero now performs in game but the increased awareness of the hero and the inspired confidence in the pick. By the same token, changes find themselves into the game that “by accident” haven’t been documented in the patch notes. Perhaps those instances are sometimes used to fix issues which can be derived from extensive data without wanting to make a fuss about it and triggering a massive meta shift by psychological means.

It seems to be the case that a meta isn’t only held together by finely tuned breaking points of damage and healing numbers or ability cooldowns that make a composition viable. If such a point theoretically existed, an established meta would still be played far beyond the point of theoretical inadequacy. Change for people is a barrier and there is comfort in the known up to the point where routine becomes boring enough that they themselves can’t stand it any longer. How fun or satisfying a composition might be to play may have big consequences on how long it is upheld as the dominant meta composition. Vice versa, because a lot of players seem to complain about GOATS, it may last significantly less long than dive just because of the fun factor. Perhaps this effect is even exacerbated by the fact that most players with bigger public reach play DPS heroes and those tend to be the most disgruntled with GOATS for its lack of DPS heroes. By them having the most reach and the DPS role being the most popular to play,  GOATS could see a faster exit than for instance dive did.

How does innovation happen?

Historically, it is hard to pinpoint a common entity that innovates and rarely can the exact origin of a meta be discerned. Take the emergence of GOATS for example. Certainly the Open Division team “GOATS” brought the rough idea of their composition into the public eye, but a rigorous look at their initial combination of heroes would reveal that it was still reliant on Moira instead of Zenyatta. As balance patches came and different teams tried their hand at the composition, not only did the heroes change, but so did the playstyle and the understanding became much more sophisticated. While it was in essence still the brainchild of a North American Open Division team that theorycrafted it together in an hour on one night hanging out  in voice, their take on the composition would’ve likely never worked at the highest level. It needed further adaptation and improvement, therefore making the definitive source of innovation debatable and ultimately of not much value. Perhaps it is therefore more fruitful to ask which components need to be in place to bring innovation about and where those can be found rather than trying to find patterns in the types of teams that brought them about.

In terms of proving grounds for the upcoming meta, OWL will be on its own. Contenders regions are still playing on the old patch till their playoffs start mid April, weeks after Overwatch League has already picked up again. The pool of minds working on a fresh take on the current patch will be relatively limited.

One strategy teams could employ is to become exclusive scrim partners with teams they won’t meet this stage. If for example the Chendgu Hunters and the Toronto Defiant, who won’t play each other outside of playoffs at all anymore this season, were to engage in such a partnership, the organisations could try to get a head start on others and sprint ahead. You’re likely to hear through the grapevine what other teams who participate in scrims with all kinds of teams are running.

Fertile grounds for innovation

To reiterate: A meta’s most important component is to beat the reigning meta composition reliably. Secondly, it has to be non-trivial to be countered. Third, the composition needs to see enough success and notoriety to catch the attention of the wider ecosystem. Seldom does an idea that doesn’t prove its value by winning immediately get picked up by better teams.

Other factors that proved to be fertile ground for innovation despite the aforementioned are creativity paired with insight, time paired with ample practice and faith in the approach you are taking. In other words, you need ideas outside the box, you need time and opportunity to develop them and you need a convinced team to keep trying a different approach when the rest of the world is doing something else entirely. These barriers become significantly less hard to overcome every time a significant balance patch hits and they allow for more experimentation as the status quo is collectively called into question.

Perhaps this is because of the chaotic nature of the game and it’s competition that doesn’t allow for quick turnover in personnel and ideas. Its pressed tournament structure that forces teams to focus on short term success over the unpredictable long term adds to the formula. If everything is confusing, teams look towards the best performing teams to copy because they seem to be the closest to perfecting the meta.

The worst teams should innovate

For a game as young as Overwatch with as many balance patches as it gets, it is remarkable how seldom the meta archetype changes. Rarely do worse teams try to find a solution to the meta and most often they agree to solve the game by the same rules that the best teams wrote and try to catch up. Some of them opt to rather lose every regular season match in order to catch up with the second worst team in the league, rather than to reinvent the metrics by which they win by and customize those win conditions towards their team’s inherent strength.

A refreshing change of pace in this are the Chengdu Hunters, though perhaps only by forced necessity. Having had visa issues with their main tank Jiqiren, the team had been forced to play Wrecking Ball specialist Ameng. By stepping outside of the well established guidelines of how to win at Overwatch in stage 1, the Hunters were able to snatch three victories and even play the reigning champions Vancouver Titans close. On paper, the team had been one of the less suited teams for GOATS as the hero pool they had previously shown for that team had been specialised in other departments and the meta hadn’t been as well established in China either, though granted they did show proficiency at it when Ameng would later switch to Reinhardt on occasion.

By being the only ones in the league with their style, it became increasingly difficult to find quality practice against their strategy as their version matured. A team with the approach that Chengdu Hunters had shown would be unlikely to ever have a winless season or even stage, as unorthodox strategies are more likely to find success as badly played established ones. As the fool that persists in its folly becomes wise, the Hunters take on the meta had become quite sophisticated as they sunk in the time to make it work. Other teams like Dallas Fuel in the first three stages of season 1 tried to be less rigid in their approach as well, but didn’t commit to a style and kept changing too frequently for their strategies to eclipse the experience others had on the established meta.

Despite this, bottom tier teams have shown a reluctance to innovating, perhaps also because innovation only reward for as long as the best teams at execution are still catching up. Historically, the catch up process once the top teams accept a new strategy as worthy of consideration has been only a couple of weeks long in Overwatch, further disincentivizing to be inventors. It is however peculiar that we see as little of it, given that teams can’t be relegated in OWL and the attention that teams with different approaches get.   

While it would be among the only titles in esports history where it could be the case that metas in Overwatch are enforced too heavily by the state of the game to break free and develop multiple working strategies across several maps, it is unlikely to be true for every balance patch we have had so far. Now, the scene for unique ideas is set.

Featured image courtesy of Benjamin Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment

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