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Ashe re-raises questions about hero diversity in Overwatch

Hero 29 has disappointed some fans

Blizzard Entertainment

Whenever a new Overwatch hero is revealed, you’re bound to hear a whole range of opinions. Take Ashe, for example, who hit live servers yesterday. She’s an interesting hero because the response has been so polarizing — and a lot of that comes down to the split in the Overwatch fanbase, which continues to lead to differences in dialogue around new reveals and new releases. This raises the question of the burden of each heroes’ release in Overwatch, and how developers can satisfy fans with a slow, deliberate release schedule.

Most of the positive response to Ashe comes from her kit — she’s a character based around her weapon and standard fire, as opposed to being largely powered by active ability use like Doomfist or Sombra. Most of the negative response is based around her aesthetics.

Players who were hoping Hero 29 would be a black woman, for instance, were disappointed. People have critiqued her as being too similar in the face to Widowmaker, or asked why McCree’s cinematic rendering grants him pores and wrinkles, while Ashe looks ready to hit the runway or grace a fashion spread in a magazine.

It’s impossible to make one hero who can please everyone. Ashe is another high-skill hero in a meta that is slowly raising the skill cap across the board with patches and reworks. Players who are interested in accessible picks may be disappointed with Ashe, but other people are thrilled with the fact that she breaks the mold of recent releases and returns to a more ‘classic’ Overwatch feel. Other people feel hurt and neglected — why would Overwatch release a second cowboy-themed hero and a hamster before a black woman?

This is one of those cases where no one is wrong, but Blizzard has become a victim of the game’s success. By appealing to everyone, there are cases where they can’t please everyone, and Ashe is the perfect case study of where that divide can deepen.

Blizzard Entertainment

Another part of the problem is that Ashe was never supposed to be an in game hero. The development team fell in love with her early on from the Reunion storyboards and sketches. Ashe has a similar pedigree as Brigitte; they were both created as a supporting cast to exist in extended universe materials, and then the developers realized they would exist in the game. Ashe had to exist as a contrast — both character-wise and visually — to McCree; she couldn’t share the same palettes. Hence, the browns and reds that featured heavily in one of her original designs were scrapped in favor of sharp, distinct whites.

Blizzard Entertainment

The developers are constantly juggling plates, and heroes are rarely developed all at once. Pharah, for instance, started with just a ‘Rocket Dude’ kit before being developed into Fareeha Amari. Brigitte, a supporting character from lore, was matched with an appropriate kit once the gameplay hook was solidified. Ashe was brought into the game based off her cinematic appearance inspiring the gameplay team. Sombra was based off pure visuals and concept, with her exact kit and primary weapon being designed late in the game.

When it comes to overall trends like, for instance, skill floor and ease of playing a character, assistant game director Aaron Keller acknowledged that reworks haven’t been “discussed from a pure accessibility standpoint”.

“A lot of time with lower skill cap heroes, especially with heroes like Torbjorn, there can be a negative reaction to heroes like that, too. With Torbjorn, a lot of his damage previously came from his turret,” explains Keller. “There’s a segment of the population that gets really frustrated when they’re killed by something that they don’t think is a direct reflection on another player’s skill.”

Accessibility and gameplay style is also rarely a binary choice been ‘easy’ and ‘hard’. Keller speculates that Ashe might be simple to players who are new to Overwatch but experienced with shooters. “[She] can be an accessible way to jump into the game, especially on the DPS side, where you don’t need to know what every other hero on the battlefield does because you’re really good at doing one particular thing.”

In short, the team looks at individual cases, and not trends. It’s the sort of thing that works well for individual releases and sales pitches — Scout players from Team Fortress 2 doubtlessly perked up at Ashe’s kit reveal — but when players are looking at a timeline, they can build a case to match their dissatisfaction.

Blizzard Entertainment

Detractors of Ashe largely focus on her status as a woman in Overwatch. “We want to have a diverse lineup,” Keller says, “So we have bad guys in the lineup, like Talon, and then it’s really nice to have the people in-between, someone between Reaper and Mercy.” Ashe is a contrast to McCree; his exact opposite, both of them sitting in the ‘grey’ of a morality binary but with one veering closer to hero, and the other closer to villain.

That ambiguity is exciting, but the fact that she’s a white, conventionally attractive woman — especially compared to the visually inventive nature of BOB and her omnic sniper — has some fans down. “When we design heroes, there’s a lot of different ways we consider the look of the hero,” says Keller. “We have very specific discussions head of time about the look of the hero, or the body type, or where that hero is going to come from in the world.”

This is where Ashe’s origins as a cinematics character come into play; she largely dodged those discussions, springing nearly fully formed from the team’s forehead. That being said, Keller acknowledges that there are fans who want more, and the team is listening to the feedback. With six heroes in development, and only one of them revealed so far, the possibilities for who we’re getting next could be endless. When it comes to female heroes, Blizzard has raised the bar, but the fanbase has made it clear they don’t want the developers to rest on their laurels.