Overwatch features squad-based combat with two opposing teams of six players each. Players choose one of several hero characters, each with their own unique abilities and role classes. The four character roles include: offense characters with high speed and attack but low defense, defense characters meant to form choke points for enemies, support characters that provide buffs and debuffs for their allies and enemies respectively (such as healing or speed alterations), and tank characters that have a large amount of armor and hit points to withstand enemy attacks and draw fire away from teammates. During the pre-match setup, players on a team will be given advice from the game if their team is unbalanced, such as if they are lacking defensive heroes, encouraging players to switch to other heroes pre-match and balance the starting team. Within a match, players can switch between characters in-game following deaths or by returning to their home base. The game is designed to encourage players to adapt to the opposing team during a match by switching to characters that better “counter” their abilities.
A screenshot from Overwatch while in-match. The player and their allies are indicated in blue, while the opposing team is in red. The character’s health bar is shown on the bottom left, their main skills and attacks are shown on the bottom right, and their progress towards their ultimate is shown in the bottom center.
Each hero has a primary attack or skill and at least two additional skills that can be invoked at any time, some requiring a brief cooldown period before they can be used again. Furthermore, each player slowly builds up a meter towards their character’s “ultimate” skill; this meter builds up over time but can build up faster for defeating opponents or performing other beneficial tasks for their team such as healing other team members. Once ready, the player can use this skill at any time which may last for a few seconds (such as increased attack strength or immunity to attacks) or be a single powerful action (such as resurrecting any recently-fallen team members), after which they then must wait for the meter to fill up again. Opposing players will be alerted to the use of this ultimate ability by an exclamation from the character, often in the character’s native language; for example, gunslinger McCree will call out “It’s high noon” as the player engages the ultimate ability to target multiple visible enemies and deal lethal damage to those still in sight. This gives opposing players a brief moment to try to take cover or respond appropriately.
A second meter tracks how many in-round points a player has scored over time, which are rewarded for killing or assisting in killing, providing team defense or healing, and scoring objective points. When a certain threshold is reached, the player character’s icon will be “on fire,” representing that that character is a threat, but otherwise does not directly affect gameplay. This meter will slowly drop if the player does not continue to score points.
Overwatch employs an automated instant replay system, designed to highlight important moments of the game. After the game’s end, the server selects a fragment of the match which had a large impact on the game’s progression, such as a rapid succession of kills or an effective use of team healing, and then broadcasts it to all players from the point of view of the player responsible for it. This is called a “Play of the Game” (often abbreviated to “PotG”), or “Play of the Match” (“PotM”) in competitive games that have longer matches. Afterwards, a result screen is shown, highlighting up to four individual players from both teams for their achievements during the match (such as damage dealt, healed or shielded, or time spent on the objective), and all players are given the option to commend one of them.
Players gain experience points following a match towards a metagame level based on several factors such as whether they won or lost, how effectively they used their character’s powers, being awarded gold, silver, or bronze medals for their team across six categories such as most time spent on the objectives; and beating past personal records in these categories. Initially, experience was only awarded when playing the game’s matchmaking modes and not custom games, but the custom server browser update, released in February 2017, enabled experience gains for custom games. On gaining an experience level, the player can earn a loot box, each which contains four random cosmetic items for individual heroes, including victory poses, paint sprays, alternate skins (costumes), emotes and voice lines. Such items are given out based on their rarity level, with the qualities “Common”, “Epic”, and “Legendary”. They may also earn in-game currency called “credits”, which can be used to purchase specific cosmetic items directly, with their cost based on the item’s rarity. Other items can only be acquired by completing in-game achievements. Duplicate items are rewarded with in-game currency. Players also have the option to buy loot boxes with real-world money through microtransactions.