How deathmatch changes Overwatch (and why it should be permanent)

Blizzard’s Overwatch is a lunch taker and a milkshake drinker. Boasting a player base of 35 million over a year after its release, it’s the brutal schoolyard bully in the FPS market. Any new FPS must contend with the question, “What does this offer that Overwatch doesn’t?”

The most consistent answer to that question has been “deathmatch mode,” but that has recently changed. After a short stint in the PTR, deathmatch mode has arrived in the Arcade mode of Overwatch, featuring two modes: free for all deathmatch and team deathmatch.

Changing the game

Initially, I thought deathmatch was an attempt to convert military shooter fans to the cult of Overwatch. But there are key elements missing. One of the joys of military shooters is leveling up, obtaining new weapons, and earning equipment, then building a loadout that perfectly fits your style of play. There’s absolutely none of that in Overwatch - leveling up provides cosmetic loot boxes only. A level 3 McCree has the same loadout as a level 400 McCree.

Overwatch deathmatch still feels like Overwatch. Compared to military shooters, your characters are hardy and stalwart, and can shrug off an errant bullet or two, turn, and shoot back. Surprise is good, but it’s not the whole equation when it comes to winning shootouts.

Given these significant differences, I believe that this new game mode wasn’t meant to recruit new players so much as to prevent possible October defections to other shooters. Rather than picking up the new hotness, Overwatch players can run around the newly released Chateau Guillard killing anything that moves. If you’re already skilled up with a few good mains, you can get your deathmatch fix without ever leaving the Overwatch platform. Blizzard has also shrunken some familiar maps for deathmatch, which adds to the variety and lets you use some of your hard-earned Overwatch knowledge to compete.

Speaking of Chateau Guillard, it’s a fantastic map with a great mix of claustrophobic indoor areas and dangerous outdoor areas. Unlike most Overwatch maps, which are mostly very 2D, there’s a lot interesting verticality. It’s clearly built from the ground up for deathmatch action and succeeds at that role admirably. This French mansion feels like the sort of death trap a noir femme fatale would live in. Ironically, its cramped confines render Widowmaker a tertiary pick.

As a long-time Overwatch fan and early adopter, it’s really interesting to see how radically the game changes when you’re not forced to constantly contend for control points or push a payload. You respawn extremely quickly and you don’t have to run to the fight - it’s often happening nearby, if not right in front of your spawn point. This is the biggest pacing change, and you feel it immediately.

Team Deathmatch

In Team Deathmatch, eight players break up into competing four player teams fighting to reach 30 kills. If you self-kill (fly off a platform, blow yourself up), you lose a kill for your team. In terms of match rules and structure, there are no real surprises here.

Team deathmatch will feel the most familiar to longtime Overwatch fans. Teamwork still matters, and lone wolves are easily picked off. The real change is your hero’s role. When your main goal is to score kills, your play style subtly shifts.

For example, Torbjorn can no longer throw turrets on payloads to create rolling death wagons, but he can lock down an entire section of the map and keep a team healed up with armor packs. If your team gains the score lead, they can hang out near your turret and force their opponents to deal with it. Believe it or not, camping was a refreshing change after a year of running to specific locations and actively confronting my enemies. A level two turret felt a lot like the sentry guns from Modern Warfare 2: devastating, hard to deal with, and totally awesome.

Snipers skyrocket in significance given their ability to one shot enemies. Killing a single DPS was much less significant when there were five other heroes bearing down on you, but now a single kill cuts team’s strength by 25%. Killing healers is important, but feels less significant given smaller maps and short respawn times. Blowing Mercy’s head off means less when she’ll be back in three to five seconds.

Sombra’s ability to lock down health packs for your team can provide a significant advantage, and her machine pistol and teleportation ability are nothing to sneeze at. Without points to control, simple escape abilities become far more valuable, denying kills and preventing reprisals.

Reinhardt loses viability as an anchor tank because mobile defense is less relevant when you don’t have a payload to push or a point to take. And everyone’s favorite German generally lacks ranged combat options, making it harder for him to score kills. But Orisa shines given her ability to plant static shields, defend a turret, strike from longer distances, and yank enemies out of cover. 

Hard-to-kill DPS characters become even more difficult to deal with. Getting harassed by a Tracer was less of an issue in Payload and Control maps. She’s super squishy at 150 health, and can’t hold a point by herself. Sure, she can put a few bullets into you, but after she burns through her Blinks and Recall ability, she’ll have to bail and your healer will take care of you. But if her only goal is to murder you, she suddenly becomes much, much scarier. Her Recall becomes a powerful self-sustain and her Blink ability makes her hard to nail down. Can you spare a player to switch to Winston or Symmetra to take her down?

Healing remains vital, but with only four heroes to keep healed and no long sprints from spawn to payload, Lucio’s effectiveness drops significantly, while Mercy can keep a whole team alive through an entire match. Symmetra remains oddly unchanged; just like in normal game modes, she sets up car washes to provide area denial and menaces enemies with her powerful Photon Projector.

Free-for-all

Free-for-all deathmatch feels unrecognizable compared to traditional Overwatch. The spawn-die-spawn-die rhythm of military shooters is much more common in this mode. While this mode (and TDM) lack a traditional radar minimap, excellent environmental sound means that you can often find skirmishes between players and kill the survivor. And your skirmish is also heard, which means someone is coming for you. And someone will come for them. And so on. Experienced players also know which characters make which sounds, so before you even walk into an area, you’ll know who your opponent is and what they’re capable of.

When your main goal is to score kills, certain character types truly shine while others fall to the wayside. With nobody to heal and nobody to watch your back, supports that aren’t Symmetra become irrelevant. Hanzo becomes a very frequent pick, due to his high mobility and ability to one shot most other DPS characters. I see a few Roadhogs and D.vas, which makes sense given their massive health pools and close range damage ability.

But there are few Meis to be found, given the amount of time it takes her to kill a single character. Zarya is all alone, and with no one to shield, it becomes harder to power up her particle cannon so she is a rare pick. (Sidenote: it’d be neat if you could shield an enemy who is under fire from other opponents, power up your cannon, and then murder them when the shield wears off.)

Sombra becomes a funky specialist character. Now those hacked health packs are for you and you only, and you can see critically injured opponents through walls, allowing you to effectively scavenge kills. And her stealth and teleportation abilities allow for clean getaways. Her DPS remains low, but the joy of kill-stealing remains high.

We still see plenty of Pharahs, Soldier 76s, and McCrees. In particular, McCree’s Deadeye becomes the kill scavenger’s best friend. If you come upon a 2-3 player skirmish, you can wipe them all out in one fell swoop.

Junkrat and Pharah seem like the pick of bad players like me, who can’t credibly land headshots and so try to compensate with AoE damage. Even nerfed, Doomfist sees a ton of play in both FFA and TDM. Especially in Chateau Guillard, with its tight corridors, his Rocket Punch becomes devastating. And his Meteor Strike is a “get out of jail free” card in a deathmatch game, simultaneously denying a kill and killing your enemy.

Overall, I find deathmatch to be a welcome addition to Overwatch. It’s fascinating to see how altered match objectives can lead you to play your favorite characters differently. It’s a great change of pace from the usual gameplay. While arcade modes usually cycle frequently, I’m hoping that deathmatch, particularly team deathmatch, sticks around as a permanent part of the game.