What I Learned From a Year's Worth of Overwatch Coaching

By Heather Alexandra on at

One year ago, I dropped from Platinum rank to Gold in Overwatch’s competitive mode. Even though it was just a number, it felt like a huge defeat. Since then, over the last year, I’ve been working with a coach to improve my game. I thought I was just chasing after my old rank, but I was wrong.

I consider myself a pretty good video game player. I’ve been playing first-person shooters online since the days of Unreal Tournament and Team Fortress Classic. Overwatch was a natural fit, and I spent hours each night playing Blizzard’s hero shooter as soon as it launched in 2016. When the competitive mode launched, I did my placements and ranked in Platinum.

In Overwatch, the order of ranks goes Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Grandmaster. Platinum is far from the highest rank, but it was a reassurance that I had a solid grasp on the game. I was an okay player and I had a metric that showed that. I skipped Season Two, but kept my Platinum rank in Season Three. However, after skipping Season Four, in Season Five I dropped to Gold.

My work here at Kotaku means that I have to play a lot of games, particularly when review season hits. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for Overwatch, which means that my skills would likely only atrophy further unless I did something about it. As online games develop, the skill ceiling increases as players learn characters and new metagames form. When I slipped in June, it seemed impossible to press forward on my own. So I looked for a coach.

Prior to all of this, Kotaku senior reporter Cecilia D’Anastasio wrote a story in which she played with female Overwatch players selling their in-game company. Curious, I looked there to see if anyone was offering coaching services. There were about 50 players selling services from coaching to boosting. I focused on those who mentioned coaching and gravitated to players with higher ranks.

I decided to enlist the services of a skilled Overwatch player who has since gone on to play in the Overwatch Contenders League, the AA answer to Overwatch League’s major league. They advertised sessions that would “help others improve their game play to reach their desired rank for the season.” I worked with them for one session before deciding they were a poor fit. They were a good player but not necessarily a great coach. I wasn’t learning so much as watching someone else who was way better than I could ever be.

Later in June, disappointed but determined to give it another try, I looked for a new coach and found the perfect person for the job.

“Overwatch is hard,” their page said. “But not as hard as you think…. If you just want some game knowledge or a good friend that can keep your head on straight during a rough game. I’ll make sure that you’re completely satisfied and see improvement.”

Quinn Reed is a 22-year-old IT professional living in the US state of Florida. An avid gamer, he developed a competitive streak while playing Counter-Strike “surf” maps, difficult obstacle courses where players compete to earn world record times. Curious about Overwatch, although sceptical because he felt it looked too much like Valve’s Team Fortress 2, he picked up the game and started playing the competitive mode. In his first season, he placed Platinum. He is now a Master-ranked player.

When Reed hit Diamond rank in Season Three, he couldn’t believe it. “I thought I must have gotten lucky with my teams,” he told me via a Discord call. “After that, I kept pushing a little bit more each day. I ended up hitting Master and when I hit that, all my stress went away.”

I started working with Reed in semi-regular sessions where we would run drills and work specific exercises to improve my performance. My first session cost $15 (£11), after which Reed turned down offers for payment on subsequent sessions. We coordinated through a Discord he created for friends and other players.

“It wasn’t necessarily about the money,” Reed said. “I think I get half the revenue off Fiverr,” which is a website where individuals can sell various services. “That’s not a sustainable income, but it was a way to connect with people and having a small group of people to bounce ideas off of. I gained a lot of friends from doing that. That’s what Fiverr did for me.”

The process was a more focused experience than I experienced with my previous coach, who mostly offered on-the-fly critique during matches. Sometimes, Reed ran me through drills in private matches that would test my raw mechanical skills. For example, he would make me pick Zarya and focus on a particular piece of level geometry, say a small sign. I would have to fire at that location while moving around. The exercise was meant to help with my aim and tracking.

Reed’s coaching helped me learn ambush routes and know when to act and achieve the best results for my team.

Another drill involved playing as the revolver-spinning cowboy McCree while Reed played Tracer, the game’s speedy mascot who has the ability to quickly “blink” short distances. My job was to stun him using my flashbang and kill him with headshots only. Other times, Reed would pick heroes that I, using my favorite characters, would have to counter. I learned how to properly track a Pharah as Soldier 76. I worked on dodging Roadhog’s hook as Tracer.

