“Thinking it Over” is a short opinion piece to encourage debate around a specific topic.
The meta is a calculated gamble. Teams set out to innovate when they see a niche opening in the meta or when they simply are at their wit’s end with the current one. The solution they come up with is very unlikely to be the perfect one but if they strike gold and are able to beat the established meta composition, they are on top of the world until someone refines their strategy or invents a counter.
In game theory, the term “Nash equilibrium” describes a solved meta state where no further innovations or refinements can take place. Every move is perfectly understood and accounted for. For the game tic-tac-toe, it is easy to reach that spot within five minutes of explaining where to put your marker in every situation. As games add variables and become more complex, the difficulty of reaching the Nash Equilibrium rises significantly to the point where, even after hundreds of years, a game like chess still hasn’t been solved.
To get one thing out of the way: Overwatch was never close to reaching equilibrium, and neither is any other esport worth its salt. Despite over 12 months long metas like GOATs and Dive, we’re continuously finding and applying new core concepts to the game. In Stage 3, we found out that standard GOATs with Zenyatta and D.Va wasn’t always the best choice and Ana and Sombra found their way in. Then Shanghai taught the world’s best teams that they either found a GOATs counter, or that those top teams didn’t know how to run GOATs against their triple DPS composition. In fairness, we did have several different balance patches that targeted GOATs and it’s likely that they had a hand in making that meta switch possible.
It isn’t only on the heroes though. Early season we saw teams use a lot of Graviton Surge into Self Destructs as their win condition. As teams got better at denying the combo, teams turned to using Self Destruct defensively. Strictly speaking, a meta isn’t merely the heroes which are chosen but the standard strategies which are being applied.
When we analyze where innovations historically happened most frequently, we see two clear correlations. The first instance occurs when a significant balance patch drops and teams scramble to find the next best strategy as the old meta is seen as outdated. Curiously, despite multiple attempts on Blizzard’s part, the meta compositions aren’t forsaken every balance patch as tried and tested strategies are both comfortable to play and enjoy a level of sophistication that beats theoretical counters for a considerable time until the counter itself is refined.
The second, and arguably more important factor in meta innovations is time. More specifically, time that a team may spend to innovate, not merely to prepare for the next opponent. As every Overwatch League coach will tell you, those two modes are significantly different. Few teams have the luxury and the courage to carve out time for long-term progress and not short-term results.
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Accordingly, we saw the most innovation take place after the mid-season break. While the holy-double-trinity that was GOATs was generally adapted to Ana-Sombra GOATs most of the time, Shanghai developed their triple-DPS approach and took teams by surprise. If we accept the premise that neither Shanghai Dragons composition nor the GOATS adaptation could have taken place without the mid-season, it reveals one glaring problem in the schedule for next season.
While still only tentatively planned, the leaked example schedule gives us a hint of what the next season for the average team will look like. With 8-10 weeks of off-time, one might think that on paper there would be enough time to rethink the meta, especially when considering the fact that we will only have the weekends for match days, which leaves the entire workweek for practice.
On the flipside, teams will have to travel and a certain amount of days will fall victim to it. I personally don’t buy the argument of VOD reviewing on a plane as an effective part of improving. Moreover, the quality of practice at the respective homestands must be questioned if the last three are any indication to go by. A lack of adequate hardware has been repeatedly pointed out as a huge issue by teams and when practice happened, it was generally of low quality. I’m confident that this situation will improve but will still not come close to the practice environment teams were in at the Blizzard Arena for the last two seasons.
Only time will tell whether these two factors will negate each other, or one will outweigh the other, either positively or negatively. What the schedule next year does lack in comparison to this year’s is the long mid-season break which allows players to adequately rest and start practicing with the intent of finding out about drastically different ways to approach the game.
While the total the number of off-weeks is not significantly different for teams at least for the regular season, I argue that the four weeks most teams had after stage 2 both allowed for actual off-days but also consecutive weeks of redefining practice. Perhaps most importantly, every team was in the same situation and newly found knowledge could cross pollinate ideas and change teams for the better. Next year, this won’t be the case at any point in the season, not even for the playoffs. Worse yet, because of ping limitations teams will remain in their practice region bubble for longer, stifling innovation even more.
For the fan that likes to see frequent meta changes, I think that the last remaining hope are the balance patches which are planned to hit every 6-8 weeks. As we’ve seen this season, it won’t be enough to merely have mild balance adjustments to bring about a meta change. I propose that if we want to see more than one consistent meta across the entire season, those balance patches would have to be very significant.