Kaplan: 'The women in our games are the ones doing the rescuing'

D.Va, a former StarCraft gamer who battles robots in a pink mech suit, is one of Overwatch's many female heroes. Provided by Blizzard

Since its release in May 2016, Overwatch, Blizzard's first-person shooter, has become one of the most popular games in the world. As of this April, the title had over 30 million registered players, and several professional esports teams will soon compete in the Overwatch League. While the team-based game's popularity stems largely from its design, Overwatch has also built a massive following because of its unique focus on storytelling; it has a large and diverse array of characters, "heroes" ranging from a female hacker to a genetically engineered gorilla scientist to a time-traveling pilot who was recently revealed to be gay. ESPN The Magazine spoke with Jeff Kaplan, the game's director, about these characters and why they're resonating with gamers around the world.

The Mag: Can you explain what makes Overwatch different from other shooters?

Jeff Kaplan: The biggest difference is that we're focused on creating a game about heroes. These heroes were people, and in some ways, they're larger than life. Traditionally, shooters really didn't have abilities. You might have a cool gun ... but not a lot of shooters had the characters with these kind of crazy, epic, over-the-top abilities. Tracer can blink 30 meters across a map as fast as you can push a button three times, then recall back to where she was.

So on one hand, there's these abilities. On the other, it was -- let's not look at them as generic soldier guy or generic fighter girl. Let's come up with backstories for who these people are ... the time-traveling former RAF pilot who was in a horrible accident and her talking monkey friend. And guess what? She's a superhero now! And she has weird personality quirks, where she's a little bit cheery and she annoys her teammates, but in an endearing sort of way that makes you want to hang out with her.

Really putting that personality into the characters -- I think that was the huge difference.

How did the idea of placing more emphasis on character and story come about?

At the time we were conceiving Overwatch, we had not created new IP since Diablo, 17 years prior. We were sitting there going: We would love a new universe to explore. But we knew the gameplay we were exploring was as tightly scoped as a game can get. It's a 6 vs. 6, team-based shooter, with no single play, or campaign. So we started to make these animated shorts and comics, and we started to put as much fiction around the universe as possible.

Games are all about immersion, and there's an element of escapism as well. You want to be so immersed that you believe you're living in that universe. Anything we can do to help you along -- to fall in love with these characters -- helps you escape more into the game itself.

When you started making these decisions, did it occur to you that you might be expanding the diversity of the audience that would be interested in the game?

The way we like to approach game development is to take a game that's pretty hardcore, and create [those] elements because we think that's what gives a game depth and longevity. But the thing that separates Blizzard is that we try to then say: We know how to create this really fun hardcore loop in a game. But how do you open the door and make everyone feel welcome?

It comes down to simple game-design decisions. You get rid of punishing elements that don't add to the depth. Having a bright welcoming world really attracts a broader audience. We play games to escape, and if you have a bunch of really challenging, oppressive environments, it tends to fatigue people mentally, and they don't want to take part in the world.

In so many games, you're asked to step into the shoes of some character that somebody created, and you don't know who that person is. And so often it's a very similar avatar that you've seen before, many times. And I think there's a lot of us who have the feeling of: That's just not me. That's not who I am. A lot of us have different fantasies of who we want to be. And when you have such a limited imagination of what those fantasies could be -- for a player to live out in their gaming experience -- you're not speaking to as wide of an audience as you can.

I didn't know that I necessarily wanted to be a Chinese climatologist-turned-adventurer, but she's one of my favorite characters now. In fact, my ringtone is her saying, "Sorry sorry sorry sorry," over and over again.

The game is so bright. It almost looks like a Pixar film.

In the shooter space, it wasn't the obvious choice. We were living in an era I would call the realistic modern shooter ... where as much as possible, games were trying to emulate current military situations and weaponry. Even the battlegrounds they were choosing were common to current military conflicts. They would always represent it the same way: bombed out and destroyed. It's dusty. Lots of browns and grays.

Overwatch was deliberately designed to challenge that. We actually have a map that takes place in Iraq called Oasis. It's a city founded by six different scientists ... some came from the Middle East, some from elsewhere in the world. It's an entire city dedicated to furthering mankind. That was our way of saying, let's stop reinforcing the stereotype. We get that that's the current situation. How can we imagine a better future?

Were you concerned about alienating the core shooter users that are accustomed to a certain look and feel?

No, I don't think so at all. Some of the best game companies in the world are still making modern military shooters. We just gave players another option.

Based on your experience, how would you say the game has resonated with women?

I think we've done a decent job of getting over the notion that a shooter has to be a game with a grizzled dude in camouflage sitting on the cover. I think we've opened a door -- and it's been interesting, because I don't think it's just benefited women, but also men as well -- that there's a fun fantasy of heroes, and heroes don't have to be male. Heroes are male and female, and sometimes, god damn it, they're gorillas and robots too! And if you're looking for an escapist medium and you want to live out those fantasies, it's fun to step into the shoes of any of these characters.

I would like to believe that we've done a good job of representing women as strong as well. None of our storylines are about the princess in the castle who need to be rescued. The women in our games are the ones doing the rescuing. They're some of the strongest characters that we have. They're not victims -- they're not waiting to be saved by a man. They're heroic in every sense of the word.

Half of the characters are women, but most of the people who play them are men. Were you surprised by that?

Not at all. I think there's a lot of gamers who are open-minded and have been waiting for this to happen.

Gamers, at a certain point, are genderless. Sometimes I need to play Reinhardt because my team needs that barrier; sometimes I need to play Zarya because it combos well, and we've got a great Genji, and I want to be able to put the protective barrier on him when he's dragon blading. Because that's what's going to make us win. There's like a weird utopia moment where you wish humanity could be like this in general. What does the team need to win right now? It boils down to that.

We do put a lot of story and voice lines into these characters, so you're constantly relating to them as people. Stephen might play Mei because he's trying to block the choke on Hanamura and not let the other team get through ... but I hope that over time, as Stephen is doing that, he's listening to what Mei is saying and understanding her as a person. What motivates her, why she's interesting. I've seen that happen with a lot of people.

How did the character of D.Va come about?

There's a cool storyline. There were these mechs that could only be piloted by the best fighter pilots in the world. The reason they were using them was to defeat a giant robot who kept repeatedly attacking Korea. It was discovered that nobody was able to pilot this thing or have better twitch skills than one of the amazing Korean pro gamers. So we were trying to nod towards Korean pro gaming culture.

The other thing we really wanted was a super strong female. Not only is she strong, but she is confident just up to that line of cocky ... like we see with a lot of gamers or pro athletes. We did not have any political aspirations with the character; we weren't trying to make a statement about women in Korean culture. We were just trying to create an inspiring character.

It's interesting because it's still aspirational.

They're getting there, though!

This interview has been edited and condensed.