What does competitive TF2 need most? The short answer is “all classes as viable mains.” Members of the community, especially those in the TF2 Beta, need to agree on this and work together from there in order to make the most of TF2. I’ll explain in an excessively long fashion.
The TF2 competitive scene has two significant participatory groups.
– Current participators
– Future/potential participators
The “current participators” include all those who are part of the competitive community: the competitive players, their fans and spectators, and active league and sponsor organizations. The “future/potential participators” include all people who could be a part of the competitive community, including most TF2 pubbers, but have either never considered it or have already decided against it. Both of these participatory groups are important for the vitality of the TF2 competitive scene; the former determines the stability and knowledge base of the competitive community while the latter determines the growth in players and spectators of the competitive community.
The situation with the future/potential participators has been fairly constant and straightforward throughout the majority of TF2’s competitive lifetime. Many players don’t know about competitive TF2, are too “casual” or busy to play, or care too little about the notion to look into it. These players cannot be addressed directly because they do not have our attention. The only way we can get their attention is to make ourselves more prominent, which can be done by simply expanding in other areas of the community.
The other part of the future/potential group is those who have consciously chosen to not participate in competitive TF2. They have at least a basic understanding of what competitive TF2 is, know where they could learn to get into it, and have the time to do so, but have chosen not to. This includes a fairly sizable portion of the active TF2 steam forum user base as well as most of the members of competitive scenes from other first-person-shooters. I’ll refer to these as “abstaining pubbers” and “outside competitors,” respectively.
Abstaining pubbers have a number of reasons to decide against not playing TF2 competitive, some more legitimate than others, and some more about the meta and some more about the gameplay. The public perception of being “elitist” or “too serious” or that competitive players don’t play the gave to “have fun” is a problem, and I think it’s largely an emotional one in response to A: certain individuals giving them bad experiences (will not focus on right now), and B: a basic reaction to seeing how different competitive play is from pub play. Reason B is not just a knee-jerk emotional response, but a real fundamental concern we should address.
There are some differences between pub play and competitive play that are probably here to stay: team sizes, crits and random damage, map types, skill level, strategies and tactics, general atmosphere, and the like. However, these are fairly minor concerns compared to the biggest, most problematic discrepancy between competitive and public play: class options.
A potential player who looks at competitive TF2 and sees that only four classes are viable for large portions of play is very likely going to have a negative reaction, and rightly so. If pyro, spy, engineer, heavy, or (unless they’re extremely good at it,) sniper is their main class, they are simply faced with “either learn an entirely different class or don’t bother.” These “non-viable” classes aren’t underplayed, obscure cliffnotes—they’re some of the most-played classes and are part of what makes TF2 unique. The underrepresentation of these classes alienates and discourages a large population of potential players. It gives them a feeling of deficiency and exclusion that only fuels emotionally negative responses to competitive TF2, which has the cost both of them as potential participants and of those they might have convinced to start playing/spectating had they joined the competitive scene.
The aforementioned “outside competitors” and the “abstaining pubbers” look at the competitive scene’s lack of class and strategic variety and believe the game to be stale at higher level play (and to some extent they’re probably right). The abstaining pubbers look at this homogeneity and think “that’s less interesting than pub play,” while the outside competitors see it and think “that game is too cookie-cutter to be played seriously.”
The current competitive TF2 player base would be much more diverse, inclusive, and interesting if teams didn’t need to all have the exact same roster (med, demo, solly, solly, scout, scout). Potential players could look at competitive TF2 as a continuation of their progress with their favorite pub classes instead of an entirely new activity to learn. Outside competitors would see the increase of viable options (and therefore depth) and the expanding audience as an invitation to join in or, at the very least, give the scene more respect and spectatorship, which makes leagues and sponsors more numerous and involved. Everyone would benefit community-wise.
When I first joined the TF2 Beta a few months ago, I assumed the goal was to make all classes become viable mains—to make them all equally playable overall. I knew that making more options into viable choices makes a game deeper, more interesting, and in this case, more familiar and agreeable with more people. But apparently I wasn’t on the same boat as everyone else. A lot of people didn’t want the current “situational utility” classes to become viable mains. Some thought it would be unrealistically hard to balance, some thought it would make the game more annoying or frustrating, and some worried about both of those possibilities.
I don’t think those are true. Making all the classes main-able is feasible and would be very good for the game. Concerns about classes like spy and pyro being unpleasant to play against or already powerful enough in pubs are real concerns, but they can be addressed with specific unlocks and class changes. Heavy is already on his way to being main-able thanks to the Gloves of Running Urgently (GRU). He didn’t need to be made better at combat or be given more annoying traits, and beta pugs ended up with a heavy on teams more often than not. We need to work on improving all classes like that.
Examples like GRU and (basically the entirety of) the game Natural Selection show us that there’s plenty of room for seemingly “situational” options to gain much more usability, even if they aren’t great DM (combat) options. They are not and won’t be inherently frustrating or hopelessly unbalanced as long as we’re willing to experiment and admit mistakes.
Exactly how TF2 can reach a point of having nine equally viable competitive classes without making them unbalanced in pubs or frustrating to play against can and probably should be an area of contention, but we need to all agree on that common goal before we can actually make progress through community consensus.
The competitive community needs to agree upon the goal of making all classes viable, especially in the TF2 Beta. If we can’t agree on this, either Valve will work on it without our input (which would probably have iffy results) or the classes will remain blatantly stratified and game will stagnate and burn out.
Veteran competitive gamers and spectators prefer games like Street Fight and Starcraft over games like Smash Bros and Warcraft 3 precisely because of the variety and depth of having so many viable options (strategies/races/characters). Whereas a game like Guilty Gear has a huge number of balanced and competitive playable characters, SSB Melee has like 4, and its image, community, and gameplay have all been made worse because of it (this should sound familiar). While the rarer options are still used sometimes, the imbalance still has a very strong and clear detrimental effect on both the game and metagame, just like in TF2.
I’m not in any way trying to suggest that competitive TF2 is completely boring or shallow, but it’s viewed that way by many potential competitive participators. The situational classes are good and fun right now, and their potential certainly hasn’t been fully utilized, but I don’t think there’s denying that they definitely have room for improvement. Until we can all come together on the same path of making the game as good as it can be through improving class diversity, our community and our gaming will be missing out on a lot of potential; the longer we wait, the more opportunities for expansion we waste.
Edit: Just to clarify, when I say “main,” I mean equivalent to soldier or scout; making classes good enough to replace medic and demo is too much to consider at this point.
In the near future I’ll be posting exactly how I believe we should focus on retooling and balancing each of the current “situational” classes individually.