This week, Blizzard pulled the plug on its long-awaited persistent co-op mode in Overwatch 2. The disappointing news is a turning point for Overwatch, as Blizzard is officially done trying to turn Overwatch into some grander competitive FPS-RPG-MMO thing. But more than that, this week has changed how I (and I bet many others) see one of my favorite games.
To now hear from game director Aaron Keller that it was always the plan to turn Overwatch into the original vision of the canceled Project Titan MMO, it feels like we've only been getting half the story on Overwatch all these years. It's hard to accept that Blizzard has burned so much goodwill on its failed ambitions for PvE when that time and effort could've been focused on growing the core Overwatch experience that, despite recent disappointments, is truly great. As a player I'm frustrated, but it must be infuriating for the Blizzard devs whose years of work on Hero mode will amount to nothing.
If the stewards of Overwatch have struggled this long to understand the game they have on their hands—a one-of-a-kind hero shooter with dazzling heroes and unparalleled variety—why should we trust in what comes next? My confidence in the Overwatch team to follow through on its base promises is at an all-time low.
Overwatch 2, as an idea, has failed. I've been thinking a lot about that Blizzcon 2019 announcement this week, and just how inevitable this all was in hindsight.
Like, it probably wasn't the best sign when fans walked away from the Overwatch 2 announcement confused about what Blizzard was actually making. It's my job to communicate facts about games, and I barely knew what to make of the reveal. Blizzard showed a grand cinematic trailer in the studio's signature style and a brief gameplay trailer showing off all the new stuff promised for the sequel—the biggest by far being its story missions and "highly replayable" co-op Hero mode with talent trees and progression.
Then former game director Jeff Kaplan took the stage and started saying things that seemingly contradicted the whole '2' part of Overwatch 2:
- There would be new modes, maps, and heroes, but those would automatically carry over to Overwatch 1 players and the two games would still matchmake together…weird.
- Skins carried over too, but new skins would have to be earned in the new game.
- Overwatch 2 was to be a full standalone game you buy, but parts of it would just be free for existing players?
Kaplan acknowledged that Overwatch 2 wouldn't be a conventional sequel, but assured fans that it would feel like a sequel-sized product. "What we're hoping to do with Overwatch 2 is redefine what a sequel means," Kaplan said.
That turned out to be a terrible idea. Fundamental questions remained unanswered as Blizzard delayed Overwatch 2 out of 2020, and then out of 2021. All the while, Overwatch 1 received minimal attention with repeat seasonal events, an occasional deathmatch map, and zero new heroes added after 2019. Lots of other things happened to the world and Blizzard around that time, too: the pandemic brought work home in 2020, and in 2021 Activision Blizzard very publicly reckoned with its toxic work culture.
It was turbulent times for the company, and key Overwatch developers departed between 2020 and 2022, including fan-favorite game director Jeff Kaplan. Meanwhile, players stewed in confusion over what Overwatch 2 was eventually going to be.
Friends asked me if they would have to buy the new game to still play together, or if they could skip the PvE stuff and just buy new heroes. People would talk about hero missions and story missions like they were the same thing (they're not, which is still confusing) and ideas swirled about what surprises Blizzard was cooking up with extra development time. Expectations formed in the absence of concrete details. With all of those resources moved off Overwatch 1, people thought the sequel must be massive.
Blizzard ran headfirst into those expectations when it reemerged for Blizzcon 2021 to reveal…minor hero changes, a couple maps, one new mode, and an updated look at the same Hero mode stuff from two years earlier? (The Hero stuff that is now canceled, as of this week).
This was the first time that Blizzard's "redefined" sequel started to look more like a somewhat big expansion. But Blizzard stayed the course on its initial Overwatch 2 pitch: Keller maintained that Overwatch 2 would be "the next evolution, a true sequel, to the first game. Not an add-on, not a small part, it's not an extension of the original game. This is an evolution and a replacement to the original game."
Keller's vision might've felt at least mostly real had all that PvE stuff come together, but in early 2022, Blizzard rewrote its gameplan around a single goal: get Overwatch 2 out, in some form, this year. That meant "decoupling" PvP and PvE and just getting competitive multiplayer out there. This announcement video from Keller feels worlds apart from that exciting 2019 reveal.
Blizzard's own descriptions of Overwatch 2 started to sound smaller, as if it was trying to subtly lower expectations while still selling Overwatch 2 as a big release.
The first closed beta would include a new hero, Push mode, the controversial 5v5 rework, and a ping system. "When you put it all together, this represents the most new content we've brough to our game since launch," Keller said.
That much was true, and after a two-year content drought I was excited, but was this really living up to Overwatch 2? So began a six-month barrage of revelatory blog posts and dev logs leading up to launch outlining foundational last-minute changes that'd reliably piss off everyone who'd been playing Overwatch for six years:
- 😄Overwatch 2 is free-to-play now!
- 😡But heroes are behind a paywall
- 😄Random-chance loot boxes are gone!
- 😡But battle passes are in, and there's no free way to get cool stuff
- 😄There is a free way to unlock heroes!
- 😡…on Tier 55 of the battle pass
- 😄You won't have to download a separate client!
- 😡But Overwatch 1 is getting deleted forever
At the end of the road in October 2022 was the release of Overwatch 2, a sequel that didn't at all feel like a sequel, but still held the promise of more to come. Now, a large part of that promise has been scrapped and what we're left with is essentially an Overwatch expansion, poorly managed to the point of audience exhaustion.
The most disappointing part of it all is that Overwatch 2, the game, is great. There are mixed feelings about 5v5 and not every new hero has been a winner, but by and large, people are enjoying Overwatch again. My friends play it every night, max out every battle pass, and enthusiastically await new seasons. The game is doing well—enough that, for the first time this century, Activision is making more money on PC than consoles.
The broken part of the equation is Overwatch's creative direction. And credit to Keller, this week's bad news tour appears to be an acknowledgment that those early plans were a mistake.
"Overwatch was born from the ashes of Project Titan. It was a moment of metamorphosis for the team and the project… and something beautiful came out of it," he wrote. "This is another moment of change. And the future of Overwatch will be born out of it."
I hope that means, for the first time in years, the players and Blizzard are on the same page about what that future is: an FPS with regularly scheduled heroes, maps, and events that is, at its core, a competitive game first.