A beginner’s guide to mastering the many characters of ‘Overwatch’

Will Nicol
Digital Trends
overwatch guide header
overwatch guide header

Blizzard’s class-based shooter, Overwatch, has been a runaway hit, pulling in more than 7 million players in its first two weeks, and spawning its own sub-culture, complete with cosplay and, bizarrely enough, a thriving erotica scene. What makes Overwatch so compelling? As you might expect from a developer like Blizzard, it’s a very well-made shooter, and its 23 unique characters give every type of player a fun way to play, whether they prefer to rush headlong into enemies, snipe them from afar, or keep allies alive. Moreover, it’s surprisingly accessible, with mechanics that are easy to grasp, but difficult to master.

RelatedHow to conquer the world of Blizzard’s Overwatch, even on a wimpy gaming PC

Although Overwatch is relatively simple compared to other popular team-based games like Dota, newcomers may still find there is a lot to take in. For those who want to jump in but would prefer not to sink before learning to swim, here is our introductory guide, with explanations for the various classes and characters and tips for improving your game.

Character Class: Offense

Characters in this category excel at taking objectives, picking off enemies and weaving through their defenses. Offensive characters tend to have movement abilities, allowing them to get to their targets quickly, and will usually be the primary damage-dealers on the team. However, these characters also have low health; players will need to maneuver properly, flanking enemies and avoiding fire, or they will quickly end up dead.

Sombra

overwatch-guide-sombra-screenshot
overwatch-guide-sombra-screenshot

One of Overwatch’s sneakiest characters, the hacker Sombra, has a set of skills built around evading enemies and neutering their abilities. Her first ability, Hack, renders the target unable to use their abilities for a brief time; she can also hack health packs to make them useless to enemies, and hack turrets to disable them. Her second ability, Thermoptic Camo, makes her invisible and faster for a short period of time, but taking damage or attacking will end the effect.

Sombra can also throw a Translocator, which she can then teleport to at any time, even if it is in the air. Finally, her ultimate ability, EMP, activates a massive explosion around her that destroys all barriers and hacks any enemies within range. Although her damage is not outstanding, she can leave enemies nearly helpless by disabling their abilities. A talented Sombra player should poke at enemy defenses, opening holes that her team can then exploit.

Genji

genji image
genji image

Quick to move and quick to kill, Genji is a nimble character suited for flanking and quickly taking out high-priority targets. Genji can double-jump, as well as run up walls, allowing players to navigate levels with ease. Genji’s ultimate ability, Dragonblade, replaces his shurikens with a sword that deals massive damage at close range. Although he has low health, Genji’s speed and ability to deflect incoming projectiles means skilled players can dance through enemy teams without fear of dying. Players who choose Genji ought to focus on tearing up the enemy supports, or else creating a distraction so their team can advance.

McCree

mccree image
mccree image

McCree is a sharpshooter who is great at quickly killing enemies from close or mid range. His flashbang lets him stun an opponent, after which he can quickly drop their health by emptying his revolver into them. McCree’s gun is very accurate, rewarding skilled shooters. Although not built to survive much damage, McCree’s combat roll lets him dodge incoming attacks; even better, rolling automatically reloads his weapon. He is a character best suited for quickly eliminating low-health targets.

Pharah

pharah image
pharah image

Armed with a jetpack and a rocket launcher, Pharah can rain havoc on opponents, hitting them from places they didn’t expect. Although she can kill most characters quickly, Pharah herself is quite vulnerable, particularly when flying. Her slow flight speed make her an easy target for snipers. Her ultimate, Rocket Barrage, causes her to hover in place while firing hundreds of rockets forward, dealing enormous damage, but leaving her open. Best paired with characters like Zarya or Mei who can immobilize enemy teams.

Reaper

reaper image
reaper image

Wielding two shotguns, Reaper is a lethal close range character. His abilities, which include short-range teleportation and “wraith form,” give him multiple ways to close in on enemies and sneak up on unwitting opponents. Reaper’s high damage at close range makes him good for taking out enemy tanks, especially if he can get behind them. His ultimate, Death Blossom, can be difficult to pull off as smart teams will kill or stun Reaper the moment he jumps into them. By using stealth and high vantage points, however, Reaper players can potentially wipe out entire teams.

