When MLG originally announced that they would be using predetermined maps their Vegas Overwatch Invitational it was met with dismay from the competitive community. Subsequently, a letter requesting that the predetermined maps system be replaced by a draft system was composed, endorsed by the captains of the eight invited teams and delivered to MLG and Blizzard.
All 8 OW teams attending MLG Vegas sent a letter to MLG + Blizzard to include a map draft - like a normal esport. Blizzard/MLG declined.— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) December 9, 2016
Following the letter, and much debate across various platforms, a change was made but not the one many pros were hoping for. Instead of adopting a full draft system MLG has kept the fixed maps but changed when and how often each is to be played under guidance from Blizzard.
As we can see from the table Lijiang Tower, Hanamura and Eichenwalde were removed from the map pool completely. Alongside this the number of 2CP / Assault maps was decreased from 10 to 3. While this took away many of the more traditionally unpopular maps it has been viewed a poor compromise by the pro scene.
There are several issues at the heart of the campaign against predetermined maps, but which maps and modes they are is not a big one. The two most prominent of the cited issues are the inability to practice the large map pool properly and how predetermined maps damage the competitive integrity of these major tournaments.
The Map Pool
While MLG removing three of the maps goes a way to helping teams practice, the proximity of the event and the extreme nature of some of these changes means that valuable practice time has been wasted for many of these teams. Eichenwalde and Lijiang were going to be the opening two maps in the Group B matches and key for all teams, now they will not be played at any point in the tournament.
NRG coach oPlaiD is going into his first tournament he could properly prepare his new team for.
@Slasher It's okay though, they changed the map list so our last 2 days of practice are essentially now worthless.— Samuel Lingle (@oPlaiD) December 9, 2016
In the short term, this compromise of changing to more widely preferred maps may have simply created a new set of problems. Whilst the average viewer may endure fewer games influenced by stall tactics, the disruption to teams' practice means they potentially will not be able to perform to the same level on their newly assigned maps.
Since these recent decisions many have made the comparison to CS:GO's map pool, which contains just over half as many maps as Overwatch. CS:GO also has a well established draft system that enables teams to specialise and drill strategies for each map until they know them inside-out. Over time this has elevated the level of play we see on individual maps as teams strive to find better and more creative paths to victory. When so many maps are forced to be played it dilutes teams practice and strategies.
Professional teams simply do not have enough time to practice every map, especially when factoring in the multitude of game modes, scenarios and hero compositions they may face. Obviously they can never be fully prepared for each situation, but say a team plays 6 hours of scrims a day and you on average can play 2-3 maps an hour, that gives them a total 12-18 maps a day. So they could play each map once a day, but in reality maps need to be played multiple times to practice and refine a strategy. When you consider that they might want more than one strategy for each map it quickly becomes a mammoth task.
"Two steps backwards. One step forward."— Jonathan Larsson (@Reinforce) December 9, 2016
Short and unpolished blog about the MLG Vegas OW map format and map pool.https://t.co/Ugpbkx1vci
What we have seen up to this point is instead that teams tend to find a composition that works well for them and just force it to fit each map. Misfits are a good example of this with their Mei/Reaper setup at the Overwatch Open or the Widowmaker Dive comp that took down DreamHack Winter. NiP essentially run the same hero comp on every map with only zappis flexing. This is not to say these teams were not entertaining to watch, but Overwatch is still a young esport and a smaller map pool will allow the talent in the scene to drive forward and raise the calibre of play with more refined strategies.
As with every coin there are two sides and it is important to note that we do not want to go the other way and narrow the map pool down by so much that we only see the same maps every time as this will become stale.
This demonstrates that with a draft system there is still variety, with the exception of Assault maps. While the size of the pool is the biggest issue affecting teams practice and this late change to the maps disrupts this more, there is a bigger overarching issue that predetermined maps creates.
Drafting maps in esports becomes the first battle of each game; teams practice drafting and plan out what they want to play against each team well before the match itself. This allows them to tailor their picks and tactics to specific opponents and influence how the game will be decided. From a players perspective, you want as much control as you can in shaping a game, you want to set yourself up for success. Relying on getting lucky with which maps you get to play against which teams creates inconsistent and misrepresentative results.
MLG Vegas is the first offline tournament in North America in quite a while and is going to set the pecking order in the region for some time to come. Fans have been yearning to see the new Cloud9 at a LAN event - the acid test for any new roster. Likewise with FaZe, who competed in the European bracket at the Overwatch Open, it will be the first opportunity to see how they stack up against North American competition offline. Will the final standings of MLG Vegas tell us who the best team in North America currently is, or simply who got lucky in with the arbitrarily fixed maps?
Predetermined maps take away the level playing field. That quest for equality is a huge part of the reason offline events are held in much higher regard than their online counterparts. Dictating which maps will be played simply generates unnecessary and avoidable noise in the results. It is incompatible with the nature of true and fair competition. Teams should have influence on the maps they play, otherwise events like MLG Vegas will lose their significance.
Where do we go from here?
That may of all seemed very doom and gloom, more so than the reality. MLG Vegas is still set to be an incredible event and although the results may be subject to fixed map bias, they will still add to the narrative of North American Overwatch.
The most important thing to take from all of this is that Blizzard have been made aware. Although they have ruled against the will of the teams this time, they do appear to be considering their options for the future. Jan's tweet asking for ideas shows that Blizzard are looking for something that is more of a halfway house between predetermined maps and a full draft.
What exactly will come next is unknown, but the topic remains open for debate and many have had their say already. A dialogue between Blizzard and teams will be the only way to resolve these issues. Blizzard have listened in the past and even come up with acceptable compromises such as the time bank system.
Whilst a new solution is unlikely to be found in time for MLG Vegas or IEM Gyeonggi (and changing systems again at this late stage might do more harm than good) it does appear that the clouds are shifting and future tournaments may offer a hybrid system that allows the teams to regain agency over their fates.