Released in May 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment, Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) that has quickly taken centre-stage in the gaming world. In a landscape already saturated with FPS games, what makes this one so different?
Perhaps a successful new IP was to be expected from the developers of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo. But what makes Overwatch unique, is that it appeals to diverse audiences with its similarly diverse content, a hard find in an industry still dominated by white male developers who cater primarily to gamers like themselves.
Overwatch has garnered an avid fan-base and a burgeoning competitive scene, surpassing 30 million players as of April 2017 across PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It has also amassed an intriguing collection of lore that spans across a variety of mediums.
Set on a futuristic Earth where robots (known in-universe as Omnics) have gained sentience and turned against humanity, the original “Overwatch” organization was an international task-force that ended the war, kept the peace, and tried to prevent new crises from arising. As with most powerful global organizations, however, corruption soon tore it apart and ended its official operation. The game’s main timeline begins after the fall of Overwatch, when ex-member Winston—a scientist and gorilla who was raised on the moon—recalls the old team to face the new threats to the world.
As a class-based shooter like Team Fortress 2, Overwatch features heroes who each have their own role to play on the team. However, Overwatch takes its narrative aspect much farther, incorporating unique skills and abilities that are rooted in each hero’s backstory. From Tracer, a spunky British pilot who can blink through time; to D.Va, a South Korean eSports idol in her tanky mech; to Lucio, a black Brazilian DJ and freedom fighter who supports the team through sound waves; to Bastion, a decommissioned battle unit with PTSD accompanied by a small bird on its shoulder; Overwatch’s characters span cultures and professions, ages and races.
A relatable international cast makes Overwatch appeal to audiences world-wide, and the development team has made it clear that representation is a priority. Jeff Kaplan, the game director of Overwatch, has said that the team “want[s] everybody to feel kick-butt,” alluding to the role that heroes play in this universe and in pop culture in general. They recognize the importance of acknowledging that anybody can be a hero.
The follow up to these ideals has been significant as well; for example, when Tracer’s over-sexualized victory pose stirred up controversy early in the game’s beta period, Blizzard listened to fan critique and changed the pose to better fit Tracer’s overall depiction. This change occurred in spite of the protests from other fans who accused the team of pandering, as well as limiting free speech. The decision to put the concerns of problematic representation above adherence to the status quo is a promising sign of Blizzard’s commitment to inclusion in gaming, and an acknowledgement of the way gaming audiences have changed.
Overwatch is perhaps the embodiment of ludonarrative dissonance, a phenomenon where the gameplay doesn’t necessarily match the plot of the story. This is how mortal enemies like Reaper and Soldier: 76 can be on the same team, defending a magical artifact they would canonically be fighting over from an attacking team that might consist of Russian weightlifter Zarya and Omnic monk Zenyatta, despite Zarya’s hatred of Omnics.
Overwatch allows for maximum gameplay potential using its team-based structure without sacrificing its rich world-building and ongoing speculative narrative. Players can choose how much to engage with the lore, whether just through playing the game and picking up references to the deeper story, or through reading each new comic and following the animated shorts for clues about alliances and histories.
Multiple mediums such as comics, animated shorts, social media, and even alternate reality games expand upon the lore and characters of the game. The compelling narrative of Overwatch has gained many followers, some of whom have never even played the game. Fan art and fiction of the characters in various canonical and alternate universe situations proliferate in online communities, as well as shipping of just about every possible character combination (a number of queer couples in particular). Not to mention the impressive amount of pornographic content that existed even before the game’s official release.
Fans enthusiastically follow the developer updates and hunt for clues about upcoming characters and maps. Beyond the addition of permanent content, however, the game also has constant updates that reflect real-world events, such as the summer Olympics or the Lunar New Year. The events create a link between the futuristic setting and the real-time experiences of its players. Limited-time cosmetic items and game modes come with these events, and sometimes they have accompanying narrative context that occurs outside of the game.
For example, the heartwarming winter wonderland comic “Reflections” that was released near the end of December portrays a number of the primary cast celebrating the holidays. The main plot of the comic follows Tracer as she urgently searches for a present for her lover, who is revealed to be a woman after months of speculation about canonically queer characters in the cast. Since the main face of such a popular game is queer, and in such a relatable and normalized way, that sends a strong message about Blizzard’s intentions for diverse representation in the game going forward. Queer representation is no longer relegated to fandom, and the developers are actively creating characters with diversity in mind while attempting to avoid tokenization.
This is why it’s so significant that Overwatch won Game of the Year in the 2016 Game Awards, and continues to boast a growing community with developer support more than halfway through 2017. In a time when the real world could definitely use a few more heroes, seeing a popular multiplayer game strive to represent the increasingly diversified community of gamers in empowering ways is uplifting. Overwatch’s success gives me hope that the often misogynistic and white-dominated world of gaming is experiencing a long overdue change. Although new conflicts arise and old ones grow more complex in the futuristic world of Overwatch, those with the power to make an impact come from many different backgrounds. Perhaps we can all imagine a future in which anybody can be a hero.
As Tracer says at the end of the launch trailer, “the world could always use more heroes.” Her words carry a sentiment we can all take to heart.
-Contributed by Victoria Liao