Overwatch has changed significantly in the last six years, and will undergo another major transformation when fans log into Battle.net on Oct. 4, as Overwatch 2, the tragically named expansion-cum-update to Blizzard Entertainment’s popular hero shooter, will be fully replacing the current game that fans have been playing for six years. Many of the upcoming changes are significant departures from the ethos and design of Overwatch as it stands, and will be an adjustment for new and old players alike.
When it first was released in 2016, Overwatch resembled a colorful mixture of Team Fortress 2’s bombastic gameplay, League of Legends’ team coordination and World of Warcraft’s class design. It was lightly competitive, missing a ranked mode and emphasizing immersive fun over tightly-balanced skill matchups.
With the inaugural season of Overwatch League in 2018, the game prioritized being a more polished competitive game, one able to carry an entire esports franchise. Along with regular hero and map additions, Overwatch fully solidified a ranked competitive ladder, added a deathmatch and custom game modes, and eventually brought a locked role-queue system to the six-player team composition. This final change, which came in 2019 after trying to fix complaints about stale competitive metas, cemented the game’s transition to a skill-based hero shooter.
With Overwatch 2, the game will fully evolve into a live service game. The entire live service industry landscape has grown since Overwatch’s release, dense with battle royales and tactical shooters, many of whom have integrated “hero shooter” DNA in their design. Remaining competitive and profitable alongside something like Apex Legends or Valorant feels like a tall order, and one that requires moves that shore up perceived shortcomings and weaknesses. They might also change the core of what made the game so playable in the first place.
The game was showing its age with it having a single box price, and being monetized around an uncomplicated (but still predatory) loot box system. While they were only for cosmetics, it still meant that casual players ended up needing to grind during seasonal events to gain boxes from leveling up or break open their wallet for a small chance of getting the hero skins they wanted.
With Overwatch 2, that will be changing to the more contemporary free-to-play model. The money sinks in turn are a battle pass (with premium and free tracks) and an in-game store. In a blog post from Sept. 15, developers explained that this was to support their new seasonal model for content. Each nine-week period would introduce a new battle pass, allowing players to play and gain levels, with the paid track giving more cosmetics. Developers also revealed a roadmap alluding to a hero or map release every season; an aggressive schedule like this makes sense as it is the carrot attached to the battle pass’s stick.
Free-to-play is one of the most thorough monetization structures gaming has come up with, and how it works feels perpendicular to the game’s initial design. If Overwatch was an amusement park, you used to pay the price of admission for everything and the loot boxes were the concessions where the park profits. At no point were you barred from anything the park offered. With the “new way,” crowds get through the gates for free, but in order to visit attractions, you can buy the pass to skip lines (premium), or stand there for long hours (free track). You get some perks either way, but one is clearly more value for time spent. Now imagine the amusement park gets a new attraction every nine weeks, and you have the new profit structure in a nutshell.
What caused immediate ire from some fans is that the battle pass will make new heroes have to be earned or purchased instead of part of the sticker price, unlike the first six years of the game’s life. Developers in interviews explained that it would not injure the capacity for the game to function as it has because they found that most players only played one or two heroes at most, or that mid-match hero swaps were not as critical as people thought. However, Overwatch general manager Walter Kong dropped the mask by saying that heroes were the biggest draw, and so it made sense to include in them the battle pass.
It is a nasty bit of logic that underlines the thoroughness to efficiently capitalize on every piece of the game as part of the mechanism to keep players spending their time or their money. The core of the game has been rebuilt in service of this and includes things like new daily and weekly challenges that reward you with currency., so where there was once self-directed goals like learning a new hero or ranking up in competitive, you are given random tasks of mitigating X damage or winning Y number of games. What appear to be good-natured attempts to get the playerbase to try new things could also be a brightly decorated Skinner Box, one that has the same premise as a coffee shop rewards card.
The other significant change that current and returning players will notice is that teams have been pared down to five players instead of six. Instead of two tanks, there will now only be one. This change was announced last September during a livestream due to the development team’s desire to streamline the gameplay and make it “easier to read.”
The knock-on effects for such a change have revealed themselves through the 2022 Overwatch League season as well as this summer’s beta testing periods. Several tank heroes have become more beefy and fast, crowd control effects have been removed or reduced, and several heroes have been completely changed to accommodate the new direction the game is trending in. Overall the game feels more fast and lethal, and unravels the reliance on team coordination at most levels, opting for greater “individual impact.”
The reduction in players as well as this new, brawl-y type of play also lends itself to the new modes and map designs the game is introducing in Overwatch 2. Verticality with high-ground positions have been shrunk down or reduced in importance, alongside more emphasis on flank routes. No longer are fights extended skirmishes on the objective, but closer to short, decisive defeats, with individual picks of the enemy team to gain momentum.
In this vein, developers removed the “Assault” mode maps (commonly known as “2CP”) and replaced it with “Push”. It is a mode where both teams escort a giant robot pushing a barricade along a symmetrical route in the direction towards the enemy’s end of the map. Progress is measured in the distance you push the robot uncontested, and loss of control at the hands of the enemy sends the robot rushing back to the middle and then slowly adding distance along the route to your rivals.
What is notable is that all of the new Push maps, such as Colosseo and Toronto, are long snakey corridors through cities that are Swiss-cheesed through with doors and sniper perches and ways to move quickly from forward spawns back to the robot by cutting across large chunks of the route. It emphasizes the more “swarm” type of playstyle the game is now encouraging instead of the slower, position-dependent tactics of Overwatch.
This would be surprising if this wasn’t the direction that the game was slowly creeping towards all along, even though when it first came out, then-game director Jeff Kaplan spoke about not wanting to be like other FPS games. Now Overwatch 2 has a detailed match scoreboard with individual player stats across both teams. (But no KDA ratio, at least.)
It would be easy to be totally pessimistic about the way that this game is changing itself over the course of a few years, even farther away from what was promised when it was initially released. Change isn’t always bad, and competitive games have improved since Overwatch first released. The move to this new version does bring some fun perks like a comprehensive ping system, new hero models and cool cosmetic additions.
When you realize what the trade-off ultimately is, like pushing back a launch date for the mysterious PVE mode, you wonder if it’s worth it. So much has been taken out of the center of this once-optimistic, storybook shooter in order to pursue greater profits and more competitive legitimacy. It is only the strength of the original premise that makes it still look appealing now, even with all of the changes to make it into something sleeker and more lethal.
Overwatch had the rare gift of being so unique in one moment in time, only to have other games take the most superficial parts to iterate on the status quo in shooters. Now, it is Overwatch’s turn to take from them in order to stay alive, potentially ruining itself in the process. How many things can be replaced before it is no longer Overwatch? Is it silly to cling to a design ideology that is quickly being scrubbed away in favor of becoming something closer to everything else? When the servers finally come up and we are all allowed to play Overwatch 2, we will finally know the answer.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic who lives in the Midwest. She can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.