In the most recent developer update, Jeff Kaplan revealed a new feature for the future of the game. Hero pools in the Overwatch League will arrive in Season 3, and Season 21 for the Competitive mode. Like map pools, the concept bases itself on limiting the number of heroes available for selection in a match.
In the League, this feature will randomly block four heroes for a week: two damage, one tank, and one support. This would, however, be restricted to heroes with significant playtime, and will be limited to regular matches, not tournaments (playoffs, play-ins, or the midseason tournament).
This will have many repercussions in the upcoming season, as, in the past, as little as two tank or support heroes see significant enough playtime to warrant eligibility for a week-long ban.
Once again, the future of the League is in question. Coaching and management, the flex or specialist debate, synergy, scrims and subs, are all up in the air, once again.
Naturally, there are many opinions on how this feature can affect coaching. Most opinions assert that this will increase the workload for staff, but where they diverge is whether this is a positive or a negative.
Unfortunately, there is little public knowledge on the role and impact of League team staff, and what is known varies from team to team. Reports of complacency and incompetence are rampant, even if many coaches receive public praise.
What does this mean for coaches? Creativity, decisiveness, work ethic, and balance will be common traits among the most successful coaches this season. If the allegations hold water, this will implicate a massive shift in both who is contracted and the philosophy of said people going forward.
So, why exactly is so much pressure put on coaches to show up? The schedule, on one hand, poses a large threat to the previous status quo (be it one of complacency or one of hard work). On the other hand, the volatility and subversion offered by this mechanic is another significant issue to consider. The ideology and work ethic of these groups will play a critical role in handling these factors.
Travel will represent a decent amount of time spent, but rest for players and staff will be essential. Any attempts to overwork (or underwork, for that matter) will be at odds with hopes for success. Thus, a balanced and appropriate delegation of tasks will be key.
Scrim time will be very important going forward. Teams can’t afford to waste a minute any longer, and players will usually be preoccupied with their blocks. This means that the brunt of theory-crafting will have to be undertaken by coaches, and the players will probably have little opportunity to contribute.
It is likely that coaches will need to go back to basics. With this amount of potential instability, understanding the underlying ideas behind Overwatch will mean an ease for the creation of new, effective compositions. Where and how far coaches take this is an interesting question since basic interactions and complex tactics could sway the tide of a team’s season.
Flex Players or Specialists?
The age-old question… What is the sweet spot? Role players, flex players, one tricks? Hero pools should enable all three to have a place in League rosters, but one thing is for certain. Any weakness will be easily identifiable and punished.
Long gone are the days of excuses, pretexts, to prop up a player (or coach). Role lock, hero pools, travel, and frequent patches will not be lenient. Should these catch anyone off guard it will be clear. These changes make honing one’s craft and focusing on specific tasks important, and every piece of the system must be fluid.
Then, how do the roles fit in compared to their tasks of the past?
For starters, such volatilty necessitates some semblance of flexibility. Some of those teams opt to go for a single player in a certain role, such as an off tank. Having them be able to not only play three or four heroes, but also to adapt to new releases, will be very important going forward. Not to name names, but one look at the Canadian teams’ players against the Texans’ instantly shows the former better poised in light of the recent amendment.
It is safe to say that the value of these players increased drastically, since it allows for a constant in the fabricated chaos.
The flexes’ polar opposite, one tricks, still have input in their teams’ results, however. Maybe a player spends thousands of hours through thick and thin (most of the time thick, unluckily) mastering a single hero. In the past, this counted as a wasted, or single meta, slot. Hero pools change this.
As a hypothetical, assume that this week, Mei, Sigma, Baptiste, and Reaper are banned. Players still have Orisa and Reinhardt available, but damage will be difficult to capitalize on. Imagine a hero that damages through shields, with one shot potential, and decent survivability. Now, imagine a certain [orange] Mid-Atlantic team with a dedicated player for said hero. Enough said?
Does size matter?
Hero pools will give teams more incentive to expand their contracted players. Having full, in house scrims will lead to a quicker understanding of the meta, better strategy and counter-stratting. Also, a higher chance to catch others off guard.
With so much travel, a consistent scrim partner will be difficult to come across. The distribution of teams around the world will mean lower quality scrims.
With this, it would not only be valuable to have a full, 12 player team, it would also be helpful to rely on external assistance, such as one, or multiple, Academy teams.
As it is, however, only four teams have twelve players. The average roster size is up two players in comparison to the beginning of the 2018 Season, but, of course, it could be much higher.
Two well-publicized workarounds for this will be less valuable, if not obsolete.
The first is coaching fills, where one or various staff members would supplement scrims. As mentioned, this is going to be nearly impossible, with the increased workload for coaches this year. Such a request will inevitably multiply the number of movements, retirements, and health issues.
Another well-known strategy was the San Francisco Shock’s intelligent fill method. Despite its dubious implications, its success is undeniable. Having two non-rostered players assist for full, internal scrims essentially granted the same results as a twelve player team would, without the need for the contracts.
With so much travel and such little time, it might not be an attractive option in the future. Plus, it will definitely be unpopular among the player base not already in the League.
All of this, of course, is mere conjecture, theory crafting. For four years speculation and analysis has pointed to obvious places, but reality begs to differ time and time again.
Synergy is always cited for its importance, but this is subverted by results or roster management looking for other objectives. It is arguable that a team with 24 players scrimming each other exclusively will be the most benefited off-screen, in both wellbeing and use of valuable time. Coaches are always cited to be of great importance, but reports and results can seed doubt.
Most importantly, a feature such as hero pools is always thought to shake the meta, enable diversity, etc. In practice, there is a short time of experimenting followed by stagnation until the next new hero/feature/patch.
It would be unsurprising to see a few months from now a base meta with the occasional forced hero change due to a ban, with a similar case for the actual roster. Hero swaps would be limited, substitutions will be the same. Innovation will be limited, and health will be ignored in favor of less signed contracts.
Then, of course, there are some teams apparently vying for something other than a trophy at the end of the year. Naturally, this puts all theories in favor of success between a rock and a hard place.
Not to imply that the year will be anything but a spectacle. What is to come will be an additional year of the best Overwatch yet. The 2020 season will be one for the annals of esports, in spite of its changes and difficulties.
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