It has been a couple of years since Jorge Albor wrote “In Support of Supports,” an essay here at PopMatters written to argue that “the true unsung heroes of class-based games are the support champions and their designers” (“In Support of Supports”, PopMatters, 24 May 2012). In the essay (to my thinking at least), Albor pretty accurately identified that it is typically the damage dealers in class-based games like MOBAs and MMOs that “get all the love,” observing that “their flurry of sword strikes, bestial roars, and shadowy auras give the deadliest avatars an edge in popularity contests.”
Again, I think this is generally true in my experience playing the MOBA League of Legends. It’s that Master Yi who goes 1v5, managing to Pentakill an entire team that his fellow teammates frequently give the accolades for “carrying the game” for the team. That being said, at the time that I read Albor’s defense of the importance and significance of the support classes, the characters that manage to keep those glass cannons safe or buff their team up so that those other “more important” characters can efficiently melt an entire team, I did comment on the fact that these unsung are not entirely unsung and that maybe not all the love goes to the most lethal members of a team.
I certainly sympathize with Albor’s argument as I have largely specialized in support classes throughout my time playing class-based games like MMOs and MOBAs. When the dust settles after a victory, your KDA of 0/2/16 looks far less impressive than the 15/6/7 score of your primary carry. You know yourself that you pulled off some clutch saves at critical moments and that you kept the map warded in a game like League so that your fragile dealers of death didn’t get caught out by the other team, but those moments aren’t really revealed in those end game stats or even noticed by the rest of the team at all, even if many of those “minor acts” really were game changing.
That being said, as I noted in my response to Albor at the time, my own experience (especially in MMOs) makes me believe that “that support characters are far from shunned.” Again, especially in MMOs, these kinds of characters are some of the most often sought after by parties that are forming to go dive a dungeon, especially because fewer players play as supports. In League, which is a bit different, since “parties” are always formed prescriptively as five man teams with a support considered one of the essential members of such a team (though a role often left to the player who gets to pick last), they aren’;t exactly “sought after,” just expected to be part of the team. While no one usually cheers my large number of assists in postgame chat when I play support, I do have to say that I do get lots of “thank yous” from players when I do play this role. When you do shield a person just in time or pull that last ditch heal or knock up the other team with a well placed tornado from a character like Janna so that your team can make a narrow escape from a fight that has gone badly, people are appreciative and do let you know it.
It’s the immediacy of what supports do that often leads to immediate, brief accolades. No, these moments aren’t quite the same as how other players suggest that a particular fighter character seemed to “win the whole game” for the team. But they remain moments that satisfy some of that need for acknowledgment that you play your role well.
To me, instead, the truly unsung role of the class-based game is the tank (who in League sometimes doubles in the support role). The tank is probably the second least likely role to be adopted by most players and maybe it is the nature of the job that makes it less popular, less flashy. The tank’s job is to start fights, to get beat up, to make sure when his team begins to engage the other team that he continues to get beat up, and to die if it is useful to do so. The tank’s job is to take punishment.
Most true tank characters are of course very beefy, built on health, armor, and magic resistance items, not damage dealing items. Tanks usually deal low to moderate damage. Their job is to start fights, disrupt the other team, peel threatening opponents away from your weaker allies, and most of all to cause so much disruption that the other team just focuses on you. The longer you keep their attention, the longer your team has to kill the other team, and the longer the other team has time to kill you, which is a paradoxically a good thing. The tank’s “skills” are not really skills. They are character traits: will and endurance. Oh, and having no particular fear of death helps, too.
If you are the last man standing on your team and the other team has survivors, you did your job poorly. If you are not the last man standing, but watching a respawn timer tick away until you return from death and your teammates are the sole survivors of a teamfight, you did your job just fine. And guess what? It is rare indeed that any of them will notice, since they are too busy charging that final tower victoriously while clapping each other on the back for their own excellent plays.
Being the tank is a thankless job, but a necessary one.
I said that I largely specialize in support classes in games. There is something I enjoy about a character class that Albor defines as one “that specifically stands back from the fray, setting aside offensive prowess for ostensibly subtle benefits.” But there is something of the tactician in my soul as well as in the pleasures of managing and monitoring my team’s health and figuring out who needs help that again satisfies something very essential in my personality.
However, the second most common role in games of this sort that I usually take on is that of the tank. I think that there is something about the nature of the role that likewise appeals to something basic in me, or if not appeals to me, that I just find familiar and comfortable enough to settle into the role easily.
Growing up, I was never much of an athlete. I was a small kid and a rather slow learner of anything of a physical nature. I feared gym class as a period of personal humiliation. I was always last picked. I was never the biggest kid, never the strongest kid, never the fastest kid.
During one year in junior high, the gym teachers decided to separate the classes that met during one hour in the gym into three levels: advanced, average, and unskilled. Guess which group I ended up in? Even among the unskilled, I struggled with the sports we played. However, one day, a girl that I knew who had broken her leg (and, thus, couldn’t dress out for gym for some time) was standing next to my gym teacher just as that teacher had sent my class out to run laps. While most members of my unskilled group were better athletes than myself, none of them cared a bit about running and warm-up drills. They walked the four laps. I ran them. The gym teacher turned to the girl I knew and said, “The only one who wants an A in this class is Williams.” I was never the biggest kid, never the strongest kid, never the fastest kid, but I could endure. I had will.
Much of this attitude comes from my own father, I think. He was a man who never ended up doing a job that he liked or was proud of. However, he never complained about it. And when he injured himself in his 30s when sheet of dry wall fell on him, he continued working a job he didn’t like and that was increasingly breaking down his body because it was necessary to keep food on the table. Honestly, he just never stopped, nor complained. He was the tank.
So, I guess where I am really going with all of this is not that I wish to argue that the tank is the most unappreciated role because it is largely one of punishment that is left unsung, but instead that I want to argue that maybe the tank is the most noble role in class-based games. Video games are, after all, virtual spaces, spaces of emblems and symbols that represent the world and represent ideas. What the tank is emblematic of is determination, endurance, willpower, all noble traits, made more noble for practicing these qualities without complaint. Oh, and, again, having no particular fear of death helps, too.