Long-time Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan stunned many by announcing that he has decided to leave Blizzard after almost 20 years with the company.
“I am leaving Blizzard Entertainment after 19 amazing years,” writes Kaplan in a brief farewell letter. “It was truly the honor of a lifetime to have the opportunity to create worlds and heroes for such a passionate audience. I want to express my deep appreciation to everyone at Blizzard who supported our games, our game teams, and our players. But I want to say a special thanks to the wonderful game developers that shared in the journey of creation with me. Never accept the world as it appears to be. Always dare to see it for what it could be. I hope you do the same.”
Blizzard also confirmed that assistant director Aaron Keller will take over as Overwatch’s director moving forward. In his own letter, Keller noted that his new position is both a huge honor and a tremendous responsibility.
“Jeff’s been a great leader, mentor, and friend, and he knows how much we’re going to miss him,” Keller writes. “While I have no pretenses about filling Jeff’s shoes, I’m excited to step into the game director role and continue to be part of a team that’s putting all of its heart, talent, and focus into the next iteration of Overwatch, and I’m honored to continue serving this incredible community.”
In that same letter, Keller briefly mentioned Overwatch 2 and shared a small update on where the sequel is at and when we can expect to hear more about it.
“Speaking of Overwatch 2, development is continuing at a good pace,” Keller writes. “We have an exceptional vision we’re executing on, the reaction from many of you to the updates we shared at BlizzConline thrilled us, and we have exciting reveals planned for this year and beyond as we ramp to launch. We’ll be sharing more frequent updates about Overwatch 2 progress and new features in the live game with you all very soon.”
Keller’s letter certainly feels genuine, as does his desire to further this franchise and help it reach new heights. At the same time, it’s already being pointed out that his letter quickly addressed two of the biggest concerns already being voiced in the wake of Kaplan’s departure: what Kaplan means to the Overwatch franchise and what all of this means for the state of Overwatch 2.
For those who don’t know, Jeff Kaplan has long been the fan-favorite face of the Overwatch franchise. Reportedly inspired by former Hearthstone director Ben Brode, Kaplan went out of his way to interact with Overwatch fans and rose to fame by virtue of his development update videos that showcased his unique way of dryly delivering absurd jokes.
Kaplan’s sense of humor, presence, and clear love of the Overwatch franchise elevated the game’s good days and often made the bad days a bit more bearable. His creative abilities will certainly be missed, but in the minds of many fans, what they’ll really miss is how Kaplan helped inject so much personality into what could have otherwise been another faceless live service game from a giant company. His appearances felt genuinely encouraging and often reassuring.
To be honest, those reassurances may be more important than ever as this news drags Overwatch 2 back into the spotlight in a way that highlights the sequel’s many unanswered questions that even Kaplan previously struggled to address.
In February, Blizzard quietly confirmed that Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 will not be launching in 2021. While many fans didn’t expect Diablo 4 to be released quite that soon, reports of Overwatch 2’s development that we’d heard up until that point seemed to suggest that everything was going fine and that the sequel should be available in the near future. Instead, the news that it wouldn’t be released in 2021 came on the heels of new reports that suggested things may not be proceeding as smoothly as was previously speculated and that not all of the sequel’s development delays may have been COVID related.
Kaplan responded to the delay and renewed fan concerns in a somewhat strange interview with Gamespot in which he came across to some as unusually despondent. While he found ways to work in a few great jokes, Kaplan seemed especially focused on the idea of letting fans down and how he sympathized with even the most…outspoken fans who were disappointed in the delay. He ended the interview with the assurance that the delay was ultimately the result of the team’s desire to make sure they got the sequel right.
Yet, nearly two years after Overwatch 2’s reveal, some are left wondering just what that sequel done right even looks like. Overwatch 2 was initially described as something close to an elaborate expansion of the original game that would rework some of its core elements (including the title’s graphics engine), introduce new characters and maps, and ultimately focus on an expanded PvE campaign that some felt should have been included in the original Overwatch. There was a feeling at the time that Overwatch would transition into Overwatch 2 rather quickly, and Kaplan even suggested that the reason Overwatch updates had been slow prior to that point is that the team was focused on finishing Overwatch 2.
Only one new Overwatch hero was introduced in the game in 2020, and the line at that time was still that the team was so focused on treating Overwatch 2 as the next big update that comparatively smaller updates would be fewer and further between. COVID delays also almost certainly impacted the team’s ability to release any additional updates. Since then, Overwatch 2 has essentially been delayed to 2022 and Kaplan has left the project entirely. Now, nobody seems to know what to think.
It’s funny that Kaplan was apparently inspired to put himself in the spotlight after Ben Brode did the same for Hearthstone as Kaplan’s departure recalls the feeling Hearthstone fans had when Brode left Blizzard in 2018 after 15 years with the company. There were some who worried that Brode’s departure would immediately impact the quality of the game (which some fans had felt was already on the decline), but I remember the more popular feeling at that time being that the way that Brode connected with fans made it easier for those fans to project their own growing desire to walk away from the game they spent so much time with on Brode’s decision to essentially do the same.
That’s honestly where it feels like Overwatch and Overwatch 2 are at the moment. Overwatch 2 may end up being roughly similar to what Overwatch 2 would have been if Kaplan had stayed with Blizzard and saw the sequel through to completion. Yet, at a time when many of those fans that Kaplan alluded to in that interview about Overwatch 2’s delay are becoming increasingly vocal about their Overwatch 2 concerns and their waning love of the franchise, it’s easier than ever to hear those concerns louder than ever now that Kaplan isn’t there to help drown them out.
It’s a hard time to be a game developer and for the Overwatch 2 team, times sadly just got tougher. They not only still have to finish a highly-anticipated game burdened by growing expectations in the midst of what should still be considered unprecedented circumstances, but they must now fill the time between now and that sequel’s release with reminders of why so many people love this franchise in the first place without the help of the man who formally so often did just that.