Heterogeneity is a hallmark of the adaptive immune system. This is most evident in the enormous diversity of B and T cell antigen receptors. There is also heterogeneity within antiviral T cell populations, and subsets of effector and memory T cells now permeate our thinking about specialization of T cell responses to pathogens. It has been less clear, however, how heterogeneity in developing virus-specific effector and memory T cells is related to cell-fate decisions in the immune response, such as the generation long-lived memory T cells. Here we discuss recent findings that might help redefine how heterogeneity in antiviral T cell populations gives rise to T cell subsets with short- and long-lived cell fates.