In the past month, the healer Mercy in Overwatch has experienced an unprecedented boom in popularity across all competitive levels, especially in the highest tiers.
The big spike in Mercy usage coincides with a massive overhaul of her abilities, courtesy of a patch implemented on September 19. These huge changes have sparked debate in the Overwatch community about how pro players influence the game, and whether Blizzard's pivot into the esports business has changed the game.
Before Mercy's update, the Overwatch community used to lambaste the character for being a "one trick pony" who was supposedly easy to master. Mercy rarely appeared on pro teams.
Now, though, that seems likely to change, given that many Overwatch pros love the redesign and believe it was a long time coming.
"Old Mercy wasn't very interactive or mechanically demanding at all," said Nikola "Sleepy" Andrews, the support player for San Francisco's Overwatch League team. "Hiding somewhere and popping out to revive your entire team also doesn't take much brains or anything." Sleepy sees the update as a must-have: "Old Mercy wasn't as viable as this new Mercy."
Shane "Rawkus" Flaherty, who plays support and occasionally other roles for FaZe Clan (competitors in the Overwatch World Cup and Overwatch Contenders, the minor league for Overwatch League), agreed with Sleepy's assessment: "She's much stronger and should be picked over most support heros in Ranked, at least for now."
"I think old Mercy was definitely user-friendly," Rawkus went on. "It was a very simple concept: right click heal, left click damage boost, shift to fly and Q to res, with zero aim required in an aim-based game. I think new Mercy requires a lot stronger decision-making."
Nico Deyo, Kotaku's resident Mercy expert, agrees with Rawkus and Sleepy that Mercy is less user-friendly than before.
She sees the changes as emblematic of Overwatch's investment in esports: "This change speaks less to ramping up the overall difficulty of the hero, and more increasing the demands on new players in the game. [Overwatch] is becoming more optimal for competitive esports play and the community that has been a part of that and shooters for a longer time."
"There was a time that I felt that this game really wanted to embrace players of all stripes, particularly about capturing a non-shooter market, a casual market," Deyo went on. "It feels like we're starting to move away from that as Overwatch League becomes an actual business operation."
These changes to Mercy do seem to favour high-level players as opposed to newcomers. Many Overwatch fans have speculated about whether Blizzard cares more about pros than casual players, and the Mercy update has brought that old debate back in full force.
Back in July, the game's director Jeff Kaplan addressed this on Blizzard's forums by saying fans had made "tremendous oversimplifications" in assuming the game's developers "only balance around casuals" or "only balance around pros." Kaplan wrote that the team "spend[s] a lot of time discussing the ramifications at all levels of play."
This time around, though, Kaplan's answer has changed. On September 19, as Overwatch players voiced their doubts about the impending changes to Mercy, the game director sang a different tune:
"Pro players definitely do have an influence on our decision-making. We have a regular conference call with pro players to discuss their thoughts on the balance of the game.
Also, I've extended my email address to many of the pro players I've met over the years and some of them are really great at writing up their thoughts and sharing them with me and the OW team.
The Pros also have a discord channel where some of our developers and support folks hang out to gather feedback. We also get a great report from our esports team that gathers feedback directly from the pro community. So all pros should know that they have a direct line to providing feedback to the OW team and we take it very seriously."
In closing, Kaplan added: "But I don't think any of that should discount the feedback of other non-pro players. Every voice matters…"
Blizzard told Compete that the Overwatch team has their "heads down leading into BlizzCon" and would be unavailable to comment on the extent to which pro players have influenced Mercy's rework.
However, both Sleepy and Rawkus confirmed to Compete that they have had many opportunities to offer suggestions to Overwatch developers.
Sleepy told Compete that he's a part of the "Discord channel only for pro players, with Blizzard devs in it. I've offered feedback on a few things before in that channel, but I can't attest to how much they listen or take in the feedback we give."
Rawkus felt more confident about pro players' influence over the game. "Pros have tons of ways to get in contact with Blizzard developers, and they're constantly listening to our feedback and asking for advice on certain issues," he told Compete. "They don't always do what we want, but they definitely are taking feedback, and I've personally been able to provide feedback directly to developers."
Sleepy and Rawkus still believe further refinements should be made to Mercy's build, though, particularly the length of her Ultimate ability. Rawkus said he hoped Blizzard would "nerf Valkyrie to 12 seconds." Sleepy had the same suggestion: "make it 10 or 15 seconds instead instead of 20." Neither player had big complaints about the new implementation of her resurrection ability, but it's also worth noting that neither player has yet had to play with new Mercy on the tournament stage.
