When I play Overwatch I often choose a healer, either Zenyatta, Moira, or Mercy. I love being my team’s support, jumping from player to player and saving them from the brink of death with a click of a button. I’ve fallen into the support role, but it wasn’t by choice.
It’s an unspoken rule in casual play that nobody wants to play the healer and if they do, it’s a cheap move since playing one is considered “easy mode.” That was affirmed the other week when a video posted by IGN showed how professional players saw Overwatch’s top healer: Mercy. Players were asked what character they would get rid of and why and the answer was almost unanimously Mercy. People had slightly differing opinions as to why, but the consensus seemed to be based on her skillset, which is at odds with the rest of the characters and with the style of the first-person shooter.
According to LA Valiant player Ted “silkthread” Wang, her flagship ability Resurrect—which can bring a dead player back to the battlefield—doesn’t fit in with Overwatch’s genre. "I think Resurrect as an ability in a first-person shooter like Overwatch,” he said. “It's not fun to spectate, it's not fun to play, and it's not fun to play with, especially.”
Boston player Jonathan "DreamKazper" Sanchez added to this, saying that the ability cancels out the hard work other players put in. For example, if a practiced Widowmaker gets a one-shot kill on a Soldier 76, and the Mercy resurrects him, it doesn’t feel good for the Widow.
Despite years of these discussions, there still seems to be prejudice for support characters. You see this among professional players, but also across in-game chats, where some players will talk down to healers or supports. There are forums where there is always a discussion about why people don’t play support characters or why people favor damage-heavy characters or arguments about the effect a healer can have on a team.
Mercy is probably the epicenter for more recent conversations about the viability of healers in competitive shooters. The character just got a major rework but players still have issues with her abilities.
It’s frustrating to go up against a good support. Going back to Sanchez’s criticism, It’s always frustrating to have a good play canceled out, but it doesn’t feel particularly great to get critically hit with a Widow bullet either when you’re doing your best, or when you get hooked by the Roadhog when you’re just barely out from behind a wall. What makes Mercy different?
As somebody that plays supports almost exclusively in Overwatch, the problem in that community doesn’t seem to be with the character itself, but more with healers as a whole. This is not exclusively a Mercy problem but an issue with the support class’s reputation. In the world of competitive shooters, they’re just not respected.
In multiplayer games, such as League of Legends, and other esports, the healer and support characters are often relegated to the background. They’re not as flashy as some of the main damage dealers and in casual play, are often the last to be chosen. They’re not the “stars” of a match and instead of charging headfirst into a battle, are usually lagging behind in order to provide cover. They don’t get the high kill counts that tend to be coveted, but instead get compliments internally, from their team members or at the end of an Overwatch match when you get to upvote for an MVP.
Frustration is aimed especially directly at Mercy because of her recent overhaul, which replaces her team-wide resurrect with a localized one and her Ultimate ability with Valkyrie, which gives her an all-around boost. Among overall players and professionals, Mercy is one of the most popular picks, along with D.Va, Winston, and Tracer, making her the most popular support character.
But the affair has been unsurprising because of the long-running dismissal of support characters in online multiplayer games, not because of some rework that made a character too powerful. I remember playing as Taric in League, going bottom lane, doing my job, and still getting yelled at because my partner wasn’t doing his job.
It’s not that many professional players want Mercy to get nerfed or her abilities fixed, a normal request for a game always in development. It’s that they want her retroactively erased from the game. Besides IGN, Kotaku published an interview with the Overwatch team Boston Uprising where the bulk of the players wanted her gone. Even casual players on Reddit and on the Battle.net forums express the same hate. She doesn’t belong in Overwatch because it’s an FPS and Mercy is not a typical FPS-style character. In a recent essay, Waypoint contributor Nico Deyo stressed Mercy does break up the flow of the more offensive, typical characters, which could be a source of frustration.
“These players simply don’t like to go up against abilities that are designed to let anyone stymie the pure flow of shooting at people despite them being a fundamental part of the game,” Deyo wrote.
Mercy, along with other characters, do break Overwatch away from the shooters that have come before it.
However, Overwatch is a game that’s accessible to both experienced players and fresh ones and in working to get this broad audience, developers made a wide range of characters, both in terms of abilities and difficulty.
She also has a low barrier of entry. The consensus among online discussions is that Overwatch healers are easy to play, but difficult to perfect. Because newbies can pick up a character like Mercy with relative ease, it diminishes their accomplishments. I’ve seen numerous in-game chats filled with insults because a Mercy got play of the game because “she’s OP” and not because the player deserved it (or because the play-of-the-game feature is mostly meaningless).
But that response undersells the skill required to be a truly great Mercy player. New players can figure out how to control Mercy in order to be partially useful, but few people know how to most effectively jump from player to player, or how to prioritize certain classes over others when choosing who to heal, and that’s just a small example of what she can do when you explore the full range of her abilities. It’s the same for other supports as well, who may look deceptively easy but take practice like any other character.
Blizzard has done a good job at diversifying its support characters, filling the roster with pure medics like Mercy and more offensive characters like Moira. The more you play them too, the more you can cross the ease of beginner matches and learn their intricacies, just like with any character. Support characters still have a long way to go to earn the respect of professionals or experienced FPS players, especially if players in 2018 still don’t think medics have a place. As games establish new metas and standards for the rest of the genre, the problem should die away.
At least until Mercy comes along and resurrects it.