​What Overwatch could learn from Dota 2's support characters

Overwatch - Mercy

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2 and wizards in general. To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

I've written a whole lot about playing support over the years. It's one of the most interesting and challenging ways to play Dota 2 and, traditionally, the least appreciated. "Nobody likes to play support, yet everybody likes to win" is the pertinent Bastion announcer pack quote here (there's one of those for every occasion, it seems.)

Appreciation of (and eagerness for) support play increases with the engagement level of the Dota fan, I find. This is a community that valorises difficulty in almost all of its forms, and playing support is difficult—particularly in pub games, where you have a whole bunch of other social stresses to deal with too. Professional supports are often seen as underdogs, and appreciating their performance is something that tends to come after a viewer has learned to follow, say, a professional carry.

Both of these things make it appealing to cheer for, and to be seen to cheer for, supports. Universe's $6m Echo Slam was a rallying cry for cash-strapped position four Earthshakers everywhere, a moment when the underdog got to suddenly and dramatically become the overdog. I could go on about how great fy is again, but I probably don't need to at this point. fy is the best.

It's here that you bump into one of the Dota community's defining contradictions: read Reddit or Twitter or watch streams for long enough and you'll see a lot of appreciation for excellent support play. Play actual Dota for long enough and you'll come to see the person who willingly picks support as a precious golden angel: an island of sense and magnanimity in a sea of people who are going to play mid or carry or jungle and that's the end of it. Everybody likes to cheer for supports, yet only a handful volunteer to play them.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of a different game: Overwatch, which entered closed beta on Tuesday. I'd played the game before at Road to Blizzcon in Prague, but this week has been the first chance I've had to see it in the wild—to assess it in the unforgiving light of actual online matchmaking. There's a lot I love about Overwatch (and I plan to write a bunch more about it) but I think it fails support players. In thinking about the reasons why, I've identified something that Dota does particularly well.

First, let's do the disclosure dance.

  • Overwatch is in beta! It's not finished yet. Things will likely change!
  • Overwatch is in beta! The current playerbase is small and self-selecting. Things will likely change!
  • Overwatch is in beta! The current playerbase is new to the game. Things will likely change!

I don't think the problems I have with Overwatch's support characters are mitigated by the second two points on that list, incidentally—but we'll see. These are first impressions, after all.

As a hybrid of FPS and MOBA, Overwatch's characters inherit design ideas from both. They get movement powers and guns from the former, special abilities and ultimates from the latter. At its best, the two enhance each other: you get to enjoy both FPS finesse and MOBA drama, the satisfaction of landing a headshot matched with the satisfaction of deploying a clutch ult.

The majority of characters blend these two. Pharah plays like a rocket-flinging Quake 3 character with a jetpack most of the time, but her channeled ult feels like dropping the Death Ward of your life when you get it right. Zarya is a tank with the ability to shield herself and others, but she matches that relatively passive power with a gratifying energy grenade launcher and an ult that is basically Overwatch's version of Black Hole.

In this context, Overwatch's support design feels rather flat. Mercy is designed to attach to another character and either heal them or enhance their damage with a beam of energy. Her movement power is interesting—she can fly to any ally she can see—but it only serves to reinforce the idea that her job is simply to glue herself to a friendly and not die. This Mercy 'play of the match' is currently glued to the top of Overwatch reddit as an example of how anticlimactic it can be to play this way. She's a bit like TF2's Medic, but she doesn't have an 'Ubercharge' moment: there's no point where she crosses a threshold and becomes the most important person on the map, even with an ally's help. Her ultimate revives every currently-dead teammate: very useful, certainly, and sometimes clutch, but it’s about recovering from a disaster rather than spectacularly bringing one about for the other team.

Lucio is similar, as much as I want to like him. He has an aura that he can toggle between speed and healing, and he can activate a power to boost the aura for a time. His sonic weapon is rubbish compared to what everyone else gets to play with (except maybe Mercy's pathetic pistol) and his ult grants a shield to everybody in an AoE around him. Again, useful—but only insofar as it allows your allies to get more done.

Zeynatta and Symmetra both have higher skill ceilings and are slightly more diverse in their roles. Symmetra is good at locking down an area but is ineffective if the enemy goes a different way, and Zeynatta has good damage potential but drops quickly if he draws attention. Again, both ultimates feel rather passive: Symmetra builds a TF2-style teleporter, Zeynatta becomes invulnerable, loses his ability to attack, and heals allies in an AoE. That said, I like them a lot more: they offer room for greater successes and deeper failures than Lucio or Mercy.

Crystal Maiden Snowdrop

I'm confident that, given time, players will find creative, impactful and effective ways to use Zeynatta and Symmetra. I'm less confident about Mercy and Lucio, yet it's notable how one-sided the game becomes as soon as they arrive. The healing they put out is a huge advantage to the team that has it, often ending games outright: yet it's a boring way to play, with few opportunities to be a playmaker in your own right. Overwatch's shooter heritage manifests as a tendency for players to pick snipers and assassins over every other type of character. Often, winning is a case of being the only person willing to play the babysitter role. You end up in this strange hinterland: useful to your team, but limited to going through the motions. You know how sometimes people get their newbie friends to pick Crystal Maiden, max her aura, and just hang around giving everybody mana regeneration? It feels a bit like that.

Dota 2 taught me that being a babysitter doesn't also need to be boring. Often, the characters who are asked to take the most on in terms of supporting their team are also given powerful, teamfight-turning ultimates to balance it out. Warlock is a slow, rather passive-feeling character in some ways: he has a heal-over-time, a big slow, can force enemies to share damage. But he's also a playmaker. Chaotic Offering, when it lands, is a big moment. You have to buy wards and the courier, more than likely, but you also get to bring the hammer down every now and then.

Imagine Warlock if his ultimate was just a souped-up Crimson Guard. You heal, you shield, you cast your debuffs, you try not to die and hope your team wins. That's how it feels to play support in Overwatch a lot of the time. You simply aren't given access to the big toys.

What it comes down to is this: in Dota, I think the people who sneer at playing support are wrong. I think there is a vast amount of evidence, from the pro scene down, that shows that support play is just as gratifying and just as big a demonstration of skill as any other way of playing the game. Crystal Maiden is a support, but also a playmaker. So is Earthshaker, Warlock, Io, and so on. You're not just a robot that dispenses healing, mana or damage mitigation: you get power spikes too.

I sigh whenever another Overwatch draft rolls out as Hanzo, Reaper, Widowmaker, Bastion, Bastion, Soldier 76—but I also get it. These characters are where the clutch snipes and unstoppable killing sprees come from. They are the ones that, more likely than not, you are going to see in the end-of-game highlights reel. They get rockets and grenades and grappling hooks and magic dragons and one of them can turn into a tank. It makes complete sense to me that, given the choice, you'd choose this over holding RMB and LMB over an ally for fifteen minutes.

To return to that disclosure: this is a game in beta. It's also a very promising game. This is the one area where I want to see a major change, where I want to look back in a year or so and say "man, remember Mercy's ult in beta? That was so boring, I'm glad they changed it." All of that is possible. But I'd like Overwatch, and any other role-based team game, to learn this lesson from Dota 2: nobody likes to play support, so give them big, powerful reasons to try it.

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Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.