Overwatch 2’s First Pride Event Demonstrates the Importance of LGBTQ+ Representation in Gaming

Fly high, fly proud.

by Thomas Cunliffe
Overwatch 2 character Pharah posing with an LGBTQ+ progress flag in the background
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch has consistently prioritized representation since its launch in 2016, boasting a diverse roster of characters with unique backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and identities. This has only improved over the years, with external media exploring the lives of the heroes we’ve grown to love and new additions to the roster like Lifeweaver — Overwatch’s first openly pansexual character — expanding the franchise’s diverse cast.

During a group interview we attended, Brandy Stiles, senior producer at Blizzard and chair of their LGBTQ+ employee network, highlighted the company’s focus this year on allowing players to express themselves and self-identify with characters in-game. The catalyst of Blizzard’s new action plan begins with Overwatch 2’s first Pride event, which made its way into the game earlier this month, on June 1st, 2023.

From the beginning of the event, all players that log into Overwatch 2 (with the exception of some regions) receive a myriad of Name Cards and Player Icons that allow them to represent their sexuality or gender identity — including agender, romantic, asexual, bisexual, gay, genderfluid, intersex, lesbian, pansexual, non-binary, and progress flags.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The Midtown map (seen above) has also been updated with a flurry of rainbows and LGBTQ+ motifs, which Stiles gleefully told us that her wife had worked hard on. While Midtown’s change is temporary, an adorable photo of Tracer and her partner Emily can now be found in Watchpoint: Gibraltar — and as a Spray granted to all players.

Finally, Blizzard released the short story As You Are, written by senior narrative designer Jen Stacey. This five-page tale involves an emotional conversation with Pharah and Baptiste regarding fear, love, friendship, and self-identity. Notably, “As You Are” also confirms Pharah to be an open Lesbian and alludes to Baptiste’s bisexuality, which is confirmed by his inclusion in the Bisexual Pride Name Card (and a previous flirtatious voice line with Lifeweaver).

“As You Are” and the Significance of Character Representation to the Community

Image: Blizzard Entertainment, Hannah Templer

Stacey’s story is a beautiful one that resonated with many Overwatch fans. Particularly so in Twitter users ClearTogether, PharahJR, and Phoenix/Gayviatorr — three LGBTQ+ members of the community whose online postings have made them synonymous with Pharah, to the point of being recognized by Pharah’s voice actress herself, Jen Cohn, and various Blizzard developers.

To emphasize the impact a character’s identity can have on their fans, I asked this trio of Pharah enthusiasts about their thoughts and feelings on “As You Are,” Overwatch’s Pride event, and how the Overwatch community has impacted their lives.

“Pharah was one of my queer guideposts as a teen. I found Pharah as a depressed 15 [year] old who had recently figured out my identity as a queer person. I immediately latched onto her as a queer role model. This is like 2016. My family wasn’t very supportive, and I had no idea what being black and lesbian was really supposed to look like,” PharahJr explained when asked about their connection to Pharah as a character.

Pharah gave me that role model to look up to and model myself after! Both Pharah and Pharmercy laid out a clear vision of who I eventually wanted to become, and I think that saved me from many of the unfortunate situations other queer youth around me at the time ended up in.

Sharing a similar sentiment was Phoenix, “Pharah is such a special character to me, not only because I have, like, a million hours on her, but she actually helped me feel so seen and represented, even before we knew she was a lesbian. Not only did I just adore her design and her gameplay, but the story of her complicated family history and how her childhood dreams crashed and burned, yet how she persevered, stayed true to her principles, and never lost sight of who she was really touched and inspired me.”

I think a lot of us can relate to Pharah’s complicated family issues, and I took comfort in that – that this strong, badass, beautiful woman always took care of herself even when she didn’t always have the support system she needed, and she gave me hope. In addition, like Pharah, I also come from a mixed background, with parents from two very different cultures, and it was so amazing to have that representation – especially in a character as proud of her heritage as Pharah is. Because of all this, I really saw myself in her, more closely than I’d ever seen myself in a character before.

Related: All Overwatch Character Voice Actors

ClearTogether, a content creator for the Watchpoint: Pride LGBTQ+ network, states, “Pharah is a character I initially gravitated towards due to perceiving her [as] being queer-coded. I always interpreted her vibes as her being a butch lesbian, and even though it wasn’t canon until now, I saw myself in her since the very beginning. To have that cemented in canon now feels wonderful. It’s hard to put the feeling into words. For a while, I thought maybe her queer coding was unintentional, or perhaps they even felt like it was apparent enough that it didn’t need to be said. I’m overjoyed that wasn’t the case.”

