Overwatch 2 is going free-to-play, ditching loot boxes, and committing to a more consistent content schedule
Overwatch 2 season is in full swing. Over the weekend, Blizzard revealed that Overwatch 2’s next closed beta will take place June 28th, that game will launch free-to-play on October 4th, and it unveiled Junker Queen, the game’s 34th hero.
In a 35-minute video today, Blizzard showed off the biggest update on the game yet. And, as a part of this Overwatch 2-palooza, The Verge was able to talk to the game’s developers about what all the news means for fans.
Overwatch’s esteem has diminished of late, in part because of its developer and because right after Overwatch 2 was announced, content updates for Overwatch prime fell off a steep cliff.
Echo, the game’s most recent playable hero, went live in 2020 and Kanezaka, the game’s newest map, was released in January 2021. Outside of new skins, small challenge events that allow players to unlock cosmetics, and the same rotating cast of seasonal events (ala Lúcioball), there’s been nothing meatier than “just hold on, OW2 is coming” for 17 months.
The developers understand this, and game director Aaron Keller reassured fans during the Overwatch 2 announcement video that the days of waiting and wondering “when will my Overwatch content come back from the war” are over.
“Our plan is to deliver a steady drumbeat of new content every nine weeks through free seasonal updates, ensuring that there’s always something new to play, chase, and unlock in Overwatch 2,” he said.
Like many shooters and other live service games before it, Overwatch 2 is switching to a seasonal format whereby the developers plan to deliver content more regularly to its fans.
Starting with the launch of the game in October and continuing with the first update in December 2022, production director Paul Hale said the OW2 team “will continue to release a new season every nine weeks with either a new hero, new map or new mode, players will get the chance to earn more themed content, complete weekly challenges, access new battle passes, and more.”
Overwatch prime (and, critically, fans’ interest in Overwatch overall) languished as the team shifted focus to developing Overwatch 2. With this new roadmap in place and the expansion of the Overwatch 2 team, Keller stated that they’ll be able to sustainably support this new content-focused vision.
“We have taken a lot of measures over the last few years to grow the team to be able to handle the amount of work it’s going to take to put all of this content out there,” Keller said. “We’re over three times the size we were when the game first launched, and we are restructuring parts of the team so that we’re able to work on multiple heroes at one time, multiple maps at one time, all while still looking at bigger features that are coming later to the service such as such as PvE.”
Story content was one of the big, new features promised with Overwatch 2. Fans reacted positively to story events like Uprising, Retribution, and Storm Rising, in which teams fought against bots as an event from Overwatch’s lore unfolded.
“I’m really excited for the Overwatch 2 campaign,” Keller said. “And it tells a complete, linear story with a beginning and an end to it.”
However, during OW2’s development, Blizzard decided to spin off this kind of campaign mode or PVE content from the PVP core in order to get the game into fans’ hands faster. According to Keller, the new seasonal structure allows the team to “release things when they’re ready,” and apparently Overwatch 2 PVE won’t be ready until sometime in 2023. (This kind of piecemeal release strategy is becoming increasingly common for big games; there are still key parts of the Halo Infinite experience that haven’t been released yet, for instance.)
A battle pass system is coming along with the seasonal format. The developers declined to share what exactly to expect with the battle pass, what kind of exclusives fans can hope for, or the cost, but they did say that information would come as the launch date approaches. Along with the battle pass and the ability to pay a premium for exclusive content comes perhaps one of the bigger pieces of OW2 news — loot boxes are going away. In the December update, the developers will add a storefront in which, presumably, fans will be able to directly pay for desired skins instead of hoping to get lucky with a loot box. Again, the developers did not elaborate on how much skins would cost nor what would happen to all that banked in-game currency and said to expect an update later.
In addition to the 5v5 format, the long-awaited heroine Sojourn, and the newest game mode Push, Overwatch 2 will launch with two more new heroes. The first hero, Junker Queen, is a figure from Overwatch lore who’s been lurking in the dusty shadows of the Junkertown map since 2017 and was announced during the Xbox Summer Game Fest presentation. Born Odessa “Dez” Stone (lead narrative designer Gavin J. Jurgens-Fyhrie stressed that anyone who uses her full given name does so at their peril) is a tank hero who uses a gigantic battle axe to wound her enemies, reducing their ability to receive healing.
One of the biggest, perennial complaints of Overwatch prime was the absolute dis-gust fans had for the double shield playstyle. Teams would double up on shield-wielding tank heroes like Reinhardt, Orisa, and D.Va, and matches would stagnate as teams would slowly and boringly poke at one another from behind high-health shields. It happened in the professional Overwatch League; it happened on the competitive ladder; it happened in quickplay. With Overwatch 2, the number of tanks a team can field has been reduced to one eliminating these highly defensive compositions in favor of more aggressive playstyles. Junker Queen, with her axe and her ability to throw and recall a knife like a boomerang (she is an Aussie, after all), fits well with OW2’s more frenetic energy.
Another complaint about Overwatch: where are the healers? In a roster of 33 (soon to be 36) heroes, only seven of them are healers. The third and final new hero that’s coming with the October 4th launch is the game’s eighth healer. Keen-eyed fans noticed a spirit fox bouncing around the Overwatch 2 trailer during Sunday’s Xbox event and correctly guessed it might be a new support hero. The developers were understandably mum about them, but hopefully we’ll hear more soon.
It takes a tremendous effort from a legion of people to make a video game, and Overwatch 2 may have had to tread a tougher road than other games. The game was announced three years ago amidst controversy as Blizzard was under fire for punishing a Hearthstone player who made a pro-Hong Kong protestors statement during a broadcast. Though Blizzard later reduced that player’s punishment and apologized, some fans felt that Overwatch 2’s announcement was used as a smokescreen to distract from that news. Even if you’re not an Overwatch 2 truther, the extended length of time between that announcement and any meaningful information about the game — aside from images of an updated hero skin here and the news of the elimination of a game mode there — didn’t inspire much confidence that the game was announced when it was supposed to.
The game was delayed at least twice, once in February 2021 and again in November. For the latter delay, during Activision Blizzard’s regularly scheduled investor call, the company cited “turnover” and “the departure of a number of individuals across the company” as contributing factors. And a contributing factor to employee turnover? Several lawsuits alleging Activision Blizzard engaged in and permitted employee discrimination. From July 2021 to the present day, the company frequently showed up in headlines as new allegations came forth, including a report that CEO Bobby Kotick knew of and ignored the troubles at his company and as multiple high-profile employees — including one lead designer for whom an Overwatch character was once named — left the company. Add to that the 2021 departure of Jeff Kaplan, the much-beloved game director of the Overwatch franchise since its release in 2016, and it becomes easier to understand that Overwatch 2 has been through a lot to get from “this game is totally coming out, you guys” to “oh thank goodness there’s finally a release date.” In speaking with the developers, there were a lot of “finallys” mixed with happy, relieved smiles as they shared what they’ve been working on for the last couple of years.
Now that the release date is out there and Blizzard’s turned on the news firehose, these profound updates will hopefully make Overwatch 2 finally feel like the sequel it’s meant to be.