Soldier: 76

soldier 76 image
soldier 76 image

A good pick for new players, Soldier: 76 is a well-rounded offensive hero, with a nice bag of tricks, including a healing field and the ability to sprint. His assault rifle and ability to lock-on to enemies enables him to deal with threats easily. His ultimate ability causes his bullets to home in on enemies, which is useful for eliminating quick targets like Tracer. His versatility also means that he can fit into most lineups, but as a jack 0f all trades — pardon the cliche — he really is a master of none.

Tracer

tracer image overwatch
tracer image overwatch

One of the most agile characters in the game, Tracer’s ability to move through space and time makes her incredibly difficult to pin down. She can blink (a short-range teleport) up to three times in quick succession. She can also jump backwards in time, returning to wherever she was a few seconds ago and restoring her health and ammo to whatever they were at the time. She is great at harassing and distracting opponents, allowing slower teammates to move get things done, and players who time her abilities well can stay alive through all sorts of firefights.

Character Class: Defense

Taking objectives is important, but so is holding on to them. To that end, defensive characters have tools that enable teams to hold key points on the map. They can set up traps to slow attackers, or pick them off from a distance. Patience and good strategic planning will leave the enemy floundering against your defenses.

Bastion

bastion image overwatch
bastion image overwatch

The robot Bastion can switch between a mobile soldier form and a devastating turret form, allowing him to hold choke points against entire teams. In turret form, Bastion can fire a constant stream of bullets that will shred anyone in sight. However, he is also immobile in this form, meaning snipers and characters that can get behind him are effective counters. In tank form, Bastion fires explosives that can quickly tear teams apart.

Hanzo

hanzo image overwatch
hanzo image overwatch

Hanzo is a crafty archer with a quiver full of unique arrows that can disrupt opponents. Scatter arrows will wreck enemies in tight corridors, and sonic arrows will reveal any nearby enemies. His normal arrows are quiet and deal high damage, allowing him to snipe enemies without giving away his location. He can also climb walls, allowing him to quickly reach good sniping spots. His ultimate ability, Dragonstrike, does huge damage, and its wide area-of-effect can force teams to move off of objectives.

Junkrat

junkrat image overwatch
junkrat image overwatch

Armed with grenades, mines, and bear traps, Junkrat can turn any map into the house from Home Alone. His bear trap immobilizes any enemy who steps on it, rendering them easy prey for any character who needs to line up their shot. It also alerts Junkrat when they step on it, so it can function as a security device of sorts. Junkrat is an excellent character for halting enemy advances and closing off flanking routes. His RIP-tire is a remote controlled explosive that can climb walls and deal incredible damage.

Mei

mei image overwatch
mei image overwatch

Mei is a unique character capable of freezing enemies and blocking objectives with her endothermic blaster. (That’s a fancy way of saying “ice beam”) Her primary weapon slowly freezes opponents, eventually rendering them immobile. Mei can also create an impenetrable wall of ice, which is good for closing doorways or splitting enemy teams apart. When in danger, she can freeze herself in a block of ice that blocks all attacks. Her ultimate is a massive area-of-effect that slows and quickly freezes enemies who stay in it, which can be devastating against teams trying to take an objective.

Torbjörn

torbjorn image overwatch
torbjorn image overwatch

For those who like Overwatch but wish it was more like a tower-defense game, there is Torbjörn. This industrious Swede can collect scrap on the battlefield and build turrets that automatically fire on enemies. He can also create armor for his allies that reduces the amount of damage they take. Torbjörn’s ultimate, Molten Core, gives both his turret and himself a huge amount of armor and increased damage. Although his own projectiles are slow, they do surprising damage.

Widowmaker

widowmaker image overwatch
widowmaker image overwatch

No FPS would be complete without a sniper. Widowmaker’s rifle can be charged to increase its damage, and a fully-powered shot can easily kill an opponent in a single hit. Of course, she is also frail, so players will need to keep far from opponents, using long range to safely pick them off. Widowmaker also has a grappling hook, allowing her to reach secluded perches, and a mine to protect her from sneak attacks. Her ultimate reveals all enemies, regardless of where they are, allowing teammates to get the jump on them.

Character Class: Tank

The front line of any team, a tank’s job is twofold: soak up damage for your softer teammates, and charge into the enemy, breaking their ranks. Tanks may not get as many kills as their teammates, but by shattering enemy defenses, they can decide the course of a battle.

