A trip down the Skill Rating rabbit hole.

I really like Overwatch, probably too much for my actual level of skill. I watch professional games, like the recent OGN APEX Season 2, and discuss the character selections and tactics used. I’ve used videos, articles, and podcasts to try and improve my game. I also  just like talking about Overwatch, from its convoluted and occasionally contradictory fiction to the design of its characters; I can talk for hours about how fascinating I find the design of my favourites like Ana, Zarya, and Zenyatta.

I avoided playing competitive Overwatch for the initial season, I wanted to wait until the quirks were worked out. I finally started playing with my Overwatch group mate in season 2. We’d queue as pair, one of us tank the other support; usually D.Va and Lucio; I got shouted at in team chat for picking Ana on Dorado attack during one match. It was a thrilling if occasionally frustrating time, and after only a few hours of play we topped out with a Skill Rating (SR) in the 1800s (high Silver) by the time the season ended. I felt confidant that with some work we could break the 2000 barrier and reach Gold tier.

With the changes to how SR functioned in season 3 it was no surprise that we placed lower initially, around the 1200 mark (Bronze). Again playing mostly as a tank and healer pairing, we finally reentered Silver, but the games were a little more frequently frustrating. We’d also ended end up playing more often when the other wasn’t available. Together we closed out the season with an SR in the 1500s (low Silver).

Former Olympic weightlifter Aleksandra “Zarya” Zaryanova uses projected barriers on herself and her allies to channel incoming fire into increased damage.

Since season 3 I’ve really started to focus on a core of characters, ones I find: mechanically interesting, enjoyable to play, and that can be useful in most compositions. Those are Zarya, Ana, and Zenyatta.

Zarya is a secondary tank, she projects barriers around herself and her allies that can absorb all forms of incoming damage. These barriers last for 2 seconds or 200 health before dissipating, each point of damage absorbed is redirected into increased power for her particle cannon. At 100% charge the particle cannon is one of the most power weapons in the game, able to burn through nearly 200 hit points per second. Her own hit points are made up of 200 health and 200 shields, the latter of which recharges after a period of taking no damage. She plays best as with an aggressive style, taking a few hits to her shields before deploying a bubble and using the redirected energy to burn through the enemy. Her Ultimate ability, Graviton Surge, is a launched projectile that pulls all enemies within 8 meters together into a single point, setting them up for a multi-kill. This is especially powerful when paired with one of the direct damage Ultimates of the rest of your team.

A support sniper, Ana uses her rifle to shoot health into her allies and inflict brief damage over time to her enemies. Her Biotic Grenade can be thrown to increase the healing applied to any allies it hits, and prevent healing on any enemies. Many characters in Overwatch have self-healing abilities and being able to shut them down allows Ana’s team to focus fire and kill them rapidly. She can also fire a Sleep Dart that will knock out an enemy for 5 seconds, this can be used to cancel an enemy Ultimate, take opponents out of a fight temporarily, or as a last second defense when Ana is being attacked. The victim of the dart will wake again if they take any damage, making it a risky proposition when you cannot communicate your target to your team. Ana’s Ultimate is a Nano Boost that can be fired at a teammate to increase both their damage output and damage resistance for several seconds. When used on the right target this can be game changing, allowing a team to push through an entrenched defense or repel a dedicated attack.

Zenyatta is a combination of support and DPS, his standard attack is a projectile that flies fast with a flat trajectory and low spread, making it easy to target enemies. In addition he can throw out an Orb of Harmony and an Orb of Discord. The former attached to allies healing them for 30 hit points per second, provided Zenyatta can maintain line-of-sight. The latter attaches to enemies and increases the damage they take from all sources by 30%, again provided Zenyatta can maintain line-of-sight. Targeting an enemy tank with an Orb of Discord can be devastating, causing even a Reinhardt to go down quickly. His Ultimate, Transcendence, makes Zenyatta immune from all damage for several seconds while increasing his movement speed and healing all allies within 10m for 300 hit points per-second. This Ultimate can also be used to block line-of-sight for enemies, any damage that would be inflicted on teammates behind a transcendent Zenyatta will instead be absorbed.

