Overwatch hero D.va has been considered a symbol of empowerment by a lot of feminists in the Korean Overwatch community, representing how women could be lauded for their talent instead of their looks. Long before Mei graced protest memes for Hong Kong, a group called FAMERZ, then called National D.va Association, attended rallies and protests for various political causes holding a banner donned with the mech pilot’s trademark smirking bunny face. Since then, however, some alternate cosmetics that Overwatch studio Blizzard introduced for D.va caused some of her biggest fans to say the company was taking a step backward.
Much of this came to a head this past spring, when the head of Overwatch game development, Jeff Kaplan, teased that a new skin coming in the game’s upcoming anniversary event would “break the internet.” The cosmetic that was eventually revealed as “Academy D.va,” was, according to the designers, a representation of her high school days as a Korean esports prodigy. It features her in a school uniform with a skirt and jacket, and along with her stylized mech, looks like a nod towards a Japanese mecha anime.
The outfit upset some female Korean fans, as had the Black Cat skin released the year prior, due to the sexualized cultural context of both. The Academy skin, some of those fans said, fed into sexism towards Korean women, particularly teens, and disrespected the experiences of a portion of their Korean fanbase.
“When I see the Black Cat skin or the Academy skin, I do wonder if they really understand Korea,” a Korean Overwatch fan and FAMERZ member named Anna told Kotaku. “I can’t erase the feeling that they’re projecting male sexual desire onto this “Asian woman” figure under the ruse of “representing” Korea.”
On social media, Korean women expressed similar disappointment and anger towards the skin, talking about how it mirrored the uncomfortableness of Korean school uniforms, or that she was fulfilling a “tsundere class president” anime trope for men. (Tsundere is a character archetype in anime and manga that describes a cold or hostile character who gradually warms over time.)
On the Blizzard forums, a Korean player going by the name Egg wrote that the outfit played into “school uniform fetishism.” Putting D.va in a high school uniform is seen as a provocative move that makes her appear younger.
Criticisms of D.va’s skins as well as those from other characters since Overwatch’s 2016 launch represent the friction that the game has between its fans and the cultures from which they borrow. Overwatch presents the fantasy of a global village from an overwhelmingly white and Western vantage point, full of stereotypes, jokes, and reductions. For much of the Western fanbase and perhaps to the developers themselves, a skin might seem innocuous. But the Overwatch team has routinely made poor choices with their cosmetics that range from atonal (Brigitte’s riot police skin) to straight up offensive Pharah skin that is a mish-mash of tribal designs. D.Va’s skins, which have alienated some of that character’s biggest fans, add to that pile of problems. They demonstrate a lack of research or sensitivity to the cultures and concepts they are bringing to life. Unfortunately, as recent events have shown, Blizzard as a company seems to lack an awareness generally speaking when it comes to sensitivity to all segments of their audience.
Anna, speaking on behalf of FAMERZ, said that D.va’s existence was meaningful to the feminist Korean group; D.va’s persona is brash, confident and also represents technical skill in gaming and in military operations. The character being based around accomplishments, rather than looks, was a fictional representation of a future South Korea they hoped to build in real life, given that the country has systemic problems with misogyny and the degradation of women.
It seemed that Blizzard agreed. In a speech about Overwatch’s appeal in early 2017 lead designer Jeff Kaplan mentioned FAMERZ as part of his presentation about Overwatch’s design. “It’s fascinating to see that the values of the Overwatch team now being embraced and owned by the community in their own sort of positive way.” (It should be noted, however, that part of the examination of FAMERZ’s work in his presentation was still couched in the idea that the Overwatch team is not political and the game does not aspire to be political.)
While the group took this to be a positive endorsement, releasing Academy D.va two years later felt like a betrayal. “We feel talking about us at D.I.C.E Summit is a total deception,” Anna said. “Many female gamers who heard about the announcement in 2017 (also) feel the same. Recently on social media, someone said, ‘Overwatch had positively talked about [us], so releasing sexualized skins is so ridiculous.”
For her and FAMERZ, D.Va dressing in a school uniform wasn’t simply an homage to her high school esports days, as Blizzard had put it. It brought to mind the fraught function school uniforms have in Korean society. “Female teenagers are obligated...to wear their school uniform when in school. They have to wear it even though they do not want to. Nevertheless, school uniforms have always been sexualized in Korea.” She noted that sex shops in South Korea sell costume versions of uniforms, that men make jokes about sleeping with underage girls, and that the abuse and harassment of children in school is widespread.
In fact, a social media hashtag “#SCHOOLmetoo” has been used in South Korea since 2018 to raise awareness of sexual harassment against kids in school.
Western video game companies, indicative of our culture at large, have a love affair with Asian women. Putting adult Asian women characters in schoolgirl uniforms contributes to the racialized sexualization (“waifus”) real women face, and the infantilization that comes with it.
“I think they’re collecting all the sexual fetishes for Asian women onto D.va since Overwatch doesn’t have a female Japanese hero,” Anna said. “Also, considering how Asian women have been treated as ‘eye candy’ in the West as a result of both misogyny and racism, D.va’s skin is an amalgam of problems.” (D.va is the only character who has a schoolgirl uniform cosmetic at this point and is the youngest female East Asian in the game.)
