With the introduction of the beta for Overwatch 2, it’s safe to say that the original meta is relatively settled. Even if there are more patches to balance the game, it’s unlikely that they will impact how the game is played or the importance of tanks to the Overwatch’s meta.
With the majority of professional play shifting to Overwatch 2, there is also much less incentive to discover anything new. With all this in mind, the time seems ripe for a retrospective on the infamous role tanks have played in the progression of Overwatch.
Can Playing Tanks be as Much Fun as Playing DPS Heroes?
DPS (or damage-per-second) characters have always been the golden children of team-focused games. They create flashy plays and have arguably the most engaging gameplay loop. As anyone who has entered the queue for Overwatch in recent years can attest, this also makes them the most popular. In development, Overwatch’s developers had a hurdle to overcome: how can they make tanks as interesting to play as DPS heroes?
Blizzard has some history in this regard: their enormously popular World of Warcraft also has a tank role. While not as explicitly designed, the inspiration for Overwatch’s distinct roles is obvious. Each class and specialization funnels them towards a specific role, be that Healer, DPS, or Tank. However, here is where the obvious difference between the two games makes itself clear.
Tanks in World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft is a cooperative game, meaning players team up against computer-controlled opponents. This means developers can add mechanics and debuffs that would be extremely frustrating against a human.
For example, Taunt is a common ability that forces the opposing enemy to target the person using it. While this is an effective way to protect the squishier healers and DPS, taking away a player’s choice is extremely frustrating.
While the AI-controlled Lich King might not care, an enemy player certainly would. So, how did Overwatch’s developers translate the three roles from a cooperative game to a competitive one?
Transition to Overwatch
Looking at the initial roster for Overwatch, the design philosophy behind the tanks starts to unfold. Reinhardt has an enormous barrier to protect his teammates, making it difficult but rewarding for enemies to attack those behind. On the other hand, Roadhog has no barrier or protection ability whatsoever, and largely acts selfishly. In these two extremes, we can see the solutions that the Overwatch team had to the tank problem.
Yet, they couldn’t force an opponent to target them. Tanks, instead, have to protect their teammates more directly. In addition to Reinhardt’s Barrier Field, Zarya’s Projected Barrier and D.Va’s Defense Matrix are more reactive. This means tanks have to actively manage their protection duties as part of the overall game plan.
Saving those crucial defensive abilities for just the right time means that the tank player is constantly making decisions. This is one way that Overwatch developers found to make tanks properly fulfill their role as damage sponges and still be interesting to play.
The other method that Overwatch used to make their tanks more interesting was to give them increased disruption potential. Similar to Roadhog’s Chain Hook, D.Va’s Boosters and Winston’s Jump Pack allow tanks to actively hamper their opponents.
After all, it’s hard to shoot at an opponent’s backline when there’s a 500-health gorilla in your face. While this allows tanks to actively take fights and feel like they’re making a difference, this is also where the problems with tanks in Overwatch begin to show.
Tanks > DPS in Overwatch
Tanks in Overwatch can take fights, just like DPS heroes can. Yet, this begs the question: why run a DPS at all?
Every single tank has at least double or even triple the health pool of even the beefiest DPS heroes. And, thanks to Overwatch’s design philosophy, tanks have similar damage-dealing potential, with increased disruption to boot.
The Quad Tank Meta
Thus came the age of the quad-tank meta. It was a pretty simple concept: instead of running DPS, just run more tanks. While Overwatch’s design pretty obviously emphasized 2 DPS, 2 supports, and 2 tanks, it became quickly obvious that tanks were superior in most of the ways that mattered.
With proper team coordination, four 600-health heroes with proper healing support could easily dive onto and destroy an enemy team. Overwatch’s developers took note and hit some crucial healers and tanks with decent nerfs. Yet, this was a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem.
The 3-3 Tanks Meta in Overwatch League Led to the Role Lock
The quad-tank meta developed relatively quickly in Overwatch’s lifespan. Yet, the official Overwatch League didn’t start until 2018. Smaller circuits do obviously incentivize innovation, but not to the extent that a 3.5 million dollar prize pool might.
A team called Goats emerged in the Overwatch Contenders, (the minor league to Overwatch League’s major league) with an interesting team composition. Thanks to the nerfs, many teams had been running the traditional 2-2-2, but Goats quickly popularized the 3-3: that is to say, 3 tanks and 3 healers. As it turned out, tanks were still far and away better than DPS heroes in almost every respect.
The so-called Goats team composition quickly dominated the Overwatch League and made every single game feel rather repetitive and slow. When every hero has 600 health and access to a constant stream of healing, there are very few pivotal moments. Rather, every match becomes a grind, slowly probing at your opponent until they make a mistake. For the entertainment and advertisement vehicle that Overwatch League was supposed to be, this was a major blow.
Blizzard Couldn’t Easily Counter the Goats Tank Comp
Typically, developers respond to game balance issues by issuing buffs and nerfs. They weaken the powerful characters and strengthen the stragglers. However, because the problem came from a core design philosophy, changing a few numbers around didn’t make a huge impact.
The almighty Goats comp would simply adapt around the changed heroes, perhaps incorporating a few of them, but nevertheless steamrolling straight ahead. For example, Doomfist Goats or Sombra Goats (named for the single DPS hero filling in on the team) would sometimes be run, but the core tanks were still the problem.
Something drastic had to be done. And in Stage Four of Overwatch League, they introduced the role lock. Now, every team has to field 2 DPS heroes, 2 supports, and 2 tanks. No exceptions.
Locking Overwatch’s Tanks
Arguably one of Overwatch’s more controversial balance decisions, locking each team into 2-2-2 does have its benefits. In casual and ranked games, there is no longer the awkward game of chicken to see who is forced onto what role. And, of course, it does permanently solve the tank problem.
However, it also stifles creativity in composition and exposes Blizzard’s failure in properly balancing the tank role within Overwatch. Professional teams will naturally run what is most optimal, and Blizzard wanted 2-2-2 to be optimal.
But in forcing teams to run that composition as opposed to what they wanted, Blizzard essentially admitted that they could not make tanks in line with the other roles, at least in terms of balance. Looking forward to Overwatch 2, they removed one of the tank slots entirely.
Essentially, they know that tanks are too powerful, and they are simply limiting the number of people that can play them.
Overwatch’s Failure to Solve the Real Problem Behind the Tank Meta
While it could be argued that Overwatch has at least balanced its game, this fundamental changing of the rules is rather detrimental for the game as a whole. Metas will always change with balance patches, but they never took away someone’s ability to do what they wanted to.
Sure, a particular hero might become weaker or even reworked, but they were still viable. But now, they can actually change the rules of the game so that their balance failure no longer is visible. Tanks may be too powerful, but you just can’t use them.
This type of goalpost-shifting is the result of a game developer that wants to control every aspect of the game. Rather than give players tools and see what they can make with them, Overwatch has a very clear vision in mind, and if anything deviates from it, they can simply change the game to match it.
Only time will tell if Overwatch 2 has a similar problem, but so far, things are not promising. We will stay tuned and keep you informed of any developments in this area, as we, just like you, hope for a game where out-of-game strategy and tactics discussions are as interesting as the gameplay itself.