Since early beta, Overwatch has struggled to find a consistent esports identity. Arguments about how to implement Stopwatch, hero restrictions, map pools, and more have continued throughout the game’s short history. While no one can deny the game’s commercial success, or the strength of its core gameplay, Overwatch’s success as an esport remains up for debate. Now, with the Overwatch League radically changing the scene, esports analysts such as Richard Lewis are growing concerned about the game’s future.
Amidst all the Overwatch discussion, another team-based shooter has been quietly gathering steam. Paladins, made by Hi-Rez Studios, recently launched its own esports league in partnership with the World eSports Association (WESA). While many fans of Overwatch have dismissed the game as nothing more than a clone of a more popular IP, esports fans such as myself have started to take note. I spoke to two professional Paladins players, Joshua “Stormtroopey” Veillon (support player for Renegades) and Minseok “Tulky” Kim (flex player for Team EnVy), about the game’s competitive structure. Stormtroopey was a 3.7k SR player in Overwatch and Tulky played for KATT 5 as well as reaching top 200 in multiple ranked seasons. Having competed at a high level in both games, they shared their insights on the differences in their competitive structure.
As an early design decision, Overwatch eliminated the possibility of a drafting phase from their competitive mode. The game is designed around being able to change your hero during gameplay, making a beginning draft phase largely pointless. Instead, Paladins chose to embrace a draft phase similar to games like League of Legends and DOTA.
“Overwatch prep is minimal compared to Paladins,” said Stormtroopey. “You really have to think out your draft for hours in Paladins. With no Hero changing mid-game, the game will come down to drafting more often than not. So if you draft poorly, you will most likely lose.” Tulky added that the mind games in Overwatch rely more on in-game adjustments. “Team composition on certain parts of the map as well as team composition to counter...the enemy team composition would be key in Overwatch.”
Having a draft phase feels rewarding to players looking to get an edge over their opponents. “The champion drafting is one key thing I love about Paladins that does not exist in Overwatch. This enforces different drafting skills as well as it enforces you to not be able to one-trick a certain champion. The enemy can use their ban on a one-trick which can cripple your team. This forces flexibility of the player,” said Tulky.
Both games also feature a map drafting phase. In Overwatch, choosing a map also means choosing the game mode associated with that map. Paladins has only one game mode for competitive play. “This may seem like it would take less skill to master one game mode,” Tulky said, “however there are different maps and layouts that will drastically change how a game feels.” He went on to explain how the layout of each map changed which characters were strongest. This means that teams have to prepare their draft strategies specifically for each map. Naturally, fans of Overwatch may say that they prefer having multiple game modes to spice up the action. However, Paladins has designed a mode that rewards adaptation, while also providing a satisfying viewer experience.
Overwatch chose to implement an “attack and defend” style of play across most of its maps. This style creates unique situations and provides a fun experience for casual players. However, it creates inherent problems for esports. As a spectator, these game modes require more inherent knowledge to tell who’s actually winning the match. On a payload map, one has to keep in mind distance travelled. The win condition is unclear, and sometimes unsatisfying. League of Legends has a base exploding to signify victory, a game of StarCraft ends when the opponent concedes. Often, games of Overwatch end because a team simply didn’t attack as well as their opponent.
Paladins has opted for a more consistent solution with its Siege Mode. Each game is a race to four points. Whichever team earns four points first will win the game. The mode consists of two phases. In phase one, both teams will fight over a single neutral capture point in the center of the map. Controlling the point will fill that team’s meter. When a team fills their meter, a payload spawns and that team earns one of their four points. This leads into phase two, where that team must now push their payload into the enemy’s base. If the payload reaches the base before time expires, the attacking team earns a point. However, if the defending team holds their ground, they will earn the point instead. From here, the map resets and the teams go back to phase one.
While teams can earn a point for a successful defense, they cannot win the game by defending a payload push. This eliminates the inherent problems of a “defender’s advantage”. Ultimately you have to either push the payload to its destination, or you have to successfully control the final capture point. There is never a point in a Paladins match where a team can win simply because the other team did not succeed. Each match has a clear, binary win condition which must be met. No team can win by just running out the clock, they have to go out and earn their final point.
