What makes an elite Overwatch player? We asked a semi-pro.

Aim Lab

This is part 1 of 2 of an interview with experienced semi-pro Overwatch player, Brian Kang. Stay tuned for part 2.

What leads to some players having better mechanics than others? To learn more, we talked with Brian Kang, an experienced semi-pro Overwatch player who has regularly played against some of the top players in the world.

As he tells us, one of the most critical factors separating the elite from the rest of the pack is disciplined practice.

Read on to learn more about Brian’s experience in climbing the ladder, developing a disciplined practice routine, and other insights on what separates the pros from the joes.


Part 1 of 2

Statespace: Brian, thanks for joining us. We’re excited to pick your brain about elite level Overwatch. Just to provide some context on your background for our readers, I’m going to make you brag a little bit about yourself: Where were you ranked at your peak and what was it like playing at that high of a level?

Brian: [laughs] Yeah, I was in the top .8% or something, and it was after I hit 4,200 it was just like everyone is trying to grind top 500, so the game just got super competitive and toxic. But, yeah, it was very clear to me when I was playing that I would see top 100’s in my games, like I would play against people like sinatraa, or dafran back before he was banned. Those were considered top, top NA DPS players. I would play against them and it would just be, like, I can’t touch them.

Statespace: Having played against some of the top talents in the world, what would you say separates those guys from everyone else?

Brian: So, Surefour from Cloud9 (now with the LA Gladiators) mentioned that there’s three essential skills in Overwatch for top players: positioning, team play, and just mechanics. So like being able to kills things and aim. He said to make Grand Master you need one of those three, to be top 500 you need two of those, and for pro play you need all three.

there’s three essential skills in Overwatch for top players: positioning, team play, and just mechanics… for pro play you need all three

Statespace: With our product Aim Lab, we’re interested in testing and training skill with a focus on mechanics so we’re curious to dive a little deeper there. In your opinion, does everybody at the elite level have a similar level of mechanical ability?

Brian: No. The top 200 players will make the rest of the top 500 look like bronze players.

So, for example, EFFECT, one of the top Tracers in the world, he plays for EnVyUs (now with the Dallas Fuel). If you watch him play versus watching my friend Alex play — Alex is a top 300 Tracer, and EFFECT is like the number two Tracer, right? So watching them play is like, just simply ulting. Like EFFECT never misses, almost never misses his Tracer ult. He’ll stick people who he has no business sticking, you would think. And you would watch Alex play and he misses like 50, 60% of them. Granted that’s still really good for a Tracer, but he’ll miss a lot more than EFFECT will, and that’s just because EFFECT has the timing, the arc, and the mouse flicking into the arc just down pat.

the top 200 players will make the rest of the top 500 look like bronze players

EFFECT’s mastery of Tracer

Statespace: So, a big part of his skill is just being able to execute the movement accurately?

Brian: Yes. And just the muscle memory too, to just do it very instinctively.

Statespace: To understand further, is it that some elite players can make shots nobody else can make, or is it more about consistency?

Brian: I think it is more of the latter. So for example, if you watch Taimou play Widow, one of the counters to Widow is Tracer because Tracer is up in your face all of the time, and Widow wants to be at long range and stuff like that, but you’ll see him just consistently destroy Tracers that are close to him. Like he has no business landing a flick on a Tracer that is next to him moving, like blinking even, mid-blink, but he’ll do it all of the time, and I think all Widows in the top 500 are capable of making the shot, I’m even capable of making that shot and I’m not even top 500, but he brings it to a level of consistency where it’s kind of just scary to watch.

Taimou’s Widow taking out a Tracer in close proximity.

Statespace: Do players at the top level of Overwatch and other eSports have better raw ability than amateurs?

Brian: Oh totally. Oh yeah. So, when I was playing against like dafran or Kephrii, it’s like if they see a pixel of your face you are going to die. So, for example, I was counter Widowing against Kephrii one time — not going to do that again — but I think he saw the tip of my ponytail and instantly flicked to it and just killed me.

Statespace: Are there some players known for being really good mechanical players?

Brian: There’s Flow3r, he’s a Korean streamer who’s really good at any DPS really but his aiming is so weird, he like flicks and then tracks, it’s so strange. He’ll do something like a flick, and then just a smooth track, and then a flick again. Taimou is one of them. Kephrii, a top ladder player is one of them as well. dafran, sinatraa, all these guys. Once you hit like top 200 territory, if you’re a DPS player you’re probably one of those people.

Flow3r’s unique tracking style.

Statespace: So is skill rating and other game statistics accurate indicators of the true skill all the way down the ladder?

Brian: So, subjectively speaking I can only say after 4,200 you’re probably pretty good at the game. Just in general. And then whatever stats I get from that, like your eliminations per minute or whatever is not very useful to me.

Statespace: Of the in-game stats, are there any that are useful to evaluate player ability?

Brian: Yeah, not really. I would say that the only one that I look at, because I was managing my team as well, the only one I looked at when I was looking for my replacement support player was Sound Barriers provided.

