Overwatch‘s advertising trailer, released back in 2014, was bombastic and beautiful, and it started a fervent fandom. The players loved the bright designs, strong characteristics and optimism associated with the surroundings. The game’s launch and follow-up footage only strengthened this fan base; people loved to send characters, imagine their missions and daydreams about the history of the future. Overwatch was so prevalent and iconic that it even revolutionized the Rule 34 scene; the game was everywhere.
Then, just as suddenly, it disappeared. The story fell to a drip after 2018 and eventually stopped completely along with major additions – we have not seen a new one completely since 2020. Now, on the verge of Overwatch 2‘s PvP on its way into beta and a new Overwatch League season, the game should be ready for a triumphant return. Instead, it’s on more shaky ground than ever, and other developers have snatched momentum from Blizzard and run with it instead.
Open the locks
Overwatch did not invent the idea of building a heroic shooter around strong characters that were shown off through movies. Valves Team Fortress 2 and its “Meet the Team” feature film still stands almost 15 years later, and they are far less complex and complicated than Overwatch‘s trailers.
But Overwatch‘s utopian near future and diverse cast attracted a fan base that had historically been understaffed by the first-person shooter genre. Communities of women and queer players gathered around the game; some of them were there mostly for the gameplay, while others were there for the learning and the characters above all else.
Overwatch was in its heyday a legitimate cultural phenomenon. The beautiful film, the lively character design and hints of a larger narrative inspired a massive fandom. People cosplayed Overwatch characters and their skins, created fan art, wrote long fanfiction epics, collaborated on 3D animations of their own original heroes and more. These players were the heart of Overwatch fandom, play the game and let it spark their imagination.
The influence of Overwatch is evident in many of its competitors. Grade lists feel more important than ever; just having a series of gunmen with mysterious backstories no longer does. Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siegeand Valorant are all good examples of games where the aesthetics, personalities and background of a character mean as much as their gameplay. Other developers are now creating and promoting characters like Valorant‘s Neon, a Filipino speedster; Rainbow Six Siege‘s transoperator Osa, and non-binary Apex Legends character Bloodhound.
Overwatch would lose to these other titles in the years to come, not because of its list or its lore, but because of the lack of consistency around it.
Plot, tempo and purpose
Overwatch put up big, dramatic dominoes – and then went on to just gesture to them and say “Pretty cool, huh?” There were great mysteries set up from day one, as a climax showdown at Overwatch’s Swiss headquarters. In the 2016 cinematic “Recall”, Winston presses the big red button to restart Overwatch. We don’t see Overwatch actually going on a mission until the 2019 movie “Zero Hour,” which sets up campaign content that currently has no release date.
My personal breaking point was the Storm Rising Archives event in 2019. This historical event culminated in a robotic guy meeting Doomfist, the leader of the terrorist organization Talon. He agreed to join the case, then removed the cap to reveal … just like a robot guy. I’ve not seen him before or since. Instead of solving something with the current cast, there is a random new character with many more mysteries involved. I had been waiting several months to figure this out and the only thing it left me to do was wait for more answers. I could not do it anymore.
While Overwatch stumbled, play like Valorant and Apex Legends jumped into the hole. Valorant is set to release six new heroes a year, but more importantly, Riot has shown that it can sustain a fandom.
ValorantIn particular, establishes a pleasant “gift” that fans can confidently theorize about and imagine characters in. There are great story-heavy films, but they are also packed with smaller pieces meant to create the moment. You can watch Raze dance around his hometown and take a manga-inspired look at Yorus typical day. A January movie called “Warm Up” shows some of the cast hanging out and having goal training; there are no narrative efforts, no confrontations, no epic story. It’s just fun teasing and action. Nothing is held still and waiting for the story to click together perfectly.
In the meantime Overwatch fans would daydream about parts of the game’s canon while waiting for the next installation in the story, only to have their ideas about the past or present contradicted later, while the plot meandered from revelation to revelation. Questions posed about Reaper, way back in 2016, were answered in a 2022 short story, but many fans were unhappy with the answers.
Too little too late
In late 2021, Blizzard finally moved Overwatch plot forward. The company released a series of cartoons showing cowboy criminal Cole Cassidy, formerly named Jesse McCree, getting the gang back together. The character had been renamed in October when Activision Blizzard removed references to developers and employees in the wake of a lawsuit over sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
There was also the Tracer cartoon from 2020, with a cute supporting role, made by an artist I really love. But it’s too late! There is only so long you can knock on the pot with a ladle that promises me the good nonsense, and only deliver spoonfuls before I go and find another trough.
Overwatch‘s lore has been stagnant for so long and its fandom has been so willing to make a meal out of the crumbs that have been sprinkled out over the years that I feel the fans’ version of the cast is more concrete than the actual canon. A Reaper short story came out and I was just a little vaguely confused all the way through. I do not know who this guy is but he is not Reaper to me.
It is possible that Blizzard will be able to regain the magic with Overwatch 2s updates and upcoming PvE campaigns, and it is also possible that the train has left the station. There was a brief, bright moment in my life where I truly loved Overwatch. Now I just feel vaguely frustrated with the franchise. There is only so much time you ask the players to wait and see before they just give up completely.