This research essay was written for a class final.
Callois Within Overwatch
Video games can be defined almost entirely by how their characters move. As Anna Anthropy said, “Verbs characterize the hero… Verbs are the rules that allow the player to interact with the other rules…”. As such, within nearly every game tutorial with the verb of “move” available to the player, that is the the first verb presented. Thus, the movement of characters within games is one of the most important aspects to how a game is received. For instance, Non Player Characters (NPCs) that you have to follow walk slower than the player’s movement speed, as otherwise even a minimal amount of distraction would cause the player to lose the NPC’s location. Getting lost would cause the player to get frustrated and not enjoy the gaming experience, potentially resulting in giving up entirely and ceasing to play. Another example within the game design industry, is “…a term called ‘coyote time’ for when the player walks off a… ledge… but the jump still works,” said by developer Chevy Ray. When a game lacks “coyote time”, the jumps feel difficult and frustrating, often leading to a player giving up on the game. However, movement often contributes to more than just how it’s received. In a game like Overwatch, the mobility of the heroes in such a diverse cast defines how the game is played.
As one of the most influential game theorists, Roger Caillois correctly identified that one of the integral types of play to be Ilinx, more commonly referred to as Vertigo. Players that enjoy this type of play “seek ecstasy by whirling about with movements” (Roger Caillois). This is the core reason that many games have physics that don’t translate accurately to the real world. For instance, nearly all Overwatch characters travel at 5.5 meters per second (SpriteGuy_000). In reality, the average person walks at about 1.25 meters per second, with running occurring at about 2.2 meters per second (Susan Paul). This means that the average Overwatch character moves at the speed of an Olympic Marathon athlete and never gets tired even without breaks (Michelle Hamilton). Despite this unrealistic standard, many characters within Overwatch like Lucio can even go much faster than 5.5 meters per second, easily reaching 11.66 meters per second. However, he is also capable of surpassing this 11.66 meters per second, as seen from the users on the LucioRollouts subreddit reaching maximum velocity with Lucio. This is achieved because when Lucio jumps off of a wall, he gets an additional speed boost that stacks if the jumps are chained together.
Fig 1: The Overwatch hero Lucio in various skins
When it comes to my personal experience with Overwatch, my most played hero is the aforementioned Lucio, a character with an area of effect aura that heals. Initially, I played him because I had not played many First Person Shooter (FPS) games prior to Overwatch and thus did not have the skill to utilize many of the characters effectively. Focusing on area of effect healing rather than damage allowed me to have a positive contribution to the team besides damage. Lucio also has the ability to change the aura around him to increase his own speed and his allies within that area of effect by roughly 30%. Furthermore, he has the ability to cling and slide along walls which results in him being one of the most, if not the most, mobile character in all of Overwatch. I have the most hours logged on Lucio simply because moving around the world is satisfying in itself as you watch the scenery blur by, further supporting Caillois’ argument that movement is one of the primary ways to play.
Normally, video games excuse the disparity between real world physics and video game physics by placing characters in alternate worlds, thus allowing the explanation of having different gravity to solve it. However, Overwatch is distinctly placed within the world we know. All of the characters are from real countries, and all of the maps are fashioned to resemble locations in the world that are familiar to us, such as Hollywood.
Fig 2: The Overwatch map of Hollywood
Since these characters are distinctly within the world as we understand it, the choices made in how players are allowed move is completely intentional, rather than accidental. This intentional disconnect between the real world and video games is most easily attributed from a desire to empower the player and make the game feel more “fun”. This idea of “fun” is exactly what Caillois was discussing with his concept of Ilinx and how movement leads to play. This thirst for power is very common within video games, dating back in first person games to DOOM, where the player was intended to be empowered and feel like they could accomplish anything within the world. This desire for empowerment through motion is so common to video games that they are described as “clunky” or “slow” if not provided with the same high speed motion that players are used to, even if the rapid movement isn’t even remotely realistic.
A game that exploits this is Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic feels slow and unresponsive when moving at slower velocities, which is often a result of the player not being proficient at the game, or making a mistake. However, as players become more familiar with the map, they can optimize their movement, and then are rewarded with Sonic’s iconic ball shape and with travelling at the speed of sound.
Fig 3: A player moving through Sonic the Hedgehog zone one
The players are rewarded for moving well and learning the map with a wider breadth of motion on top of the mastery in which they can already perform, leading to a more engaging game. In a similar vein, Overwatch rewards the players for learning the map by including hidden easter eggs as well as enabling the characters’ superhuman mobility to be used more effectively, thus letting players travel about the map faster.
The use of superhuman movement to increase the player’s enjoyment of the game and empowerment of the player is integral to a player’s experience of Overwatch. This game values empowerment, fun, domination, competition, and teamwork, which can all be seen through its mechanics. The game consists of a two teams of six players each facing against one another where only one team can win. The values of empowerment, domination, and competition are all traditionally attributed to male culture, further adding to the common perception that video games are for boys. Oftentimes in art, taking the aesthetics and locations of real world locations or eras maintains many of the same core values that that location or era held, whether intentional or not. Since Overwatch maintains many values core to male culture, this is reflected in the player base. Like many other FPS games, Overwatch players are overwhelmingly male. Interestingly though, Overwatch has twice as many players that identify as female in comparison to other major FPS games even though that percentage remains still only at 16 percent (Kirk McKeand). This higher percentage of players who identify as female is attributed to Overwatch’s remarkably diverse cast of characters in representation and equality, which can be most easily seen through mobility.