For a variety of reasons we weren’t able to maintain our group for competitive this season, though we still play quick play and arcade. So I entered the placement matches on my own. Ana is a difficult character to play, but I’d worked at it for over thirteen hours and felt that I was above average for the level of play I was at. So she was my focus. I lost the first placement match which wasn’t the best experience, but then followed a win, and a draw. Eventually with all ten placement matches done I had another several hours on Ana, alongside time on Tracer and Zarya when needed to rush to a point or provide a tank that could help keep our DPS heavy team alive. By the time the game revealed my SR for season 4 I was sitting on three losses, one draw, and six wins, which resulted in starting Bronze with an SR of 1191, a full 500 lower than my final rating at the end of the previous season. Disappointing, though I understood that Blizzard’s desire was for people to start low and work their way up to their “true SR”.

A support sniper Ana Amari (mother of Fareeha Amari, aka Pharah), literally shots health into her teammates. She also looks like a Metal Gear Solid character.

My first few games went about as expected, there were some losses, a larger number of wins (some unfortunately due to leavers on the opposing team), and after a day I had reached an SR of 1323, still Bronze, but closer to where I had started last season. Furthermore I had received praise from several other players about my Ana play. I never got a Play Of The Match, as a healer that was entirely expected, but my general stats for Ana were good for the level of play. Also I had never had a single person complain about my selecting Ana.

I can’t say I was playing the best I have, but there were some games where I really do feel I was working as hard as I ever have. This is especially true of one game on Route 66 where one of our team left a few minutes into our attack. Somehow our team of five managed to push the payload all the way to within 20m of the final point. Then we had to defend again as a team of 5 verses a team of 6. At the request of my team, who had earned my respect with their tenacity and been polite and calm in team chat throughout, I switched to a DPS so we could build our 5 person team around a pair of tanks, a pair of DPS and a single healer. I picked up Pharah, the DPS character I have most experience with, and we did what we could. We forced the enemy team into overtime but eventually failed to stop the payload. An incredible game with one of the best teams I’ve played with, it was still demoralising to lose in a situation like that. But, I didn’t let it affect me, or so I thought.

Then, something happened.

The next day I started playing again and everything seemed to go wrong. Each match was a loss, often in what felt like one-sided fights. Team mates would shout at each other in the chat, complaining over character picks, and tactics. Everything seemed to spiral downward. I wasn’t immune to this urge to blame others, especially during one match on Lijiang Tower. As Zenyatta I was matched with our Roadhog for the most eliminations on our team after the first round. It was only 4 but that just made it feel worse as this was on a team with a Soldier 76 and a Genji, two dedicated DPS characters. We changed our composition but still managed to lose that match.

The next match I tried to make sure I selected a character that would fit our composition, so with a Reinhardt, and several defense and support characters on Dorado defense I picked up Soldier 76; a character I’m not great with but which I felt fit best for the composition we had. The moment we’d begun setting up our defenses our Reinhardt switched to a Mei leaving us without a tank. We struggled to defend the first two points, and by the time we were pushed back into the final area I checked my statistics for that game and found I had the most healing of anybody on our team, at a meager 900. This was with a Zenyatta on our team, a character who had been instantly picked when the game started. I lost it, I shouldn’t have, but I tilted. I typed an angry message about it in the team chat passively aggressively berating the Zenyatta for never healing. It was particularly frustrating as somebody who’s spent hours trying to learn how best to play Zenyatta; I would have gladly taken that role if they hadn’t wanted to be a healer and said so. Our team dissolved into a mess and another loss.

I should have stopped playing, I should have taken a break and calmed down. I didn’t. I kept playing, and kept losing, and unsurprisingly I was always able to find a reason for our loss besides myself. By the time I finally quit out of the last match (yes, I had become the very thing I hated), I had dropped to an SR or 924.

