It may be too late to save the Overwatch fandom
Overwatch’s announcement trailer, released back in 2014, was bombastic and beautiful, and it kicked off a fervent fandom. Players loved the bright designs, strong characterization, and optimism inherent to the setting. The game’s launch and follow-up cinematics only solidified this fan base; people loved to ship characters, imagine their missions, and daydream about future lore. Overwatch was so widespread and iconic it even revolutionized the Rule 34 scene; the game was everywhere.
Then, just as suddenly, it vanished. The lore slowed to a trickle after 2018 and eventually came to a complete stop, along with major additions — we haven’t seen a new hero since 2020. Now, on the cusp of Overwatch 2’s PvP entering beta and a new Overwatch League season, the game should be poised for a triumphant return. Instead, it’s on shakier ground than ever, and other developers have snatched the momentum from Blizzard and ran with it instead.
Open the floodgates
Overwatch did not invent the idea of building a hero shooter around strong characters shown off through cinematics. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and its “Meet the Team” cinematics still hold up nearly 15 years later, and they’re far less complex and elaborate than Overwatch’s trailers.
But Overwatch’s utopian near-future and diverse cast attracted a fan base that had been historically underserved by the first-person shooter genre. Communities of women and queer gamers gathered around the game; some of them were there mostly for the gameplay, while others were there for the lore and characters above all else.
Overwatch was, during its heyday, a legitimate cultural phenomenon. The gorgeous cinematics, vibrant character design, and hints at 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, playing the game and letting it fuel their imaginations.
The influence of Overwatch is apparent in many of its competitors. Character rosters feel more important than ever; just having a series of gun guys with mysterious backstories doesn’t cut it anymore. Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, and Valorant are all great examples of games where a character’s aesthetics, personalities, and background matter as much as their gameplay. Other developers now create and promote characters like Valorant’s Neon, a Filipina speedster; Rainbow Six Siege’s trans operator Osa, and nonbinary Apex Legends character Bloodhound.
Overwatch would lose out to these other titles in the coming years, not because of its roster or its lore, but because of the lack of consistency around it.
Plot, pacing, and purpose
Overwatch set up big, dramatic dominos — and then proceeded to just gesture at them and say “Pretty cool, huh?” There were big mysteries set up from day one, like a climactic showdown at Overwatch’s Swiss HQ. In the 2016 cinematic “Recall,” Winston presses the big red button to restart Overwatch. We don’t see Overwatch actually go on a mission until the 2019 cinematic “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 lore event culminated with a robot guy meeting with Doomfist, the leader of the terrorist organization Talon. He agreed to join the cause, then took off his hood to reveal … just, like, a robot guy. I haven’t seen him before or since. Instead of resolving anything with the current cast, there’s a random new character with many more mysteries involved. I had waited months to find this out, and all it really left me to do was wait for more answers. I couldn’t do it anymore.
While Overwatch stumbled, games like Valorant and Apex Legends jumped in the gap. Valorant is set to release six new heroes a year, but more importantly, Riot has demonstrated it can sustain a fandom.
Valorant, in particular, establishes a comfortable “present” that fans can safely theorize about and imagine characters in. There are big story-heavy cinematics, but they’re also peppered with smaller pieces meant to set up the moment. You can watch Raze dance around her hometown and take a manga-inspired look at Yoru’s typical day. A cinematic from January called “Warm Up” shows a chunk of the cast hanging out and having target practice; there are no narrative stakes, no confrontations, no epic storyline. It’s just fun banter and action. Nothing is held in stasis waiting for the story to click together perfectly.
Meanwhile, Overwatch fans would daydream about parts of the game’s canon as they waited for the next installation in the story, only to have their ideas about the past or present contradicted later as the plot lurched forward from reveal to reveal. Questions set up about Reaper, all the way back in 2016, were answered in a 2022 novella, but many fans were dissatisfied with the answers.
Too little, too late
At the end of 2021, Blizzard finally moved the Overwatch plot forward. The company released a series of comics showing cowboy outlaw Cole Cassidy, previously named Jesse McCree, getting the gang back together. The character had been renamed in October, as Activision Blizzard removed references to developers and employees in the wake of a sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit.
There was also the 2020 Tracer comic, with a cute supporting cast, made by an artist I really love. But it’s too late! There’s only so long you can bang on the pot with a ladle promising me the good slop, only delivering spoonfuls, before I go and find another trough.
Overwatch’s lore has been in stasis for so long, and its fandom has been so willing to make a meal out of the crumbs sprinkled out over the years, that I feel like the fans’ version of the cast is more concrete than the actual canon. A Reaper short story came out and I was just kind of vaguely bemused throughout. I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s not Reaper to me.
It’s possible that Blizzard will be able to recapture the magic with Overwatch 2’s updates and upcoming PvE campaigns, and it’s also possible that the train has left the station. There was a brief, shining moment in my life in which I truly loved Overwatch. Now, I just feel vaguely frustrated towards the franchise. There’s only so long you ask players to wait and see before they just give up altogether.
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