“It’s an international event; we’re not used to this kind of thing,” said Bravado’s team manager, Oliver Levkov. “It’s a learning experience. We felt that placing within the top 16 was in reach. It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t make that work.”
Success is a relative term, though, and this is particularly true for the South African squad in its first, and perhaps only, chance for the players to showcase their talents on the highest level of competitive play. While some esports teams have the luxury of a sizable, investor-backed war chest, Bravado has had to raise its own money to pay its way events like the one held in London last weekend. The tournament marked the first time Bravado had the funding to make such a trip. And with upcoming changes in the Call of Duty World League (CWL) format, it may be the last.
The CWL has evolved rapidly since its inception in 2016. It was originally structured as one tournament where pro league teams, including established brands such as OpTic Gaming and 100 Thieves, qualified from their performance in previous years, while amateur teams could earn a spot by playing their way in via an open bracket. All of the qualifying teams, pro and amateur, would then play together on the main stage. The dynamic helped establish an “anyone can win” mentality in competitive “Call of Duty,” Activision’s popular first-person shooter franchise.
Beginning next year, however, the CWL will employ a franchise setup, such as the one found in the Overwatch League and the League of Legends Championship Series. In those leagues, only franchises that have purchased a spot in the pro league can compete in the regular season and playoffs. Amateur competitions are held separately and receive far less attention compared with their well-moneyed pro counterparts.
“The steps the CWL took this year in separating the two levels of competition can be seen as a negative for those players on the fringe of pro league,” said Eric “Muddawg” Sanders, a former player and head of esports operations for 100 Thieves, which finished first at CWL London. “But I think this opens up a window of opportunity to support the amateur tier better.”
But nothing is yet known about the amateur field in the days ahead, so the change jeopardizes the hopes of amateur teams such as Bravado to sustain themselves when they lack the funding to be a franchise in the pro league. Franchise slots for the new CWL are reportedly being sold for $25 million per team, an amount far beyond Bravado’s grasp.
“This probably is our last chance since we can’t change things,” Bravado player Roby “Kohvz” Levkov said before the tournament. “I think we’re all skilled enough to make it [in the pro ranks], or prove that we can at least. Either way we’re going to do our best with how the system changes, [and] if that’s a new amateur league, then so be it.”
That fuzzy future placed added importance on the Bravado players — Dillon “Lithium” Charalambous, Alton “Inferno” Cuff, Rahil Bux, Jordan “Scorpio” Cupido and Levkov — making an impression in London to continue striving to become full-time professionals on the “Call of Duty” circuit. Their best chance of earning a spot in the new-look CWL is not as a team but as individuals.
“I just replaced a two-time world champion with a player that’s never played professionally before,” said Matt Potthoff, manger for CWL London runner-up eUnited, referencing the replacement of Jordan “JKap” Kaplan with amateur Chris “Simp” Lehr in March. “That amateur level of competition should still be taken seriously. All it takes is one person to give them a shot.”
Earning that shot is another story, one that involves Bravado players overcoming logistical hurdles they face in South Africa that are non-factors in larger markets such as North America and Europe. “Call of Duty” has virtually no support in South Africa, with few other teams to scrimmage and few tournaments with limited prize money. And while matches can be held online, issues with network latency over long-distance connections make fair competition against teams based in North America, Europe or elsewhere nearly impossible when a split second can decide whether a player wins or loses.
Not only do teams such as Bravado struggle to find quality practice partners, they also lack an official path to get to major events such as this one in London, which requires them to pay their own way. In this instance, they relied upon sponsorship money from the likes of Intel, Dell and Alienware. But that money can only go so far. There are two major events left on the CWL calendar — in Anaheim, Calif., and Miami — but Bravado said it doesn’t have the funding to make those trips, barring last-minute fundraising from would-be sponsors. For that reason, the team has to hope its showing in London left a positive impression.
“Everyone was doubting us going into that game,” Roby Levkov said after the win against Crazy Crew. “They’ve played in LANs [local area network tournaments, where latency is not an issue] like this before, they’ve played against top teams, and they’ve had practice against top teams. We have none of that. They had a lot of prep going into the match, and we had next to none.”
The South African squad also faced off against notable amateur teams such as Vortex Gaming and Neversity — both of whom were impressed by Bravado’s fast-paced and unique style. Now Bravado’s players may have to hope they’ve done enough to warrant consideration from pro teams.
“They have good shots and they played well; they just need to practice their Search and Destroy and the variety of maps they practice with,” Neversity player Jack Gardner said. “It’s not easy to beat a team like Crazy Crew with the kind of practice they get at home. There’s potential.”
Potential that they hope will get them out of their country and into a larger CWL hub.
“These guys have reached their peak in South Africa. There’s nothing more for them there in terms of [achieving] anything,” said Bravado co-founder and CS:GO player Dimitri Hadjipaschali, who lived and competed in the United States for six months last year to foster awareness of the South African “Call of Duty” community. “There’s no room for them to improve in South Africa. They can’t play online due to our latency being at the bottom of the continent. They need this opportunity.”
Aron Garst is a Los Angeles-based journalist covering esports and the game industry for ESPN, Variety, Kotaku and other outlets.