Role dynamics in Competitive Overwatch: Roadhog isn't a tank.
Almost every tank hero in competitive Overwatch has, or has had at some point, a niche that justified picking them in a specific scenario. Reinhardt is still the go-to line for standard compositions, and he keeps so many threats at bay, he’ll probably stay there for a while. Winston went from rush only tank, to bubble bot for Reaper, into the all purpose bulky-assassin-with-vertical-mobility he is now. Zarya was always the default offensive tank and is more often than not played more as a mid-range beefy dps than a dive or frontline tank. And D.Va... is chained to desperation holds from defense until the rework/buffs hit her.
The odd man out was, for the longest time, Roadhog. Barring some failed experimentation, Roadhog saw virtually no competitive play before the current metagame. And he’s been left almost untouched by the patch rhythm, so it’s not like suddenly he’s overtuned and crazy overpowered and deserving of newfound attention. But there he is, in almost every competitive match for the past few weeks.
Let’s back up. The arguably only good competitive showing from the hero was back in December ‘15, from Hubris’s (later Envyus, no not the current Envyus, one that actually fielded american players) Ras. By the end of Phase 1, Hubris was the undisputed best team in the world, and on some of their most crucial series they ran defensive Roadhog with great success. Thanks to that we got a glimpse at the limitations, and potential, of the hero.
The basic and most glaring issue is that Roadhog (despite his label) can not be played as a tank. Well... he can, but not optimally. Every tank has damage mitigation or nullification for a reason: getting shot at feeds ultimate charge to the enemy team. Were it not because of the screens/bubbles the rest of the tanks have, facetanking would be dreadful in Overwatch, akin to “feeding” in other games. But Roadhog has none of that, he can only heal back up after he’s already been hit, so even if he somehow manages to absorb the same amount of damage a nullification tank will, he is being detrimental to his own team while doing so. Things only got worse for that playstyle after the Phase 1 ended, and ultimate charge on damage taken was removed from the game.
The other point, that stems from his lack of damage nullification, is that Roadhog has little team utility. Often every hook in competitive is a kill, but Roadhog had nothing that could be “thrown” into a teammate to help them out. That would be ok, a lot of DPSs didn’t have that either, but he also had no mid/long range options, no mobility, no flanking tools. On metagames centered around synergy between heroes and ability coordination, Roadhog just could not be fit into a team, because he had little to offer to it and few allied tools could help him do his job better.
So, what was Roadhog? How was he meant to be played, successfully? He wasn’t a tank, and he had none of the tools that would have fit him into other roles. Well, Ras played him as a defensive pick assassin, that didn’t expose himself or feed charge until the fight actually broke out. No tanking, the health pool and the self heal were survivability tools not to be used unless pushed to. He was an ambusher, a tool to break momentum and split apart or disrupt pushes while they were already in-motion.
As mentioned, Overwatch pushes relied (and still rely, most of the time) on careful coordination and cooldown management. Every piece has a role, and a place, once the fight starts. Having a hero hooked out of position and/or killed destroys the push right there, and buys the time for the defense until the respawn; hence him being played pretty much only on defense back then. And once the fight actually breaks out and the attention of the enemy team is split, every hook cooldown being a potential kill makes him one of the highest damage threats on the team while also being extremely tanky.
“Low mobility-short range-high damage” heroes also naturally thrive on defense because the offense is forced into a spot or path, so teams can disregard most of their weaknesses and just ambush the attackers. Whole Hog has some combo potential, but is often used as a free objective hold for the duration, saving otherwise taken checkpoints and further reinforcing the disruptor theme. Roadhog’s entire kit favors a play pattern of messing with the enemy’s timing and coordination.
So he was limited to certain players, on certain maps, on defense. Really good when he could be abused, but near useless on most other scenarios. By the end of the pre-nerf McCree/Widow metagame some players (KyKy, TwoEasy) were already testing him again, but what really sparked him back to life was the advent of One Hero Limit. Under that ruleset removing a piece from the offense kills a full array of options for them, and Roadhog’s “can’t use help don’t need help” status means that he doesn’t lose any pick/burst potential when his own team is the one lacking tools. And well, teams can’t field two of the same beefy/assassin heroes, so Roadhog is a proxy for the duplicate.
He is also an excellent Resurrect charge battery for his own Mercy; and along with Zarya one of the tanks that can actually profit from a damage boost, since it widens his instakill window with the hook combo. Roadhog is still far better on defense than on offense, though some players (most notably KyKy from Cloud9) play him regularly on offense, with some success.
Now that more and more tournament organisers are adopting traits from Blizzard’s Official competitive mode on their rulesets, One Hero Limit might slowly phase out of the scene, and Roadhog’s omni-present status with it. Regardless, a lot of pro players have now put the hours and effort into learning him, so even on standard rulesets we’ll probably still see him around.
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