by Jonathan G. Lee
Since Overwatch is such a big deal to so many, including me, I began to wonder exactly why that was the case. The facts? In just the first week, Overwatch grossed $269 million. In just one month, the game has accrued 10 million players. Neither of this comes as a surprise since, after all, this is Blizzard we’re talking about.
But here’s what did surprise me: All the fan content for Overwatch was released before the game launched.
That’s right. Overwatch has five comics and six cinematics set in the game’s universe. The game’s characters are extremely popular with cosplayers, a phenomenon that Blizzard prepared for by releasing reference guides for all the heroes. These guides are meticulously detailed to the point of listing hex color codes for every part of a hero’s costume. All of this was released before the game’s release on May 24, with the exception of Torbjorn: Destroyer which was revealed on launch day.
Every other Blizzard game’s marketing plan was based around gameplay demonstrations and showing off new features — basically, the game itself was the advertisement. Overwatch’s marketing campaign was spearheaded by story content, not game features. The world and characters of Overwatch were the primary advertisements for the game.
So here’s my crazy theory: Blizzard wants to be Disney and it wants Overwatch to be its Star Wars.
Ever since the first StarCraft, when Blizzard’s cinematics began taking on a much more narrative flair, fans have been begging the company to make full-on movies, but it’s a transition that Blizzard has been reluctant to make until recently. After all, it took 10 years for the Warcraft movie to be made and Activision Blizzard finally launched their own film studio just last year. Right now, we’re witnessing the first waves of transition that transforms Blizzard from being a game developer to a multimedia company, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all these moves are happening within the same year as Overwatch.
So why did Blizzard wait for Overwatch to start the push into the traditional popular arts? Well, it’s because Overwatch is the first Blizzard franchise explicitly designed to capture a mainstream audience.
Overwatch takes place on Earth, unlike the other Blizzard games which are set on other far-distant planets. It’s set in the near future, so things look fantastical without feeling alien or unrelatable. These two factors set up the most important facet by far: Overwatch is designed to be inclusive.
Women gamers have embraced the game for featuring prominent female characters in the game who span various races and body types and for disproving the notion that headlining a game with a large cast of women will hurt sales. I read one blog post from a gamer that couldn’t figure out why she was enjoying Overwatch so much, and later realized it was because of the art style. Whereas most first-person shooters opt for gritty, military realism of the bro variety, Overwatch is vibrant and colorful which lends itself to a much more universal appeal.
As an Asian American guy, I can count the number of times I’ve seen an Asian American in a game on one hand. It’s so rare I literally keep a Google Doc logging each instance for a future article. Even seeing native Asian videogame characters is becoming a rarity.
What do Mario, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania, and The Legend of Zelda all have in common? They’re hugely popular Japanese franchises that all star white men and are inspired by western media. Meanwhile, I can’t name a single western gaming franchise starring an Asian or set in an Asian-inspired world. This is a list of the highest grossing films in Japanese history. Only 8 out of 29 films on that list are Japanese productions. When a domestic film in Japan sells more tickets than a Hollywood film even for just one day, it makes national news. That’s how pervasive white-dominated media is.
A major title like Overwatch using diversity as the fulcrum of its multimedia strategy has massive implications for the rest of entertainment as a whole. Star Wars: The Force Awakens upset the status quo by casting a white woman and a black man as their lead protagonists. People who rationalize the normalcy of white casts and whitewashing claim that these practices are pragmatic decisions. Movie studios reject and replace female characters and characters of color to boost sales.
Except a 2014 UCLA study revealed that diverse casts in film and television actually result in higher box office sales and ratings. The Fast and Furious series features a cast that’s mostly men and women of color. It’s also Universal’s biggest franchise of all time. As of June 2015, it’s grossed $3.907 billion dollars. Given that over half of humanity is female and most of those humans aren’t white, it seems ridiculous to suggest that appealing to anything outside of the white male demographic is a financial risk, and yet the myth continues.
And it’s a myth that has harmful implications outside of sales. In 2012, researchers from Indiana University conducted a study on children who watch television for more than 10 hours a day. All the children suffered a decrease in self-esteem because of the media they consumed — all except for the white boys, who received an increase in self-esteem. Kate Rigg, a prominent Asian American performance artist and activist, has never been to a college campus without hearing at least one story about an Asian American student attempting suicide because of the constant pressure to assimilate to a culture that refuses to feature Asian American role models.
During the first Overwatch press conference, Chris Metzen spoke about why having a diverse cast of characters in the game was so important to him:
“We’ve heard our female employees,” he said. “And my daughter tools me about it. She saw a World of Warcraft cinematic of the Dragon Aspects, and my daughter was like, ‘Why are they all in swimsuits?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.’”
I would argue that there is a moral imperative for diverse representation, and in this case, the right thing to do also happens to be the lucrative thing to do. After a lifetime of being blinded by male bias, raising little women of his own made Metzen realize that his daughters would be growing up with games starring white men with a cast that plays into the fantasies of white men.
This explains why Overwatch is such a marked departure in setting from the other Blizzard flagship titles. Diablo and StarCraft are unconcerned with social issues. Warcraft discusses racism through the proxy of fantasy creatures, where Azeroth’s definition of “humans” are white Europeans while any non-western culture is represented by trolls, pandarens, and taurens. Overwatch, however, is set in our world. It features characters rooted in our own histories, languages, and homes. From a narrative standpoint and even a marketing standpoint, it upholds its motto that “the world could always use more heroes” — and that hero can be anyone, regardless of race, sex, creed, or attraction.
Blizzard has done the right thing by making Overwatch diverse, and they were rewarded with 10 million players in just the first month. Diversity does sell games. Here’s to hoping every other major developer is taking notes about the new Force.
Jonathan G. Lee is an editor at the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @JonMoxie.