Anjali Bhimani learned she was famous at a bar somewhere in Los Angeles. Her boyfriend was tucking into a drink and taking the temperature of the friends and randoms scattered across the room. These were the incandescent winter months of 2016, when the games community was single-mindedly fixated on exactly one blockbuster debut just around the corner. So, it's entirely unsurprising that someone said that lately, they've been playing the beta for a new shooter called Overwatch.
"He said, 'Oh, I think my girl is in that game,' and they freaked out. They were super excited about it," says Bhimani. "That's not something I'm used to, even as an onscreen actor, let alone something that's a game. That was my first inkling."
Bhimani, of course, is responsible for the sharp, mile-a-minute sermons that pour from the mouth of Symmetra - the light-bending supergenius who fills out rosters with clutch teleporter spawns and screen-filling cyan blobs of death. As the Overwatch phenomenon continues to blossom, (35 million players last October, 300,000 viewers tuning into an upstart pro league last week,) Bhimani's performance, along with the rest of the cast, became iconic. Today, she's a cornerstone of the community - cherished just as much as the whip-smart gun mechanics and holiday events - which is an anointment she's embraced with giddy delight. She Instagrams charcoal portraits and MS Paint collages for #FanArtFriday, her dog, (an adorably languid Chi-Pom mix named Charley,) is an honorary member of the greater Overwatch universe, and her Twitter banner is home to a proud Symmetra, dressed to the 9 in her regal Oasis armor, looking after her feed like a guardian angel. "It's been life-changing," says Bhimani, "It's the first time where my career and my life-mission - which is to help people figure out what their own super power is - are completely, 100 percent in tune."
Overwatch is a multiplayer shooter with light MOBA bent. There is no single-player campaign, no harrowing soliloquies, no dark middle chapters, no climaxes, no hero's journeys. Compared to the pages of epic fantasy committed to Warcraft and Diablo, Overwatch's in-game storytelling is remarkably slim. Sure, There is some expository banter in the spawn rooms, but Symmetra's most iconic quip will always and forever be, simply, "teleporter online."
"There are moments where I'm like, 'I think we're The Beatles, right now.'"
But somehow, despite the complete lack of a robust narrative, despite a script that's considerably lighter than anything else Blizzard has ever done, Overwatch's troupe of merry soldiers is one of the most popular and well-drawn collectives in video games, and the voice actors behind those characters are now attached at the hip to one of the most passionate fan communities on the planet. For the first time in their careers, they're learning what it's like to be a celebrity. "It's pretty darn exciting," says Darin De Paul, voice of the mechanized Sexagenarian Reinhardt. He reflects on this past Blizzcon, when people from around the world lined up for hours to score autographs from the cast until the officials literally took the pens from their hands. "There are moments where I'm like, 'I think we're The Beatles, right now.'"
Once upon a time, Overwatch was just another job - the exact sort of contract work a nation of ham-and-eggers in the film industry subsist upon. The game was still under codename when writer, director, and actor Jonny Cruz answered Blizzard's casting call. He was presented an image of a Brazilian kid with a hat, skateboard and a handful of keywords, like "inspirational," "cool," and "big brother-type." Cruz found the voice immediately, and forgot about the tryout shortly after he left. Months later, when his agent called him with the news that the company liked his charisma for the wall-running, health-boosting DJ Lúcio, he wasn't even sure what Overwatch was. "A friend of mine is a big gamer, and I went over to him and I was like, 'Yo, I got a part in this game,' and he was like, 'No way dude, shut up!'" recalls Cruz. "I didn't really take it as anything."
That was four years ago. Now, Cruz estimates that he gets recognized in public about four times a week. Sure, that's not quite Kylie Jenner levels, but as he notes, it's fairly unprecedented for a pantomimist to be flagged down in a Starbucks line. Ground zero was the cast's trip to Blizzard's Irvine HQ last summer, where Cruz tweeted a supercut of his fellow voice actors subverting their classic lines. ("Hey McCree, what times is it?" "That's not going to work this time Lúcio.") The video was giddy and sweet, an adorable union of industry veterans interacting outside of the booth for the first time, and of course, it immediately went viral. Cruz's Twitter account blossomed from a few hundred followers to 20,000 overnight as the Overwatch community finally registered the faces behind the battlecries, promptly showering them all with puppy-dog reverence. Since then, it's only gotten crazier. This past Blizzcon Darin De Paul lead a legion of titanic Reinhardt cosplayers outside the Los Angeles convention center, and Bhimani roamed the halls asking fans to show off their dance emote. If there ever was a division between the actors and the characters, it disappeared a long time ago.
