Initiation and Innovation: The Overwatch Support Letters

Zenyatta, one of the original support characters in Overwatch.

Both Tyler Colp and myself are friends and avid Overwatch players who have thought pretty deeply about the role support plays in the game and decided to embark on a series of letters where we expound on our experiences and analysis of what it means to be support.

Dear Tyler,

It feels like both yesterday and two lifetimes ago that Overwatch first launched and to be honest, I am shocked that we are coming up on the second anniversary of the game’s release in a mere two months. When it first debuted, I know that both of us (despite not really knowing each other) felt about the same — here was a game that didn’t appeal to us because neither of us were very interested in competitive multiplayer games. But something, some intrinsic magic with the colorful heroes and the promise of something new still drew us into this game that we spend so much of our time playing now. I feel like a lot of that allure was that this was a shooter that could accommodate people like us, who were not as familiar with shooters, and often wanted to be part of a collaborative effort when it came to objectives and skill.

Overwatch iterated on shooters in both form and function and created something a bit more new. It presented a game that wasn’t muddied by the grays and browns of other more militaristic FPSes but rather was bright and whimsical, and took some key things out of a genre that focuses too hard on a single player’s performance. Overwatch debuted with four heroes marked as “support”, three of whom actually healed: Mercy, Lucio, and Zenyatta. Midway into 2016, we were also given Ana, the game’s own “sniper healer” character. While the heroes themselves were a bit varied, not always the best in every situation, all of them presented design choices that made them especially attractive to people who didn’t necessarily want to be on the front lines getting kills. I feel like both of us, over time, have fallen very hard for the idea that support is what makes or breaks Overwatch as an innovator in the scene.

It gave the game such promise and it made me feel like, even if I wasn’t initially drawn to play support, there would be a place for me and my interests. Over time, I’ve realized that it wasn’t just a way to introduce newer, non-traditional-FPS players to the a team-based competitive game, but a set of ideas that Overwatch actively encouraged as part of the design: different kinds of abilities to hone and refine that were new and innovative, an ethos about participation that stood in contrast to the lone wolf ideology of the shooter genre, and heroes that twisted what everyone thought about mechanical skill. The support role in Overwatch’s team play adds a vital and interesting complication to “kill everyone all the time” as well as an additional set of skills that a player can potentially focus on, particularly in a collaborative space.

Whether this is something like Ana’s Biotic Grenade or Mercy’s Guardian Angel, support heroes have abilities that not only provide healing in a variety of ways, but offer a fair amount of utility. Lucio can help with some additional damage output, but where would a team be without his speed, his healing aura or his boops? Healers provide the confidence for an aggressive tank’s forward push and the needed sustain to offense heroes looking to flank. The machinery of a team’s strategy just can’t work without it; it’s a set of verbs in a “shooter” that don’t require being lethal but rather, vitalizing.

I don’t think we could have — would have — spent so many hours noodling about this topic if it wasn’t the single most compelling argument for why this game breaks so many rules and emphasizes so much about teamwork, more so than many people think. It’s the underlying optimism to the game and the world it presents. Unfortunately, we’ve seen our hopes for the game’s support classes be buffeted by some strong winds as the design continues to be iterated upon and pushed by forces we hadn’t expected, haven’t we?

Dear Nico,

It’s funny that you say it feels like Overwatch launched both yesterday and two lifetimes ago because I feel very similarly. I remember the week that the game launched when all of my former World of Warcraft friends were grouped up and discovering all of the quirks of its diverse set of heroes, but I also know that I’ve learned so much about the game since then. When I look back to that first week, I remember my hesitance to even buy the game. I knew it was very Blizzard to take a well-established genre like the first-person shooter and fill it with unique characters to pull you into its world, to have them yell and joke at each other throughout the match. But to me, it looked like a game that was still about shooting each other with quick reflexes and pinpoint aim.

