The Unhealthy Nature of Snipers in Overwatch

Overwatch is a game that supports many different play styles through its different heroes. A player can be a generic soldier or a mech pilot; use a rifle or a beam weapon; set up turrets or fly through the air with a jetpack. All of this diversity includes the sniper playstyle, demonstrated through the characters Hanzo and Widowmaker. Although it makes sense to add these two heroes to represent more playstyles, I think that their appearance causes more harm than good. Their role and specifically the high-impact headshots their role includes counters many of Overwatch's design values, detracting from the game rather than supporting it.

Blizzard has pushed the message that it wants to move away from one-shot mechanics, but these heroes make this goal impossible. For instance, Blizzard reduced the damage of a one-shot combo for a tank hero, Roadhog, to make it inconsistent. However, the sniper characters are still able to deal high damage (and one shot many characters) through headshots. Unlike Roadhog, there is not much “design space” for these heroes. Headshot eliminations are their identity, and there is no way to remove that while keeping the heroes intact.

In addition to combating Blizzard’s attempt to move away from one-shots, the snipers also hurt the counter-play culture of Overwatch. The game heavily encourages swapping heroes mid-match to counter the opponent’s strategy. The idea is that some heroes, through their kit, have an edge over others, but the snipers are not categorized too well under this philosophy. There are definitely some heroes that have a better chance at killing the snipers, but the snipers have no less difficulty killing these “counters” because of their long-range, high-damage capability. For example, you could argue that Winston, a mobile flanker, is a counter to Hanzo, but Winston crumbles to critical hits as much as any other hero. This causes combat to center around whether or not the sniper lands each shot, as opposed to being a mutual skill-based fight.

The “all or nothing” nature of their damage also leads to a negative team mentality that only surrounds snipers. The common belief is that a sniper on your team will usually contribute nothing in terms of objectives. Even if a sniper secures many high-impact eliminations and helped swing the game in their team’s favor, they will, usually, receive begrudging approval. If a sniper performed nominally, one expects “kind” advice from teammates to choose a different hero in the future. In the worst case, where a sniper did not contribute much, the sniper becomes the scapegoat. A failed push or a lost game is entirely blamed on them. This can lead to unnecessary toxicity, something the game already struggles with. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place where the best case scenario is reluctant kudos and the worst is being blamed for failure.

The nature of their damage also hurts the design of support classes. Supports exist primarily to heal and provide some additional utility to their more combat-oriented teammates over time. However, since snipers are able to kill in one shot, the value over time provided is meaningless. Essentially, the counter play between a support and an aggressor is removed when a sniper is the aggressor. A core game mechanic, like counter play, should not be threatened due to a certain playstyle, yet this is the power snipers have in Overwatch.

This argument is not to say that the sniper identity is unhealthy for Overwatch. Only headshots. Ana is a prime example of this. She is a support sniper who does not have the ability to headshot. She conserves the long-range identity of snipers, but she does not have the ability to abruptly eliminate an enemy from a fight (beyond the temporary sleep dart). She has abilities that both the aggressor and the Ana player can interact with, so her match-ups feel like normal Overwatch 1v1. Her kit fully supports the core themes of Overwatch, something the snipers cannot claim.