“Ultimate economy” is a term often used by casters and analysts to describe how well a team manages their ultimates. There clearly isn’t a physical economy in Overwatch—missing an Earthshatter doesn’t cost you any money, just your chance in that push—but getting value out of ultimates can easily be the difference between winning and losing a match.
Deciding when to invest ultimate abilities is a skill. Using fewer ultimates for the same team fight win is clearly better, as they can be stored for the next fight, but if players are too stingy with their Q key then they run the risk of losing the fight altogether. It is a delicate balance for players; they must attempt to predict the expected outcome of a fight and tip it in their favor by the finest margin, all while trying not to waste ultimates haphazardly or use too few.
If a team has good ultimate economy, they can build momentum. By only using one big ultimate to win a push—for example, a Graviton Surge—they can use Zenyatta’s saved Transcendence to win the next team fight. By the time they have run out of ultimates to use, Zarya is likely to have her ultimate back online. This deliberate patience with ultimate economy, especially when staggering opponents as well, can be all you need to keep momentum and win games. It’s hard to win every fight with fewer ultimates, but that’s why it’s a skill!
Some ultimates can be used to help the team economy rather than set it back. Ana’s Nano Boost, for example, increases the damage of a target player, so although she now must begin building it again, the teammate she targeted now enjoys a faster ultimate build rate for the duration of the Nano Boost thanks to all that bonus damage. For example, when Zarya or Genji receive the effects of a Nano Boost, they can quickly build the extra 20% needed to get a Graviton Surge or Dragonblade, both of which are huge ultimates capable of winning a team fight.
Giving a Boost
Using one ultimate to buy time or provide an opportunity to build others is known as “ramp.” The initial ultimate is invested to ramp up the charge of other, more important ultimates.
When trying to find the delicate balance of how many ultimates to invest, it is often better to throw caution to the wind and use them to ensure a victory. However, investing multiple ultimates in a team fight and still losing is the worst-case scenario. This sets the economy back multiple minutes while ultimates charge back up and the clock ticks down.
With many compositions, it is still possible to win fights without ultimates, though your chances are lower. Timing an ultimate advantage for pushes that are the more important or most winnable is crucial. Professional teams will often deliberately attack without using their ultimates, baiting the enemy team to use theirs in defense. This forward thinking sets up the next push more favorably for the offense.
A common example (illustrated below): teams will often target Zenyatta heavily in one push or play to force out a Transcendence and then retreat, setting up a second fight without having to worry about being countered by that healing ultimate.