When I first saw the patch notes for Overwatch’s latest Experimental Card, I was a little bit terrified at just how much Blizzard seemed to be changing of its hero shooter. For the uninitiated, the Experimental Card is a mode used to test possible changes to Overwatch’s 31 heroes. Not everything tested in the mode will make it to the live game, but it gives players a chance to try on alterations and reworks outside of the “real” Overwatch experience. Usually, this is just a handful of buffs and debuffs for a few characters at once, but the latest one that went live earlier this week has changes for almost every hero.
They aren’t small changes, either. Soldier: 76 now has two charges for his Helix Rocket ability, which has him shoot explosive missiles for a quick burst of damage. But that second shot comes at the cost of a fair bit of damage. Brigitte’s Inspire ability, which heals surrounding teammates as she does melee damage, now no longer persists upon her being taken out. Baptiste’s Immortality Field, which keeps allies alive as long as they’re within its range, now only maintains 1 hit point rather than the original 20 percent of health.
The whole patch is filled with major reworks like this. So I was scared of whether all my faves would be as viable and fun to play or not. But then I looked at the top of the patch notes and realized these changes aren’t intended to ever make their way to the live game. They’re instead part of an Experimental Card Tournament happening with the Overwatch League. Blizzard is just making these changes available to fans to mess around with during the event. The relief was immediate, but it did get me thinking.
The Experimental Card Tournament’s changes are, well, an experiment. But I wonder, is the idea of Blizzard doing separate balance changes for the public and the Overwatch League something that should just be a fun, one-off event? Or would it maybe help the game be more accessible to a casual audience that wants to connect with it on that level?
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As a frequent (but nothing close to pro level) player of Overwatch in 2021, a common complaint I hear from friends is that the game has become less accessible to anyone who isn’t actively engaging with it like a part-time job. It’s been a criticism leveled against the hero shooter for years that, in pursuit of esports relevance and courting pro players, Overwatch has prioritized aiming skills over the MOBA-esque cooperation and kits that were selling points in the early days. I’d argue the game is in one of its better balance states since I started playing in 2019, and the frequency of updates has certainly risen in the past year or so. But Overwatch has had long periods of being at war with itself as it has sought out ways to satisfy both its casual audience and its professional players and professional emulators.
That’s a lot of work and internal philosophizing to reckon with, and the team is busy enough making Overwatch 2. The sequel will contain a story campaign and PvE missions to satisfy the more casual audience. So perhaps, in a way, that kind of divided balance and experience is already in the works by making PvE content for the more casual side. Overwatch is a game that’s in constant flux. As such, you’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone with updates and changes you make. But this one experiment did get me thinking that, if different audiences have different priorities, there might be a way to satisfy both and make the game not feel as intimidating and alienating as it might right now. If not, hopefully the cooperative aspects in the sequel give those less interested in the meta of the week a means to play their favorite characters in a lower stakes setting.
I do like shooting two Helix Rockets, though.