Overwatch and I have been a bit distant lately. When news of the Activision Blizzard workplace culture lawsuit came about, I pretty much stopped playing the hero shooter with any regularity. It’s been a sad feeling, as I’ve dumped over 1000 hours into the game since 2019, when it was confirmed Soldier: 76 was a gay man, and I was immediately more interested in checking the game out as a person who writes about queerness in games. But in the time between that scandal and the launch of Overwatch 2 last week, I’ve taken some time to explore other live games.
After all this time apart, seeing how games like Apex Legends and Dead By Daylight have taken steps to recognize not only the games’ queer characters, but their queer communities has made Overwatch’s relative restraint feel more calculated and risk-averse than ever. Especially for a game that highlights the diversity of its cast as a selling point.
I’ve been playing a fair bit of Overwatch 2, and while my larger thoughts on what the sequel means for the shooter would make their own blog, I was more focused on how Overwatch 2 acknowledges queerness at arms length, where other games seem ready and willing to include queer iconography in the game people boot up. Six years into the franchise, Overwatch has only two confirmed queer characters in its 35 hero roster: Tracer and Soldier: 76. Because Overwatch the video game has no plot, these characters’ identities are only represented with a voice line and a couple sprays featuring the two’s love interests, Emily and Vincent.
In the expanded universe, Tracer’s relationship with Emily is showcased in comics like the Tracer—London Calling series and a photo of her girlfriend seen in the Zero Hour animated short. Soldier: 76’s relationship, or rather, former relationship, was a key reveal in the Bastet short story, but it was one we’ve only ever heard anything about after it was long over. Emily is a side character in the broader Overwatch story, but Vincent isn’t really anything to us right now. He’s a symbol for an idea Overwatch has only ever addressed once in a short story millions of fans never read. This has been Overwatch’s approach to storytelling for a long time, with Overwatch 2’s story content coming out next year being the only thing to shake it up.
Overwatch 2 is being propped up as a lot of things. It’s a sequel, a fresh start, and the shift to free-to-play makes it an entry point for new players with fewer barriers than a full-priced hero shooter. But with those new changes have come controversies of its own. With its launch comes the shutdown of the original Overwatch, its free-to-play model has locked new heroes behind a grind, and the cooperative story content the game was first pitched with in 2019 isn’t coming until post-launch. Actual forward progression in Overwatch’s plot was what made Overwatch 2 feel promising to those who were actually invested in the game’s heroes beyond their mechanical utility, and it’s the window we had to see these characters existing as people, rather than symbols of the latest meta. If there was ever an opportunity to see someone like Soldier: 76 discussing his past, present, and futures, that was it. But if Overwatch 2 can overcome its “set it and forget it” approach to representation remains to be seen.
So what does that mean for Overwatch’s relationship to queerness in the meantime? Well, even in the systems Overwatch 2 has in place, Blizzard seems to be getting as close to representing the queer community as it can while still comfortably maintaining an air of plausible deniability. In games like Apex Legends, Respawn has included badges for Pride, queer characters who flirt in matches, and has gone as far as to put public declarations of support for trans people in its game. This is on top of frequent lore drops like the Stories from the Outlands shorts, and narrative references that put its characters’ identities tangibly in the game itself.
Meanwhile, Overwatch 2 has a few cosmetic items that can be read as representations of Pride, but stop short of actually labeling them as such. This includes a “Rainbow” player icon added during Pride Month 2021. It sure looks like a Pride flag, but isn’t labeled as such. Overwatch 2 adds more rainbow cosmetic items, from a rainbow weapon charm that is very specifically the natural phenomenon, not the Pride flag, as well as a name card that includes a rainbow, but once again, goes out of its way to make sure the array of colors isn’t mistaken for a Pride flag. I still imagine queer Overwatch 2 players will don these cosmetics as a facsimile for what braver service games offer, but it’s still a shame that Overwatch fans have to settle for scraps where other games are more openly ready to declare support for the LGBTQIA+ community in the margins of a hero shooter.
A corporation as large as Activision Blizzard isn’t the company anyone should be looking to for representation, but the company wants Overwatch to appear a bastion of inclusivity. On paper, it’s seen in its wide-range of heroes from different nations banding together to fight for what’s right, but in practice, that idea mostly exists in the margins as the game we currently have still struggles to meaningfully represent it. But between the queer fans who have been invested in Overwatch’s hopeful vision of an inclusive future and the queer developers who have put their heart and soul to bringing it to life, that Overwatch 2 still seems to keep its heroes’ identities at a safe distance feels like a step backwards in the face of so much change for the franchise.
Right now, Overwatch 2 is technically in Early Access as Blizzard continues to work on the game’s narrative mode, and while I’m still excited to finally see these characters exist and fight for the hopeful, inclusive future Overwatch has always said it believed in, its hesitance to dive headfirst into it makes me question if it’s really out there. But I hope it is. After all, Overwatch has always said to see the world not as it appears to be, but rather, as it could be.