Statespace: Why sound barriers?

Brian: Because a good Lucio will max out his ult every time. So he’ll hit his entire team, but even that is a misleading stat because it doesn’t tell me how many times you cast it so I don’t know how many times per cast, or how many shields you give per cast, which is what I really want to know.

Statespace: We’ve been speaking a lot about skills and stats. Along those lines, many people say that to get better at eSports, you just have to play more than the next guy. But, cross-sectionally within each level of Overwatch, there are many players that play just as much as everyone else, yet some people still consistently outperform others, so skill can simply be a function of time playing the game then, right?

Brian: I remember playing against people who have twice as many hours as me in Overwatch, but they’re like in Platinum or something and it’s like “Why is that?” That’s when it got me thinking about fundamental Overwatch skills and why they’re not as good at it.

Statespace: What do you think are the key factors that underlie why you would be better than someone who has many more hours of gameplay than you?

Brian: I think intention is a huge part of it. Practicing with intention and knowing that there’s fundamental things that you’re not good at.

So, for example, this Widow will have like 700 hours on Widow, and I’m just like casually destroying this Widow even though I have like 90 hours.

And it’s because I practice my flicks and I know the angles of the map that I need to be in to counter people in specific other angles and stuff like that, whereas maybe they’re playing more instinctually and maybe they’re like, “Oh I feel like being over here right now.” Or like, “Oh I can make this shot.” And I’m like, “No you can’t.”

I think intention is a huge part of it. Practicing with intention and knowing that there’s fundamental things that you’re not good at.

Statespace: Is having a disciplined practice routine that critical?

Brian: Yes, that’s definitely one of the key things separating people with many hours of play.

Aim Lab

Mechanically intensive characters like Widowmaker take disciplined practice to master.

Statespace: We’ve seen some pro players practicing their flicks and they’ll mention they have a bias one direction vs. another. Is that something you see in your own game? Are you as accurate hitting flick shots left versus right?

Brian: I think I’m more comfortable going right to left than left to right. Towards my body. I will say though that since I’m not very comfortable flicking away from my body, that I actually practice that more.

I’m more comfortable [flicking] right to left than left to right. Towards my body.

Statespace: So you’ll try to identify your weaknesses and then practice those specifically?

Brian: Mm-hmm. Affirmative.

Statespace: How do you identify your weaknesses? 

Brian: It’s just like I notice that I feel slightly uncomfortable with doing something so I’m just going to try to do it more until it gets more comfortable, like flicking left to right.

Statespace: Do you look at your videos for insights?

Brian: Yeah. I think just patterns and trends are most helpful, so like watching it at normal speed is how you get that, and watching a lot over time. But yeah, if I need to, for example, I knew that I needed to work on Sleep Dart flicking so I would watch those in slow motion and kind of understand why I do what I do, and what’s my most natural tendency.

So, my most natural tendency is flicking left and slightly up, I don’t know why, I just do that, so I made sure that those were as accurate as possible before working on my flicking the other way. So, the way I approached it was I want to correct it more than I want to play within it. I think that one specifically is kind of an example where you should adjust anyway because I think the reason why I was flicking up while flicking left to hit Sleep Darts was because I was used to playing DPS like Widow and I was trying to hit their head. And that’s just, no, you want to hit the center of their body. So I worked pretty hard to correct that first, and then after that knowing, for example, the exact radius of the grenade splash. On Ana, for example, was something else I worked on a lot. That one I just noticed on my own. Like “Oh, I’m not hitting as many of these as I should be.” You want like as close to 100% hit rate as possible with those things right? Otherwise, people will die. So, yeah, I worked on that as well. I would go into a custom game, set my cooldown time to zero and just throw a bunch and try to hit the bots as much as possible, going for the extreme range, like “Oh how far away can I be to get away from this?”

if you play on autopilot you don’t improve at all

Statespace: That’s fascinating. So you really subscribe to disciplined practice?

Brian: Yeah, if you play on autopilot you don’t improve at all. Just at all, and it’s really easy to do that because it’s a game, it’s a pastime, it’s a fun activity. But as long as you’re thinking you’re always going to beat somebody who is not thinking even if they have like a million hours on the game.

In part 2 of our interview, we dive more into Brian’s practice routine and learn how he climbed the ladder from Masters to Grand Master. Stay tuned.

About Brian

Brian Kang is a former semi-pro Overwatch support player/in-game leader with a SR high of 4289. His teams have gone undefeated in the OW University League (OWUL) Season 1, finished top 4 in United Gaming Clans (UGC) Gold Season 3, finished top 64 of 512 in Contenders Season 0, and top 20/120 in Athena Open Cup League (ACOL) Season 1. He is now coaching New York University’s Overwatch team.

Brian is also an NYC based independent game developer focusing on cross-genre work, which you can view at http://thebriankang.com. His rhythm horror game Stage Fright comes out in late 2017.

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