Blizzard’s Overwatch hopes to make the eSports arena a more welcoming environment by using social interactions to limit online harassment and remedy negative player-to-player interactions.
Despite women comprising approximately half of all people who play video games, the marketing and culture around eSports is often still stubbornly male-centric.
In the eSports arena, the effect is magnified. The recent rise of women in eSports is well documented, however, and one promising competitive game hopes to take that representation a step further.
Overwatch is a multi-player first-person shooter in which players become part of a six-person superhero team that wins by battling and taking down the other team. It’s Blizzard Entertainment’s latest contribution to the world of eSports. The game is unique in that it promotes positive interactions between players.
“Games like Overwatch promote commending others,” said Stephanie Harvey, a professional eSports player who won the 2012 women’s World Cup in Counter Strike: Global Offensive with her team UBINITED.
“You can always give something positive to someone even if it’s on the enemy team.”
It works like this: At the end of each Overwatch match, four cards appear on screen, each representing something one of the other players excelled in. Players then get insights on everyone’s game-time contributions and vote on the most valuable players, promoting positive feedback even amongst competitors. This is something Harvey sees as essential to limiting online harassment.
“If you create a game where there’s social interaction, try to see how you can make that interaction positive,” she said.
While social media has been integral to the growth of eSports, it’s also a large part of why women feel so unwelcome in the community. Online communities like Twitter and Twitch can be breeding grounds for more overt forms of sexual harassment.
“Harassment and negativity is probably the really bad thing that came out of [social media],” said Harvey.
She also feels social sites like Twitter have been slow to address the abuse on their platforms and that a similar passivity is sometimes reflected in competitive multiplayer games.
“People want to play in a safe environment,” she said, explaining that report systems and chat moderating are small alterations that can go a long way toward remedying these issues. “People don’t want to be harassed.”
Streaming platform Mobcrush is taking this problem seriously by creating a safe space for all players. It removes serial abusers. It maintains an ethos of respect and integrity.
“For us, it’s never about policing,” said Koh Kim, the Co-Head of Business Development at Mobcrush. “It’s more about how do we empower users to navigate and cultivate positive communication with each other, and then be able to create that safety zone.”
In many ways, this is part of Overwatch’s appeal. By combining strategic depth with a more vibrant style and a diverse array of characters, Overwatch is welcoming to the underrepresented while also inviting newcomers to the first-person shooter genre as a whole.
The game is successful because of its inclusive environment and how it focuses on characters’ back stories, which can help players see the characters as human, said Jeff Kaplan, the game’s creative director.
“We want all players to feel like, ‘Hey, in this fictional universe, I know I would belong there and would feel comfortable there and nobody would make me feel bad for who I am in real life,'” he said.
Kaplan also emphasized that the game “shows representation of different genders, different gameplay styles, different nationalities, and different body styles.”
Overall, he believes that providing more opportunities for women to compete professionally at the highest levels is integral to making their participation in eSports more visible.
While some players want more women-only competitions, most don’t see it solving the larger problem. Heather Garozzo, who was on the 2012 winning team with Harvey, told Kotaku’s Rob Zacny, “I’m a strong proponent of their existence but also advocate for women competing with and alongside mixed and men’s teams.”
Female-only competitions have been crucial to encouraging more women to compete in Counter Strike. Still, Garozzo also feels it’s time to move forward.
“I long for a day where a woman plays and performs well on a tier one or two team,” she said.
That day may not be far off. Overwatch may have a unique opportunity to overcome a lot of the legacy problems that continue to plague already established eSports. If Overwatch is successful with audiences, it might just be the welcome mat needed to encourage a more diverse gaming community.
Feature photo credit: Kirill Bashkirov