COMMENT: Why character balance is the key to great esports viewership

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·Senior Games & Tech Producer
·10-min read
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Screenshots of characters that were overpowered in their respective esports games. Top Left: Android 21 (Lab Coat), Dragon Ball FighterZ. Top Right: Brigitte, Overwatch. Bottom left: Jett, VALORANT. Bottom right: Luke, Street Fighter 5. (Image: Capcom, Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, BANDAI NAMCO)
Characters that were unbalanced at some point of time in their respective games. Top Left: Android 21 (Lab Coat), Dragon Ball FighterZ. Top Right: Brigitte, Overwatch. Bottom left: Jett, VALORANT. Bottom right: Luke, Street Fighter 5 (Images: Capcom, Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, BANDAI NAMCO)

Watching esports is no different from watching any kind of sport. Spectators watch it for the spectacle, the skills of the players involved and for the intense, memorable moments of a high pressure situation.

The genre of the competitive game rarely matters, and as long as the game has its fanbase, there will always be an audience if it is played on a high level.

Like football, while the only objective is to kick a ball into a goal, there are so many different ways and strategies to do it. Not to mention, a team's uniqueness and playstyle makes a game extremely entertaining to watch.

It is no different from esports games.

The uniqueness of teams and playstyles are usually the draw of each match, as the audiences are interested in seeing what kind of strategy these professional teams are able to pull out in such high level games.

But what if characters and mechanics in a game are so skewed in favour of a particular playstyle that everyone is forced to use the same characters and strategy to win games?

This is what the industry refers to as the "meta".

To be fair, "meta" picks and strategies aren't entirely a bad thing.

If a team or player is able to come up with a strategy to successfully overcome this "meta", it will draw in more eyes from the public because they will be interested in knowing how it is done.

When the meta goes wrong

Some games, however, take it to a whole other level.

What if the characters and mechanics are so unbalanced that the competitive players have no choice but to use only these to win their competitive games, or else, they will be seen as throwing the game?

There have been a couple of instances of character imbalance in modern esports titles that made an uproar with their respective fanbase.

Let's take a look at Overwatch for our first example.

Overwatch is a 6v6 (or was, since Overwatch 2's 5v5 is on the horizon) hero-based team game with a first person shooter perspective.

Each character present in the game comes with their own playstyle and character archetype, like Widowmaker being the only hitscan sniper in the game, while a character like Soldier 76 is the 'beginner friendly', run-of-the-mill FPS character that you would choose if you are transitioning from a game like Call of Duty.

Characters in the game are broken down into three classes - the DPS (damage dealers), Tanks (the ones with a lot of health) and Support (mainly the ones who heal).

In an ideal world, you would have the Tanks absorb damage from the opposing team, while the DPS deals damage to the opposing team, with the Supports healing the injured.

The wide pool of characters also had the potential for players to express themselves by specialising in certain classes and characters. This would make it great for a spectator, as there are a lot of variety in gameplay and playstyles.

But at one point in the game's lifespan, the game was so unbalanced that it created the infamous GOATS composition, with each team having three Tanks and three Support heroes, entirely disregarding DPS characters.

The "GOATS" name came from a professional team with the same name that discovered this overpowered composition.

A screenshot of Brigitte, a character from Blizzzard's Overwatch. (Screenshot: Activision Blizzard)
Brigitte was one of the must-picks in the GOATS composition because of her powerful healing abilities and beefy toolkit. (Image: Activision Blizzard)

It was proven so unstoppable in the game's meta that every single team in professional play had no choice but to pick this lineup of heroes, or they'd risk losing their games.

DPS-specialists had no choice but to pick up a Support or Tank hero, outside of their comfort zone, to keep their place in a team.

Because of the GOATS meta as well, all games devolved into a lengthy slugfest with nothing exciting happening for a long time — simply because the three Supports would be out-healing everyone in the team.

Coupled with the fact that Tanks have a large healthpool, it felt like fights and clashes were never-ending.

This made the game extremely boring to watch in tournaments, and got to a point where every match in the Overwatch League involved the same GOATS vs GOATS clash.

It was so bad that in one of the high-profile matches in the Overwatch League, the Houston Outlaws vs New York Excelsior, the Outlaws's own fanbase boo-ed their team for reverting to the the GOATS composition after noticing that the New York Excelsior was running it in one of their matches.

At this point, it wouldn't even be a long shot to say that the Houston Outlaws's fans were representing the majority of the Overwatch spectators around the world.

And instead of rebalancing the characters to bring this meta to an end, Blizzard forced a 2-2-2 composition, making it compulsory to choose 2 DPS, 2 Tanks and 2 Supports for each team, with no avenue for a team to express themselves with a composition outside of this hard character lock.

