Overwatch is, in broad terms, a hero-based first-person shooter. You pick your hero, you play the round and you attempt to use each character's abilities to their fullest. But Overwatch's most interesting wrinkle is also the hardest to get used to: You can switch characters at any time.
This is part of the reason the game isn't free-to-play, according to Blizzard. "We really made the decision on the business model based on what we thought was right for the gameplay," game director Jeff Kaplan told Polygon at Blizzcon last year. "If you've played a lot of Overwatch, you know that hero-switching [mid-match] is a core part of it — it's a really fun dynamic part. The difference maker between ... Overwatch and other games is the fluidity in the team compositions and matching what the other team's doing."
I used this quote in another opinion piece yesterday about how that decision made it harder to convince my friends to pick up the game so I'd have a crew to play with, but a day after the game's release it's clear that learning how and when to switch characters is the difference between being a good player and a great one. And a lot of people online didn't learn that lesson from the beta.
Why this is challenging
We've been trained by games like League of Legends to compose a team with a variety of characters and then stick to those roles. It's tempting to think of Overwatch in the same way, and in fact my friends and I found ourselves discussing which heroes we'd play at the beginning of the match, and then either feeling locked to those characters during the round or switching without communicating the intent our actions.
Both of these things will lead to failure against a more agile team that's effectively communicating.
Think of Overwatch heroes less as characters in a MOBA, and more like weapons in a first-person shooter. You don't grab the rocket launcher at the beginning of a round of Doom and then stay locked to it throughout the entire battle, you change weapons based on a quickly evolving situation. Characters in Overwatch are weapons. When the circumstances change, you change your response to it.
I had to keep repeating this to myself during the first night of my play after the game unlocked. Each character isn't a hero, it's a weapon. You change weapons during a battle. You change weapons constantly. You tell your team when you're doing so, and even work together to come up with short-lived gimmicks that can overwhelm and confuse the other team. It's easy to fluster your opponents when, for a minute or two, every person on your team switches to Genji and uses the character's enhanced mobility to simply avoid the other team that worried about composing itself of well-rounded characters.
The game will even warn your team that it's missing certain classes before the round begins, but you can ignore this. If you need more offensive characters, add them. Communicate this when you do it.
Read Polygon's character guide and pay attention to when and why you should switch characters. "Genji ... can reflect all of Bastion's bullets back at him for a swift kill — if your team is getting taken out by a Bastion, your first instinct should be to switch to Genji and run at him head-on with Deflect," Bastion's listing states.
"Also note that you can use Sprint indefinitely, making Soldier: 76 a great option to switch to for last-minute objective or Payload saves when the timer is low," Solder 76's listing states.
I felt like I had constantly read about why it's important to switch characters during the beta, and now that I'm playing more organized games against other well-organized teams I'm realizing that character switching is 100 percent mandatory to get ahead. You don't have the luxury of forgetting you can switch characters during the course of a battle, and if you don't do so intelligently you're going to lose. If you learn to organize and communicate when and how you switch with your team you'll have a huge advantage during play.
Switch. Switch. Switch.