Imagining Representation: LGBTQ+ Shipping in the Overwatch Fandom

Overwatch is a diverse game in many ways: characters hail from all over the world with a myriad of body types and ages, even including robotic heroes like Bastion and Zenyatta. Blizzard have made it clear that they want their characters to represent everybody; to prove that anyone can be a part of this talented team.

Thus far, however, one aspect of representation has gone undiscussed: none of the characters have an explicitly stated sexuality. Whilst it was confirmed at Blizzcon 2015 that more than one character is not straight, after almost a year there has been no further word on the matter.

One would be forgiven for thinking that in a game where the 22 heroes do little beyond running around and shooting at each other, sexuality and gender would be the last thing on the minds of the fans. And yet since the release of the open beta in May, there has been an explosion of shipping (imagining two or more characters in a relationship together) and headcanons (deciding that whilst a fact is not explicitly true in the game, it is what you choose to believe). Many of these centre on LGBTQ+ narratives and imaginings.

Not everyone is pleased with this development. I myself have received repeated angry messages for months–in the last two weeks alone: calling certain same gender ships “incredibly stupid”; claiming that headcanoning that all the female characters are into women was “forcing sexuality down people’s throats”; saying that heterosexuality “should” be considered the norm; calling LGBTQ+ characters a “political statement” that doesn’t belong in games; and calling shippers “the worst part of the fandom.”

And so goes the fandom: turbulent, with different issues rising to the surface, but with many people continuing to dedicate time and energy to shipping and headcanoning characters as LGBTQ+. So I decided to set up a research questionnaire to dig a little deeper into the phenomenon.

The survey asked seven optional and open ended questions: the participant’s age, gender, and sexuality; their ships; their headcanons; how they engaged with these ships and headcanons; why they enjoyed doing so; whether they had received any backlash; and a free question for anything else they wanted to add. 215 people participated from a broad cross-section of ages, genders, sexualities, ships, headcanons, and experiences.

The most popular ships, each with over 100 respondents saying they shipped them, were, in order of popularity: Mercy/Pharah, Tracer/Widowmaker, Mei/Zarya, and Hanzo/McCree. This is notable because ships between two women usually receive far less attention than those between two men, or those between men and women–though the survey was likely biased by the way it spread through Tumblr.

In comparison, popular fan fiction website Archive of Our Own lists Hanzo/McCree as its most popular ship, followed by Reaper/Soldier: 76 (which was the fifth most popular answer in my survey) Only then does Mercy/Pharah appear, with less than half the number of fan fictions than these previous ships, and it is immediately followed by another ship between two men (Junkrat/Roadhog, which polled seventh in the survey, and only after a sharp drop off in numbers).

The most popular ship in the survey between a man and a woman was D.Va/Lúcio, at 8th with 29 respondents noting it, though many considered it to be a purely platonic ship due to the age difference (D.Va is 19 and Lúcio is 26).

75 ships were listed in total–the Overwatch fandom is far from a consensus, unsurprisingly since there are 22 heroes to combine. 21 of these heroes were shipped with at least one other person, including the sentient gorilla Winston, but not including robot Bastion–though every hero including Bastion had at least two headcanons attached to them (and unreleased hero Sombra was also headcanoned as a lesbian by one participant). Many ships were also envisioned between more than two people, usually three, the most popular of these being Mercy/Reaper/Soldier: 76.

Over 130 headcanons were listed. These were predominately centred on characters being trans, especially since these were not previously demonstrated via ships. The characters most likely to be considered trans, in order of popularity, were: Junkrat, Lúcio, D.Va, Zarya, Hanzo, and Genji. However, headcanons did cover a vast spectrum of both sexuality and gender, with at least 16 unique descriptors used, and with asexual and bisexual being the most common.

There was also a large percentage who have chosen to headcanon that no one is straight and/or no one is cis–though occasionally a “token” straight character was allowed for–usually Torbjörn. Additionally, for both ships and headcanons, many (31 and 32 respectively) said that they were open to many interpretations or simply that they had too many to list.

It’s clear that the fandom is a very creative one. Many stated that they created art or fan fiction in order to engage with their ships and headcanons. But most said that they only engaged through sharing others’ creativity on Tumblr or Twitter, or simply discussing things among trusted friends. Whilst much of this comes down to issues such as lack of time, in the question regarding backlash almost a third indicated (unprompted) that they thought they would receive angry messages if they were more outspoken within the fandom.

Only 11% of respondents had received direct backlash, but many more had observed it among their friends and people they follow online, and a more general malaise within the fandom was often described, with respondents having to deal with seeing hatred for their ships even if not hatred aimed at them specifically.

This kind of discouragement from participation is harmful because of the importance of these ships and headcanons. When asked why they participate in shipping and headcanoning, the most popular answer, far above answers like “for fun” and “to flesh out the characters” (which were second and third respectively) discussed the importance of representation, with many pointing out that this kind of representation simply does not exist in mainstream media. More than one person simply responded “because I’m gay,” as a catchall explanation for both the necessity and scarcity of representation of their sexuality.

Yet the turbulence of fandom puts a damper on this “create your own” representation. Many felt that same-gender relationships were held to a different standard than different-gender ones, using examples like hate for the Mercy/Pharah ship due to a five year age difference between the women – despite both being in their 30s. Respondents also described the harmful effects of unrestrained character hate, such as trans men who view Junkrat (an especially polarising character due to his irritating playstyle and anti-omnic (robot) sentiments) as trans himself feeling bad about creating representation only to see the character constantly attacked.

Moreover, there is a vocal subset of cis and straight Overwatch fans who are offended by the very idea of headcanoning these unspecified characters as LGBTQ+, though they seem unbothered by the hetero- and cisnormative assumption that they are straight and/or cis until otherwise specified. Not content to have their own headcanons, ship male-female relationships, and go their own way, they often get angry at LGBTQ+ fans who attempt to create their own representation in this way. This was especially reported among those with trans headcanons.

This is not to say that ships, headcanons, and the ways people portray them, are, or should be, immune to critique, only that it is crucial to be considerate and to encourage positive, educational discussions rather than anger or mockery.

For better or worse, the Overwatch fandom is going to continue shipping and headcanoning, with both advantages and disadvantages for LGBTQ+ fans. For many it brings a sense of belonging and community to the game, and gives them some much needed representation telling them that they too can be heroes. But others are put off by the infighting among the fandom; from both cis/straight fans complaining about the prevalence of LGBTQ+ ships and headcanons and within the LGBTQ+ Overwatch shipping community itself.

But as several people pointed out, Overwatch is set some 60 years in the future, so our widespread ideas and biases about gender and sexuality may no longer apply. The Overwatch world should be a playground for imagination, where sorely lacking representation can be built, rather than a battleground between sides. We get enough of that in the gameplay.

Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.

Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.

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