The backstory to Blizzard's team-based hero-shooter can be very tough to follow – here's what you need to know
The backstory to Blizzard's team-based hero-shooter can be very tough to follow – here's what you need to know
No two ways about it: the story in Overwatch – Blizzard's sensational team-based hero shooter that's now enjoyed by more than 25 million players worldwide – can be pretty confusing. Part of the reason for this is that it's an ongoing work in progress that continues to evolve as new characters and pieces of content are revealed, fleshing out a story that begins in 2041 and runs (so far) until 2077. Just last week, a limited-time event called "Uprising" went live, bringing with it an all-new PvE game mode as well as a fresh slice of story taking place roughly a decade before the events of the core game.
The other reason why the game's lore feels so elusive is the emphasis on brevity and character across the various strands of Overwatch media – which consists of animated shorts, comics and short fiction that appears on the game's website. The animated short films, for instance, tend to focus on single action-oriented events, while the comics hop around from one time and place to the next, fleshing out character backstories and moments in history. No single piece of media has stitched everything together.
If you're confused about the difference between Overwatch and Blackwatch, or you're unclear what characters are talking about when they reference Null Sector or Talon, we're here to help. Here are the basics of what you need to know so you can get up to speed with the story before whatever comes next in the Overwatch universe.
Plus: As a bonus, we have a list of all of the comics and animated shorts in chronological order at the end of this article.
The Omnic Crisis: 2041-2051
This is arguably the single most important part of the game's storyline, and something that has yet to be explored with any specificity. A little over three decades before the events of the game, humankind created a race of advanced robots called omnics which were fitted with "self-improving software algorithms" that endowed them with the capacity for free will. Born in massive automated factories called omniums, the omnics were designed by the Omnica Corporation to bolster construction and manufacturing and help bring about an age of "economic equality worldwide."
Instead, the machines gradually broke down, and Omnica was shuttered following a government-led investigation that uncovered evidence of corporate fraud. No one knows why, then, the omniums came thrumming back to life, giving rise to self-replicating armies of militarized robots in cities throughout the world. The machines would go on to claim tens of thousands of lives, posing "one of the greatest threats to the survival of our species since the Cold War of the 20th century," according to Olympia Shaw, a journalist for the game's Atlas News organization. It's speculated that the omnic uprising was somehow sparked by an artificial intelligence "God Program" much like the mysterious "Anubis" first glimpsed in the comic Overwatch No. 5, "Pharah: Mission Statement."
Because of the events outlined in that particular story, we know for certain that God Programs can seize control of nearby omnics and other machines' operating systems, but the big question that remains is: why did they attack? There's no clear ideological reason for the uprising, and the omnics have never made any specific demands. We also know that this happened at around the same time that disaster struck the Horizon Lunar Base, when its population of genetically-enhanced gorillas revolted, killing all of the scientists.
What is Overwatch, exactly?
When all hope of stopping the omnics seemed lost, a few exceptional heroes rose to defy them. The United Nations assembled Overwatch, an elite international task force made up of warriors, scientists, medics, and engineers from around the globe. They struck at the hearts of the various omnic factories, one by one, until the Omnic Crisis was declared over. Continuing to operate from their headquarters in Switzerland, Overwatch earned a reputation as "the greatest champions of peace and progress mankind had ever seen."
For the next 20 years or so, the heroes found plenty else to keep them busy. They became global peacekeepers, first under the leadership of Gabriel Reyes – who would later become the ghost-like masked terrorist known as Reaper – and then, after an official appointment to commander by the UN, Jack Morrison (a.k.a. Soldier: 76). Ana Amari, Torbjörn Lindholm, Reinhardt Wilhelm and Liao (who has yet to be shown in any official media) rounded out the initial six members of the team. Other familiar heroes became key players later, including cyborg ninja Genji, the time-warping Lena "Tracer" Oxton, and outlaw gunslinger Jesse McCree.
The organization ultimately worked to mend humanity's relationship with the remaining omnics, many of whom had rejected the war in favor of seeking out peace. Some even achieved spiritual enlightenment, forming the clandestine order of omnic monks known as the Shambali, led by Tekhartha Mondatta.
What is Null Sector?
If only all omnics had chosen peace after the Crisis. Two decades after the war, Null Sector – an omnic extremist terrorist group operated from the UK, fighting against the harsh treatment of omnics in the country – took Mondatta, the local mayor, and 100 civilians hostage inside a London power plant. "Null Sector's been around for a while, but they've been underground," Reyes explains to Ana Amari, Morrison's second-in-command during the events described in Overwatch No. 12. "They say they're fighting for omnic rights, but they're extremists. They'll do whatever it takes."
When Morrison requested permission to retaliate and save the hostages, the UK Prime Minister expressly forbade Overwatch from stepping in. Thousands of civilians in King's Row – the building site of a new omnic sanctuary – were left without medical aid, and it was only after Blackwatch agent Jesse McCree reported the hostage situation to Strike Commander Jack Morrison that he ultimately authorized an illegal Overwatch mission to bring an end to the crisis. On the 28th day of the uprising, four agents were assigned to this task: Tracer, Reinhardt, Mercy and Torbjörn, as seen in the "Uprising" PvE event.
