Overwatch players needed something to incentivise good sportsmanship and, yesterday, they got it. Blizzard’s latest Overwatch patch is toning down the hierarchy of skill and introducing a hierarchy of decency.
It’s a masterstroke of features, all interacting to reward civility and cleanse the game of antisocial behaviour. At its heart is a new “endorsement” system that gives players points for communicating effectively, playing respectfully and calling shots. A badge that appears next to a player’s name levels up as teammates endorse them. The higher the number, the more sociable other players can assume that Overwatch player is.
Overwatch also got a system for looking for groups, a highly customisable scheme that lets players find others who fit into certain hero roles, communicate with microphones or, crucially, clear a minimum endorsement level. Players can now opt into specific hero roles, making it less likely they’ll get stuck playing something they hate or suck at in attempt to balance out a team. Flex, or play-anything, roles are also an option.
In another change, players can’t automatically check out each other’s play and win records unless they’re friends. That means it’s a little harder to rage against a Hanzo player with, say, 50 hours on the hero when you have 55.
On top of Overwatch’s improved reporting system that was rolled out late last year, all of this comes together as a potent troll-killer.
Queuing up for dozens of games today, and speaking with players in them, I marvelled at how well the new role-queuing, grouping system and endorsements entwined to form a firewall against objectionable teammates. Choosing which role to play prior to a game — and getting locked into that role — ensures players won’t go rogue or rage over imbalanced teams. It’s much likelier that horrifically antisocial teammates won’t queue into these groups if the minimum endorsement level is set at, say, level two. Overwatch is confidently shutting out the jerks and boosting well-mannered teammates.
Blizzard essentially added a good behaviour rating on top of Overwatch’s pre-existant competitive skill rating. And if we know anything about people who play competitive games, it’s that levelling up is a reliable impetus to adopt a ruleset. All day, players in my matches were brimming with optimism over how few jackass teammates they’ve been forced to play with. As an added bonus, my games were significantly more competitive, since team compositions were always balanced. After matches, my screen rang with endorsements for “Good teammate,” etc., which gave me a mild endorphin rush, like earning experience points.
It’s not a foolproof system. In a group I created today with a minimum endorsement level of one, a DPS player casually mentioned he’d named his cat “Kitler,” after Hitler, while we waited for a match. A few minutes later, he noted that he was stoned off his ass. I booted him. Somebody else backfilled and we won the game. Nobody looked back.
Players on Overwatch’s subreddit have noticed the opposite phenomenon: Players being “fake nice” to earn endorsements. It’s essentially farming endorsements by being over-the-top complimentary, even if it’s insincere. Joke’s on them. Even imitating a decent person is better than being an all-out arsehole. With that said, in one game I played, a group of three opposing players trollishly offered oral sex in exchange for endorsements, with a fourth adding, “Kappa.” I don’t know whether they received them. (Thankfully, Overwatch friends can’t endorse each other.)
Losing the ability to check teammates’ creds wasn’t something I was looking forward to. If a teammate was struggling over which hero to play, it helped me help them to look at who they’ve won with the most. I’ve also been known to peek at a sniper’s scoped accuracy in Overwatch’s competitive mode to check whether they’re good enough, and I’m not proud of that. I didn’t realise until today that it influenced the way I treated teammates, even if I didn’t refer to teammates’ stats in-game. There are a lot of reasons why players’ stats can be funky. Also, in retrospect, min-maxing a team you’re already stuck with just seems futile. It might be tempting to assert some sort of control over teammates based on their stats, but, at the end of the day, people are going to play what they want to play. It wastes energy to get frustrated with them about that.
Overwatch’s new decency ladder is at least spiritually connected to its competitive ladder. It’s easier to climb in-game when you’re not distracted by someone scream-shouting the entirety of “All Star” by Smash Mouth. The new endorsement system, however, is not something to celebrate just because it might boost people’s skill ratings: Being a good person in an online game is a virtue of its own. It’s about making everybody feel welcome in the community around a shared passion.
Perhaps it shouldn’t take a virtual badge to get someone to say something nice to a stranger or to stigmatise harassment. But indifference is complicity when it comes to shitty behaviour in online games. If a cookie is what it takes, then fine, I’ll dish them out along with everyone else.