While the individual maps and various play modes make it difficult to have a general discussion about strategy in Overwatch, there is a common element to most of the normal and competitive game types. Throughout the match, each team is going to attempt to kill everyone on the opposite team. While each team has their own objectives (defend this location, conquer that location, guide a payload, stall a payload, hold on to this location for a certain amount of time), the opposing team stands in the way of achieving those objectives. The best way to get your opponents out of your way in this game, at least in the most basic terms, is to kill them or hurt them so much that they run away.
Beyond the basic terms, strategy splits into two useful levels: professional and amateur. If you really want to nitpick, there are a few more, such as “amateurs who imitate the pros,” “people who have no idea what they’re doing,” and “people who get super salty and play like there’s a berserker mode that makes them harder to kill.” I’m going to stick to pro and amateur for now because there really isn’t a lot of actual strategy that goes into playing those three levels.
Amateur strategy is probably the simplest to discuss because it relies on the same basic principles that professional strategy does, but leans on them almost entirely instead of using them as a trunk from which they can then branch out. In an amateur team fight, your tanks are going to be at the front of the line, the DPS will either be with them or trying to out-maneuver your opponents, your supports should be near the tanks to help keep them alive, and your defense characters should be either pushing the enemy tanks around or preventing your tanks from being pushed around. While it is entirely possibly to play out a team fight without much strategy, relying on the skill of the players as they clash in a giant muddle, it will quickly turn into a horrible grind where either everyone dies or one team just gets completely wiped out.
Because of the variety off characters that people use in the amateur scene, there isn’t really a strict guideline of how to play each level. There are particular strategies that work more often than not, but the deciding factor is often the skill of the individual players. As a result, a good strategy for an amateur match tends to be focused around playing to the strengths of your particular character. DPS should focus on their specialized type of damage (ranged accuracy, flanking, or pure numbers). Tanks should focus on taking or preventing damage using shields, picking out solo targets in mid-range, or living for a really long time despite taking tons of damage. Supports should heal, peal enemies off of tanks, and control the area around where their own team is located. Defense characters often wind up playing to the one of the strengths I’ve already listed, since most of their job consists of either teaming up with the tanks or taking down enemy tanks.
If everyone plays to their strengths and works as a team, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t win unless the other team is just better than they are. If they can communicate well, it is possible for them to play into some of the basic strategies successfully. Without the consistent skill of the pro or high-tier scenes, they aren’t as reliable as just playing well. Dive-composition is relatively easy to do, since it is just a very mobile way of playing and consists of playing characters to their strengths. The “standard” composition of two tanks, two DPS, and two healers is hard to go wrong with. The old “triple-tank” composition doesn’t work as well as it used to, but it has its niches. It requires consistent skill and good communication to pull off, though, so it rarely gets used in the amateur scene.
In the professional scene, at least right now, the overwhelming majority of matches use the dive composition with some slight variation in the second DPS and second healer depending on how the team plans to play after the moment of first contact. Usually a DPS and a tank from Team A will dive in, trying to take out the supports of Team B, and the tanks of Team B will fall back to counter the dive. At that point, if the diving components of Team A are still alive, which they usually are, the other DPS, tank, and one of the supports from Team A will start attacking the back of the tanks of Team B. If Team A’s dive works, then at least one of the supports for team B is dead, the tanks of Team B have taken heavy damage, and Team A is an advantageous position for achieving their objective.
There is some variety that happens in matches, given that a daring shift to a different strategy can upset the balance of a match and start the ball rolling for the team that changed things up. Since the level of skill is relatively level, the deciding factor is often what maneuvers each team tries and when they try them. Good timing and shot-calling is often what decides a match. Individual players can still tip the balance, but generally not in as decisive a manner as they can for amateur matches.
All that being said, there is one style of play that can completely shift everything. Though the basic strategy is the same, putting one of the DPS players on the Widowmaker character can shift the entire game. While having a single-shot, high-damage character means a big grind fight can turn against you, being able to quickly take characters from the opposing team out of the battle means that your team can commit more strongly without as much fear of being countered. Taking out an enemy support instantly means your team can focus on the one other support when you dive and quickly wrap up a fight that would have otherwise been drawn out and slow. Taking out their DPS means you have some room to breathe and take a few risks that would otherwise be way too dangerous to consider.
One of the biggest differences between amateur and pro matches is the way partial teams commit to fights. In a pro match, if they have time and are missing a character due to a snipe kill from a Widowmaker or because someone got trapped and killed quickly, they will simply wait until the full team is there before trying again. If a defending team is getting routed, they will often retreat, give the attacking team their objective, and gather to try to take out the attacking team in a quick counter attack. In amateur matches, generally players stick around until they are killed. This can work out, sometimes, because not all players are skilled enough to quickly kill their opponents in an uneven team fight, but it generally does not because the skill disparity required for this to work out is very high.
Pro players are much more cautious. They tend to back out more readily, take fewer unnecessary risks, and wait for their team before acting unless they’re specifically playing a character who is supposed to act alone. In amateur play, you often see tanks trying to go it alone when they very much should not be. A tank without any DPS or support will die super quickly unless they somehow manage to catch the entire enemy team unaware. Which can, of course, happen. Amateur matches are super inconsistent and anything cam happen in them. A lot of players, myself included, take stupid risks because we know that no one will expect it and the surprise itself is something that can be exploited. One of my best plays as a tank was when I snuck around the side, flanked the enemy team with a charging attack, and got the entire team focused on killing me (which they did), so the rest of my team could close the gap and murder them. I got one kill to make sure it was an even fight and my team would up winning because they knew what I was doing and I managed to shake up the enemy team. I wouldn’t recommend trying it yourself because it was more luck than good shot-calling that made it work out.
One of the most exciting parts of playing and watching Overwatch is that changing the composition of your team and using the element of surprise can tip a match decidedly in your favor. While there is a basic strategy used in almost all competitive matches, one change to the balance of a key hero or the introduction of a new hero can cause the old strategy to no longer work. I am excited to see how professional play evolves once they start incorporating the newest hero, a support character whose skills seem designed to counter the standard dive composition that all professional teams use.