Playing a support class in a multiplayer game is a strangely contradictory decision. Competitive multiplayer games are almost always about empowerment, about kicking as much ass as you possibly can and being named the Best Ass-Kicker That Ever Was. Multiplayer games have score screens that praise the most skillful ass-kickers and lead to derision of the less-skilled ones. They emphasize kill-death ratios, the ultimate measurement of a player’s skill, and, despite the team focus of these games, tend to hold personal kill performance above all else. This makes playing a support class kind of go against the ethos of this style of gaming. If multiplayer games are all about killing as many players as you can, then why would anyone want to play a class that, if they’re doing their job right, doesn’t get any kills? Well, it seems that, despite the importance of support roles in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, World of WarCraft, etc., not to many people want to play them. I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch since its release last month, and I’ve ended up playing primarily as Mercy and Lucio, two of the game’s primary healer classes, not because I find them more fun, but because no one else will. One encounter that I have every three games like clockwork is a starting phase where no one has chosen support, and the one guy playing Reaper (it’s always Reaper) starts yelling at the team in chat for someone to play support. When people suggest to this player that he, perhaps, play support, he suspiciously goes silent. So, I end up playing Mercy or Lucio again. So it would seem that not too many people want to play support classes, and most players will end up fighting over the few attack/damage roles.
If this is the case, and support really is antithetical to the ethos of multiplayer gaming, then why do I enjoy playing these support roles so much? Yeah, I’m annoyed that I’m usually boxed in to playing them, but I’ve been having a blast playing healers. The primary reason for this, I’ve found, is the type of rewards you get for playing support. When you’re playing a damage-focused character like Reaper, Genji or Bastion, you get a lot of mechanical rewards, like high kill streaks, crazy plays of the game, and medals on the score screen. But, when you’re playing support, you get something different: social rewards. When I get an insane kill streak as Pharah, the other players on my team mostly ignore it unless it is particularly game-changing. However, when I jump into the middle of four dead teammates as Mercy and resurrect all of them at just the right moment, I get compliments, thanks and praise for doing so. This type of social reward is why I enjoy playing support so much. It is not about doing the best I personally can, like getting 40 kills in a match, it’s about helping others do the best they can, and feeling a sense of vicarious accomplishment. The role feels more like that of a parent or teacher, oddly enough. Instead of kicking ass yourself, you’re helping other people do it instead.
But there is a serious tradeoff there. Blizzard ranks Mercy as one of the easiest characters to play, and, I’ll admit, there’s not as much second-to-second mechanical depth to her. You’re making decisions about who to fly to in order to heal and where to position yourself, but you don’t have the skill of twitch aiming or ability timing. Mercy’s healing wave, afterall, isn’t a skill shot, you just hover over the player you want to heal and lock on. So, whenever I play a healer, I always feel like I’m trading mechanical depth for social enjoyment. This isn’t as true in games like World of WarCraft, healing there is much more complicated, but I do still feel that tradeoff. Blizzard has tried to acknowledge this with tricks such as removing the kill-death focused scoreboard and replacing it with objective-based medals, but there is still a long way to go.
And this comes with another problem: what if your team is a bunch of insufferable assholes? I’ve had this problem time and time again: I get grouped with players who are toxic as all hell, constantly ask me to heal them when the entire team is at half health, and spew slur-infused bile at me in chat when they die. This makes games as a damage or tank character annoying, but it makes games a support near unbearable. If most of your reward for playing the game is social, then when that social reward is removed, you have nothing to fall back on. If you’re playing a game with a bad team as a damage character, you can still get kills from time to time, which at least give you something to enjoy, but a support, the game just becomes grueling. Most of the time when I stop playing Overwatch, it is because of games like that.
In this model, support is a class that works fundamentally differently from damage or tank classes. Supports have a much larger gulf in enjoyment from game-to-game, and much less minute-to-minute enjoyment. Basically, if you have a good team, you’re probably going to have an experience that is consistently enjoyable, and if you have a bad team, the game will just suck. Because I’m usually playing Overwatch with a group of friends, I can more easily avoid those bad games, and I’m not quite sure how Blizzard could fix that. Maybe they can’t, maybe they just want you to play with friends instead of alone. And, in a style of game focused around personal empowerment despite having all of this potential for team play, I think a bit of a tradeoff is acceptable.