Showing Support[s].

From rumoured $20 million franchise buy-ins, to a brand new stadium in Los Angeles, it’s clear Blizzard want eSports and the Overwatch League to be big. For all that investment to be justified they will need to grow their audience beyond the people who traditionally watch eSports. This is going to be challenging if those involved continue to focus the eSports experience primarily on DPS heroes and twitch skill.

The preseason exhibition matches for the Overwatch League have recently concluded. Mercy has become a staple of the meta, and with a few exceptions every match saw two of the six players on each team playing a support hero. Still the majority of coverage was focused on the DPS heroes, with in some cases an entire game being shown exclusively from the perspective of a single player on Widowmaker.

Overwatch is a popular game, 35 million players and counting. An undeniable aspect of its success is the game’s roster of heroes, and the varied play styles they support. Heroes that don’t require pure twitch skill are popular due to their characterisation, while their design means they can be played at a high level by those lacking a history with first-person shooters. From fandom to the game itself, tank and support characters are a big part of Overwatch‘s appeal. It’s clear that many in the community prefer to play these roles, and don’t want to focus exclusively on killing members of the opposing team.

A frequent topic in the Overwatch community is the state of Mercy. Her ability to Resurrect dead heroes – bringing them back into the fight – is inherently difficult to balance. The argument as it pertains to eSports is that this ability makes the game “boring”, diminishing the impact of individual kills. This speaks to the assumption underlying a lot of the Mercy discourse: good support play simply isn’t entertaining, only killing is. This is often broadened to suggest that only skilled plays by DPS heroes are what the audience care about.

Character defining ability, or over-powered crutch? Mercy’s Resurrect can undo other skilled plays, and will therefore always be contentious.

My first experience watching any eSport was Overwatch, with season 2 of OGN’s APEX tournament. I was lucky in that this tournament featured not only Ryu “Ryujehong” Je-Hong’s incredible Ana, but also some amazing Reinhardt play from Ryu “KAISER” Sang-hoon. Both of these players weren’t simply playing well, they were shown to be playing well. The broadcasts stayed with them, showing what skilled support and tank play looks like. I’d played several hours of Ana before watching Ryujehong play, after seeing his positioning in fights, and ability to fire off life saving Sleep Darts all I wanted to do when I played was focus on getting better at Ana; I now have ~60 hours of playtime with her. I’d always enjoyed playing Reinhardt; my twitch skills aren’t what they once were, but the sheer number of hours I’ve spent playing first-person shooters means my game sense is still strong. Watching KAISER I saw immediate ways to improve my own Reinhardt play, and was able to gain an understanding of exactly what being a “good tank” meant.

If I’d not seen these players showing off high level play on heroes I cared about I doubt I’d have become as invested in the game as I have. If Blizzard want Overwatch eSports to reach as large an audience as possible, they should look to the reasons the game is already popular: the variety of heroes and play styles it offers.

During the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, South Korea’s Mercy player Yang “Tobi” Jin-mo was consistently able to find ways to Resurrect players the commentators had already decided he’d never be able to reach. Time and again Tobi was somehow able to reach flankers and tanks that had died in dangerous positions and revive them, turning the tide of fights, and in no small way contributing to South Korea’s eventual World Cup success. I say “somehow” because not a single one of these was shown on the broadcast. Nor were they the subject of a post game slow-motion analysis, despite these tools being explicitly added to allow for replays of vital moments that would otherwise have been missed. A big part of South Korea’s ability to keep fighting simply got no coverage. How many Mercy players might have discovered a favourite player if Tobi’s skills had been given time on screen? How many might have become more invested in Overwatch as a game and an eSport by watching a hero they cared about played at a professional level?

Watching highly skilled players on “your” hero is inspiring, joyous. Not only does it encourage you to keep watching, it also feeds back into the game, increasing your desire to play with that hero. Players willing and able to play tanks and supports are vital to the sustainability of the Overwatch community. Blizzard and those involved in the Overwatch League can help encourage those players by highlighting skilled tank and support play, and not assuming that twitch skills are the only aspects of the game the audience care about.