Overwatch 2 is here! Sort of! The beta for the game's multiplayer portion dropped this week, letting folks try out the dramatic changes Blizzard has made to the competitive side of the hero shootin' sequel.
But despite a 5v5 format change, a controversial new scoreboard and dramatic hero reworks, Overwatch 2 is still very much Overwatch, with both games set to share the same multiplayer. The real Overwatch 2, one might argue, is set to come with the game's full PVE campaign, featuring story-driven co-op missions that pit our heroes against the Omnic hordes.
That side of the game is still its biggest unknown. And, unfortunately, Overwatch doesn't have a great track record in telling strong, ongoing stories.
What it does have is a big, memorable cast. After all, Overwatch is the ur-hero shooter. Hardly the first game to stuff itself with a cast of quirky, distinct characters (what's up, TF2 and every single MOBA), but it definitely marks a pivot from what shooters were to what they became. In a post-Overwatch landscape, even games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are all-but-required to have unique characters with their own names, kits and backstories.
It's easy to see why. At the time, the Overwatch cast hit fandom hard, with Pixar-quality short films introducing us to a diverse roster of heroes and villains. The presentation was impeccable, and a lot of care went into defining characters through personality, silhouetting and thematically-defined playstyles.
The fandom around these characters was ravenous. People latched on hard to their faves, and there was excitement over seeing where Blizzard would take this cast of esports mech pilots, time-travelling sprinters, mad Irish scientists and hyper-intelligent gorillas next.
The problem was, Blizzard didn't really take them anywhere.
See, Overwatch has stories. But from character trailers to comics and in-game "Archive" PVE missions, they're almost uniformly backstories, developments happening safely in the past where they can't affect the current moment. The game's very first 2014 reveal trailer remained the most recent event in the game's canon until Overwatch 2's 2019 Zero Hour announcement.
In 2016, this was fun, and fine. We got little dialogue chirps between friends or rivals in warm-up rooms, and that little bit of context was fuel for a ravenous audience of fan artists and fanfic writers. But relationships never developed or changed. Characters never grew, and the state of the world-at-large was left a static unknown (something not helped by the fact that Overwatch matches have no bearing on the setting whatsoever).
As a result, Overwatch has only felt more stagnant as the years go on. New characters may come now and again, but the world remains much the same as it was six years ago.
What Overwatch lacks is a narrative present, and it's something I think about often in relation to games like Apex Legends. Released in 2019, Apex was a deliberately post-Overwatch take on Titanfall—an attempt to inject colourful characters into that series' grey military sci-fi universe. At launch, it only really half-worked—the original cast often feeling too limited by the Blomkamp-esque world of previous games to come into their own—but unlike Overwatch, Apex's world isn't static.
Each season pushes the story forwards in some way, whether it's a character-defining moment or politicians warping cities across space. Personal stories get to move forwards, relationships get room to develop, and new arrivals can dramatically recontextualise existing cast members—whether it's Valk throwing a wrench into Bangalore and Loba's budding relationship, or Ash bringing out a venomous side to chirpy space-mom Horizon.
Even character-defining motivations are often given closure or complicated in new directions. After two years searching for his creators, Pathfinder found them last year, and Bangalore's once-dead brother Jackson is arriving as new hero Newcastle next season. A willingness to change the status quo and complicate characters does a lot to make them feel like complex people, and not just videogame archetypes.
I often half-joke that Apex is my favourite soap opera, letting me follow my favourite characters in plots that grow from season to season. In contrast, if you're a fan of a particular Overwatch hero, what you see is pretty much what you get—with maybe a crumb of backstory to mix things up now and again.
Apex's present tense also quietly gives its representation more value. We're not just told characters like Loba or Valkyrie are queer—we see their queerness manifest in-game and in cinematics, and their relationships to other cast members evolve in messy ways. Overwatch, meanwhile, tells us Tracer and Soldier 76 are gay in easily-missable comics, in relationships with characters who never get real screentime.
The thing is, Overwatch 2 is the perfect opportunity for Blizzard to turn things around. I've long maintained that a 6v6 (now 5v5) team shooter was an awkward fit for the world Blizzard was trying to build—but with co-op missions that will presumably only grow in number over the game's lifespan, Overwatch 2 has so much potential to reignite its lapsed fanbase.
Sure, mission set-ups will give us explicit stories about where the war against the omnics is at. But I want to see Blizzard use this framework to escalate tensions and relationships within the game's roster. Explore what it really means for Cole Cassidy and Ashe to be working together after all this time, or dive into the knight/squire dynamic between Reinhardt and Brigitte. And, more importantly, to let these dynamics change as the story goes on—to let romances blossom, rivalries form, and see old enemies become reluctant friends.
Overwatch has built a dense world for itself in the last six years. But live service stories have come a long way in that time, with even Fortnite managing to hook people into its ongoing Funko Pop narrative. It's time for Blizzard to finally do something with its sci-fi superhero universe—all it needs to do is take some pointers from the games that came in Overwatch's wake.