Image by Yong Woo 'Kenzi' Kim / Flickr
Most pros haven't had to compete with new Mercy yet. Blizzard has allowed most tournaments, but not all, to use a server that features an older build of the game, prior to Mercy's patch.
This isn't the first time that Blizzard has inconsistently implemented a patch in pro Overwatch. Last March, Blizzard delayed the release of a patch for participants in the Overwatch APEX series.
Meanwhile, the players in the Overwatch Carbon Series, which Blizzard co-hosted, had to play the newest build of the game. The APEX players got two weeks to practice before the patch went live in competition.
Pros have had far longer than two weeks to try out the Mercy patch, considering it's been over a month and counting. Participants in APEX, the Overwatch World Cup, and Overwatch Contenders have not had access to Mercy's makeover. It seems unlikely that Blizzard would implement the changes before the Overwatch World Cup finals on November 3-4.
Meanwhile, competitors in APAC Premier 2017 have already been playing the game with new Mercy. So far, the APAC teams seem to love Mercy. She's been the go-to healer pick for all teams in almost every match.
The preponderance of Mercy has made these matches feel repetitive to watch, but her update hasn't gone live across the entire pro scene, so it remains to be seen how Mercy's updates will impact the Overwatch spectator experience.
Mercy's makeover doesn't seem fully baked yet, anyway. Based on Rawkus and Sleepy's feedback about the length of Mercy's current Ultimate ability, it seems likely that Blizzard will issue another update or two to Mercy before she makes her debut. Or, at least, the pros seemed to think so. "I do think there will be some more changes to Mercy before Overwatch League begins," Sleepy told Compete.
If there are no further changes, though, both Sleepy and Rawkus believe Mercy could dominate the field this coming year. Sleepy described new Mercy as "practically requiring one of the supports to pick her."
Rawkus agreed that, without further changes, Mercy will continue her reign over competitive play: "easily, Mercy will be near a 100% pick rate." But for pro players? Rawkus didn't seem so certain. "It's hard to tell," he said.
It's also hard to tell whether or not the Overwatch community will continue to hate Mercy. Before her update, Mercy had a reputation as a "low skill" character for newbies. In her current form, Mercy is considered unbalanced and overused. Nico Deyo believes that the hatred of Mercy is about her resurrection skill, but also, about the original design choices and branding of Overwatch.
"What makes Overwatch a compelling antidote to the typical shooter is precisely what makes characters like D.Va and particularly Mercy appealing to those of us who didn't play Call of Duty for hours on end," Deyo said.
"The fact that their abilities that are for protection from failure and death. The primary objective is not killing, but is in fact teamwork. Mercy was a key factor to this idea with resurrection, and I believe at the heart of the anger lies a frustration with that ability."
Rawkus and Sleepy argued the reason they didn't like Mercy before was not due to her resurrection ability, but just because she wasn't powerful enough.
"It's not necessarily that her ult was the 'one trick,'" said Sleepy. "It's that generally people who mainly play Mercy don't really know how to play anything else. It's not necessarily their fault, but Mercy has such a unique playstyle and skill set that doesn't transfer to any other character in the game."
Rawkus, however, more closely mirrored Deyo's suspicions about how pro Overwatch players feel about Mercy and the players who use her. "Mainly the frustration came from Mercy not being strong overall and performance-based SR [skill ratings] putting Mercy 'One Tricks' into rating 1500+ higher than they were originally."
"There are a ton of 'One Trick' Mercy only players," Rawkus went on. "It's an easy hero to pick up due to not requiring aim. I think since the new changes there's been less Mercys high rated. [Mercy players] are slowly adjusting to their real rating."
Now that Mercy is more "viable" in higher-level play, both Rawkus and Sleepy said that the sentiment towards the character has changed, at least for competitors at their level. "No one really gets mad at people playing Mercy now," Rawkus said.
Sleepy noted that "people got upset at Mercy players before," but her updates have made her "a 'must pick' and good at all points."
That may be true for conversations among pros, but it doesn't reflect Nico Deyo's experience at the lower levels of play. When asked about the anger towards Mercy, she said, "I don't feel that it has really changed in essence."
"No matter what, players don't like her and they will continue to not like her as long as she can resurrect people and do a lot of healing — two things that shooter players in general are not used to at all," Deyo went on.
"I think shooter players generally do not want to admit that they do not like the idea of disempowerment as a fundamental feature in a game that sells them a skill fetish and a power fantasy."
No matter the motivation, there's no going back from these Mercy changes. For pro players, that's good news. For everyone else? Overwatch just got a little more exclusionary.