Let me conjure up a picture for you: You’re in a competitive lobby, and you load in first. You pick a strong Offense champion; you’re on a hot streak and you’re confident that you can carry. Everyone else locks in their picks, and then you see it. The dreaded yellow banner reading ‘NO SUPPORT HEROES’. At this point, you have to make the decision on whether you take one for the team and pick support, or whether you go ahead and keep your suboptimal team comp.
On one hand, this is a common problem with nearly all competitive games. Picking a team comp that can stand up to the competition is just part of the game; it’s not necessarily a design flaw that you can’t pick six DPS heroes and completely roll the enemy team. However, the game is so reliant on supports—and to be more concise, healers—that the support heroes become a black hole of balance, constantly dragging the meta game around them.
If you don’t pick a healer (preferably two), the game is considered lost before it even begins. Right now, there are four healers: Mercy, Zenyatta, Lucio, and Ana. Not all healers are created equal, however. Some of the healing cast have extremely defined strengths and weaknesses. Zenyatta is a tank shredder who can only prop up one ally at a time, and can be easily eliminated himself. Ana is a strong single target healer, but she has a high skill floor.
What about Mercy and Lucio? In theory, Lucio is the AOE healer who should struggle at defending high priority targets. In reality, Lucio has consistently been perma-picked in the pro scene, and his low skill floor means that he’s a perfectly fine pick for healers of all skill levels in solo queue games. Mercy, on the other hand, has a binary kit with an ultimate the developers have admitted is frustrating. She’s either incredibly strong, or leaves something to be desired.
When you have such a small pool of healing heroes, it makes sense that their strength is so binary. There are eight Offense heroes, compared to five Supports (four healers, one Symmetra). If you count Defense heroes as part of a greater DPS pool, then there are fourteen heroes dedicated towards damage of some kind. Even Tanks have a higher headcount, with six options to choose from.
It’s also worth nothing that tanks are more accessible. The only tank rated as ‘hard’ is Zarya. Meanwhile, Zenyatta and Ana are both rated as Hard, and Mercy is the only character rated as easy—and her skill ceiling is still incredibly high, especially if you’re playing in competitive and the enemy team knows how to hunt you down.
When you get into a game, the pressure to have someone pick a healer is through the roof, and the role has picked up a bad reputation. Blizzard has worked hard to make Support a viable, fun role with big moments, and there’s a lot of fun in getting a Lucio boop triple kill or five man Mercy rez. These high points are diminished when you’re constantly getting the “I need healing!” spam, or yelled at over voice chat for not being in the right place at the right time. Even if you’re doing great, there’ll still be that little voice in the back of your head reminding you that you’d be having way more fun if you were playing a character with more offensive tools in their arsenal.
It’s a tough problem, but there are a few solutions. The first is to add more healers to the pool, giving more selection. It’s not something we can expect immediately, especially since we just got Doomfist, but another choice would shake up the meta considerably. When Ana was released, it took a while for teams to figure her out, but then Ana had her time in the spotlight. Who doesn’t remember the Beyblade meta fondly, when a nanoboosted Reaper would tear through teams? Even triple tank was an interesting alternative to the norm.
The second alternative is to consider whether a support needs to heal at all. Blizzard did not move Symmetra out of the support category on her rework, and that was a controversial decision. Sombra, despite being an Offense, is often played in a supportive capacity. She focuses less on doing damage and more on shutting down priority targets, making health packs more accessible, and using her EMP to set up big plays.
Ultimately, we’re going to be stuck with healers for a long time. Blizzard has worked hard to make the Supports of the roster as endearing, charismatic, and interesting as the Offense characters. The problem isn’t that they exist, or even that you need to pick one or two to win a game. We just wish we had more options, or that each healer was considered an equally strong pick. In the meantime, while we wait for a solution, we should at least try to be nice to the poor Mercy solo healing our competitive game.