What we are playing is the Overwatch squad training in a virtual reality environment.
Note: please take into account that at the time I am writing this, I've haven't seen any interviews or public comments made by Blizzard about this topic, so I may be talking about something that has already been explained. I apologize if that's the case, but bear with me at least for the fun of it.
On the Overwatch trailers we can see the background story of some of the characters, the squad itself and the state of the world. In case you haven't seen the videos let me do a quick recap. Overwatch is a special squad, made by many nations in order to counter criminals and terrorists around the world. At first it was all good and well as they were considered heroes, but soon after that some evil higher power manipulated people into thinking that the Overwatch squad were also criminals.
The conspiracy that stated that the Overwatch squad were really evil got to a point where their headquarters was destroyed and all the agents scattered. Now some time into the future, Winston (the big gorilla guy) was forced to call them back into action and this is where the game begins.
So, if Winston called them into action again after some time it means that this awesome team is going to kick some terrorist ass right?
Wrong. All we do in the game is play 2 types of missions (regardless of how fun they are) over and over again, even against themselves. Some of the villains are also there, but they also fight against themselves (depending which characters the players choose) so what is really happening here?
First of all we have to consider that in the trailers, Winston seems to be in some sort of facility that features a state of the art computer A.I. called Athena. Also when playing the game's tutorial we can see that we are in a complex facility that features stuff for the agents to train with (possibly the same one where we see Winston), including a full stage with dummy enemies and everything, so considering the limited amount of things we can do in the game, it is safe to assume that the team is training again in order to return to their old war against evil. We are basically playing a prologue of the main story.
But if the squad is training how can they fight against themselves?
The answer to that question is that they are training in a virtual reality environment where they can choose to be anybody they want in order to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of every person involved (heroes and villains alike). When a player chooses to be a hero, they are not really using that hero, but a virtual representation of it and when choosing to play as a villain they take the form of an A.I. bot using a data-generated version of that villain (Widowmaker, Reaper, etc) so in a sense by playing as a villain you are really playing as Athena (the computer).
What about characters that are not exactly villains or heroes like Hanzo and Zenyatta?
Characters with their own agendas can be there just as easily because they are a potential part of the conflict themselves, like Zenyatta been an activist for the coexistence of humans and robots and Hanzo and the chance of him finding his brother Genji in any future operations. In both cases, they are people of interest whose information is there along with the rest in Athena's database.
What about the environments of Overwatch?
The missions themselves (both of them) also look like rudimentary training for routine real missions around the world, mostly the escort of people/resources and the basics of storming a base of operations and defending it. We also have to take into account that these places are completely empty and only serve as scenarios for battles to happen, thing that is almost impossible to do in a world that forced the squad to live in the shadows. This is the reason why we don't find anything that suggest that there are real people living in the environments even though they appear to be in different places all around the world, everything is intact, clean and unaltered and the training suggests that missions are designed to be done quick and efficiently because they cannot afford to attract too much attention.
The lack of a big guy (boss)
The lack of a big meanie to defeat in these training exercises could mean that Athena doesn't have enough information about the hierarchy of the villains (boss, officers, etc) so it does the best it can with what she has on her database. Up until now there haven't been any announcements about new modes to be added to the game, but even if they come out with something new out of a sudden and it features a boss (sort of like in moba games) that could just mean that new intelligence information was fed into Athena. All of this means that the real battle hasn't started yet and what all that the Overwatch squad has experienced since they were reunited have been some skirmishes here and there.
What about the future of the game itself?
If this theory is correct (in a storyline sense) it is quite possible that Blizzard could make a follow up to the current game (a complete plot oriented game to play), leaving the current one to be the competitive part of it all. I say this because I don't think Blizzard is the type of developer that would create such a rich game world only to tell us the story in little computer generated shorts. Their plan could be to make us fall in love with this franchise using the good multiplayer experience it provides + story shorts in a way that when they release the story oriented one, it becomes a sleeper hit by default with a really minimal amount of risk involved. If this is the case, then Blizzard's strategy is quite ingenious and brilliant.
Wrapping it up
Be it true or not. This simple theory is just a hopeful thought of mine about one day having a full Overwatch experience. Will this happen or not? I don't really know, but hey we can dream. At least the great support that the game is having coming from the gaming community means that Overwatch could live on and be strong enough to grow. Let's just enjoy what we have right now and see what happens in the future.