There's something special about Rexxar, the latest addition to developer Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, a "hero brawler" game where teams of five characters from the company's history battle one another. After you play 15 to 20 matches with Rexxar, you can earn a new "skin" that makes him look black.
That makes the Warcraft hunter only the second even potentially black-skinned human or humanoid character in Heroes of the Storm.
The "hero brawler" genre is immensely popular (most often called by the ugly acronym "MOBA") particularly in eSports. Heroes of the Storm, which was officially released in June, is relatively late to the party, but it could muscle its way onto the turf of mega-hits League of Legends and DOTA 2 with a roster of characters from Blizzard's famous franchises.
Blizzard has three major franchises, all of which date back to the mid-1990s. There's StarCraft, a science fiction strategy series about aliens and humans battling amidst xenocidal tragedy. Diablo is a gothic fantasy role-playing game, with angels and demons battling over a human world. And the big one is Warcraft, a traditional fantasy world of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and, uh, Pandaren.
However, these games are built on decades of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding that, from the start, have never been especially diverse.
The diversity issues spring from the fact that both Warcraft and, to a lesser extent, StarCraft create worlds where inhuman races stand in for those who would be considered minorities in the western world. Humans and human-like races default to being white-skinned. There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, if a character has a realistic skin tone, it's white.
This is not to say that there aren't the equivalent of "people of color" in the Warcraft universe—they're just not represented as humans. Instead, they're extra-exotic: the purple Night Elves, the green Orcs, the blue-green Trolls, the bovine Tauren, and the panda-like Pandaren.
Trolls, for example, exclusively speak in Jamaican accents, while Tauren are so clearly based on Great Plains Native Americans that one of their starter areas in World of Warcraft is literally named Red Cloud, after the great Lakota leader. The Pandaren, meanwhile, aren't just obviously East Asian, they're the only explicitly East Asian group in the game—something reinforced by Heroes giving its two Pandaren characters Chinese-style "Lunar Festival" costumes during the Chinese New Year.
When these games literally treat East Asian culture as non-Human, it makes them difficult to defend
Sometimes this race-as-nonhuman species form of worldbuilding can work. One of the best stories in Warcraft 3 is the Orc campaign, where the oppressed Orcs, led into camps by their Human conquerors, break free and go to found a land of their own, led by the diplomatic young Warchief Thrall and his much angrier friend Grom. The story touches on the conflicts between moderation and radicalism, revenge and forgiveness, and dying for freedom or living to fight another day, with Thrall serving as as a cross between Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr.
This type of worldbuilding becomes a problem, however, when it is the only type of diversity present. Pandarens, for example, are the only Asians in World of Warcarft or Heroes, and when these games literally treat East Asian culture as non-Human, it makes them difficult to defend. Similarly, is there variety within each group or is it presented as a monolith? Warcraft does somewhat better here in terms of politics—every race has different factions, even if it is just to give World of Warcraft players more enemies to fight—but this only mitigates the initial issue, instead of resolving it.
In Blizzard's other universes, this worldbuilding conceit is more complicated. StarCraft's Humans are based on a certain white American redneck idea, and in the story, most of them are white. The major playable exception is Gabriel Tosh—but it's unlikely he would be added to Heroes because the game's existing Nova character, who has a very similar stealthy skill set, would make Tosh redundant.
StarCraft's aliens aren't as directly pointed at real-world ethnicities as Warcraft's, but they carry their own baggage. The high-tech, high mysticism Protoss feel decidedly non-Western—reinforced by character design that includes non-Western symbols like male braids and veils. One would think the insectoid aliens called the Zerg would avoid such appropriation—but even that gets messy. The Zerg are led by the corrupted Human, Sarah Kerrigan. Originally a redhead, she was eventually depicted in a semi-corrupted state as having dark alien dreadlocks. Again, this is a real-world hairstyle with specific ethnic connotations being used to symbolize an alien Other.
Diablo is the only one of Blizzard's major universes that doesn't have sentient humanoid fantasy races—and, unsurprisingly, this makes it arguably the most diverse of the three worlds—though not without issue.
It was Diablo 3 that delivered the only playable black character in Heroes: Nazeebo, the Witch Doctor. But even he's complicated as an arguably racist stereotype of the West African conceptions of Vodun. Diablo 3 does have other characters of color, but they're only partially present in Heroes. The heroic Archangel Tyrael, for example, falls to Earth in Diablo 3 as a black man, and he's in Heroes, but only in his hooded, angelic form, so there's no indication of his human skin color.
Arguing "there aren't black people in Middle-Earth" does not actually excuse a lack of diversity
This worldbuilding style is an issue now for a couple of reasons. First, Heroes' position as "Blizzard All-Stars" shows, essentially, how this important company wants to portray its own character history. Second, we're having wider cultural conversations about diversity in fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding. In a recent article from the largely excellent Medieval POC Tumblr, the author argues that creators hold responsibility for their worlds, and that arguing "there aren't black people in Middle-Earth" does not actually excuse a lack of diversity. The recent explosion in the popularity of fantasy in visual media has only made these discussions more pressing.
There are a few things that Heroes can do to increase its cast's diversity. Blizzard's impending team shooter, Overwatch, is inspired by real-world human diversity, for example. Its characters are Brazilian, Indian, Japanese and more, and it's easy to imagine them as Heroes characters. That the newest Blizzard game has a more diverse cast of characters suggests that the company is adjusting its creative process to take these diversity-based analyses into account, and there's no reason it couldn't do the same for Heroes.
For older characters, though, Blizzard can use the character skin variations to include more real-world diversity. Oddly, Blizzard has shown an odd lack of confidence in doing this—it'll give characters porcelain, ashen, or red skins, but until Rexxar, didn't use different skins to add diversity. A red-haired, brown-skinned Jaina could be great, as could a dark-skinned, white-bearded Uther. However, the company has recently acknowledged some of their issues with a promise to do better.
Fantasy and science fiction can do a lot to push ideas and representation forward—and they often have. But long-running worlds have their own baggage, and creators who work with them have to deal with that. These kinds of games last for years, and build up stables of a hundred characters. Even with the restrictions of Blizzard's history, there's plenty of opportunity to add more diversity. Heroes just has to take it.