Overwatch has been in a grim place for the past several years. Since the last major hero release in 2019, Blizzard has been rather quiet about the sequel (no doubt stifled by the pandemic and the ongoing allegations against the company), and Apex Legends and Valorant have come along to take its place as the hero shooters of the moment.
Blizzard wants to change that. At the Xbox showcase, it announced that Overwatch 2 PvP will be free-to-play, and today it announced a complete roadmap for the launch and beyond.
Everything about what's coming looks directly inspired by modern live service games, even if game director Aaron Keller said it was a completely original choice made to keep players satisfied.
"The decision to go free-to-play wasn't based off of other games doing this, this is based off of us wanting to be able to provide as much content as we can seasonally to players," he said in a group interview with press.
Even if the developers deny it, the inspirations from other games are clear: Overwatch 2 will have distinct (and potentially themed) seasonal updates, a battle pass, challenges, and an in-game store. Seasons will run for nine weeks and each one will alternate between introducing a new hero and a new map, while also dropping new skins and other cosmetics.
Blizzard expects to release around three to four new heroes and maps every year. That's a lot compared to the Overwatch of today, but it's what it was getting back at its peak in 2018. It sounds like Overwatch 2 is looking back at what worked, updating the systems behind that, and spelling out a promised update cadence more clearly than ever before.
Keller said that it's been hard seeing players ask for new hero and map releases in the original game while the team focused on developing the sequel. In splitting the PvP off of the PvE and releasing it early, they're able to provide consistent, substantial updates again.
"It has been a really fast paced year where we have had to do a lot of things to turn this massive ship that was going in one direction to go in another direction in order for us to be able to fulfill one of our key values for the game, which is to be able to continually update it," he said.
Blizzard didn't go into specific details about how you'll progress in the battle pass or what will be in the in-game store. All of that will be revealed at a later date. The developer also wasn't interested in talking about how the supposedly ambitious PvE missions and campaign fit into all of this, other than to say that they're coming in 2023. The focus is all on PvP right now, and how Blizzard plans to crawl back into the competitive shooter spotlight.
Junker Queen will be the second new hero coming to Overwatch 2 following Sojourn. She is a ruthless and highly mobile tank who inflicts damage-over-time wounds on her enemies. A new fox-themed support hero will launch with the game in October and a new tank is coming when season two starts in December.
For a game that already has a pretty massive roster of 34 heroes, it seems natural to wonder if there's a limit on how many it needs in the long run.
"That's honestly something we talk about all the time," lead hero designer Geoff Goodman said. "There's obviously a lot of production issues, like how fast can we make heroes and be happy with them and make something we really like. But also, there's other questions like, well, let's look at ourselves 10 years from now, how big should the roster actually be?"
"There's a lot of different games that handle it in different ways, and I think a lot of that is just whatever feels right for the game … So as long as people are playing the game and loving it and wanting your heroes we're definitely down to make more. If we end up in a situation and we have 150 heroes at the end of the day and people are still jazzed to play and we feel like we can still make really cool heroes then we'll keep going."
Both Goodman and Keller say that the goal is to keep the game fresh with new heroes, but to try not to overwhelm new players attracted by the free-to-play model. Hero bans, a feature competitive Overwatch players have asked for a lot, aren't planned, and the developers reiterated that they wouldn't ever remove heroes for individual seasons.
"I personally couldn't stand not having all of the heroes that are part of the roster in our matches," Keller said.
A major change that's already been discussed heavily is Overwatch 2's new 5v5 format, which carves a tank hero off each team. The goal is to increase the impact each player has on a match, as well as to address player complaints about spending entire matches shooting tank barriers or getting opponents to low health only for them to be saved by massive amounts of healing.
Earlier this year, Overwatch 2's first beta didn't quite convince me that the swap to 5v5 was an improvement for a game that used to pride itself on teamwork, where the most satisfying matches are the ones where you and your teammates eke out a win by fitting its jigsaw puzzle heroes together at the most crucial moments. Overwatch 2 is a faster game with more 1-on-1 firefights, although that could change as Blizzard tweaks balance and people adjust to the new format and its new tug-of-war Push game mode. Blizzard has more changes—including a playable Junker Queen and Rio de Janeiro map—that could help encourage players to work together more when the game's second beta launches on June 28.
It's been six years since Overwatch transformed our idea of modern shooters and what a live service game could be—for better or for worse. I'm skeptical of the changes in Overwatch 2 and whether they'll really be able to reproduce the original's explosive first years. At the same time, it's hard not to be excited that a game I've spent thousands of hours playing is trying to do it all again.
Correction: The original headline for this story said Overwatch 2 will get three to four new heroes and maps in its first year when it actually plans to hit this number every year. We regret the error. We also clarified that Blizzard never specifically said heroes won't be paid for, but that it wouldn't ever remove them from a season.