C. Hart in 1979 observed that boys were more free to explore and wander far more than girls of the same age. Specifically, boys were allowed to travel a distance of 2452 yards, while girls were only allowed 959 yards. However, within the game of Overwatch, the heroes are remarkably balanced when it comes to movement. The number of heroes with easily repeatable abilities that increase a hero’s ability to move throughout the map has no significant distinction when paired with gender.
Fig 4: Two Graphs comparing gender and mobility
Additionally, the distribution of movement abilities is again nearly identical between the two genders, further showing how Overwatch runs contrary to many standard tropes within the FPS genre as well as why the game is as popular as it is to female players. For instance, female characters within Overwatch are not overtly sexualized, and if they are, it is for a specific character reason as seen with Widowmaker, who portrays the character archetype of the femme fatale.
So while mobility doesn’t apply to gender within Overwatch, it certainly does within hero pick rates and the metagame. At the time of writing this paper, there are 25 heroes within Overwatch, but since a new hero came out so recently, there is little to no data on the hero and will not be included in the analysis and data collection when it comes to hero pick rate. As a general rule of thumb, there are two types of compositions for the six heroes that you choose in order to be viable. You either play as a team as hypermobile characters that can engage and get out quickly, often called “dive comp”, or a slow plodding team that is focused on winning a battle of attrition, often called “deathball” or “triple tank”. As you can see from simply the descriptions, the speed at which characters engage are more effective when put in harmony. While mobility is obviously not the only factor determining hero pick rate, it certainly contributes. The chart seen above is data gathered from grandmaster level players within Overwatch, and begins as the metagame was shifting away from the quadruple tank meta (Switch). This change arose from players learning how to counter a prominent hero, Ana. Ana provided a significant amount of burst heal to the slower, bulkier tanks that also moved slower and supported the “deathball” strategy more than other heroes.
Fig 5: A graph showing how the rate at which heroes are selected has changed over time
The counter was an extremely mobile tank hero called Winston, who could “dive” on Ana and take her out, then safely run away. This realization of a counter coupled with the nerf of another tank, Roadhog which was one of Ana’s best targets to heal, is what lead to Winston’s large rise in hero selection around July 1 and Ana’s descent. This trend in hero selection also increased the viability of D.VA who similar to Winston, is capable of “Diving” into a conflict then safely running away. Similarly, other mobile damage dealing characters saw an increase in pick rate, and then healers that better supported the mobility plan also saw an increase in the rate at which they were selected.
However, despite Ana seeing less play as result of the new “Dive” composition, there has yet to be another large shift away from dive comp. This comes from a variety of reasons, but for one, people are slow to adapt. Even if there is a strategy that may work better than what people are used to, they stick to the “safe” option and what they know. Furthermore, Dive comps are a very “all in” style of play. This appeals to the majority of the playerbase, as it more similarly resembles other FPS games, in that the team charges in, guns a blazing. This results in the resulting fight between the two teams not lasting very long, which allows the players more attempts to try and win an engagement. Furthermore, because the heros can all move very quickly, they reduce the travel time between spawning and fighting, allowing them even more opportunities to try and win the fight.
Fig 6: Dive comp versus Deathball. Dive is in yellow, while Deathball is in light blue.
This is why Lucio saw over 50% pick rate until the drastic rise in popularity of Mercy: he easily supported the two most common composition strategies. In a “deathball” composition, he provided speed to get the teammates back to the fight faster than they normally would, and then could heal all of his teammates as they were usually clustered together. In a “dive” composition, he had the speed to keep up with his teammates, and continue healing them as they engaged the enemy.
The most startling and dramatic change in hero pick rate occurred at around September 15, where Mercy’s pick rate jumped from about 55% to 100%. This initially resulted from a reworking of all of Mercy’s abilities, but also affected how often other heroes were selected. For instance, Zenyatta’s pick rate increased by about 20%, as while he himself is not very mobile, his healing that he provides is designed to support other mobile characters, as it doesn’t require line of sight. Since the general perception of the game in Overwatch is that a team requires one or two healers, the rise in popularity of Mercy and Zenyatta had to draw from the pick rate of Lucio, which accounts for the reduction in Lucio’s pick rate.
The large increase in Junkrat playability around September 1 came from a buff that he received increasing his mobility. Since Junkrat’s mobility was increased, he was both more fun to play and more viable when it came to both damage dealing capabilities and flanking potential. This then hurt the playability of Winston, as Junkrat is an effective counter to Winston with the increased mobility and damage. Similarly, the recovery of the selection of Roadhog came from an increase in his mobility. While this increase to his mobility was less severe than Junkrat’s, it still was the primary cause for the increase in his hero selection rate.
All in all, the mobility and speed at which characters within Overwatch can move defines how the game is played and which strategies are viable. Whenever a character’s mobility is increased, the rate at which they are selected to play as significantly increases, as the number of fights you can engage with increases, leading to a better chance of success. Furthermore, while the hero becomes more disconnected from reality in terms of physics, the enjoyment players experience while playing the game increases as the game becomes more focused on Ilinx.
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