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The secret to Overwatch's success? Annoyance

How smart use of skirmishing helps Blizzard's shooter stand out

Every match in Overwatch has its own story. That’s an impressive achievement, given how short each one is normally —almost never over 10 minutes. Yet it still inspires an internal storyline of a well-placed Bastion, whose defeat finally let the offense through, or a rampaging Reaper, who almost single-handedly kept the other team from getting into a rhythm. Sometimes there’s a steamroll. Sometimes there’s a comeback; but there’s usually a decision or character at the heart of every round.

There’s a new layer of tactics and substitutions that come along with the introduction of Overwatch’s competitive mode, which can make some matches longer (particularly on King of the Hill maps, like Nepal). One of the most important considerations: how best to annoy the other team. Strategically annoying, disrupting and harrying the opposing team is one of the best paths to victory — and part of why the game is so popular.

Why annoyance works so well in Overwatch

Overwatch is filled with gates.

Here’s one that’s key: the entry to the first attack point in the Volskaya level. For a defense, it’s easy to set up shop here — get a Reinhardt blocking with a shield, a turret or two behind him, some shooters cleaning up, and it’s a perfect chokepoint. It may be close to impossible for the other team to bust through a proper defense.

What makes Overwatch great is that you don’t have to smash the defense. You can annoy your way through.

Strategic annoyance is great fun, but it’s not something games usually do well. Call it skirmishing or harrying, but it’s difficult to model in all kinds of games. It’s especially rare due to the trend toward individual skill in shooters. But Overwatch, with its over-the-top colorful characters and very intentional level design, has plenty of room for annoyance.

So we have the Volskaya problem. How does an attacker beat that tight defense? By sending in Overwatch’s queen of annoyance, Tracer. The speedy scout can zip right through the enemy defense. A Bastion player may not see her, while a Torbjorn turret takes time to automatically lock on. This is time Tracer can use to get onto the capture point.

The defense has to bend once she arrives. Overwatch beeps at defenders as long as she’s on the point, telling them to get back to defend. A calm, communicative team might send one character who can deal with Tracer, but most teams aren’t that well organized. Hell, they may not even know it’s Tracer.

Two or three defenders may head back to the point, which is ideal for the attackers. Now no one’s shooting Junkrat or Pharah as they launch bombs at the turrets. The defenses shatter and, at the very least, the attackers are now able to directly attack the point. Tracer doesn’t need to get a kill. She doesn’t even need to live for long. All she needs to do is grab the attention of the defending team long enough for them to lose a bit of unit cohesion.

This is part of the genius of Overwatch: You don’t have to be good in the traditional sense of fast aiming and correct skill use. You’re far more effective if you’re smart. If you know how to annoy the enemy — how to bypass or disrupt or break them apart — that can be infinitely better than getting a faster headshot if you’re playing the right characters.

Annoyance is baked in

The maps are built for this style of playing. The long, windy payload missions have one main path but a ton of hidey-holes and health packs. A well-packed offense escorting the payload can pretty easily work through sedentary defenses, but a Genji, Tracer or Reaper running around behind them creates vulnerability because Overwatch hinges on attention as a resource. (Two Tracers, meanwhile, were so successful as a defensive tactic that it caused duplicate characters to be banned in competitive play.) Reinhardt’s shield guarding a Bastion seems invincible from the front, but they’re either toothless or defenseless the moment you get either one of them turned around.

It’s not just skirmishers that make for great strategic annoyances. One of the best counters for a maneuver like I’ve described is Symmetra, who can place up to half a dozen tiny turrets at once. It might be tempting to clump these together and get surprise kills when an enemy walks into a room, but annoyance can be more important. Symmetra can place turrets in such a way that enemies will never know if they’re going to encounter these laser-wasp stings wherever they go.

This way of playing takes more time with fewer instant kills, but it can ultimately be more effective. Temple of Anubis, with its jagged, multi-level entry paths, is my favorite for this play. These mines aren’t just a drain on health; they’re a drain on the attackers’ ability to focus attention on the key strategic decisions. An irritated, fearful player is a sloppy player.

And then there’s Mei. If Tracer is Overwatch’s queen of annoyance, Mei is its empress. Everything she does exists to disrupts the other team’s rhythm; her main attack stops them from moving quickly, her alternate attack prevents them from being safe with her at a distance, and her ability to freeze herself and heal means she can survive and harass much longer than expected.

But it’s the ice walls that make her so amazing. Mei can force an enemy team to delay an attack, break them apart, or save herself or her teammates by tossing a wall in front of them. And she can do so 10 times per minute. Any team that’s proceeding too directly can be annoyed and disrupted by the most adorable Overwatch character of them all.

Sometimes a more direct approach is needed, and that’s where Overwatch’s tanks come in. "Tank" is a bit of a misnomer here; the term is usually used to describe the heavily-armored characters in RPGs who soak up enemy attacks while their companions inflict the damage. Overwatch’s tanks do have more hitpoints, but they succeed by commanding enemy attention by being a nuisance, not just by using skills that remove your opponents’ control over their movement, as many MOBAs have with their tank characters.

Winston, D.Va and Reinhardt all have abilities that allow them to charge through or over enemies. They also have the ability to shield against their attacks. So a single charging D.Va can burst through enemies, draw their attention and then stop most of their attacks for a critical few seconds.

This way of playing takes more time, with fewer instant kills, but it can be ultimately more effective

D.Va can even get away and turn into one of those harrying scout-types once her mech is destroyed. Done properly, a single move using the same button for all three of these tanks can instantly puncture a hole in an enemy defense for slightly more conventional characters like Zarya, Soldier: 76 and Lucio to pour through.

Or hell, you don’t even have to get that complicated with things. D.Va never has to reload, and she can make sure she hits anything that comes through an entire doorway by herself. You can lay down covering fire over a large area for an unlimited amount of time with no pauses to reload. Her attacks are weak at even a moderate distance, but you’d be surprised as how many players will refuse to charge her even though they would almost certainly survive the encounter. All they see is that they’re taking fire, and often they will try to find another way to attack the point.

These defensive and skirmishing options allow each Overwatch battle to have its own story. Some fights are Napoleonic: an attempt by attackers to pin down weaker defenders, take advantage of terrain, and crush them in one glorious cavalry charge of Reinhardts and Mercys to get the payload to the end. Some fights are World War I, with lines of Zaryas and Pharahs launching artillery blasts at entrenched Bastions and Torbjorns, hoping it will be enough for the rest of the army to pour in when a gap appears.

Or there’s a blitzkreig, with D.Va and Lucio and Tracer trying to punch holes through enemy lines, while Mei and Symmetra harass and annoy them enough to allow new defenses to be built at capture points. And occasionally you even get modern warfare, with dozens of asymmetrical skirmishes across an ever-shifting line.

You’ll see these sorts of strategies discussed more directly as the game matures. Here’s an analysis of fast and slow "tempo" in competitive matches, which is, in a sense, how committed each side is to skirmishing.

For a game to have this much tactical depth alongside the adorable characters is a testament to Overwatch’s success. Now get out there, skirmish, annoy and Tracer on!

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. Follow his work on his Facebook page and his cat pictures on Twitter.