"These people play your character for hundreds of hours, so when they meet you they feel akin to you," explains Cruz. "I just always have to respect that. To be there with them. To be present. I always want to look them in the eye and say thank you."
To be fair, this strain of voice actor fame is not completely unique to Overwatch. David Kaye travels the convention circuit with his Megatron voice in tow, and Nolan North has carved out his own tongue-in-cheek cult following through the power of his ubiquity. But I'd also imagine that both of them would admit that their celebrity, while sweet and well-intentioned, is incidental. Nobody feels seen by Optimus Prime in the way they have by, say, Tracer. Much has been made about the diversity of Blizzard's imagined earth, and how each of the soldiers in Overwatch challenge the old-fashioned ideas of who's allowed to be heroes in first-person shooters. Andrea Toyias, senior casting and voice director at Blizzard, knew that those political initiatives would've rung hollow without the right group of people. If Overwatch was going to work, she needed to find actors who embodied the characters on a personal, emotional level.
"The Overwatch sessions were run differently. In other games we certainly talk to the actor about the character and what's going on. But with our Overwatch characters, the first hour of the session, we just sit in the control room and talk," she says. "We didn't want to dictate the world to the actor, we want to start asking them questions. ... We want to say, 'How does this feel to you? What about this strikes a chord with you? Do you have any personal stories that you can relate with these characters?' It was a really collaborative process. We wanted to merge our ideas with the actor's own life experience, and find something in the middle."
It worked. Jonny Cruz says he's pretty much merged his soul with Lúcio. "[He's] like a hyper-positive version of myself," he laughs. De Paul created Reinhardt as a tribute to his father. "He was Russian and German and told amazing stories. He did a lot of good for the community. It's getting to the essence of who my father was," he says. Bhimani tells me that her Symmetra performance is tuned for little Indian girls that were just like her, once upon a time. "If there's any way I can continue cultivating that, that's my biggest goal," she says.
When Toyias surveys the artists she's put together, she sees a group of people deeply in love with what they're doing. She sees them lockstep in the belief that their work in the studio has added up to something beyond a tight multiplayer experience. She sees 26 careers that will never be the same. She sees Overwatch.
"Together, as people, they're like superheroes," says Toyias. "They all take it so seriously."
This is no longer just another job for Jonny Cruz. He's written and directed his own films, he's filled out the fringes of one-shot episodes of NCIS, and yet, he tells me that playing Lúcio has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his career. That's a curious thing to say for a bouncy arena shooter, for a neon DJ that shoots highly-compressed bass, for a script that contains rote video game koans like "Take cover" and "Watch your back." But I suppose that is the magic of Overwatch; to let these characters breathe without tokenism or forced exposure. Because clearly, meeting Jonny is just as good as meeting Lúcio. Hell, meeting Jonny is meeting Lúcio. "It's because of what he represents. His skin color, his background," he says. "This has been really beautiful."
I asked each of the voice actors I interviewed if, before this particular role, they believed that video games could be a force for good in the world. By and large, the answer was no. They trusted Overwatch's vision, but this phenomenon has taken them each by surprise. Studio sessions rarely come bundled with a utopian, sociopolitical weight, but they're here now, and they've adapted beautifully.
Think of all the ponderous work that stacks up into a voice acting career. The endless proletariat sessions putting their talent behind nameless marines and bone-chewing orcs for projects that nobody will remember. They are, of course, happy for the work, because there is little room vanity in this sector of Hollywood. But now they are Overwatch agents. Now they are The Avengers. You cannot underestimate the tenderness of being the most important part of someone's life, to have a community of people that cherish your kindness, and how they see your essence reflected in the character you're playing and the world you're fighting for. The Overwatch voice actors are bewildered, elated, and riding high, but most of all, they are grateful.
"You hope you have one job like this as an actor. Some people don't get this," says De Paul. "You know it could be over tomorrow, but people are still interested in what we're doing, and these vibrant, positive characters. It's a great gift."