What's the difference between Blackwatch and Overwatch?
Wait...Blackwatch agent Jesse McCree? What's that about? From within the ranks of Overwatch came Blackwatch, a secret black-ops group led by founder Gabriel Reyes that counted Jesse McCree and Genji Shimada among its ranks. As Overwatch's influence on world affairs diminished over time, members of the Blackwatch organization sought to overthrow its parent organization. 20 years after the Omnic Crisis, the existence of the covert group was eventually revealed and with it accusations of "assassination, coercion, kidnapping, torture, and worse." When Morrison questioned his old friend about his organization's methods, the resulting confrontation left the Overwatch headquarters in smoking ruins. Soon afterward, the International Justice Commission issued the Petras Act, declaring any and all Overwatch activity illegal. The world they'd saved no longer had any use for them.
Are Talon the bad guys?
Fast forward a few more years, to the game's present day, and things begin to grow even more complicated. Enter Talon – a terrorist organization whose ultimate aims and leadership remain unknown. Widowmaker, the blue-skinned, transhuman sharpshooter formerly known as Amélie Lacroix, is their prized instrument. Reaper (Reyes, reborn a ghost-like monster) has been spotted working alongside Widowmaker and other known Talon operatives. Jesse McCree noted in Overwatch No. 1 that those within the organization employ the "Blackwatch playbook," so it's reasonable to speculate that Reaper occupies a position of leadership within the organization – or, at the very least, has played a role in training them.
The infamous hacker codenamed Sombra has also lent her skills to Talon, though she's not terribly loyal to them, having aided in the escape of at least one of Reaper and Widowmaker's high-priority targets. It's hard to know just what drives Talon, but we know they definitely aren't interested in making peace with the omnics. In "Alive," an animated short pitting Tracer against Widowmaker, we learn that it was Talon that ordered the peace-loving omnic Mondatta's eventual assassination at Widowmaker's hand.
What do Helix Securities and the Vishkar Corporation have to do with everything?
After Overwatch was disbanded by the Petras Act, its heroes found a sense of purpose wherever they could. Some worked as mercenaries, security experts, or as vigilantes before Winston eventually recalled them into action during the events of the Recall animated short
Ana Amari's daughter, Lieutenant Fareeha Amari (a.k.a. Pharah), is a security chief at a significant corporation in the overall Overwatch story: Helix Security International. HSI is a private security firm tasked with keeping the peace between humanity and machines as well as safeguarding the Temple of Anubis where the "Anubis" God Program was ultimately quarantined. Helix secured the rogue AI behind firewalls in order to keep it from seizing control of omnics in its relative vicinity, but when it broke free and started infecting nearby tech, Pharah and her team were sent in to take care of things. "We're not an engineering team," she notes in Overwatch No. 5, "we're a kill everything team."
Symmetra, by contrast, serves as an "architech" in another prominent entity in the game's lore – India's Vishkar Corporation – whose hard-light technology, she insists in Overwatch No. 4, is "making the world a better place." She and her employers seek to rebuild the postwar world anew, and have demonstrated what their technology is capable of by constructing the sustainable city of Utopaea from hard light. Symmetra's Photon Projector utilizes hard light to dispatch enemies, shield her team mates, construct teleportation pads and deploy particle-blasting Sentry Turrets. Hard light is also what the "blades" of Lúcio's skates are made from.
"Overwatch may be gone, but its legacy endures through us," says Reinhardt in Overwatch No. 2, shortly before Winston lets everybody know he's putting the band back together. "We have sworn to carry on its ideals and restore hope to this troubled world. To seek out tyranny and evil wherever they take root, and bring the hammer of justice down upon the wicked. Such is our duty. Such is our righteous quest."
Who the hell is Doomfist?
Spend any time around Overwatch backstory and you'll inevitably come across some reference to "Doomfist." A title rather than an individual, the game has shown that the name has possibly been carried by three different individuals in the past, referenced as "the Savior," "the Scourge," and "the Successor." How do we know this? If you check out the spawn rooms in Numbani, you'll see a trio of posters featuring each title. Outside of that, and the fact that the character wields a powerful gauntlet, very little is known about him. There's enough evidence in the game to suggest that he may become an important part of the story at some point, though. In the original cinematic trailer, Doomfist's gauntlet is identified as part of the exhibition, and is a core part of the battle that unfolds. The payload on the Numbani map also carries Doomfist's gauntlet. The gauntlet also shows up as an image at the end of Sombra's origin story.
The Story So Far
If you're interested in viewing and reading all of the Overwatch media that's been released so far in chronological order, here's the full list, as curated by Redditor ToonCoyote.
Post-Omnic Crisis (2051-2071)
- Junkenstein (comic)
- The Last Bastion (animated short)
- A Better World (comic)
- Uprising (comic)
- King's Row Uprising Origin Story (animated short)
- Legacy (comic)
Disbandment of Overwatch (2071-2076)
- Soldier: 76 Origin Story (animated short)
- Ana Origin Story (animated short)
- Destroyer (comic)
- Trainhopper (comic)
- Mission Statement (comic)
- Going Legit (comic)
- The Junkers Special Report (animated short)
- Dragon Slayer (comic)
- Old Soldiers (comic)
- Hero (animated short)