The year that seemed determined to crush hopes and smother dreams did have a few bright spots. For instance, the biggest competitive video game of 2016 also happens to be impressively diverse.
Created from the ashes (and creative assets) of a canceled MMO game known as Titan, Overwatch was almost an afterthought, an attempt to scrape something useful out of seven years of work. Now the competitive shooter is so popular that publisher Activision Blizzard is creating its own official esports league for it.
One of the biggest draws of the game, even for people who don’t actually play it (but are more than happy to spread its name and buy its merchandise), is the diversity of its characters. And though Overwatch has been out for months now, something that adds to that was just recently revealed: Tracer, the cheery young woman on the cover, the character whose likeness is incorporated into the Overwatch League logo, is officially a lesbian.
Add her to a cast including a pink-haired brute of a Russian woman, an Indian woman on the autism spectrum, a pair of Japanese brothers, a Korean competitive gaming darling turned mech pilot, a full-figured Chinese woman climate scientist, an idealistic Brazilian musician, an older Egyptian woman whose daughter is also a playable character, Latin@s, robots, an intelligent gorilla…
The parade of grim white men on video game covers over the last several years has been meme-worthy. And in an industry where a fantasy world full of white people and elves is excused as “historical accuracy” (Witcher, I’m looking at you), seeing so much diversity in a way that feels casual and organic is an unexpected delight.
Amusingly, the American characters – Captain America-meets-Cable Soldier: 76 and literal cowboy McCree – are every bit as much cultural archetypes as anyone else. No generic = American bias here, no default whiteness.
Among the sort of people who unironically use terms like “waifu,” Tracer’s coming-out, in an official tie-in comic released in December, caused a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth. Forum posters compared their anguish to being shot, then demanded refunds, saying not disclosing that the mascot character was a lesbian amounted to false advertising.
Blizzard, didn’t care.
Of course, elsewhere in the fandom, everyone in the game is L, G, B, T and/or Q, but having official representation goes far beyond romantic fanfiction and fanart. Having it come in the form of a character who is so prominent in the game’s marketing and fiction was entirely unexpected and entirely welcome.
Hopefully, Overwatch will set an example for other studios in more than just game design. Since Starcraft and Warcraft III, Blizzard has created characters who have remained iconic. In bringing that skill to a near-future setting, they’ve set a standard for the entire industry to live up to.
And for those like me who care: Tracer’s girlfriend is named Emily and she’s adorable.