Overwatch presents lore that makes the game seem like a welcoming, diverse community, but the players themselves seem to have other ideas for how people should be treated while playing Overwatch. So what happens when someone decides to play the game because of the lore and encounters the real-world actions of toxic players in the Overwatch community?
It’s not pretty. I know, because I went through it.
Content warning: The following text contains a homophobic slur.
Why I play Overwatch
Blizzard recently revealed that Soldier: 76, one of Overwatch’s heroes, had been in a relationship with another man, as described in a canonical short story. Tracer, the character who has often been seen as the face of the game due to its box art and other marketing materials, is in a relationship with another woman. This relationship was revealed in an officially-released comic.
These details don’t change the game itself in any way. Overwatch is a competitive, hero-based shooter that doesn’t take into account the stories behind these characters in the game itself. But the fans often feel strongly attached to their favorite characters, and these story or character details such as sexuality matter to them on an emotional level.
Overwatch is a toxic place — be ready for it
I made the leap to Overwatch when Blizzard’s team revealed that Soldier: 76 is gay. There’s a wide spectrum of genders, backgrounds, and combat roles in Overwatch already, but now there is one who is like me, and it created a sense of empathy and connection I wouldn’t have been able to find as easily in Reinhardt or McCree.
This detail in the lore seemed to focus the anger of certain players, however.
In one instance, a player pointed out I was low on health and told another that “Soldier Seventy Faggot” needed healing, then berated me, my choice in hero, and Blizzard for writing a gay character in the first place. This wasn’t an isolated incident.
Would that interaction have been less hostile had Soldier’s past relationship never been revealed? Maybe. But that fact gave the player an excuse to focus his insults on my, and the character’s, sexuality. Revealing this truth about Soldier to the world re-contextualized so much of the character’s story; the fact that I was gay myself may have been peripheral to this player’s outrage, but I bought the game partly to be able to play as a character I could relate to. The problem is that, by doing so, I was hearing pointed, ongoing homophobic slurs directed at the character and, by extension, myself.
I muted the voice chat after that match.
Homophobic behavior isn’t rare in gaming, but the comments about Soldier: 76 were focused on his sexuality so often, the homophobia began to feel entrenched in Overwatch’s community culture. Blizzard has spearheaded initiatives to discourage in-game harassment, such as Play Nice, Play Fair back in 2017, but it’s clear the company didn’t have the tools necessary to protect the players it wants to bring into the game. This lesson was driven home with particular force when I began to use Overwatch’s only in-game representation of Soldier’s sexuality while playing.
It turns out many of the other players didn’t like that one bit.
When lore becomes real
Overwatch lets you spray different designs on the walls of the game’s world, and you can unlock different sprays as you play. I put up in-game sprays depicting Soldier: 76 as an older man and a hero without my teammates treating them any differently than anyone else’s for dozens of games. The other players would often place their sprays next to mine, in fact, making a point to match art styles of our respective characters as a sign of camaraderie.
That changed when I started using the spray that depicted Soldier and his ex-boyfriend, Vincent. Other players suddenly focused on covering the spray or shooting at it. They sometimes waved when they noticed me watching. It was as if they felt they had to cover it up and react in some way. This behavior was never as pronounced when I used any other of the game’s sprays.
I stopped using that particular spray openly, despite it being the only in-game representation of Soldier: 76’s sexuality. I started putting it up in places that were harder to see or find. I put Jack and Vincent’s photo in less-populated corridors or obscure hallways. I didn’t get to see it every time I respawned and headed back into battle, but I knew it was there. It was a way to express something about myself without making myself a target.
Every time I’ve done that, I felt a pang of shame. I’m using the same “out of sight, out of mind” approach to queerness that lets Blizzard get praise for canonical inclusion without making its characters’ identities a meaningful part of the game. Blizzard knows how to make the game seem welcoming, but it’s unable to create an actual in-game environment that mirrored its aspirations.
For all the posturing about how Soldier: 76’s sexuality doesn’t matter and that “no one cared,” people put in the time to make videos, write articles, and search for tweets from queer people to express their contempt or supposed indifference about this aspect of the character. Clearly the lore is important, and almost all of us care about it on some level.
I was playing Overwatch because of Soldier: 76, but I was still put in a situation where I felt pressured to hide this once the game actually began. If these character revelations only exist in the far-off corners of comics, animated shorts, and short stories, are detractors right when they say that none of it matters?
Why the spray matters
According to Overwatch’s lead writer, Michael Chu, Blizzard’s intention with the game has always been to represent the wide spectrum of people who play it.
“Overwatch is built on a desire of representing an optimistic future that reflects the diversity of the world we live in,” Chu told Polygon. “Since launch, we’ve been looking at ways to systemically reduce the toxicity players are faced with as well as giving players the tools to help report other players’ unacceptable behavior. Ultimately, we want Overwatch the game to represent the values of the Overwatch universe’s optimistic future.”
In the isolated lens of its lore, Overwatch delivers on a lot of these ideals. Even beyond queer characters like Soldier: 76 and Tracer, there are characters of different races, body-types, lineages and histories.
But Blizzard’s approach to slowly releasing story and lore details gave homophobia and prejudice a chance to worm its way into the culture of Overwatch long before anyone took a stance against it. Is it too late for the culture of Overwatch to match the one Blizzard envisioned? No, but it’s going to take a lot of work to make those two ideas match up.
Overwatch’s story deals with the hope that heroes give to a world that’s been without them for far too long. Without real, concrete, and shameless representation, Blizzard can’t deliver upon that for its queer players. The spray isn’t going to cut it, especially when so many players have decided that having to see it at all is intolerable.
Blizzard got me into Overwatch through Soldier: 76, but if the developer isn’t brave enough to let the character be who he is in the game itself, it’s passively allowing an environment that makes me a target if I try to be myself as well. Players need to feel safe if Blizzard wants Overwatch to be welcoming to everyone, but before that happens the inclusion in the lore feels more like a trap than an honest invitation.