CD4 T cells are principal producers of IL-21 and are often required for optimal CD8 T cell responses. Therefore, we investigated the importance of IL-21 in determining the phenotypic attributes, functional quality, and maintenance of antiviral CD8 T cells following acute infection with the prototypic mouse pathogen lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. Previous reports have documented an obligatory role for IL-21 in sustaining CD8 T cell responses during chronic infections. Here we show that the requirements for IL-21 are less stringent following acute infections; however, in the absence of IL-21, the capacity of CD8 T cells to attain the polyfunctional trait of IL-2 production is consistently reduced during both the effector and memory phases. This is further supported by in vitro studies showing that the addition of IL-21 promotes the differentiation of IL-2-producing CD8 T cells. Although the generation of memory CD8 T cells, which are capable of mounting protective recall responses, proceeds independently of IL-21, we demonstrate that IL-21 does function to support secondary responses, especially under competitive conditions. Collectively, these studies highlight the potential roles of IL-21 in determining the quality of CD8 T cell responses postinfection. Copyright © 2010 by The American Association of Immunologists, Inc.