Since its debut in 2016, Overwatch’s roster of heroes has steadily grown to 30, and each one has their own backstory. Jack Morrison, codenamed “Soldier: 76,” is a decorated US Marine who went on to lead an international task force. Lena “Tracer” Oxton is an English special agent capable of flitting through time with the help of her chronal accelerator — a device engineered by her best friend, Winston, a runaway gorilla from an experimental space program.
Moira, a support hero, joined Overwatch’s ranks from Ireland, which is also where I’m from. During last year’s Halloween event, Moira was afforded a new skin: Banshee. This eerie outfit, featuring a belt adorned with a goat’s head and brightly opaque, bottomless eyes, is emphatically Irish, as banshees are creatures who appear throughout Irish folklore.
Banshee is etymologically derived from the Irish “bean sí,” which translates to “woman of the fairy mound.” In Irish folktales, banshees are often heard keening or lamenting the dead by wailing and shrieking. It’s said that banshees weep in order to betoken the recent or soon-to-occur death of a family member, with congregations of up to 25 banshees assembling in order to mourn the passing of a holy person. It’s definitely a dark enough subject matter for a Halloween-inspired skin.
Blizzard clearly put in a lot of effort to incorporate Moira’s Irish roots into her unlockable cosmetics, which made me curious about whether the same details are taken into account across the whole hero roster. When I explored a little further, I realized Moira wasn’t the only one. While the basic or “common” skins are usually just recolored versions of the originals, “Legendary” skins — which are the rarest — are often imbued with similar cultural significance.
In an effort to learn about these cultures, I went through the Legendary skins of every single character, researching their names and aesthetics to see if they had backgrounds that are as interesting as Moira’s banshee foundation. Fortunately, most of them did.
Some of Overwatch’s cultural nods are a little more on the nose than others. For instance, Ana and Pharah have skins tied to Horus and Anubis, signifying an easily recognized homage to their Egyptian heritage, whereas Sombra’s Azúcar — which means “sugar” in Spanish — and Los Muertos skins refer to Día de los Muertos and the notorious Los Muertos gang, respectively.
While these details are definitely more fascinating than games-as-service models that introduce stock skins — consider Fortnite’s Skull Trooper and Renegade Raider — they’re still not exactly subtle. The coolest thing about Moira’s Banshee skin is that you need to be intimately familiar with Irish folktales for it to bear its maximum gravitas. If you’re not willing to do a little extra digging, it’s just a Halloween costume that’s mostly devoid of cultural and historical intrigue.
One of the best examples is Overwatch’s Swedish hero, Brigitte, who has a pair of mythology-inspired skins with more nuance. Sól and Máni, or the sun and the moon, are directly derived from the Norse mythology tied to Brigitte’s Scandinavian heritage, but they’re not just another jaded nod to Odin, Thor, or Loki. Sól shines incandescent like the sun, whereas Máni’s dark, metallic surface emits a softly illuminating moonlit sheen. In The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda — the two primary accounts of Norse mythology in existence today — it’s said that when Sól and Máni are swallowed by the wolves Skoll and Hati, the world will be plunged into darkness, and Ragnarok will begin.
Interestingly, Torbjorn also has a skin based on Norse mythology: Magni. If you’ve played the latest God of War, you’ll know that Magni was one of Thor’s two sons, the other being Modi. Blizzard could have just given Torbjorn a Thor skin, perhaps playfully punned as “Thorbjorn,” but there wouldn’t really be anything special about it. Everybody has already seen a million iterations of Thor.
Back in 2017, a Polygon story uncovered details of a much more nuanced pair of skins that I never would have known anything about otherwise. In the piece, Allegra Frank wrote about Doomfist’s Avatar and Spirit skins, which are derived from orishas, or “spirits that reflect the gods of the Yoruba religion.” The coloration of orishas varies depending on the values they’re supposed to symbolize, something that Andrien Gbinigie, who is currently a product marketing manager for Watch Dogs Legion, expanded on in a Twitter thread. According to Gbinigie, “red orisha, like Ogun, are quick tempered and harsh,” whereas “blue orisha, like Yemoja, are cool, gentle and compassionate.”
This is one of the most singular cases of cultural significance in all of Overwatch because it’s the aesthetic design of the skins that conveys meaning as opposed to their names. It’s subtle, so you wouldn’t know anything about it unless you were familiar with Yoruba culture — or, and this is the beauty of it, somebody who was familiar with took the time to explain it to you.
In honor of the Chinese New Year, Overwatch introduces a line of Lunar skins on an annual basis. For example, although Genji is from Japan, his Baihu skin draws on the Chinese version of the White Tiger of the West, one of four ancient deities that appears in various mythologies across Asia. Genji’s brother, Hanzo, also got a skin inspired by Chinese history: Huang Zhong, which is based on a Chinese warlord from the third century. In one particularly special homage, four characters — Zenyatta, Winston, Reinhardt, and Roadhog — were all given skins based on the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West as part of the 2017 Lunar New Year celebrations: Sanzang, Wukong, Wujing, and Bajie, respectively.
Similar to Moira, Mei was afforded a new skin during Overwatch’s Halloween event: Jiangshi. In Chinese legends, these were undead corpses who vampirically fed on the “qi,” or life force, of the living. Jiangshi are often documented as creatures who move around by hopping, and one of Mei’s emotes allows her to slowly hop across the room. Mei does it in a way that makes it appear like a bit of harmless fun, but with the Jiangshi skin equipped, the emote takes on a whole new meaning. Those in the know can combine the two before storming the battlefield in order to drain the qi of the enemy team.
Out of all of Overwatch’s heroes, however, Zenyatta’s skins are perhaps the most intriguing. Although Zenyatta was formerly a member of the Nepalese Shambali monastery, he decided to wander the world in search of interpersonal connection instead. In doing so, he came into contact with all different kinds of cultures and religions and refused to confine his spiritual beliefs to a single dogmatic creed. As a result, he has skins called Ifrit and Djinnyatta based on supernatural beings from Arabic mythology as well as ones based on Ra, the Ancient Egyptian deity of the sun, and Sanzang, the historical Buddhist monk Xuanzang. In a sense, Zenyatta’s conflation of different cultures with one another is indicative of Overwatch’s conviction to pay homage to different backgrounds as a whole, and without first recognizing the cultural importance of Moira’s Banshee skin, I likely wouldn’t have thought to delve into any of them.
However, Blizzard has messed up when designing skins in the past. Back in 2016, Kotaku reported that Universal Society of Hinduism president Rajan Zed called for Blizzard to remove Symmetra’s Devi skin from Overwatch, stating that it “trivialized Hinduism’s highly revered goddesses.” While most of Overwatch’s culture-specific skins have been tasteful and educating, some have been faced with claims of misrepresentation. Hopefully, in the future, Blizzard approaches world cultures tentatively and respectfully as it did with my beloved Banshee skin.
When I first saw Moira’s Banshee skin, I was delighted with Overwatch’s decision to incorporate aspects of Irish folklore into its only Irish character. What I didn’t anticipate was the journey of discovery I would undertake afterward, during which time I learned about histories and mythologies from all over the world. So long as Overwatch continues to release new heroes and kit them out with culturally significant skins, players can continue to learn about the world around them by looking into what these skins actually represent.
It might be subtle, but wonderful worlds of folklore and mythology await those willing to delve into the deeper meanings of Overwatch’s most illustrious skins.