Omnic monk Tekhartha Zenyatta uses buffs and debuffs to support his team. He can also deal a fair amount of damage, but has the lowest health of any character in the game.

I don’t usually care about numerical indicators in games, numbers getting bigger holds little sway. Unfortunately, I want to get better at Overwatch. This investment has caused a lot of emotion to become wrapped up in my SR rank. I’m aware enough of my own abilities to never expect to make it to Platinum or Diamond, but I feel that I should be able to reach low Gold, or high Silver at the least.

I might conceptually understand how the game is played at a high level, but that’s not where I’m playing. What I feel are the correct choices are leading me into plays I don’t fully understand, that simply don’t work without the full support of my team. This desire to apply “collective wisdom” to a situations where it doesn’t fit is a theme in Bronze. A lot of people will request that a team form a 2-2-2 composition: two tanks, two DPS, and two healers. Yet usually when we would lose it’s to teams that weren’t running that composition. At this level Junkrat and Mei (both defence characters) are devastating, yet whenever anybody picked one they’d provoke somebody’s ire. The “meta” of Bronze is very different to that of higher level play. This has been the biggest shock to me, the difference in play between Bronze and Silver is significant. The best matches I had in Overwatch were as I was approaching Gold , getting back there is going to be a slog, and may not even be possible.

More “common wisdom” is that if I simply wanted to gain SR I should focus on playing a character like Pharah, or Junkrat. Both character who are very difficult to deal with at this level of play. I have experience with both, but it’s hard to bring myself to play somebody simply to gain SR rather than to improve at that character. I enjoy the game most when I’m improving with a character I find mechanically interesting. But a win for me, is a win for everybody else on my team too. So, in the end does it matter if that’s a win as Pharah, or a win as Ana? Can’t I just push to get out of low SR so I can focus on Ana again once I’m out at a place where the style of player is conductive to it?

Ana is a complicated hero to play, possibly one of the hardest to master in the game. Her kit is all about providing utility to others rather than inflict damage herself. I enjoy that sense of responsibility, the need to multi-task. Sadly, as with many of the support characters she operates best in a team that understands how she functions. As an Ana I can heal from a long distance provided I have line-of-sight, which means that I can’t heal the Genji who keeps running off behind a wall. I understood that not everybody has gone as deep on the mechanics of Overwatch as I have, I know it can be necessary to switch characters mid-game, and I do. Though it’s hard to escape the notion that my very desire to switch my character to fit the team composition has had a negative impact on my own SR. Overall I have five hours of play on Ana this season, and a 60% win rate; compared to an overall win rate of 46% after ten hours of play. It’s hard not to see that and think I should just focus on Ana regardless of the team composition.

I want to get better at playing Ana, but that’s difficult to do in games where my team is so spread out that I can’t even see them, let alone prioritise my healing targets. I am getting better at using Ana’s Sleep Dart though, as without the support of a team it’s the only defence I have against being flanked.

My play times for Season 4, as of April 16th 2017.

For now, I’ve managed to claw my way back up to 1067. Thanks, in no small part to a good team, and some hard work as Zarya and Winston, that helped us win a match on Dorado while down a player. I’ve barely played Ana since I dropped into the 900s, but I have spent time on both Zarya and Zenyatta. The former is very strong in Bronze, I’ve encountered a lot of players who either don’t understand how her abilities work, or who simply underestimated her damage output when charged. Every D.Va I’ve encountered has attempted to block my primary fire with their Defence Matrix only to see their mech destroyed in a matter of seconds. As enjoyable as this brutal efficiency can be, I don’t feel I’m getting better with her, merely exploiting the fact that I’m facing opponents who don’t know how to deal with her.

Losing 300 SR in a few hours is not a pleasant experience. It shouldn’t matter. It does. At Bronze and low Silver, 300 SR can make the difference between being able to work with a team who understand and appreciates the power of an Ana or Zenyatta, and one who makes those characters all but impossible to play.