Early concepts for Overwatch’s newest hero, Ashe
Image: Blizzard

Overwatch fans disappointed with Ashe should know that six new heroes are in the works, Blizzard has told Kotaku, and that fans hoping for more diversity in the popular game’s cast of characters will hopefully find what they’re looking for in upcoming updates.

“I think if you look at the history of Overwatch, there’s been such a wide variety of people that we’ve represented in the game,” game director Jeff Kaplan told Kotaku at BlizzCon last weekend. “We have no shortage of heroes that we’re currently working on secretly back in Irvine. Right now I think the number’s around six that we have in development. I don’t think people are gonna be disappointed.”

“I think there’s... I don’t want to say something for everyone, because six is not something for everyone,” Kaplan said. “There’s a lot more people who walk Planet Earth than that. But I don’t think people will be disappointed. We have a lot of really cool, interesting characters that are gonna come out over the next few years.”

When Ashe, a diabolical cowgirl with a robot buddy, was announced at BlizzCon on Friday, people were excited. Some wanted to play as her. Others wanted to be stepped on by her. But once the excitement started to die down, the discussion shifted: Ashe is another skinny white woman, people pointed out, in a game that still doesn’t have even one black woman hero.

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“On one hand, yay, new Overwatch hero! Looking forward to seeing what Ashe can do. On the other hand.... where is my black female hero, Blizzard????” wrote one fan on Twitter, echoing an almost endless avalanche of similar sentiments.

Those fans’ disappointment grew when Blizzard revealed in a subsequent BlizzCon panel that Ashe had darker skin in a very early design. They couldn’t help but see a pattern forming, noting that an early iteration of the character Mercy was also black.

There are also potential black heroes who’ve been on fans’ radars for years, but who’ve yet to make it into the game.

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“So uh, Overwatch, what’s good?” said illustrator and game designer Chris Kindred on Twitter, linking images of two black characters briefly shown in Winston’s animated short from all the way back in 2016. “And like, the hamster’s cool or whatever, but the streets been hungry for these two since the Winston cinematic.”

Some fans even went so far as to create fan art of what Ashe would look like if she was black:

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Overwatch now has 29 heroes, which include men and women from all sorts of backgrounds that aren’t often represented in big-budget video games. Doomfist is a Nigerian man, Pharah is an Egyptian woman, and Lucio is a Brazilian DJ. There are even black women in the game’s supporting cast, like Orisa’s creator, Efi Oladele. After all this time, though, black women are still conspicuously absent from the hero roster, even as the game faces criticism for a lack of variety in women heroes’ faces and body types.

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While writing this story, I asked Kotaku’s Gita Jackson, who has also been looking into this issue, for her input. “Every time Blizzard has announced a new hero, there have been fans asking when there will be a black woman. There are so few playable black women in games in general that to be consistently overlooked by a development studio who explicitly wants Overwatch to feel diverse and international feels upsetting,” she said. “They made a hamster and a second cowboy before they made a black woman. It just feels like we’re not a priority, and while I can’t tell them what to do, I feel like they’re under-serving a part of their fanbase that clearly wants to throw money at them.”

Jeff Kaplan told Kotaku at BlizzCon that Ashe as we now know her was born of timing and sudden inspiration, which played a role in her appearance. Originally, she was just a supporting character in “Reunion,” the new cinematic revealed during BlizzCon. It was conceived as a “McCree piece,” but the Overwatch team saw an early, pre-animation version of the video created by the cinematics team and were taken by Ashe’s look and personality—and also B.O.B. They decided that Ashe would be the next hero.

“We absolutely have intentions to make a really diverse cast,” said Blizzard senior software engineer Julie Anne Brame. “But again, this came from cinematics, and she was just so special out of that wonderful cinematic. And it wasn’t, like, out of all the things in the world to pick, we want to pick this particular character; it was ‘Wow, that’s a really special character that needs to come to life and really would contribute a lot to our universe.’ I think that’s what made Ashe stand out.”

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But that doesn’t explain why Ashe couldn’t have ended up as a black woman, nor does it do much to assuage the concerns of fans who’ve been waiting so long for a hero who speaks to them on a personal level. More characters are on the way, so here’s hoping that Blizzard decides to show its hand sooner rather than later.

We’ll have more from my Overwatch interview soon.