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Overwatch has 10 million reasons devs should think about diversity

Imagination is the essence of discovery

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

I really enjoy playing Overwatch.

But it makes me think about an argument I had with a old coworker a few years ago about Team Fortress.

It’s shitty that Team Fortress doesn’t allow you to play as a woman, was my point. The game is clearly fun, but it could be even better.

I don’t really see the demand or need for it, was his.

It’s a game with an incredibly strong, deliberate design sense, and you can’t say the demand isn’t there when half the cosplayers I see are women doing genderbent versions of the classes. Half the fan art, too. They should add a female model for each class and let people choose, was my point.

That’s so much development work, was his.

Well, then they still could have just decided to make some of the classes default female during development, was my point.

But then people would inevitably complain about the roles they put them in being "stereotypical," was his rebuttal.

And there were simply so many things to object to there ...

... that I couldn’t form a response quick enough to stay on top of the disagreement.

Fast forward to me, and Overwatch.

Overwatch’s Tracer points her guns in a piece of key artwork Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard took the time in their development cycle to plan and create female character models in a variety of class roles, difficulty levels and silhouettes. They did it explicitly because they recognized that not doing so would restrict the game’s appeal. Overwatch isn't perfect in its spread of gender and culture representations, but it's a relatively mighty effort in its particular genre — and when one aspect, at least, of the game was criticized as being at odds with Blizzard's stated goals of inclusivity and non-sexualized female characters, designers listened and adjusted course.

And it’s paying off. Overwatch had more than 7 million players at launch and has gained another 3 million in the following weeks. It’s a widely successful $60 game in a genre where the biggest names are all free to play. And that’s just the hard data.

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Overwatch Image: Blizzard Entertainment
The definitive Overwatch timeline

With my haphazardly put together list of followed blogs, my Tumblr feed is fandom heavy and only somewhat gaming adjacent — and even there it skews heavily towards story-focused RPGs. Overwatch is the only shooter I have ever seen crop up on my dashboard — and the game itself doesn’t even have a story. (What it does have is lore, an expansive timeline full of mysteries and hints, laid out piecemeal through official character descriptions, animated shorts and free comics — not in the game itself.)

I’m not a big shooter fan, but I dipped a toe into Team Fortress for a night because it was free and popular. It didn’t hold my interest. I pre-ordered Overwatch for the full $60, and I’ve been playing every spare evening since.

And I guess my point here is that one of the reasons I really enjoy playing Overwatch is that its success allows me to sit back like a tea lizard as every one of my old coworker’s excuses for leaving out playable female character models is ignored, subverted or disproved.

How many of those 10 million players are there because the game has an accessible backstory thick with a variety of diverse, strongly designed characters as well as a parent company that voiced its intent to do right by their representations of race, gender and sexuality and lent a respectful ear to folks who didn’t think their intent was following though? There’s no way to know.

But 10 million players should make you think about it.

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