Most players are quite familiar by now with this experience in the Overwatch Meta: someone picks an unconventional character, or one just out of the current meta, and is promptly asked to switch. Maybe you are the one playing attack Torbjorn. Or, maybe you are the one asking Symmetra to swap tank for Illios. These are rather rare occurrences, even for Quick Play. More commonly you might see someone asking for a Soldier 76 to switch to McCree, or a Mercy to switch to Lucio.
So how seriously should we really take these requests? Is playing characters in the meta really that important for success in Overwatch?
Do I have to play in the Overwatch meta to do well?
Short answer: absolutely not.
There are players who are incredibly successful with unconventional heroes. These people play at levels from high diamond to the top 500. Widowmaker, Hanzo, and Mercy players are examples of such successes. It is more important to be a good player than to play characters in the meta. Furthermore, playing a “good” hero does not compensate for poor map knowledge and lack of mechanical skill.
You aren’t even guaranteed to do well just because you are playing a character in the meta. If you are really good at an unconventional character, but decide to switch to someone you have less time with just because they are “good right now,” you may do worse than if you just stuck with what you know. You should certainly learn a new character if you would like to, and meta heroes are a good place to start, but you don’t have to in order to do well.
If you have ever played a KotH game against a team with a Mercy, Torbjorn, and/or Symmetra, you may have seen this happen. These characters are traditionally just bad for this game mode, and yet they can become unbeatable under the right circumstances. But, it is nice to avoid a salty team. So, perhaps it is best to switch off the unorthodox heroes when they are repeatedly not working.
When does meta matter?
To really understand this question, we have to think about where the meta is developed. The Overwatch meta is established at the pro level. Meta is determined by what professional teams are using in tournaments. These are practiced teams with analysts and loads of knowledge about the game, as well as all the technical skills necessary to play every character.
So, it’s starting to show why it would be a bit ridiculous to restrict the average player to characters in the meta. The average player will not have the skill or resources to use the characters quite like the pros who set the precedent. They will also not have a team that has practiced the strategies needed to “pull off” that team composition. Now, this is a little less influential. At a certain level of play, most people will be aware of these strategies. They will also know what they need to do in order to execute them. So at this point, meta starts to matter more.
If you are tired of losing to the same team composition every game, you may be getting to the point where meta begins to matter. It sucks to have your team repeatedly team wiped by a nano-boosted Reaper while your Genji and McCree are having a hard time getting picks. Maybe your Mercy can’t get a good Res off. But, the enemy always seems to have a Sound Barrier at the ready.
If you would like to look up the current meta and read a bit of analysis on why it is as it is, I like to use Overbuff. They compile data from professional events and analyze the usage of characters and how this is effected by game modes. It also will show you trends of what characters have been the most used since the game came out *cough, cough* Lucio *cough.*
So, who should I play?
Really, you should play whoever you like. This will, of course, depend on what you want to get out of the game.
If you like certain heroes, play those ones. Once you are familiar enough with them, perhaps you will be good enough with them to compensate for some of their weaknesses. If this is the case, you can potentially be quite successful. Learn your hero, how to use them, how to counter your counters, and have fun with it.
If you like winning, pick your heroes based on your ability to succeed with them. If you are just really, really bad with all the characters in the meta, pick someone you can win with. It seems that well-rounded players do very well on average, since they can adapt to many situations and fill for their team. They know how to play a few tanks, maybe a few supports and DPS, and perhaps even a defense character or two. Sometimes this adaptability translates to the ability to play a hero in every meta, as they evolve. But this can also mean the creativity and experience to use unconventional heroes to surprise and dominate competition.
Characters in the Overwatch meta are there for a reason. Knowing when and why to switch is better than blindly playing in the meta. Try to diagnose the match. See what works for the enemy and try to find holes there. This doesn’t always mean you switch heroes but maybe a counter-pick will get you a win. Having a lot of experience with different characters will help you do this. Not only will you understand their roles, but you will understand more of the game through them.