Image: Attack of the Fanboy

One heavily praised aspect of “As You Are” is how Pharah is concise and unapologetic when discussing her identity with Baptiste and how consistent similar values are to her character. “I absolutely loved the way they handled Pharah in the short story,” ClearTogether conveys. “Pharah’s character has always radiated the type of confidence that comes from her genuinely loving herself for who she is. For her to be unabashedly open just fits perfectly into who she is beyond just this story. It makes so much sense with her established character to be completely comfortable and open about her lesbian identity.

Also, the fact [Blizzard] let her straight up say “I’m a lesbian” had me floored, in the best way. Unfortunately, so often, you’ll see ‘lesbian’ treated as if it’s a dirty word. And you see characters who are very obviously lesbian in the way they’re presented, yet it’s never stated outright. I don’t think they could have handled it better. To say I’m very happy is an understatement, honestly.

Phoenix shared similar thoughts on how Pharah was portrayed and the impact Pharah’s writing had on them. “As a long-time fan of the character, I’d dreamed of this day a million times but never imagined it would actually become [a] reality, and in such a simple yet beautiful manner to boot. […] I’d hoped at most we’d learn that Pharah is sapphic, and I would have been beyond happy with that, but I can’t begin to emphasize how amazing and special it is to have a lesbian character proudly say, “I am a lesbian,” with no beating around the bush, no vagueness, no room for interpretation or need to read between the lines.”

Being a more timid, quieter person myself, I’ve always admired Pharah’s proud confidence and how sure she is of herself. Fittingly, her reveal felt so in character and on point for her. There’s no fear or hesitation in Pharah’s casual reveal; she can laugh and joke about it with Baptiste. She even ribs him with a meta “isn’t it obvious?” that felt like it was as directed to him as it was to the community at large, among whom Pharah being a lesbian was always a widely accepted headcanon but still wasn’t without a few naysayers. Now, personally, I am an out and proud lesbian, but it took a long time to get to this point. It’s still something I’d only bring up if asked, but I can even joke about it with people now just like Pharah does with Baptiste.”

Image: Gayviator

Clear, Phoenix, and PharahJr each joined the community at different times but were able to form a strong bond not only due to their mutual appreciation of Pharah but also the shared values, experiences, and identity of everyone’s favorite rocket woman.

Along with getting my foothold in the Overwatch fandom, I’ve made so many deep connections and lifelong friends I wouldn’t have otherwise,” ClearTogether explains. “My favorite interactions I’ve had with people who work on the game would either be getting to Zoom Call with Pharah’s voice actress on my birthday or getting to talk to Justin Groot from the Overwatch Narrative team on Discord. I told them both how much their work on Pharah means to me and how I’ve seen it seriously touch so many people’s lives. I deeply treasure both of those moments.

Image: PharahJr

For PharahJr, whose name derives from being adopted as the youngest in their group, one of their Overwatch highlights was getting a signed poster from Jen Cohn. “One of the [members of our Discord server] went to a convention in their area and actually got Jen Cohn to sign a poster for me calling me PharahJr. I was geeked, like so ecstatic.”

Phoenix explained that their experience in the Overwatch community guided them toward realizing their gender identity. “I wouldn’t have even known what being non-binary was if it weren’t for the Overwatch community, specifically the Pharmercy / Pharah stan community. They really taught me a lot and provided a safe haven and acceptance in a world that doesn’t always feel so welcoming. It’s beautiful to think that Overwatch, this fictional optimistic world, helped me and so many others improve our own worlds. And to think this was all because of a beautifully written character who speaks to not only me but thousands of other LGBT+ people out there, especially lesbians.

The Future of LGBTQ+ Representation in Overwatch

Image: Attack of the Fanboy

While the bulk of Overwatch’s LGBTQ+ content only exists in external media, such as comics and literature, Blizzard assured us that we will see characters’ identities represented more in-game in the near future. “This is just the beginning of Pride in Overwatch 2. Over the coming seasons and years, we’ll have more to share as the deeper lore of the Overwatch universe unfolds.”

With Overwatch 2’s first major PvE experience, Invasion, and the upcoming animated mini-series right around the corner, we’re beyond excited for the future of Overwatch’s narrative. Does anyone smell Pharmercy, or is that just me?

- This article was updated on June 30th, 2023

About The Author

Thomas has been a freelance writer since 2021 and considers himself a connoisseur of all things Nintendo, Blizzard, and Marvel. Since amassing 145,000+ followers on a Facebook page about Diddy Kong with a backward hat in 2015, Thomas has become a trusted voice in the gaming community across publications such as AOTF, PC Invasion, and Gfinity. His greatest achievements include catching every Pokémon, completing every quest in World of Warcraft (yes, all of them), and naming his dog 'Mass Effect 3.' Thomas is extraordinarily passionate about the video game industry and its community. He enjoys writing about various topics, including popular games like Destiny 2, Fortnite, and WoW, and exploring the latest AAA and indie titles.