D.Va

dva image overwatch
dva image overwatch

With her twin cannons that deal greater damage as she gets closer to her opponent, D.Va is an aggressive tank, one that’s also good at jumping on fragile targets and demolishing them. D.Va is also essentially two characters. In her mech suit, she has thrusters to move quickly and knock over enemies, two cannons that fire spreads of pellets, and a shield to block incoming projectiles. While her barrier is short-lived, it can completely neutralize even the most powerful projectiles, including Zarya’s Graviton Sphere. If her suit is destroyed, she hops out and fights on foot, using a surprisingly powerful laser pistol. While it’s a risky maneuver, D.Va’s ultimate ability causes her mech to self-destruct. Enemies near the blast don’t stand a chance, unless they have their own defensive ability.

Reinhardt

reinhardt image overwatch
reinhardt image overwatch

The only cover better than a wall is a wall that moves, like Reinhardt. This bulky German knight can create a massive force field to stop projectiles, allowing him to function as a mobile fortress for his team. Reinhardt is no slouch when it comes to fighting, either. His hammer does massive damage to anyone he catches with it, and he can charge at enemies, pinning them to walls. Fire Strike allows him to hit distant foes, but the long cooldown means Reinhardt should use it sparingly. Earth Shatter can stun an entire team if aimed properly, leaving them vulnerable, but it does not pass through shields or obstacles.

Zarya

zarya image overwatch
zarya image overwatch

Zarya is a unique tank who can absorb damage for herself and teammates. As she does, her own weapon becomes more powerful. Skilled Zarya players can keep their teammates alive early in a fight, then use that energy to become a killing machine later on. Zarya can be more difficult to use properly than other tanks. Her barriers last but a brief time, so using them precisely is crucial. Her ultimate ability, Graviton Surge, pulls in nearby enemies and holds them still for a few seconds. It’s a great set up to use in tandem with high-damage ultimate skills, such as Hanzo’s Dragonstrike.

Winston

winston image overwatch
winston image overwatch

As a tank aimed at blitzing the enemy ranks, Winston is fast, acrobatic, and does heavy damage at close range. His jump jets allow him to quickly close the gap between enemies, and his weapon, the tesla cannon, does constant damage to everything in front of him. Winston can also drop a massive bubble shield that blocks projectiles. His ultimate turns him into a massive, brawling beast whose punches can send players flying; great for getting enemies off control points and even knocking them off the map.

Roadhog

roadhog image overwatch
roadhog image overwatch

Roadhog is an odd bird among the tanks, as he lacks any sort of shield to protect his allies or himself. Instead, he focuses on pulling enemies out of position using his hook. With his ability to heal himself, this means Roadhog is suited to splitting off from the group, sneaking up on enemies, and pulling them into his grasp. His ultimate ability fires a constant stream of bullets in a cone in front of him, dealing high damage and knocking enemies back, which is useful for getting them off objectives.

Character Class: Support

Death comes swiftly in Overwatch, unless you have a good support player backing you up. These characters have abilities that keep teammates in the fray, whether by healing them, shielding them from damage, or making their attacks more powerful. Supports are the backbone of any team, which means they are also obvious targets; players need to protect their supports from attackers, or else the whole team falls apart.

Mercy

mercy overwatch image
mercy overwatch image

A graceful flying medic, Mercy’s primary job is keeping heroes on the field, either by healing them with her staff or, in the event the team is dying, using her ultimate, which resurrects every dead ally in the surrounding area. Mercy can leap to allies using her Guardian Angel ability, and smart players will recognize when a teammate is in danger. She can also increase an ally’s damage using her staff, and her pistol is surprisingly powerful when fired accurately.

Symmetra

symmetra image overwatch
symmetra image overwatch

Symmetra is the most aggressive support character. She doesn’t heal allies, but can give them shields that keep them alive longer. She can also set up sentry drones that slow enemies, and her ultimate creates a teleporter that allows allies to quickly move from the spawn point to wherever she sets it up. Symmetra is a great support for teams playing defense, as her turrets can clog up choke points and function as warning systems. While her abilities are difficult to learn, she can seriously hamper opposing teams when used properly.

Lúcio

lucio image overwatch
lucio image overwatch

Lúcio is a nimble support who can switch between healing allies and boosting their speed using his Crossfade ability. His sonic attacks can also knock enemies back, which makes for some interesting environmental tricks, such as knocking enemies off ledges. Additionally, Lúcio can run on walls, an ability that, when combined with his speed boost, makes him difficult to hit. His Sound Barrier provides a temporary shield to allies around him, and timing it properly can nullify normally terrifying abilities like Rocket Barrage.

