The ongoing success of a game, franchise or IP is reliant on its fan base, this much should be obvious. But is a fan base reliant on the fanart and fanfiction it produces and shares? That is a more difficult question to answer. In my (as always, admittedly uneducated and inexperienced) opinion the short answer is “no”. The longer answer is still “no,” only with a “but it’s still important to a great many fan communities, and clever developers and publishers recognise that fact” attached. But we’ll come back to this in a minute.
In Part One of this series I explained how the decision by Blizzard to put Tracer in a canonical same-sex relationship – thereby making her the first canon LGBTQI character in Overwatch – was the safe choice when considering the less-than-LGBTQI-friendly portion of the Overwatch community, since it didn’t affect their power-fantasies. Part Two I explained the “everyone wants to fuck Mercy” thing, how she is both the most conventionally physically attractive character on the roster (by current societal standards and stereotypes of beauty) and also fulfils the broadest range of character archetypes, making her the most appealing (fuckable) character on the roster. In this final post we’re gonna tie those two things together, and we’re gonna do that by talking about fanfiction. Buckle up kids, it’s gonna be a wild ride!
No. It isn’t. It’s actually pretty tame. I’m sorry for lying to you like that.
The easiest way to claim that Mercy is more popular than Tracer in the fanfiction/fanart community is to punch their names into a search engine and look at the numbers that come up. When I typed “Tracer Overwatch fanfic” into Google.com.au it came up with 112,000 results. Typing “Mercy Overwatch fanfic” on the other hand achieved about 225,000 results. Problem is that if you swap “fanfic” for “fanart” then Tracer is the winner, with about 725,000 results compared to Mercy’s 672,000 results. Not exactly a two-to-one difference like the former, but evidence against my argument nonetheless. Change things a little though, specify, add “Tumblr” on the end and the numbers change back: Tracer gets 794,000 results against Mercy’s 846,000. Trade “Tumblr” for “Twitter” and Mercy wins again with 774,000 results while Tracer languishes with a mere 536,000 results. But these numbers are malleable and inconsistent with each other, not to mention ever-changing (what is correct as I type this will be incorrect tomorrow). Punching certain words into Google (AUS) is simply not scientific, not to mention I can’t be arsed dragging up the numbers for every single character on the roster.
But I don’t really feel that scientific evidence is necessary to the point I’m trying to make. To quote The Castle, “it’s the vibe of the thing” that I’m trying to get at, and that vibe is that Mercy is the most appealing and, therefore, the most shippable.
For you folk who’re new to internet fandom – which I imagine is actually fuck-all of those reading this, but whatever – to “ship” characters (or sometimes real people) is to imagine them in a (usually) romantic or platonic relationship. It’s one of the most common themes in fan communities and the art they create, and Overwatch is no different. At least one website I’ve visited marks the original ship as being between Widow and Tracer, mostly because they were amongst the first characters revealed, and because of the Alive short that saw the two trying to actively kill each other (nothing says “I love you” like attempted murder). Another popular ship is between Soldier 76 and Reaper, two former friends and comrades ripped apart by jealousy and betrayal (again, attempted murder). But the most frequently shipped character that I have seen, personally, is Mercy.
Before everyone’s favourite sniper granny, Ana, was introduced I saw her frequently shipped with older heroes like Reinhardt or Soldier 76, the perceived maturity I mentioned last week placing her in a maternal role (while whoever she was paired up with filled in as dad). I’ve seen her laugh at Tracer’s enthusiastically delivered jokes, get drunk with Mei at a college party while talking microbiology, blush at the sight of Zarya at the gym, gently chide Junkrat for not caring more about his own safety as she patched him up, and be protected by an opposing Widowmaker. Most commonly though it’s Pharah that seems to have won her heart. The Pharmercy ship might be the most famous and popular ship in the community, it’s hard to say. It’s the vibe I get, but maybe I just follow a lot more artists that ship them than anybody else. Going back to Google again, however, and comparing Pharmercy against Widowtracer (as I said, arguably the original Overwatch ship), the former got 482,000 hits against the latter’s 232,000 hits. Even people who don’t agree with the ship acknowledge its popularity and prevalence in the community.
So what does this have to do with Blizzard’s decision to make Tracer its first canonically queer character? Well, let’s go back to that question I asked in the first paragraph and extrapolate (love that word) a little more on the answer.
Simple fact is that, in order to thrive, fan communities rely on new and canonical content from the owners and creators of that property. They need it to exist in the first place so of course they need it to continue. Yes, a fandom can putter on long after a property has effectively died. They can even grow, as new people discover these games, shows and books that have long since ended. I still saw fanwork for Psychonauts well before the prequel/sequel things were crowdfunded, and I still see fanwork of shows from the eighties and nineties that I haven’t even been looked at – as far as we know – for a reboot (Swat Kats fan for life motherfcuker). Shit, there’s a reason nostalgia-driven crowdfunding has been so successful and every other toy commercial is being remade. But for a fandom to really thrive it needs canonical updates from the creators (or the current owners, if the original creators aren’t available). Notice the sharp uptick in the Legend of Korra fandom’s artwork when the first preview for the new comic came out, or the art the appears whenever J.K Rowling mentions anything to do with the Harry Potter universe (I imagine mine wasn’t the only Tumblr dash swamped with images of Professor McGonagall announcing her retirement after Rowling announced that it was one of Harry Potter’s sons’ first day of school).