The Jett problem in VALORANT

VALORANT isn't as prone to this imbalance, but they did come close with Jett.

I previously wrote about Jett being overpowered in VALORANT, but since patch 4.08, she has been tweaked to be in line with other agents.

As a tactical FPS shooter, VALORANT relies a lot on precise gunplay and team synergy, as the game has a very short time-to-kill (TTK), no matter what 'character class' you are.

While there will certainly be maps that are more advantageous for certain characters (due to the variety of maps present in VALORANT), prior to Jett getting balanced in patch 4.08, she was picked in almost every VALORANT Champions Tour (VCT) game and due to her ability to run away unscathed with her dash, no matter the map choice.

In a tactical shooter like VALORANT, agents with the ability to push to a weird position to get a kill and get out with no repercussions are extremely strong.

While it wasn't as bad as Overwatch, you would rarely see another Duelist replacing Jett just because of this advantage alone.

So, the only time you would be interested and invested in a match is if there wasn't a Jett in the team composition.

Official image of Yoru, a character from Riot Game's VALORANT. (Image: Riot Games)
Agents like Yoru have seen more play in the VALORANT competitive scene after the Jett adjustments in patch 4.08. (Image: Riot Games)

At least after patch 4.08, Duelists like Yoru and Neon have seen some shine in the recent VCT games, making it much more exciting to watch.

Not just limited to shooters

In the realm of fighting games, the most recent debacle was the character of Lab Coat Android 21 in Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ).

DBFZ is a 3v3 tag team fighter set in the world of Dragon Ball, and it is a fast-paced-action fighting game with a lot of flashy super moves and crazy techniques that you can do to win a game. It is extremely thrilling to watch a match because a player could come up with so many team compositions and synergies to win.

The introduction of Lab Coat Android 21 brought this to a halt because she has the ability to permanently de-buff characters by reducing their damage output by 21 percent, while boosting her own damage by 21 percent.

She could do it to all three characters in the opposing team, and the de-buff was extremely easy to pull off.

Screenshot of Android 21 Lab Coat from Dragon Ball FighterZ (Image: BANDAI NAMCO)
Android 21 (Lab Coat) was so broken that she was banned from use in Dragon Ball FighterZ tournaments. (Image: BANDAI NAMCO)

This slowed the game down to a crawl, as each character hit by the de-buff does significantly less damage, making games longer than they should be.

Some plays are also not as effective and exciting, because the damage reduction makes these plays ineffective in the long run if you are in a high-stakes tournament.

The character also has some seriously over-tuned moves, with a lot of her kit being really powerful compared to the rest of her cast.

Because of this, Lab Coat Android 21 is also a 'must-pick' in any team if you are playing professionally, unless you fancy nigh impossible challenge and want to give yourself a very slim chance of winning a tournament.

For a viewer, it is also a drag to watch, as games are slowed down to a crawl, with every team rocking a Lab Coat Android 21.

This was very evident in one of United States's largest fighting game tournaments this year, Combo Breaker 2022, where almost every player in the top 8 bracket had the character in their team.

The players that didn't have her in their character lineup were simply outclassed.

Another large fighting game tournament, CEO 2022, just straight out banned her from tournament play, much to the delight of players and spectators.

Thankfully, she is has been nerfed in a recent patch, but is still a pretty strong pick for a team.

It isn't as much of a problem in the realm of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games these days in 2022, due to the fact that there are so many characters available in these games, plus the major games implements the hero-ban system in tournaments, like League of Legends and Dota 2.

The hero-ban system forces players to learn multiple characters and strategies to win a game, and are not locked to a certain character or meta to achieve victory.

This also leads to a drafting stage which feels almost like a minigame itself, where teams decide which characters to pick and ban — whether it's to deny the opponents' strategy, pull off their own, or trick their opponents into believing the team are favouring one lineup over another.

A lot of the games are very varied, and each game is unique, whether you are in the League of Legends camp or the Dota 2 camp.

Conclusion

While these are only a few examples, it is evident that an esports title needs to keep their characters or their game fairly balanced to keep up viewership of their game.

While there are other factors involved as well, it is no doubt that companies like Blizzard, who failed to balance their game in time, contributed to the fall of once popular games like Overwatch.

Professional esports players play the games to win, as their livelihood depends on it.

An imbalanced game will only lead to players sticking to the same game plan, and this in turn makes every competitive match a boring spectacle.

It is up to the developer of the esports titles to balance this for the viewers.

At the end of the day, you wouldn't want your fans to tune away from the matches, or even boo the teams and players that they support, just because of horrible game balance.

Dominic loves tech and games. When he is not busy getting bodied in games or watercooling anything he sees, he does some pro wrestling.

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