Zenyatta

zenyatta image overwatch
zenyatta image overwatch

Perhaps the most difficult support to play, Zenyatta can be rewarding for those willing to learn how to use him. Zenyatta’s two primary abilities, Orb of Harmony and Orb of Discord, give his team an edge by targeting individual characters. The Orb of Harmony attaches to an ally, healing them as long as they are in Zenyatta’s line of sight. The Orb of Destruction attaches to an enemy, increasing the damage done to them, as long as they are in his line of sight. Zenyatta is also one of the most fragile characters, so keeping him alive and in the fight is a team effort.

Ana

overwatch ana guide screenshot
overwatch ana guide screenshot

Many characters in Overwatch give you the ability to shoot your enemies, but wouldn’t it be nice to shoot your friends as well? Ana, a support whose sniper rifle hurts foes and heals allies, does just that. Ana is a tricky support to use properly, requiring players to keep track of their allies and hit them when they need healing. Ana’s other abilities include her sleep dart (which puts an enemy to sleep for a period of time or until they take damage), biotic grenade (which boosts the healing allies receive while reducing that of enemies), and nano dart, which dramatically increases an ally’s stats.

The downside? Ana doesn’t have any special mobility options. If an enemy gets close, a quick sleep dart may be her only means of escape. However, players who find themselves bored with traditional support characters ought to give Ana a shot.

Tips for maps and modes

Overwatch currently has twelve maps and these fall into four game modes: Escort, Assault, Hybrid, and Control. Each of these modes requires players to complete certain objectives, and all of them but “Control” divide the two teams into attack and defense.

Escort

overwatch dorado screenshot
overwatch dorado screenshot

Maps that use this mode:

  • Watchpoint: Gibraltar
  • Dorado
  • Route 66

Escort maps task the attacking team with escorting a payload to various checkpoints. The payload only moves when at least one of the attackers is standing near it, and adding more people (up to three) will cause the payload to move faster. The defending team’s goal is to keep the payload from reaching the final checkpoint until time runs out; each time the payload reaches a checkpoint, time is added to the clock. If even a single defender is standing near the payload, it will cease to move.

Assault

volskaya industries screenshot
volskaya industries screenshot

Maps that use this mode:

  • Hanamura
  • Temple of Anubis
  • Volskaya Industries

Like Escort, Assault divides the teams into attack and defense, with the attacking team trying to capture specific points on the map. While an attacking player is standing on an objective, a progress bar will fill up until the point is captured. As long as at least one defender is on the point, however, the bar will not fill. The defenders’ task is to prevent the other team from capturing all the objectives until time runs out.When the attackers capture a point, more time is added to the clock.

On attack, characters who can push through enemy defenses or evade the entirely are useful, and making sure the whole team moves at once is crucial. Defenders will want to close off chokepoints as best they can, using shields and turrets among other things.

Hybrid

overwatch hollywood screenshot
overwatch hollywood screenshot

Maps that use this mode:

  • King’s Road
  • Hollywood
  • Numbani
  • Eichenwalde

Hybrid maps combine Escort and Assault. These maps begin with attackers trying to secure an objective, as in Assault maps. Once they take the first point, a payload appears, and the attackers must guide it to checkpoints as in Escort maps. Because of the sharp change from the first mode to the second, Hybrid maps in particular encourage players to switch characters and strategies.

Control

overwatch ilios screen
overwatch ilios screen

Maps that use this mode:

  • Ilios
  • Nepal
  • Lijiang Tower

The Control game type is essentially Overwatch’s version of king-of-the-hill. Both teams start equidistant from an objective and must fight to take control of the objective. Taking the objective works similarly to Assault; if a member of your team is on the point, a progress bar will fill up until you capture it, unless an enemy is also on the point. Once a team has control of the point, a percentage meter will build up, with one team winning when they hit 100 percent. Control maps are split into three smaller maps, with one of these smaller maps being chosen for each round. Matches are decided by best-of-three (best-of-five in competitive play).

On control, speed and the ability to fight in groups is key. Characters who can quickly get to the point (or in the case of Lucio, get their whole team to the point) are important, as are characters like Winston and Roadhog who can scatter teams.

General Tips and Tricks

Communication is key

It’s a simple rule, but worth saying. Overwatch is built around teamwork. Unlike some popular console shooters, you can’t just run around on your own, getting kills and expect to win. Use the in-game voice chat — or third-party software like Discord — to communicate, plan attacks, and warn teammates about threats.

Also, as tempting as it may be, don’t trash talk your teammates. People tend to perform worse when morale is low.

