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Reaction to TikTok’s Overwatch meme misses the original video’s intention

How a positive message became a way to bully others

Marcy in Overwatch
Blizzard Entertainment

Last year, a cute song about Overwatch called “No Mercy” was published on YouTube, racking up more than 34 million views. It’s catchy and charming, but it also addresses some of the stigmas associated with playing support characters in a game like Overwatch. The original song and video’s goal was to usher in a wave of positivity within the Overwatch community to showcase that men shouldn’t automatically assume women will play support roles. But reaction to a new TikTok meme does the complete opposite.

TikTok is one of the fastest-growing apps in the world. It allows users (mostly teens and young adults) to perform karaoke, bust out complex choreography, try their hand at comedy, or show off their cosplay skills. The app’s editing suite offers a more interactive experience, including split-screen capabilities, which allow users to reply to and remix another person’s work. It’s TikTok’s split screen that’s directly influenced the latest Overwatch meme iteration.

While some TikTok users have used it to stage their own karaoke sessions, taking on the duet with other TikTok Overwatch aficionados, others have abused the tool to make fun of the people who are participating in the meme. A collection of examples is available in the compilation below.

The goal is to make fun of people, often young women, who are singing along to the song with a PlayStation or Xbox controller in their hand. Popular YouTubers like PewDiePie have picked up on the meme, including it in their TikTok Cringe roundups, racking up millions of views. Women, often dressed in cosplay as Overwatch characters, become something to poke fun at, going against everything the original song and video stood for.

It reiterates an ongoing trend in gaming where terms like “fake gamer girl” are thrown around, and women are challenged on their knowledge of gaming. There’s a demand for women on TikTok to answer for their performances, even when that has nothing to do with their actual intention. These are cosplayers and TikTok users looking to jump in on a fun trend going viral on a popular app; mocking women for holding a PlayStation controller a certain way or acting “cringey” takes away from people having fun on the app, and it bleeds into bullying territory.

Tom Jenkins, the co-creator of popular YouTube channel Mashed’s original “No Mercy” video, told The Verge that it’s challenging when an online reaction becomes so popular that the message of the original thing it’s commenting on gets lost. Although the meme does help drive traffic and attention back to Mashed’s original video, Jenkins says it is discouraging to see a positive message get turned into a way for TikTok users to make fun of each other.

“I don’t like content of any kind that revels in people hating stuff,” Jenkins says. “It can be toxic, and it’s quite damaging. From a business perspective, it drives traffic and stuff like that, but that’s not the way that we’ve ever tried to drive traffic on the channel. We’ve always had a positive approach, and we like to believe in a type of karma. Do good stuff and people will be good back to you, and that’s the way to make good content.

“In terms of it becoming a bit of a pariah, and this thing that is kind of a lightning rod for rage, I’m disappointed that’s the way it has gone,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins is experiencing what many other YouTube creators and artists have gone through. Memes often become more popular than the original piece of work they’re inspired by, and they can reshape how a specific song, image, or video is interpreted by people. The most prominent example is Matt Furie, who created Pepe the Frog. Furie has fought back against the alt-right’s co-option of Pepe for years. He’s even killed the character and launched legal attacks against sites that use it, with some success.

TikTok’s interpretation of “No Mercy” isn’t Pepe the Frog, but Jenkins does feel ownership over the original message. He isn’t the song’s composer, but his team put so much effort into animating the video to carry out a positive message.

“I guess in the media landscape now, where remakes or edits and viral videos and sequels happen all the time… it’s just a natural kind of byproduct of this constant recycling and realigning of content,” Jenkins says.

Unlike Furie, Jenkins hasn’t tried to fight the meme from spreading. He also hasn’t embraced it. Jenkins is a YouTube veteran, and he understands that being part of the community means accepting that these kinds of memes are just part of being successful.

“We haven’t tried to fight it. And the reason is not because we don’t feel like we’d like to fight it, but more that I feel like it’s impossible to nullify and push back against it,” Jenkins says. “I think that sometimes by trying to fight back, if you don’t have an equal weighting or some sort of support to make that happen, you’re just feeding the trolls. If you’re fighting it, that’s almost the end goal for a lot of people.”

The rush of TikTok memes making the front page of YouTube is new to Jenkins, but he admits that he’s not seeking them out. He’s waiting for the meme to die down and for TikTok’s users to move on to the next viral sensation that doesn’t have anything to do with Overwatch or his video. In the meantime, he confesses he’s enjoying the attention his video is getting, telling The Verge he’s still immensely proud of what his team created.