It took three years for Blizzard to put a story-driven mode in Overwatch with its sequel Overwatch 2, which the company announced at Blizzcon this weekend.
Looking at this with a wide lens, it’s a good thing. Story mode has been a long-requested feature for the original Overwatch since it launched, as a lot of fans were dissatisfied with Blizzard’s lore roll out, which included animated shorts, digital comics (that seem to have mostly just stopped coming out) and recently short stories focusing on characters like Baptiste, Ana, and Soldier: 76. But despite all of this, Overwatch’s story has had next to no forward momentum, and its characters have mostly been left as blank slates
But while the Overwatch franchise will most likely benefit from this (assuming the story is any good), finally establishing canon within this universe could potentially throw a wrench into the fandom, one that has thrived in the gaps of Overwatch’s ambiguity.
For a lot of Overwatch fans, these three years of Blizzard only nudging the story forward every few months has led to fan interpretations becoming so prominent they color art, fanfiction, and even the discourse that surrounds each character. But Blizzard is about to start actively debunking years of theories, investment, and all the creativity that followed. It’s Blizzard’s right to do so, but the knowledge that substantial lore is on its way has led to both excitement and apprehension within Overwatch’s community.
In a grander sense, this lack of story content has made different interpretations of characters so prevalent, some people are about to meet versions of characters that are unrecognizable compared to their view of them. To illustrate the problem, Crimsalute, a Soldier: 76, Ana, and Reaper fan who makes renders and edits, pointed out that while the blank slate approach has given fan creators a lot of wiggle room, it has made discussions and theory crafting difficult over the years.
“Because there’s so little content, we’ve all been left to kind of pick up the pieces and create something from what little they gave us, and it always felt weird being in this community as opposed to say, the MCU fandom because they had endless content,” she said. “In most fandom communities, people know the characters they talk about fairly intimately, while we were always left with a vague outline of who our faves are.”
In some cases, interpretations have become so divided it’s created a strange style of discourse no one can really settle because there’s no real evidence to pull from. Crimsalute pointed to Soldier: 76 specifically as a character that has been sullied in the eyes of some fans based on conjecture.
“This simultaneously makes the Overwatch fandom really fun and also a hellhole because you’re free to do essentially what you like with the characters, but so is everyone else, and there are a million popular interpretations of a character floating around,” she said. “With 76, for example, you could easily bump into someone who thinks of him as a huge, selfish asshole and someone who thinks of him as a total sweetheart, and you couldn’t necessarily prove either of those people wrong because of a lack of content.”
But it’s not all bad. While there’s raging discourse and constant seeking of legitimacy in interpretation, others have used it to delve into topics Blizzard hasn’t. Artist and fanfiction writer Icewuerfelchen focuses a lot on Sombra and Widowmaker, two members of the antagonistic Talon faction who have had a bit more exposure over the years through animated shorts and comics. However, Icewuerfelchen feels like these characters have even greater, untapped potential.
“[Blizzard’s rollout] has resulted in me writing a lot of very character focused stories that explore [topics like] Sombra’s self-image and her true motivations, or the details of what was done to Widowmaker and the trauma she‘s experienced as a result,” they said. “These aren’t things that Blizzard has ever seemed interested in focusing on, so I fill in the blanks myself. It has made me very attached to certain characters, because the image I have of them in my mind was created by myself in large parts.”
For some creatives in Overwatch fandom the delayed rollout of a real story has meant filling in the blanks only to be undermined by the media Blizzard finally puts out. Like for fanfiction writer NiteWrighter, who has been creating content around the game and its characters since it launched in 2016. While she says she expected her own work to eventually be contradicted by Blizzard’s, she says her desire to work within the confines of canon has made Overwatch’s slower pace frustrating to work with, as she wants to account for the world and characters in writing about them.
“I try to stick pretty close to canon,” she said. “I feel like if I change too much from canon, at that point I might as well just be writing my own original fiction, and I feel like it’s kind of silly to write stuff that’s wildly out of character or out of continuity and call it ‘Overwatch fanfic’ rather than just write my own fiction in that case.”