Pick smart

Strategy is a big part of Overwatch, and that starts with building your team. Make sure your lineup has at least one hero for every role. If your teammates are being stubborn and refuse to pick a tank or support, do it yourself. Your team will likely have much more success if you have all your bases covered. Sometimes, two tanks or two supports may be better than one. Also, keep in mind that some characters are better suited for defense than attack. Symmetra, for example, is a solid choice if your team is playing defense, when she can set up turrets in places the enemy is likely to walk through. On offense, it might make more sense to opt for a more mobile character.

If things aren’t working, change characters

overwatch choose character
overwatch choose character

Unlike in games like Dota and League of LegendsOverwatch allows players to change their characters at any point during the game, as long as they are standing in the spawn zone. Team composition is crucial in Overwatch; if your team is having trouble, try something different. If an enemy player is wrecking your team, switch to a character that specifically counters their skill set. For example, if an enemy Reinhardt is holding chokepoint against you and you cannot break through his shield, try switching to Reaper and teleporting behind him. Tactical decisions like that can make all the difference.

Kill the supports first

mercy healing
mercy healing

In the heat of battle, you may be tempted to focus on damage dealers like Reaper or a troublesome tank like Winston. In doing so, you might not pay attention to the Mercy or Lucio player standing behind them. Support characters, however, are much more fragile than most characters, so taking out the enemy support should usually be the first priority. A good tank or attacker with a support backing them up can survive even the most ferocious of battles; denying them that extra health may be the difference between a win and a loss.

Take advantage of the verticality of maps

pharah flying
pharah flying

Often, the best way to break through a chokepoint is by going around. Use characters with movement abilities — e.g., Pharah, Hanzo, Genji — to go over walls and take out defenders from the sides. Genji’s double-jump, when combined with wall-running, make him especially good at finding impossible paths through maps.

Pay attention to audio cues

junkrat revving tire
junkrat revving tire

While Overwatch‘s visuals are certainly dazzling, the sound design can be crucial to survival. Many powerful abilities, such as Hanzo’s Dragonstrike, have very loud audio cues, so even if you do not see a character using such an ability, you will still receive a warning. Learning these audio cues can be a huge help. For example, Junkrat’s RIP-tire, which can easily kill an entire team, makes a very loud revving noise when he begins using it. When you hear him revving it up, your whole team should scatter so as to minimize the damage it can cause.

Fire at will

Unlike most shooters, Overwatch gives every character unlimited ammo. There is no need to pick up ammo packs, and the only real restriction on your ability to fire is that you sometimes need to reload. As such, don’t worry about conserving ammo. Shoot, reload, rinse, repeat!

Running from RIP-tire is good, but shooting it is better

Few audio cues in Overwatch are as terrifying as an enemy Junkrat shouting “Fire in the hole!” His ultimate, RIP-tire, can wipe your whole team in an instant. The natural reaction is to spread out, with everyone running in a different direction to minimize the damage. While the tire is powerful, it has a big weakness: you can destroy it. The tire only has 100 health, so if you see it coming, try shooting it. Powerful abilities, like Reinhardt’s Fire Strike, can even destroy the tire in a single hit!

Shoot Pharah out of the sky

Pharah’s ability to fly makes her a dangerous opponent, as she can hit opponents from above before they notice her. However, her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. While flying, she moves more slowly, so characters who have decent range can take her out easily. If an opponent is playing Pharah, try sniping her out of the air with Widowmaker, or use a medium-range character with decent spread, like Soldier: 76 or Bastion.

Trouble with Bastion? Fight him from a distance

If there is one thing that most new players agree on, it is that Bastion is overpowered. In turret form, Bastion does obscene amounts of damage, and rookies will often get shredded running directly into its line of fire. However, Bastion’s turret is not actually that hard to deal with, once you realize two things: its accuracy drops off severely at long range, and it is immobile while in turret form. This makes it easy prey for snipers like Widowmaker. Find some good cover and hit him from a distance.

Another easy (but riskier) way to deal with Bastion’s turret is to use Roadhog, whose hook not only pulls him out of position, but forces him to revert to recon mode.

Know when to fold ’em

If you lose a fight, don’t keep rushing in one at a time. Fall back and regroup. Don’t kill yourself trying to halt the payload every step of the way. You are much more likely to win a fight if you regroup and bring your whole team into the fray instead of trying to fight at half-strength. Throwing yourself at the enemy one or two at a time probably won’t stop them — it just wastes time.