My first game was an arcade mode with low-cooldown abilities and the option to pick however many of the same hero you want — a feature that’s now gone. We chose to play as six, flying, rocket-firing Pharahs against an entire team that was stuck on the ground. The game was wildly unfair, but it showed the kind of hilarious chaos that the massive difference between the heroes could create, and why you were allowed to switch to new ones at any time. The game was about how a set of super heroes with unique attacks and abilities work for and against each other, not a pile of armored men with assault rifles shooting each other from across the map.

Years later and I know that even that arcade mode didn’t fully demonstrate how important teamwork, not mechanical skill and aim, were important to Overwatch. Eventually, I started playing support, specifically Mercy, a powerful healer hero that has the ability to resurrect fallen allies. I learned that support in Overwatch was about preventing your team from dying, and that meant understanding the importance of positioning, team composition, and abilities. A good Mercy wasn’t just about immediately reacting to incoming fire, it was about predicting moves and ultimate abilities from the enemy team so that you could be prepared to help your team win the fight. The very existence of support, with their ability to lengthen fights and counteract damage-dealing abilities, stood firmly against the lethal, fast-paced design of most other shooters.

This counter-play philosophy touches every part of the game. It’s why other healers, like Ana, can clutch heal through the burst damage of a revolver-toting McCree. It’s why Zenyatta can use his Transcendence to heal through multiple, high-damage ultimates. It’s why the high-health tank class includes heroes like D.Va that can deny most of Soldier 76’s auto-aim ult with her Defense Matrix. Overwatch included support and tanks to complicate the act of killing each other in a shooter. There’s an intentional imbalance to the heroes that require traditional aim and mechanical skill versus the ones that don’t, which forces you to think about how to win a fight as a team of heroes with strengths and weaknesses, rather than on your own.

Mercy is a fantastic example of this emphasis on hero power over player power, particularly as support. As a Mercy player, it felt enthralling when I could predict an incoming lethal Graviton Surge from the enemy Zarya that kills your entire team, avoid it, and swoop in with a big multi-resurrection of my team. In that small moment, I felt heroic like the game said I could be; I counteracted what would otherwise be a lost fight. It had an impact that wasn’t about my ability to aim well enough to kill a series of people — the skill-based feat that almost every other shooter bountifully rewards — it was about leaning into the skill set support play demands and staying out of harm’s way to undo the kills. Mercy’s resurrect, as it was initially designed, was the antithesis to the shooter formula. I knew the rush and thrill of nailing three headshots in a row, but I didn’t know and didn’t expect the equal, if not more exciting, feeling of undoing those three headshots with one powerful ability. Mercy empowered players like me who wanted something alternative to the traditional skill measurements of shooters.

Given how traditionalist shooter players are, there was no way that anti-shooter design philosophy could last without immense criticism. There’s always been players who were upset by the way the game limited traditional shooter skill sets, but as it grew in popularity, added in its competitive mode, and started to see professional teams crop up, they got louder. Players from other games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty started migrating over. Support heroes were too powerful and too easy when compared to the heroes that primarily were about getting kills these players said. The game didn’t reward their years of learned skill. They begged for Overwatch to become something more competitive, something more familiar.

Through a series of balance changes and hero additions over the course of several months, we saw Overwatch become a more traditional shooter that we might not have bought if it launched that way — and it’s only getting worse. Unsurprisingly, we also saw the rise in the hyper-competitive side of the game with the Overwatch League. The crumbling old design philosophy and the trend toward a more viewable game are linked, intentionally or not. The faster, more kill efficient design of the game is fun to watch, if not to play for people like you and I. People are more likely to understand and cheer for a quadruple-kill Genji Dragonblade than they are for a life-saving Lucio Sound Barrier, even if the impact of both is equal. Those that play the game daily and those that don’t are watching pros play on the big screens in the new Blizzard esports arena. The demands for the game have shifted dramatically, especially when it comes to the role of support. As someone who has been here from the beginning for a lot of the same reasons as me, how do you think this competitive side of the game has affected the role of support, and how does Overwatch League play into that?

If you want to watch a video version:

Part 2 of the letter series coming soon.

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Editing for this essay was courtesy of Tyler Colp as well as Nico Deyo.