These sessions would usually happen after work around 7:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, near the end of the week. We would do sessions 1-3 times per month, opening up with a period of warm up in the practice range before moving to drills and concluding with some Quick Play. The sessions lasted for about an hour, with Reed and I communicating over Discord. We talked about the game, our daily lives, politics, and whatever suited our mood. When it was time to focus on coaching, Reed was attentive and never criticised my gameplay without detailed explanations of where to improve.

“There’s some people who can just sit down and get Masters in a week without playing Overwatch before,” Reed said. “It’s demoralizing for the folks who are trying hard. But it’s more than that, because they’ve probably spent hours and hours and hours building skills in other games and understanding the basics. The basics are what people are missing.”

I started to expand my heroes, using healers like Lucio, Mercy, and Moira to help carry teams at the lower rank. I learned tank characters like Zarya and Orisa for added versatility.

Our sessions began to grow from drills into more in-depth breakdowns. Reed would observe matches as I played them, sometimes tasking me with focusing my fire on a certain enemy until they were defeated. Eventually, I was able to pick choice targets without input. He took me around maps, hiding in locations that certain characters would frequent, tasking me to hunt him down in a limited amount of time. We would play matches in Quick Play, Reed picking my hero to help me learn how to flex into support or tank roles more comfortably.

There was never any boosting, the practice of having a skilled player play alongside a lesser player to inflate their rank. Instead, the challenge was for me to learn maps, learn heroes, and run drills to improve my mechanical skill.

As time went on, I began to worry less and less about my actual rank. Initially, I wanted Platinum again. But when I finished Season Eight, my skill rating had improved from 2040 to 2225. It was still Gold rank, but I had made gains, and I wasn’t nearly as frustrated as I thought I would be. I was improving, learning the game and playing characters I’d rarely bothered with before. Much of my Season 8 play was spent playing healing characters that many players in Gold seemed to shy away from. I might have preferred putting my Tracer skills to the test, but my coaching had allowed me to become more flexible. I still had a competitive spirit in me, but it was healthier and focused on lifting up my team.

I progressed slowly. I blame this on my inability to play the game on a reliable schedule. I was never able to set a dedicated schedule for coaching. I had to sneak it in between personal obligations, livestreaming on Kotaku’s Twitch channel, and playing games for work. But in order to truly climb the ladder, you need to invest time. I simply didn’t have enough to spare, which prevented me from improving in certain aspects. My biggest problem was a tendency to overthink and get overwhelmed as a result. I could pick targets, such as aiming to take down the enemy’s Mercy, but I often began to seize up if complications arose. If a teammate fed too far forward and died, for instance, I had difficult adjusting. Reed was quick to point out my Overwatch weaknesses even as he was eager to cheer my successes.

“When there’s a million things going on, you get sidetracked,” Reed told me. “That’s your biggest issue. You need to say: ‘this is my objective, this is what I need to do for the next zero point eight seconds, and after that, I’ll make a new decision.’ You think too much ahead and try to form big game plans. Worry about the next half a second.”

It was good advice. Focus on the small things, think about what you’re doing at any given moment to improve your chances of success. That’s not limited to Overwatch either, that’s a life lesson hidden inside of video game. I took the advice to heart, writing self-critiques of my play and trying to sneak in more matches. In the lead up to this month, I worked with Reed more than I ever had before.

I recently did my placements for Season Ten. I’m still in Gold, but my initial placement is within spitting distance of Platinum. With a little bit of spare time, I know I can hit my old rank.

The skill ceiling in Overwatch will continue to rise, and I might not be able to stay in Platinum once I get there. I don’t really know what will happen once I’m back to my original rank. But I do know that I’ve improved as both an Overwatch player and a person, thanks to my coach. I’d rather have that than stress myself to death chasing a number that no one else really cares about.

“I’d suggest to anyone that wants to try coaching, just do it,” Reed said. It doesn’t matter if you’re Platinum coaching Bronze, or a Grandmaster coaching a Master player. It doesn’t matter what game you play or what you do. If you can have that conversation with someone else, you’ll understand yourself, and the way you play, better.”

Coaching others has improved Reed’s life, too. “I’m playing with people who are passionate, the ones who want to learn and get better,” he said. “It’s not just about Overwatch. There are things you can improve in your life, and you can’t do that just living every single day without knowing what’s wrong. Outside assistance can lift you up.”