Since release, Overwatch has spawned reams of fan-created content, which is unusual for a game that has no single-player story mode. A sizeable portion of this content centres specifically around the women characters, who are, in the fandom’s eyes, all totally dating and kissing each other.
Slash, as this is known in fandom circles, has a long history of sparking the imagination, stretching as far back as Star Trek. Historically, a lot of slash has focused on men’s relationships with each other (M/M), while fan-created material about women’s relationships (also known as femslash, or F/F) feels an underappreciated but no less ferocious wing of shipping. An informal 2013 count of the tags on Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction library, shows that slash featuring men comprised a whopping 42.6 per cent of the fanfiction tagged on site, while femslash slid in at just over three per cent.
One of the reasons male slash is so popular is that media franchises are often composed of largely male casts (think Supernatural, BBC’s Sherlock). In turn, fandoms are largely (but not entirely) comprised of women who enjoy the cute men involved, or they like the psychological distance from the romance. The fun is in the idea of two handsome men doing stuff together (versus the fan seeing themselves as being a “part of the action”). However, what seems to be the primary reason for the popularity of M/M slash is that male characters in media tend to be more defined and fleshed out as human beings, making it easier for a fandom to blossom around it.
As far as fandom is concerned, it can sometimes be hard to spin tales around women who are no more than props for male heroes and their emotions. As such, femslash fandoms often struggle with pairings, given that quite a few media properties do not have an abundance of women characters, especially those that are written as believable or empathetic. The few women characters that do exist never interact with each other outside of talking about a male character in a romantic context. The Bechdel-Wallace test, which is considered a very basic litmus test for women’s interactions in films, often still fails to happen in many popular movies and TV shows. The irony is often that it isn’t just purposeful as a rudimentary feminist analysis, but underscores how little women’s relationships with each other (especially in a romantic sense, given that creator Alison Bechdel inserted the it as a joke in her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For) are given space within popular narratives.
Games are no exception to keeping women characters in low numbers, which is why Overwatch has been such a curious flash point. From the moment that the first teaser debuted at Blizzcon in 2014 (which featured Tracer and Widowmaker), fan content featuring the game’s female characters has washed ashore (and no, not just porn). Following Overwatch’s release, the amount of femslash even overtook the Overwatch category on AO3 for a short time, which as mentioned before, tends to skew heavily on male slash.
Overwatch’s status as the new femslash zeitgeist may be explained with the fact it has nine women characters in a cast of 22 playable heroes, all with distinct identities and roles. The game’s roster is a far cry from the typical grizzled white soldiers with stubble that we’ve come to expect from shooters. These women are front and centre, too: Tracer, the quirky time-bender character, is displayed prominently on the box art and promotional material for a game.
Overwatch’s threadbare story provides way more grist for the mills as far as fans are concerned. In this way, Overwatch created the perfect storm to buck the trend that many other media properties fall into: By including a lot of prominent, cutely designed women and a very loose story, the F/F fandom went completely bonkers. The women didn’t even have to interact with each other very much in order to inspire fan pairings.
Take Polar Bear (also known as Zarmei), a ship based around Zarya and Mei. Zarmei is the sweet and salty pairing that features a “tol” and a “smol”, a strong muscle butch bruiser with her adorable fat femme scientist. The two have only said one thing to each other in-game (Mei wonders how Zarya can fight wearing so little, and Zarya asks Mei for her coat) but fans have made this a bonafide cute couple.
The most popular “ship” in the fandom, WidowTracer (Widowmaker/Tracer), was actually something Blizzard themselves made to promote the game and introduce us to their sexy sniper character:
It’s one of the few pieces of media outside of the game itself that has two of its women characters actually interacting, and thus became one of the biggest portions of the fandom’s focus. It goes to show that fandom’s ability to ship exponentially goes up if two women are allowed to even interact with each other on a meaningful level. However, this is not the only pairing that Blizzard may have inadvertently spawned.
