Beyond that, there remains rumor and conjecture amid an absence of information from Activision. Even the players and teams that have populated the competitive scene know little about what lies ahead.
“I don’t know if CoD is prepared for franchises or if they’re just throwing us in it,” said Trei “Zer0” Morris, 22, a four-year CWL veteran from the United Kingdom. “We have no idea who’s running this thing."
With fewer teams and the presumed elimination of amateur qualifiers for events, it seems likely that only a portion of the players on hand for the weekend’s championship will suit up when the new league begins play.
“Right now, all the players are in a spot where they don’t know what’s going to happen,” said FaZe Clan coach Richard Simoncelli, 25. Even some teams that have been fixtures on the Call of Duty circuit will be left behind if they are unable to secure franchising rights.
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“It’s kind of a bummer that the [organizations] people have come to love are gonna have to exit the space, but that feeling will go away over time and I hope they [Activision] still recognize that lineage and that community that’s been built up over the last decade,” said Erik Anderson, head of esports for FaZe Clan, which does not currently have a franchise slot.
Activision declined to comment on its new league, only saying through a spokesperson that learnings from Overwatch League (OWL) will be applied to the new CoD League. The OWL is approaching the end of its second full season and will begin a home/road format in 2020, a dynamic that is designed to activate fans and sponsors at a local level, something unique in the world of esports.
It is a bold move by Activision, one which doubles down on its OWL strategy and seems to bring the additional strength of a beloved, longstanding video game franchise. Call of Duty is the best-selling U.S. video game franchise, selling more than 300 million units worldwide as of Fall 2018, ranking No. 3 overall after Nintendo’s Mario and Pokemon. A Call of Duty title has been the top selling game every year in the U.S., except one, from 2009-2017, according to market research firm The NPD Group.
Yet, despite the massive sales, Call of Duty’s esports viewership has not even sniffed the numbers of top-tier scenes built around games like League of Legends, Overwatch, Fortnite, CS:GO and Dota2.
Another challenge in securing widespread viewership for the new league is the current climate around the issue of gun violence in the United States and the game’s realistic depiction of killing. Call of Duty was named specifically by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in comments condemning the video game industry following a recent mass shooting in El Paso. The issue is something that other esports leagues built around shooting — such as Overwatch and Fortnite with their brightly-colored, cartoonish characters and settings — have not faced.
In the wake of recent mass shootings in the U.S., networks have pulled back from showing even semi-realistic first person shooter games. ESPN announced a delay for a planned broadcast of the sci-fi game Apex Legends. TBS does not have any first-person shooter game events planned for its ELeague series, though did have CS:GO, Gears of War and Mortal Kombat events this year.
Still, there is ample precedent for showing real violence on TV, such as with boxing and MMA. Football games have also been marred by gruesome injuries, sometimes replayed in slow motion. And unlike those sports, video game violence does not result in any personal harm to competitors.
“The NFL has figured it out. Boxing has figured it out. UFC has figured it out. Call of Duty, if anything, is already less violent by virtue of real impact to people and I think it will figure it out as well," Anderson said, when asked about the challenge of violence on a TV broadcast.
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CWL sideline reporter Jess Brohard said she believes the new league will be successful owing to the current level of professionalism exhibited by both players and crew members, the game’s lineage, and fan reactions.
“From a crowd perspective, Call of Duty feels a lot more hype,” she said.
Before coaching his team to a championship, eUnited’s Bryce Faccento reflected on what the past years meant to him.
“I’m from Fort Valley, Georgia, where no ever makes it out of, where all you do is grow and sell peaches,” he said. “Call of Duty has brought me all the friends I’ve ever had and they’ve given me opportunities in life I never would’ve had without it. It changed my life.”
With the shift to the new league, the lives of many competitors are about to change again.
“I don’t even know what to think [about next season]," said eUnited player James “Clayster” Eubanks after claiming the title. "I’m sure tonight I’ll start worrying about it. It sounds like a step in the right direction. I just hope they execute it correctly.”
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