What’s got equal parts male and female superheroes plus three robots and one gorilla scientist? Overwatch does.
The multiplayer, “first-person shooter” title, launched by game-maker Activision Blizzard last year, has already generated more than $1 billion in revenue and amassed about 30 million players. But whether the diversity of its roster of characters has translated to its consumer base is unclear.
What is evident is that gaming giant Activision Blizzard wants to appeal to a more mass—and more diverse—audience. The company, profiled in the latest issue of Fortune, made its debut on the Fortune 500 list this week. Only two other video-game-centric companies have ever made the Fortune 500: Electronic Arts and Atari. Neither of them stayed on for very long. To propel and prolong its growth—in its last fiscal year, Activision Blizzard reported record revenue of $6.6 billion, up 42% from the year before—the company is now trying to extend its intellectual property beyond just the games. There is a division that’s developing movies and TV shows, and another dedicated to consumer products. There’s also an esports empire of sorts in the works, all built around Overwatch.
Later in 2017, Activision Blizzard will unveil the Overwatch League, an NFL-like esports organization with city-based teams of players that compete against each other. The league could open up new revenue opportunities for Activision Blizzard, from sponsorships and advertising to media distribution deals. It will also, at least in theory, be co-ed. “I think it’s the first game on a broad scale where about half the characters [are] women,” Kotick says in an interview with Fortune. “This is a level playing field and there’s no reason why a woman can’t be as good of a game player as a man.”
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At least one competitive player agrees: “It’s not like physical strength is a thing in this,” says Brandon “Seagull” Larned, one of the most high-profile Overwatch players and a contender for Activision Blizzard’s upcoming league. “I mean, I just have to click a mouse.”
That said, Larned has only ever seen one co-ed team that’s popular (in China) and the vast majority of esports pros are men. Why? One possible explanation: Despite Kotick’s efforts with Overwatch, the gaming world still isn’t as welcoming to women as it should be (check out #gamergate on Twitter). That goes for esports and so-called “streaming.”
This other subset of players, called streamers, let fans view them playing games on websites like Amazon-owned Twitch.tv. “It’s really rare that you see a girl in the higher ranks of the game,” says Riley Youngs, a female streamer who plays Overwatch four to eight hours a day. “But there are a handful of girls that are definitely going that route.”
Youngs’ streams have garnered about 150,000 views. “It’s starting to blow up a bit,” she says. But she has had to build her community of fans carefully.
“It’s all about the community you build,” says Youngs. “I don’t really wear revealing clothing cause I don’t want to want to build that kind of community. A lot of people watch me for my gameplay and not for my body.”
When the Overwatch League launches later this year, we will be able to see just how co-ed it really is. Activision Blizzard’s own team, meanwhile, could also use some diversity. Only one out of nine members of the company’s board is female. And there’s not a single woman on its eight-person “senior corporate management” team. Life imitating art? Or vice versa?