Around high noon, roughly speaking, a video being duplicated across dozens of huge screens in a convention hall, as well as to millions around the world, suddenly glitches. The lights go out, and everyone, even myself, starts screaming. The glitch was in charge: Sombra, Overwatch’s 23rd hero, had finally arrived during the opening ceremonies of Blizzcon, Blizzard Entertainment’s annual convention to celebrate the company and its fans. The reveal, which included her “disrupting” a video about the game’s player numbers, debuted a three minute cinematic full of the character’s personality, skills and motivations. It was one of the more detailed that anyone in the game has gotten thus far, and with a backdrop of enthusiastic shrieking from fans, it proved that Blizzard’s missteps with the character up until this point were largely forgiven.
When the game first released, it was not clear as to whether or not Blizzard would be releasing new characters in the future, but sharp-eyed fans noticed that amid some of the Easter eggs and lore points that were left around maps, that there was a name that came up on the Dorado map: Sombra. Given that Blizzard had snuck other character reveals in the beta period this way (notable was a screenshot of the Hanamura map that had a D.va banner hanging), fans quickly latched onto the idea that this could be another clue. A character wearing a hood was spotted in a Gamespot documentary, which was also believed to be Sombra.
As soon as Ana was released officially, that theory was both shot down and a new one emerged from Ana’s own reveal video: a series of hexadecimal codes that said when translated, “La que tiene la información; tiene el poder.” (“She who holds the information, holds the power.”) A second set provided later spelled out the name: Sombra. This ARG was now afoot with our first real brush with Sombra as a character. We knew it was a “she” of some sort, spoke Spanish and had a predilection for disrupting normal operations. As the game unspooled over the next couple of months, subreddits for Overwatch as well as the Game Detectives were ablaze with speculation and attempts to crack the clues left behind in subsequent videos as well as Sombra’s attempts to mess with Blizzard’s websites. She left behind tiny snippets of info about various heroes, along with her patented skull logo and snippy jokes. The game reached a fever pitch when a site called amomentincrime.com (it now redirects to her player page) was discovered (after a post made by “Skycoder” on the official forums had ticked down to 0) and had a slowly ascending percentage. People checked the site every day from mid-August onwards. However, this is where it all fell apart: ARGs typically work best when constantly fed clues and these timers only artificially extended the game and people’s anticipation fizzled into frustration. When the percentage finally hit 100% in October, people were hoping (maybe a little too optimistically) that Sombra would be revealed. She was not, and many people felt sour on what was sure to just be a new character for Overwatch. The next part of the game included more story progression that underlined Sombra’s intent to hack into and destroy Lumerico, an energy company that controls one of the major structures on the Dorado map, but as the clues kept unfolding closer and closer to Blizzcon in early November, people stopped paying attention. It was clear that she had always been planned for the convention, where the company unveiled all their big announcements for the year. A leaked poster of official Sombra art a day or two before the start of Blizzcon all but confirmed it.
Even though Blizzard said they didn’t do very well with the ARG, the character feels like a victory. You can’t say that the impact of Sombra hasn’t been felt or continued the team’s mission towards diversity. It says a lot that the last two characters added to the line-up have been women of color, both with different motivations, allegiances and overall looks. Blizzard’s made some mistakes in the past with how character’s ethnicities and cultures have been represented in-game, but once again, it feels like Sombra improves on the model. This is what made the reveal so exciting—it happened this year, in this culture, with thousands of people thirsting for months over a shrewd Latina hacker who has perfectly coiffed hair and eyeshadow. It’s just not what we’ve come to expect when it comes to gamers, a segment of whom often throws tantrums when women, much less women of color, are given center stage. They complain about inclusion being deliberate, political and pandering; what they don’t realize is how sorely it’s needed to make these kinds of moves in a sea of characters that only ever look like they do.
Sombra is now one of the very few female Mexican characters in gaming, one who also veers away from the usual archetypes. Her persona interweaves not just her ethnicity or country of origin, either, but another culture typically represented as very white and male: hackers. While the recently released Watch Dogs 2 also tries to move away from this paradigm as well, the fact that a female character of color is allowed to be represented as a genius techno-spy from early childhood is a deft move. Her move set also backs this up: she plays with a combination of teleportation, short range damage as well as EMPs and ability hacking.
Crystal, a devoted Overwatch player, felt a kinship with this tech aesthetic in particular. “I always loved movies like Hackers and Blade Runner, and cyberpunk classics like Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis,” she said. “I loved the look and style. But never really saw myself there. Most cyberpunk is usually very white or Asian. You never really see Latinx individuals. Here was this neon-bathed woman that looked like me, in all that techy glory. It meant a lot to me to very instantly look at those pictures and say ‘Wow, I can be her!’ [and] not just ‘be like her’.”
The few people I spoke to after Blizzcon had some variation of this feeling: that Sombra was extremely cool, and made them feel more comfortable in the Overwatch universe, whether it was because of her age (another female character in her 30s) or because she was Latina. Another fan, Molly, summed it up as thus:
“When I realize that she’s 30, that means that the first two characters introduced to Overwatch since launch are non-white women who are 30+? I can’t remember the last time people have been so excited about playable female characters who aren’t younger than 24, let alone non-white ones. It’s really amazingly refreshing.”
Time will tell about her future within the canon, but Blizzard managed to snag yet another win for characterization from the jaws of failure. If anything, it feels like they put more love and care into Sombra than most of the cast thus far. She has a depth of personality, history that far outstrips many of the team, as well as not just being a typical criminal who works for Talon. If the Overwatch team continues on this path, then my optimism for the game will not feel so cautious. Sombra hacking our hearts with thunderous applause and rapt attention speaks to a sea change within gaming. If she can make it, then maybe anyone can.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage, and can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.