An isolated incident where Blizzard’s lore and NightWrighter’s fanfiction started to push against one another involved her first ever story set in the Overwatch universe, which focused on hero McCree and some of the mysteries surrounding the character Blizzard has yet to explore over the past three years.
“The first Overwatch fanfic I ever posted was ‘The Left Hand of Justice’ in January of 2017, which was about how McCree lost his arm,” she said. “In the fic, I wrote the arm-loss as taking place during a mission with Blackwatch, but then three months later Overwatch: Uprising comes out, and in the timeline it’s taking place two years before Overwatch’s collapse, and we see in the comic, McCree still has his arm and Blackwatch has been benched. So my fic was no longer canon-compliant.”
Some of these issues have been small, as in a lot of cases Blizzard’s slow rollout has undermined things like interpretations of characters’ histories and backstory, but in other cases, like with Soldier: 76, it has completely eradicated a subset of ships and possibilities. In a short story titled “Bastet” released earlier this year, it was revealed that Soldier: 76 is gay and had a relationship with a man named Vincent. While this did make both fanart seen of him in a relationship with female characters non-canon, it also made these types of work taboo, and often considered disrespectful to gay fans. They’re certainly still out there, but the reaction from queer and ally fans has often been to push back out of respect for the canon. However, it did add legitimacy to a long-beloved ship between Soldier and Reaper, as well as brought about reasons to discourage it.
According to Crimsalute, revelations like this have mostly been used by established fandom as a new context to work around rather than killing interpretations outright, but in this case specifically it ended other long-standing ships like Soldier: 76 and Mercy.
“It mostly seemed like people who had a passion for [the Soldier: 76 and Reaper] ship just sort of altered how they saw it and soldiered on, while those who didn’t like it used ‘Bastet’ and Vincent as an excuse to dismiss it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think Soldier: 76’s sexuality had that much of a long-term effect on the R76 shipping community. However I’d definitely say it had an effect on Soldier’s involvement in any male/female pairings. ‘Bastet’ and Vincent basically killed Mercy76. R76 seems much of the same post-’Bastet’ though.”
With all these issues Overwatch’s sparse storytelling has caused in its community, that Overwatch 2 is bringing something real and tangible seems like it could be exactly what its world and characters need, but some fans have grown attached to the characters they’ve built up in their heads.
For some, like fanfiction writer Elisabomb, Blizzard’s handling of Overwatch up to this point hasn’t inspired confidence in how the company will add to the story, especially when it comes at the expense of the vision fans have created over time.
“On the one hand, I am excited to see more canon material, but on the other, the inconsistent, sparse writing has given me virtually no faith that it will be done in a way the fans will like,” she said. “A lot of us have built up headcanons and hopes for years. I feel like there’s so many ways we could be let down, and as someone who has played other Blizzard games, I am not that faithful in the company.”
Some are more optimistic, like FreckledMcCree, a lore analyst who said she hopes that finally having a forward-moving story will end conflicts and hopefully help spell out characterization and story beats for people, thus giving everyone a better starting point to work with.
“Personally, I believe that the fandom at large has overlooked much of what does actually exist in the Overwatch lore, simply because much of the writing and design doesn’t search to highlight these details in neon signage or circle the implications in red marker pen,” she said. “I’ve watched so much of what I felt obviously baked into the source material go from ‘that’ll never happen, you’re making it up out of nothing’ to […] hard canon.”
Whatever the case may be for the individual, the entirety of Overwatch’s community is about to have a paradigm shift in how it operates. Some will dismiss whatever new information comes from Overwatch 2 while some will feel bound to it. But ultimately, as artist Gizaartworks says, Overwatch needs a canon to blaze a trail for its fandom to grow out of its rut, regardless of the collateral damage it does to the version of this world the collective has imagined since 2016.
“It’s a ‘necessary evil,’ in my opinion,” she said. “Headcanons are going to be debunked and a lot of people will be sad and disappointed, but it will cement a path where people will be able to start creating content of their favorite characters that inspire them.”