It also contributes to conflating all women from one southeast Asian country with another. Women I spoke to mentioned that it felt like the developers do not understand that South Korea is not Japan when it comes to D.va, as she’s presented through her Academy skin as a generic “cute Asian girl.”
When D.Va was announced, an apparent joke by Blizzard led fans to assume she was a Starcraft II pro. That felt more uniquely Korean, as Starcraft is huge in that country. The game’s lead writer clarified that she was actually a top player of an in-universe mech fighter game that matched more closely with her character design and was alluded to in the Busan map, released in 2018.
While mech robots are not solely the province of Japan, they are more associated with that country than with Korea, which contributes to a reaction among some fans that D.Va is being presented as a stand-in for Asian women from multiple counties. The fact is that many Western creators do look to the long legacy of Japanese media when including mechs in their own work. Arnold Tsang, lead character concept artist for Overwatch, has even been attributed to using mech anime and manga as visual inspiration for the character. It doesn’t help that, in Blizzard’s MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, she was given a cosmetic skin that looks similar to a mech pilot’s from the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The aforementioned “Black Cat” skin in Overwatch, a catgirl-by-the-way-of-lolita-goth cosmetic she got last year in a big content drop is also similarly confounding; catgirls and lolita goth fashion are primarily from Japanese culture.
While this could be explained as purely plastering a Korean character with Japanese signifiers, the sexualization many fans have mentioned rests quite a bit on the Japanese aspect. Both FAMERZ and Egg’s concern with Japanese culture being imported via D.va is what undergirds some of their feelings that it is misogynistic. A lot of Korean feminists view Japanese culture and how those women are portrayed as deeply sexist as well.
“When I see the Black Cat skin or the Academy skin, I do wonder if they really understand Korea,” Anna said.
It is unclear if these decisions from the development team are intentional or driven by carelessness. Surely they knew how some people would react to the studio putting a cute 19-year old female esports star in a school uniform. Blizzard is aware of what the community does with their work. D.va is frequently one of the most-used female heroes in Overwatch porn, especially those that use edited 3D models. Adding a cosmetic that is heavily sexualized in both Korea and elsewhere only adds to the adult content that relies heavily on the idea of featuring a young-looking girl. Some Overwatch porn even features the Academy skin or skimpier schoolgirl outfits.
However, porn aside, there are other specific concerns to female Korean Overwatch players in how D.va is presented in the game. Male gamers in South Korea are similar to many male gamers here in the United States, feeding off an already misogynistic culture and applying that to the games that they play.
A lot of this matters because it’s part of a bigger issue with the misogynistic ways female characters—and players—are often treated in gaming here and especially in South Korea. Representative of this, there are several extremely sexist slang terms that exist in the Korean Overwatch community , including one that combines “c*nt” and “Mercy” (boreushi) as well as one that implies “sexual harassment” (song-heerong) when a player waylays a D.va player from getting back into their mech.
It would be easy for some people to label all the people upset about a particular D.va skin as “angry feminists” but given South Korean culture and how Korean women are treated, it’s just another lack of consideration for people who considered themselves until very recently to be some of Overwatch’s biggest fans. As a woman and a feminist myself, I understand the hopefulness that players like Egg or groups like FAMERZ felt when they first started playing the game, only to have the company wear down their expectations with gaffe after gaffe.
Still, even after expressing so much disappointment, everyone I spoke to still played the game or felt hopeful that the Overwatch team has done right by their female characters in the past and could continue to do so in the future.
FAMERZ felt that something like the Officer D.va skin was a good example of properly representing Korean culture as well as making her cute instead of weirdly sexual. That skin, introduced in May of 2017, was accurate versus being closer to a “sexy cop outfit.” “When they said it would be a police woman skin, we assumed it would of course be sexually objectifying, and feature an obsolete police officer skirt,” Anna said. “But we were moved that they dressed her like actual Korean police officers.”
When asked about what they would design for a D.va skin in the future, both Egg and Anna expressed that D.va could show off her pride for being in M.E.K.A., the army of which D.va is part. Anna revealed that the group, “...(wants) designs that showcase D.va as being active and fierce, while also showing something new. Since D.va is a soldier, we’re also hoping for a Korean military uniform skin, like in the animated short Shooting Star.” Egg concurred. “It’s rare to see a design in video games for women that is occupational.”
Egg also had aspirations for D.va that were more personal. “I would like to see her in an outfit like a Korean military uniform because Captain Marvel in an Air Force uniform stole my heart.”
Whatever the Overwatch team decides to do her in the future, some of D.va’s biggest and most passionate supporters in their audience should be considered when looking to design more cosmetics. If this was an isolated incident, rather than a repeated series of mistakes, it could be more easily overlooked. But it has been a problem since the game began and Blizzard has not seen fit to do better by the peoples and cultures it wants to play with in their game. Blizzard. has the resources to do research and consulting. If they pride themselves on seeing their game as an optimistic (but apolitical) global future, then they should do more to do right by those they use as an advertisement for their game’s diversity and be cognizant of what politics they are engaging in doing so.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and gamer who lives with in the Midwest. Her site is ciderandlemonade.com, and can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.
Translation assistance was provided by @gatamchun.