Depth and Customization
There are very few companies who know gameplay as well as Blizzard. The core gameplay in Overwatch is incredibly satisfying. Each hero is unique and the abilities feel fun to use. Everything in the game is polished to a perfect shine. However, while Overwatch has exceptional gameplay, there is very little depth for hardcore players to explore. Each hero has their set of abilities, but no way to customize their playstyle. There are no items to buy, no talent trees, nothing to distinguish your Genji from every other Genji. While this drastically lowers the barrier to entry for casual or new players, it can also be limiting for top-level players. “Overwatch heroes feel one-dimensional,” said Stormtroopey, and indeed they are this way by design. Overwatch’s depth comes from knowing when to change to a different hero. As Stormtroopey put it, “You’re meant to pick the right hero for the job, not pick a hero and then adapt for the situation.”
Paladins has chosen to follow the League of Legends model, with two layers of customization. In game players earn credits for kills, objective control, and performing their role (healing, tanking, etc). Credits are used to purchase items which enhance damage, movement speed, healing, and other attributes. Paladins also has a card system similar to the mastery trees in LoL. Each card provides a passive bonus or augmentation to the abilities and statistics of each champion. The cards are character-specific, so players must build a specific loadout for each champion. There are multiple loadout slots per character, allowing you to choose the best loadout for your any situation.
In addition to the basic cards, each champion has a set of legendary cards. These cards radically alter the effects of an ability, effectively changing your playstyle with that champion. Tulky explained that some legendary cards allow you to trade defense for more damage, or damage for more utility. This adds another layer of depth to the drafting process, allowing players to find the optimal build for their team composition, or adjust to counter the enemy’s game plan. The card system rewards innovation, preparation, and adaptation. When asked which system he prefers, Paladins’ cards or Overwatch’s hero swapping, Stormtroopey put it simply,”Cards all the way.”
Having these layers of customization also provides another opportunity for high-level players to grow their fanbase. They are able to write guides and produce videos explaining how to play with specific builds. Fans can go into a player’s stream to get insight on what items to buy on their favorite champions. When a game has so much depth, the top players find a greater reward for their invested time and energy. In my talks with both players, it was clear that this combination of rewarding preparation and customization made Paladins the more appealing competitive game.
When looking at raw statistics, it is easy to call Overwatch the superior game. It has better commercial success, more viewers, and a more active player base. However, the most popular games don’t necessarily always make the best esports. Super Smash Bros. Melee is one of the most technically difficult games played today, but it still earns far better Twitch viewership than it’s more modern, simplified counterpart for the Wii U. Heroes of the Storm created a streamlined, innovative version of League of Legends, but has struggled to gain even a fraction of its competitor’s esports success. StarCraft, the game which launched the modern era of esports, thrives to this day while remaining one of the most impenetrable games in history.
Professional players want a game to be fun, but that can only sustain them for so long. They want their hours of practice and preparation to translate directly into an edge over their opponents. Players at the top-level want to be able to distinguish themselves from everyone else in their region. Teams and analysts want to be able to surprise their opponents, to develop unique strategies. Commentators have more to discuss when they can analyze builds, item choices, and draft strategy. Viewers have a more rewarding experience when they can clearly identify win conditions. Casual players get more out of their viewing experience by observing the builds and item choices of the pros.
Paladins will likely never reach the same level of commercial success as Blizzard’s shooter. In fact, few games in history have had the same cultural impact Overwatch has enjoyed over the last two years. However, esports is a long-term investment. It’s entirely possible that the hardcore fanbase will eventually grow frustrated with Overwatch’s lack of depth. Perhaps, should the Overwatch League fail as Richard Lewis predicts, we will see Overwatch’s top players seek out a more rewarding gameplay experience in the game they had once written off as nothing more than a pale imitation.
My thanks to Stormtroopey and Tulky for their insight and help with today’s article. You can find all their info below, and catch them both competing every Sunday in the Paladins Premiere League.