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‘It’s hellish’: OWL coaches, players discuss how hero pools will impact the season

(The Washington Post illustration; Blizzard Entertainment)

Underdog teams are sweeping matches, players are dusting off defunct heroes — Overwatch League has been in a state of flux since it introduced hero pools. The plan was to drastically alter how the game is played week-to-week. So far, it’s working.

The hero pool is a weekly rotation that selectively bans four characters from competitive play. The rule change will mean no two weeks of matches will be the same. Coaches will need to develop novel strategies in a matter of days and players will be expected to excel with a wide range of heroes — with less practice time than in past seasons, since teams are now traveling across continents to matches. For those in the competitions, the acclimation period has been intense.

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Florida Mayhem’s head coach Kim “Kuki” Dae-kuk said through an interpreter, the team’s manager Jade Kim, that he’s been working tirelessly all week to prepare his players.

“I understand what Blizzard was going for. I understand the perspective of fans,” Dae-kuk said. “But, to talk about my perspective, it’s hellish.”

The hero pool intentionally shatters the Overwatch League’s meta — how the game is played based on the strengths and weaknesses of all 31 characters — banning one tank, one support and two damage heroes. Up until now, the meta only changed after a developer update, when Overwatch’s developers tinker with what heroes can or cannot do. The meta isn’t immediately known; it’s a team composition that, over time, is commonly accepted as “the best” way to compete in Overwatch.

Past metas have earned nicknames like “Dive,” “GOATS” or “Pirate Ship,” and once a meta becomes clear, teams will often stick with what works. Now, players won’t be able to rely on a set team composition given that some of the heroes needed to execute a specific strategy may not be available every week.

“This is going to forcibly pull teams out of their comfort zones,” Overwatch League Vice President Jon Spector said at a press conference in February. “What we’ve heard a lot from our fans and from our pro players is that they find it most exciting when they’re in that stage of experimentation.”

From the league’s perspective, the weekly change makes for a constantly evolving game that’s exciting for casual players and fans, as well as professionals. Overwatch is already past the normal shelf-life for a game; introducing changes like hero pools is a way to ensure the game doesn’t become stagnant. Characters are also banned week-to-week in the main game, played by thousands of people at home, but the two hero pool systems are completely separate. A hero could be banned in one version of Overwatch but not the other.

This has frustrated players and coaches alike. Houston Outlaws DPS player Jeffrey “blasé” Tsang said most OWL players use ranked matches in the main game to practice on their own time. Now, Tsang said he can’t practice at all.

“It’s just a major inconvenience,” Tsang said. “I’m pretty sure everyone in the league wants it to be the same.”

OWL coaches and players learn which characters are banned at the start of the week. The onus is on them to make sure they can find the best team compositions in the days before weekend competitions.

“One week is just way too small of a timeframe for teams to figure out what’s good here, what’s good there,” Boston Uprising’s Walid “Mouffin” Bassal said on Saturday. “I dislike it so much."

McCree, Moira, Reinhardt and Widowmaker were all banned from league play over the past weekend. Teams leaned on Tracer to poke and prod their opponents. Tracer has barely been seen in OWL since the first season but the hero became a mainstay on almost every map played over the weekend.

“I’m very happy that I got to play Tracer again. It’s been a long time,” Toronto Defiant’s Andreas “Logix” Berghmans said at a press conference Saturday, adding it’s nice to show off other heroes in league play.

Washington Justice’s Corey Nigra told The Post that even though bans in ranked matches should mirror league play, he sees hero pools as a “breath of fresh air” for the league. Teams will be forced to adapt in the middle of matches, Nigra told The Post, rather than depending on bland, hollow game plans born out of weeks playing the same meta.

“It’s starting to dig deeper inside of how well the players know the game,” Nigra said.

No, the league won’t see these “perfect, god-tier” teams who know exactly how to play the best composition. But smart players will be able to help their team come up with good ideas in a pinch, Nigra told The Post.

OWL broadcaster and former player Jake Lyon told The Post that teams will need to play off their strengths instead of conforming to a hero composition, like GOATS, just because it appears to be the best.

“You’re not going to be able to see the calcified strategies that just become really dominant after weeks and weeks and weeks of refinement,” Lyon said.

The league wanted a “surefire” way to not have the same characters played every week and hero pools are a solution, Florida Mayhem’s general manager Albert Yeh said. Teams are going to be uncomfortable. Coaches are “going to lose more hair" during the season. If the main objective is for matches to captivate fans, Yeh said hero pools will do that.

“It makes everything a lot more unpredictable, which makes it more entertaining,” Yeh added.

The Post asked players and coaches to share what they’d tell teams who still haven’t played matches with the hero bans. The most common answer:

“Good luck."

Read more about Overwatch League:

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