PharMercy (Pharah/Mercy) is also another intensely popular ship that has grown wings – literally and figuratively. Since both characters can fly while tethered to one another, you can regularly see a graceful Mercy trailing dutifully after a Pharah in a match. It feels almost natural, just by dint of the game mechanics, that these two would lift each other up in life and on the battlefield. This ship is one that takes a generally heterosexual romance trope (big strong protector and their selfless healer) straight to the realm of Sapphos. Blizzard even acknowledged the two characters having synergy (though I hazard it was not about the ship particularly) in a sly way: At one point, the rotating weekly brawl mode was called “Death From Above”, which only allowed you to choose Pharah and Mercy.
These couples might be some of the most popular with fans but they are not the only ships to exist; there are any number of fanmixes, pieces of fan art and fanfiction that combine two (or more!) of the women present in the game. The combinations are practically endless and we have Overwatch’s community of artists, writers and, well, fans to thank for this. Their passion and enthusiasm for all of game’s characters potentially being in love with each other made it possible, as well as fun to watch from the sidelines. It’s one of the few fandoms I’ve ever fully participated in, much less with a huge femslash contingent.
Harriet, who goes by hattersarts on Tumblr, is a fan artist who is the creator of the Sapphic Overwatch zine, and she feels that Overwatch is different from other F/F fandoms. “I’ve been in femslash for so long and (the fandoms have) all been so small. If it’s a particularly small thing, I might only get 10-20 notes on a post (of femslash art)… It’s been amazing to have an instant following, because Overwatch is so big.” She noted that compared to her time spent in other communities with a heavy F/F emphasis, such as Steven Universe, her art went from getting hundreds of notes on popular pairings to getting thousands for Overwatch couplings.
Stardust, also known as ultahit on Tumblr, also expressed excitement about Overwatch’s fandom. “It’s super important to me that femslash in fandom gets some shine,” Stardust said. “Having F/F relationships be front and centre in community fanworks is something that doesn’t happen often, so the fact that the Overwatch fandom embraced it so quickly is amazing! It’s incredibly refreshing as an artist as well. Most of the other fandoms I’ve participated in had little or no opportunities for femslash, so it’s fun taking a creative approach to women in romantic relationships for a change.”
Having a huge femslash fandom of a wildly popular game feels like a rare moment and has been exhilarating for those of us who never see ourselves in media and very rarely get the kind of fan obsession for our love lives or bodies outside of porn designed for straight men.
Even if Blizzard designed the characters a certain way, queer people have been celebrating all sorts of interpretations of their bodies, their interests and their love (or even thirst) for each other. Zarya and Pharah have gotten more butch, Mei is allowed to be cute and fat, Widowmaker is allowed to exist beyond Talon’s mind control and wearing casual clothes. In the fandom’s hands, some Overwatch characters are depicted as trans, with darker skin, bigger noses or are celebrating their home cultures with their partners. And all of it is created by people like me, for people like me. The fandom gives me the feeling of real community and belonging.
It’s worth noting that this celebration is largely produced by the fandom, much like most of the femslash that’s come before it. Queer female representation is hard to come by, and often these characters are swiftly killed after expressing their sexuality. Blizzard isn’t responsible for the F/F revolution of Overwatch, the fandom is. While Blizzard has gone on record as saying that one or more characters are gay, they don’t want to reveal them just to, as Overwatch’s director Jeff Kaplan said, “pander to the topic“. Both him and Michael Chu, senior game designer, have made it clear that they’d like to reveal them at the appropriate time.
Fan artist Harriet disagrees with this idea.
“There is the problem where people say ‘Well, we don’t want to make it about them being gay.’ Well no, we want that, if I’m honest. I want to know they’re gay! I want that, I want you to shove that down people’s throats. Until we get to a point where the world doesn’t care, I want it. We need to care.”
Overwatch fans have a right to be cynical in this situation, given that the number of LGBT characters in Blizzard’s 25 years of game franchises is pretty much at zero. (It’s been speculated, and largely fan-speculated that Zarya is a likely candidate given how she is coded visually.) Will Blizzard handle their first canon gay character in a way that doesn’t undercut their identity?
As Harriet told me:
“I beg that maybe [Blizzard] would look at the fandom and be like, ‘Maybe that’s what they want,’ because… it’s not like a TV show or a film… they have got that ability to change things in a relatively fast time… part of me is ‘don’t even give yourself that hope’ because it’s been dashed so many times. But the other part is ‘maybe this time.’ I always want them to look at the fandom. It’s 2016.”