On November 1st, 2019, Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan took the stage at a packed Blizzcon to reveal the first look at Overwatch 2. The game would be a sequel to the smash hit multiplayer shooter that rose to popularity with its bright vision of the future, full of talking monkeys, mysterious cyber ninjas, and K-pop idols piloting mecha suits. It wasn’t a perfect world, but it was a world brimming with heroes and full of hope.
Overwatch 2’s reveal trailer was charming with production value reminiscent of a top-tier Netflix original. The heroes of Overwatch, complete with new costumes, sprung to life, reunited with a palpable sense of joy, as they fought side by side against a common threat. The trailer culminated in a line from a French police officer asking the heroes: “Does this mean that Overwatch is back?,” to which Winston, a humanoid monkey, and the heart and soul of Overwatch responded with a definitive “Yes, yes we are.” It seemed clear that Overwatch 2 would be something special.
800 Days Later
Fast forward 800 days, and the trailer inspires a different swell of emotions. Gone is the optimistic aura and hope for one of the greatest multiplayer games of all time to deliver a worthy sequel. What remains isn’t pretty.
As of early 2022 the game has not launched, and a closed beta was just announced for April 26th . On the esports side The Overwatch League is set to launch its fifth season on May 5th on an early build of Overwatch 2, complete with 5v5 team setups. The issue is that as of January, none of the 20 teams in the Overwatch League had played Overwatch 2, and yet they all had to sign at least five players by January 3rd. The league didn’t provide players with any help before the deadline, and teams had to rely on a custom 5 vs. 5 mode created by Florida Mayhem coach Jordan “Gunba” Graham to give them an idea of what Overwatch 2 might look like. While teams now have access to an early build of Overwatch 2, it’s concering how little preperation they’ve been given, especially considering the over $20 million buy-in that most teams paid for a spot in the league.
Jeff Kaplan, the creative lead and face of the Overwatch dev team is no longer working with Blizzard, after two decades at the company. His departure is concerning for the community, as Kaplan had delivered almost every major announcement, including new heroes, maps and game updates in Overwatch’s history, and it was hard for many to envision Overwatch continuing without him.
Adding to this unease is the lack of meaningful updates for the original Overwatch. The last added hero, Echo debuted in March of 2020, just over a year before Kaplan’s departure, which had led to a mass exodus of players. Still, the hope for Overwatch 2 remained, floating just out of reach. After all, the world was in the middle of a pandemic, and game delays are to be expected. Plus, Kaplan was but the face of a talented team of developers, and who can blame someone for leaving a company that they’ve worked at for 19 years? There was a feeling that things were going to get better, that the wait would be worth it and that Blizzard would successfully create another masterpiece. There was hope. But it wouldn’t last through the summer.
On July 20th, 2021 the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a suit against Activision Blizzard, accusing them of fostering a discriminatory workplace with a frat boy culture. Within hours, dozens of current and former Blizzard employees began sharing stories of abuse and the disturbing culture that was kept from the public eye. Several high profile Activision Blizzard employees, including World of Warcraft Creative Director Alex Afrasiabi and Diablo 4 game director Luis Barriga, departed the company, alongside Jesse McCree, a Diablo dev with an Overwatch character named after him. McCree has since been renamed Cole Cassidy in-game, after a couple months known simply as “Cowboy” ,and Blizzard has introduced a policy that they will no longer name their characters after real people.
“Over 800 days have passed since the Overwatch 2 announcement…”
These horrifying allegations show that Blizzard was never the beacon of hope they projected in games like Overwatch, and the once beloved gaming company was rotten to the core and had been rotten since the beginning.
It’s a situation made more heartbreaking because of the good people working at Blizzard who are similarly horrified by the workplace culture and revelations of abuse. Many of these people have dreamed of working at the company that made games like Diablo and World of Warcraft. Fortunately, there is positive momentum, as Activision Blizzard employees are attempting to unionize, although their efforts have been met with union busting tactics from the company’s higher ups. Workers have staged multiple walkouts, demonstrations and signed letters, demanding the resignation of Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who has been in charge of the company for over a decade. It will remain to be seen if any lasting change actually occurs, but the fact that Bobby Kotick is still CEO after all these revelations is troubling.
From an individual standpoint, it’s sometimes difficult to look critically at games you love, and Overwatch is a game that I have loved. I met some of my best friends in an Overwatch beer league, I traveled to Brooklyn to cover the inaugural Overwatch League Finals as part of my first assignment for CGMagazine, and I’m literally sitting typing this article in an Overwatch branded gaming chair. As much as I cherish the memories that I’ve made, they don’t mask the fact they were made possible by a company rife with misogyny and harassment.
Over 800 days have passed since the Overwatch 2 announcement. We’ve learned that the game will be 5v5, instead of 6v6, and feature one less tank hero per match. We’ll no doubt get a slew of new characters, including the Canadian DPS Sojourn, and new maps like New Queen Street and Circuit Royal. Heck, it’s possible Overwatch 2 will be a fun game. But the fact is that Activision Blizzard have made fun games for decades, while cultivating a culture of harassment and misogyny for just as long.
“Does this mean that Overwatch is back?”
Winston’s optimistic answer to this question from the Overwatch 2 trailer is no longer a comforting response of hope. The question is no longer whether Overwatch is coming back, but whether we will welcome it back.