Team Incentives in Overwatch

November 22, 2017

USA vs Sweden in the Overwatch World Cup

The past year has brought me much joy (and curse words) to play Overwatch with friends and strangers on the Internet a few nights a week. It’s hard to overstate how much of a team sport this game is. Even at medium levels of gameplay a single underperforming player will cost the match. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of an incentive system to behave as a cooperative team member.

When you end a match in Overwatch there’s a little button in the bottom right of the screen that says “Stay as Team”. The button has a wonderful UX, it glows and dings just the right amount when clicked. But the general rule of thumb is: Never click this button. It is a penalty. The result is longer queue times and you’ll probably lose your next match.

Generally, the larger your team, the longer the queue time. Overwatch tries to match you up to a similarly sized team with similar user ranking. That takes time. Once a match is found, your ad-hoc 6-stack will then match up against a true 6-stack of people who play together all the time (because only really dedicated people would suffer 5-minute wait times to queue in a 6-stack). Now your team is at an extreme disadvantage, and will likely get demoralized and disband.

Losing badly negatively effects team play. No one thinks they’re the problem. It’s not uncommon for players to openly flame (which is a nice way to say “verbally harass”) other players instead of focusing on how to improve the team dynamic. Competitive tension is so high, posturing and prejudgement about who is going to cost the match often happens even before the match has started.

The long-term benefits of being a consistent team player are obvious, you win more games with better teamwork. But the short term reinforcement is that clicking the “Stay as Team” button produced a negative outcome. So we all queue up like lone Rōnin and repeat the cycle every 15-minutes.

I think a lot about incentives. Are there levers to pull in order to reduce toxicity and improve the overall experience?

Blizzard has recently started banning “one-tricks”, people who only play one character and won’t switch, in an effort to encourage team cooperation. While this is probably necessary, it’s a negative incentive for bad teamwork. I’d love to see more positive incentives for good team work.

Here are just some examples:

  • A sportsmanship ranking that factors into match matching heuristics.
  • Clan feature? Heck, Blizzard made World of Warcraft.
  • Instead of Play of the Game featuring only a single player, maybe POTGs could highlight awesome teamwork (combo-ults, etc).
  • Instead of performance voting at the end of each map, you vote for “Most Positive” or “Most Grouped Up” team member.
  • Improved team queue times.
  • Artificially increasing queue times for solo players after certain rank.
  • Special loot for people who successfully queue up in teams (e.g. Rewards for 100 games played as a 3/4/5/6-stack, etc). There’s some science to suggest in-game loot and player performance are interconnected.

I don’t really care what it is, but I’d love to see Blizzard thinking and talking about positive incentives to nudge players to play well with others. Not just banhammers.