Philadelphia Fusion's assistant coach talks about the challenges of teaching Overwatch in a global pandemic in addition to hero pools.

18:00, 03 Apr 2020

The 2020 Overwatch League season poses unforeseen challenges to coaches around the league. With the fallout of COVID-19 and resulting schedule changes, the lack of offline events and practice, coaches are forced to build a working system mid-flight.On top of it, the introduced feature of hero pools puts additional pressure on coaches to prepare their team for their opponent's strategies. In this interview, Philadelphia Fusion assistant coach Christopher "ChrisTFer" Graham talks about how his team works around these challenges and what kind of changes the Overwatch League could consider to introduce more compelling storylines.

What kinds of adaptations did you have to make due to COVID-19? How have you set up your players in order to practice and play matches? How is coaching like during a global pandemic?

We had a bit of a manic day once we heard that Philadelphia was ordering people to shelter in place. Players had to start practising from home, but once we got desks, chairs and PCs moved in, it was pretty easy. Coaching on the other hand, is definitely more difficult. A lot of communication skills are non-verbal, which is especially true when coaching non-English speaking players. But we are managing, trying to keep a similar level of intensity and schedule even if we are playing online.

Theoretically if you can find a comp that works and commit to it early, it’s going to be a huge advantage. 

What’s the scrim environment during hero pools and COVID-19 restrictions like? Is it challenging to find quality practice?

In terms of the teams we get to scrim against, it’s pretty similar. One benefit of hero bans is it means we can scrim every team outside of our opponents for that weekend. Normally we would probably avoid scrimming teams we had in the next 3 weeks or so. With the meta changing every week, teams don't really care about showing old meta comps as much.

How have you experienced hero pools as a fan of the game? Do you like the variety it creates? Did you enjoy the way matches played out?

From a fan perspective, I think the change is good. It allowed dive to come back, which I'm sure everyone appreciated. And even then, this past weekend’s games showed teams playing 3-4 different base comps and we got to see who had a better read on the meta and understood their matchup the best.

You were one of the teams able to experience the one-week hero pools in week 5 playing the Paris Eternal. How did your job change due to the changes? Did the workload remain the same?

The big challenge is trying to condense 4-5 weeks worth of prep into 1. Before our first game of the season vs Washington and Florida, we had talked about comps, swaps, map positioning, how to use ults, overall style of play and probably a lot more. Some of this took us a long time to learn and when we are in a situation where we have 4 days before travel it becomes very difficult. Add in the fact that we have to experiment and learn the meta before all of this can take place – it adds a huge workload and pressure to a coaching staff and team.

I think seeing a meta evolve is one of the most interesting things in Overwatch.

You narrowly lost the match against the Paris Eternal. What were you anticipating them to run? What were your thoughts when you saw what they actually were running?

One of the benefits we thought we had going into that week was the fact that we could see what they played on that Saturday and have a pretty good idea of what to expect on Sunday. Once we saw they had changed their starting lineup after their loss to Houston, we realized they might try something different but couldn't be sure. Ultimately this is no excuse because it probably meant Paris had to panic and try something new on Sunday since their plan A didn't work. I give a lot of credit to their coaches for such a fast turnaround in terms of style.

Fusion on stage.

Coaches around the scene have voiced that finding a composition to refine early within the hero pools cycle proved to be important. Would you agree with this? What happens when you don’t find a composition to commit to or only later in the week?

Theoretically if you can find a comp that works and commit to it early, it’s going to be a huge advantage. But it obviously depends on a lot. Is the meta stable enough to where swaps are never required? Sometimes there are rock, paper, scissors metas where one comp cannot be played everywhere.

The worst thing that can happen is the panic that comes when the comp you committed to stops working. At that point, you either scrim a team that does something different or teams have adapted to beat the style of play that was bringing success on day one or two. This leads to a huge decision – to stick or twist. Even dedicating time to try new ideas on how to win that specific matchup is a risk, which needs to be weighed up because every team is painfully aware that they only have a set amount of scrims before game day.

Shock’s player viol2t commented that they were running a composition in scrims that was doing exceedingly well but it didn’t translate to the match, presumably because they had never encountered the composition they had to play against. Do you think this is a common occurrence even for top teams? Is there a way to prepare for these scenarios or find solutions when the match is already underway? How big is the element of luck?

It’s really hard to say. It’s possible Shock had seen the comps that caused them problems, but had only scrimmed against teams who hadn’t played it to the level the LAG or LAV did. It’s possible that the comps or swaps were something they had never seen before.

It’s possible that teams that had a more structured playstyle will have a harder time in a hero pool, as opposed to teams that relied a lot on their players to feel it out or make adjustments mid-game.

In terms of luck, it’s also hard to say. The opponents you scrim on any given week will certainly make a big difference and the way OWL teams book scrims really don't allow for teams to pre-pick specific opponents as practice for that week. One thing I will say, is teams who have a functioning 12-man roster can have a huge advantage going into hero pools as they can scrim against any comp or matchup they want.

The Shock chose to switch their players around multiple times during their matches. Do you think this will be the way to go during hero pools to adjust to different comps being played on different maps or do you think teams will benefit from focusing on a core roster with less moving pieces?

Really, really difficult to say. I think right now there are probably teams with 2 styles: one that likes to stick to one comp and make it work, and the other who feel like they can flex heroes and comps depending on what they feel in the moment. After a few weeks, I'm sure we will see which of these 2 fundamental styles brings more success and it will be on teams to follow that method. After 2 weeks it’s impossible to say because we have seen teams win who play a variety of comps, and also teams that stick to one style as well.

Fusion on stage.

Some voices in the community suggested that coaches should switch to a style of teaching fundamentals which would allow the best teams to be resilient to whatever situation 1-week hero pools throws at them. Do you think this is possible?

It’s difficult to envision how coaching fundamentals would realistically work. Every time you swap a comp, the fundamentals change – everything changes. Sure, you can focus a lot on maybe communication or specifics on how to play control, opposed to Hybrid – but really that won't get you far if you don't understand core win conditions of how to play comp v comp.

One week hero pools have been under criticism as too short of a time frame. Do you agree with that sentiment or would you prefer a different duration?

I'd love for hero pools to be extended to 4 weeks. Think of the storylines that could be created. Week 1 every team is in chaos, picking and gambling on comps and we get to see who then gambles correctly, has the better mechanics or in-game leading. Week 2-3 you get to see the evolution – do teams stick to what they prepped or twist on copying the teams that had more success? Week 4 you get to see the cream rise to the top and which teams are the best once they have a lot of playtime and finesse the comps.

I think the league is apprehensive to extend hero pools to 2 or 3 weeks because they believe the meta becomes stale and every team plays the same comp. I really don't think that’s how it would work. 2-3 weeks isn't enough time to fully understand the meta to the point of perfection, which is where the mirror matchups inevitably enter.

Even from the broadcasting perspective it could be interesting. Imagine week 1 Philly is weak and often drops games, but then week 4 Philly is a beast. It gives teams strengths and weaknesses that can be added to the interest of the matchups each week. The previous week’s match would matter more going into the next week; whereas right now, whatever happened last week becomes irrelevant once the next week begins.

I think seeing a meta evolve is one of the most interesting things in Overwatch. Whilst I understand that it becomes stale to see the same comps for 2 months on end, I think the meta and the game needs more time to breathe before we completely scrap it week over week.

Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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