This doesn’t mean that fan communities can’t self-perpetuate (fucking hell, a fair few modern reboots and at least one recent movie I can think of could very easily be called fanart or fanfiction), but even the eternal fandoms (Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Studio Ghibli etc) keep on fighting the good fight waiting for new, official, canon material to be released.
But that doesn’t mean that fan art is unimportant. You dismiss it to your peril, and the peril of your bottom line. There’s a reason why most developer and publisher social media accounts will have days and competitions that highlight fanart (though rarely fanfiction). It’s creators connecting with creators. A very simple way to acknowledge and appreciate the people who love what you have made enough to make something of their own (and, let’s be honest, are providing a bit of free advertising as well), especially since these artists and writers – in my opinion – by their very nature tend to make up the loudest part of a fandom. So fucking be nice to them.
And that’s why Mercy couldn’t have gone down as the first canonical queer character. Because she’s the star of too much fanart and fanfiction.
Y’see, Blizzard had already announced plans to reveal characters as non-heteronormative well before the release of their Christmas-themed comic book (fuckin’ hell, this has taken me a long time to write) but there were only so many choices available to them in how the reveal would happen. A character simply announcing that they’re into the same gender would be considered half-arsed at best, awkward and shoehorned in the middle, and ignorable at worst. A bit of side-eye or flirting would amount to the same. So would, quite frankly, a character waking up from a one night stand. Yeah, I know, but a surprising number of people seem to think that sex doesn’t prove sexuality. You’d have more than a few blokes going, “yeah, Zarya woke up next to a strange woman she picked up at a bar in Vladivostok, but the rest of the time she’s all about the penises.” Well, maybe not in those exact words but you know what I mean. It comes from that same ridiculous and homophobic train of thought that produces lines like “how do they know they’re gay if they’ve never even fucked a [person of the opposite gender]” and “all that lesbian needs is for a man to give her a good fucking.” Additionally this would go against the character archetypes of quite a few Overwatch characters.
Now, that might all sound anecdotal (it is) and based on my own completely baseless opinions on the thought processes over at Blizzard (totally baseless), but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong (it probably does) and following this path (because it’s my blog and we’re gonna assume I’m right anyway) the best remaining choice for Blizzard was to put whichever character they chose into an actual long-term relationship (again though, totally baseless). Long term relationships – when they’re not being actively used to propel the conflict in a narrative – generally show a character happy, comfortable and content within their sexuality, whatever that may be, and make arguments by observers that “it’s just a phase” much more difficult (but fuckwits’ll do what fuckwits must anyway).
This raises a fresh question though: who do you put your character in a relationship with? Do you pair them up with another character from the roster, an already introduced character from the background lore or someone completely new?
Most likely it would be the former or the latter. Glancing through Blizzard’s released material there aren’t a whole lot of plausible candidates amongst its non-hero characters, but people love it when folk in the background are brought to the foreground. Again though, there’s not a tonne of options there so it would either be another hero or someone completely new.
The problem with putting two heroes together is that you’re revealing two characters are LGBTQI at the same time, and that is a risk I expect most developers (that don’t rhyme with “Mioware”) aren’t willing to take. People still got upset when they found out that Tracer was gay, and while Zarya might fit the cliche of the butch lesbian fuckwits would still have been annoyed to have it confirmed. Double the game characters coming out of the closet doubles the outrage from a single comic. Unless creators have a reputation for queer relationships (which Blizzard don’t) they just aren’t that brave. (How fucking sad is it that revealing characters as LGBTQI is still considered brave?) Creating a new character is the safest option, bringing outrage down to a minimum and giving the fans someone knew to draw or fit into their fanfictions. Thus we have ranga named Emily sharing an apartment with Tracer, officially and canonically pashing on the couch.
And everything ultimately comes back to that single word, with all its suffixes and synonyms. Canon. In order for them to reveal without any doubts that Tracer was gay (or Bi or Pan or whatever, labels suck) they had to put her into an official and canonical relationship with someone on the same end of the gender spectrum. And the simple fact was that Mercy was too popular to be put in a canon relationship.
Fandoms need canon material to thrive. Few things excite a fandom more than when a theory has been called correct or a favourite ship is made official (as the reactions to Bubbline and Korrasami’s official status amongst the Adventure Time and Legend of Korra fan communities, respectively, shows). But it de-legitimise fanart and fanfiction more often than it does the other way. How many fan theories have been brought down by a quick “nay” from an author, how many ships declared null and void when a favourite character hooks up with the wrong fucking person?
But thinking about fan reactions is important to a lot of creators, and Blizzard has a solid reputation for listening to and communicating with the fans of its game. And that’s why I don’t think we’ll ever see Mercy put in a canonical relationship. She’s just too bloody popular, and to put her in an official relationship would be to de-legitimise every single bit of fanart and fanfiction, every ship and theory, floating around the internet. Tracer was the safer option because her and Emily was less of a tragedy than what Mercy would have been.
Everyone wants to fuck Mercy, so no one can. At least that’s how I see things as having happened.
Sort of reminds me of how the Medieval church fetishised Mary (Jesus’ mum), but I wanna wrap this up so we might talk about the Virgin Mercy another time. Thanks for sticking with me. And seriously Blizzard, well done for putting your poster-girl in a same gender relationship. That took guts.