Stories of how Overwatch has touched lives and impacted communities across the globe are as numerous as they are heart-warming, but no tale quite matches the bizarre magnificence of Mateus Mognon. A few months ago, Mognon was an Overwatch fan with a soft spot for Hanzo. Today, he’s the chief preacher and president of The National Hanzo Church (“Igreja Nacionais De Hanzo”), an official religious body registered in his home country of Brazil, the establishment of which has drawn a storm of attention from press and fellow players around the world.
The story behind The National Hanzo Church is more than just another curious Overwatch anecdote. Talking to Mognon, it quickly becomes clear that this is also a story about Brazil, its politics, and the intersection between games and religion.
As a mass phenomenon which has rapidly mobilised a global community of dedicated followers, there is certainly a shade of religiosity to Overwatch’s cultural impact. But Mognon’s original idea for the church came neither from religious motivations nor zealous fandom, but as a side-project for his journalism class. “I saw a report talking about how easy it was to open a church in Brazil, and I decided put that to the test”, Mognon tells me.
The report was true. Christianity has been deeply intertwined with Brazilian culture ever since the country’s conquest by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and both Protestant and Catholic churches remain an influential presence across many aspects of Brazilian society today. “Brazilians are used to seeing great buildings being built for churches, preachers becoming influential politicians and the growth of powerful religious communities,” explains Mognon, “One of the biggest TV channels here belongs to a church, for example.”
Consequently, the Brazilian state places a strong value on the sanctity of religious freedom, and tax immunity for religious organisations of all kinds is enshrined by the law. But, sadly, not all those protected by the legal system are operating with charitable intent, instead exploiting the law as a loophole for tax evasion, fraud, and all manner of money laundering. It is this issue that Mognon is hoping to draw attention to with his story of the National Hanzo Church, using his own experience as an example of how worryingly easy it can be to register as a church and secure tax immunity in Brazil. The world needs heroes, after all.
Even with his preconceived expectations, however, pastor Magnon admits that the process was still “much easier that I had ever thought it would be.” Within just two months of conceiving the idea, Mognon had successfully registered the National Hanzo Church as a legally-recognised religious institution, with the government paperwork to prove it (you can read the church’s full bill of statutes here).
But how does a budding church planner land on Overwatch, and more specifically Hanzo, as the basis for a new religion? It helped that, like millions of others, Mognon is a huge fan of Blizzard’s competitive multiplayer brawler, but what made it perfect was the game’s use of religious imagery – the pastor mentions “the angelic aura of Mercy, the philosophy of Zenyatta, the messianic connotations of Hanzo.” The contemporary nature of the source material wasn’t an issue either, in fact it helps make Magnon's point – and as he says, quoting American Gods’ Mr Wednesday: “Gods are real if you believe in them.”
The church basically parallels Hanzo to Christ, which many Overwatch players might disagree with – but hey, where's your spiritual movement? For Mognon it’s not just a visual similarity, but a thematic parallel too, with the character’s sombre backstory underscored by “elements of loss and redemption that make good traits for a religion.” Granted, there’s no record of the son of god ever sporting a bow and arrow or habitually clambering up vertical surfaces, but Mognon is quick to remind me that any comparisons are still “just references that bring the game closer to reality…I think Blizzard has no intention of offending anyone.”
Regardless of whether Jesus was an intentional reference point for Blizzard or not, it was nonetheless what ultimately inspired Mognan to choose Hanzo as the church’s idol of choice. He writes that “the joining of an emotionally charged character, his real inspirations, and Jesus-like appearance made for the ideal Saviour for my experimental church.”
It’s all very well for a church to have a god, then, but what of followers? Despite the litany of peculiar rules and rituals that Mognon has created for the church (which, rather brilliantly, includes the censuring of the term “Hanzo Main” as a sin), he doesn’t intend to become a full-time pastor anytime soon. “I think this is enough for now”, he says, “I don’t want any problems with Blizzard. I’m still afraid that they might file a lawsuit!”
Perhaps more importantly, however, Magnon isn't interested in breaking the law but using Hanzo and Overwatch to highlight where it needs fixing. The National Hanzo Church has given the pastor significant insight into the exploitable legalities of running a church in Brazil, as well as the exposure to make his point. The experiment wasn’t so much about Overwatch as it about illuminating the complex relationship between church and state in Brazil, and Mognon hopes his efforts will at the very least “get people talking” about the issue.
“I think the problem could be solved with more engaged governmental supervision, to ensure that religious institutions are abiding by the law and to punish those who use this right of religious freedom to commit crimes.”
The pastor of the National Hanzo Church finishes up, appropriately enough, with a confession –his words tinged with heresy. “I rarely play as him anymore, I’m actually a great example of a Hanzo Main. I'm a terrible shot.”