The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King's Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls.
In previous expansions, entities like the Loa of Death Bwonsamdi, ex-Forsaken Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, and corrupted titan watcher Helya all have spoken of the Shadowlands, and for some, the desire to conquer it. Sylvanas' character arc throughout Battle for Azeroth ends with her seeking to control death itself, indicating that she will play a pivotal role in Shadowlands.
A new army of the dead rises: to combat Sylvanas' assault on Icecrown, Bolvar Fordragon— the revered former paladin who took on the mantle of Lich King to keep the Scourge at bay—has raised heroes from among all the peoples of Azeroth to bolster the Death Knights of Acherus. With Shadowlands, pandaren and all allied races will now be able to become death knights.