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New Call of Duty esports league will begin play in home markets in 2020, start with 12 teams

Attendees play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at the Tokyo Game Show. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)
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The new, yet-to-be-named Call of Duty esports league has officially capped its Season 1 membership at 12 teams and will begin play in teams’ home markets in 2020, furthering the Activision Blizzard vision of anchoring competitive gaming franchises to specific cities and regions.

The teams — based in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Florida, London, Minnesota, New York, Paris, Seattle and Toronto, with two in Los Angeles — were sold via the same franchise model Activision Blizzard employed in its creation of the Overwatch League, which is now finishing its second season of competition. The Overwatch League (OWL) is also set to begin home-market play in 2020, the league’s first full season effort to tap into a new revenue source via local sponsors and business partnerships.

While some franchises will carry over from the Call of Duty World League (CWL), which was shuttered this summer, this new iteration will include several ownership groups from the OWL that are new to Call of Duty. In all, 10 of the league’s 12 ownership groups also operate teams in the OWL. ReKT Global, founded and owned by Amish Shah, is a newcomer to the Activision Blizzard-run leagues, while WISE Ventures — backed by the Wilf Family, which owns the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings — is new to esports altogether.

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“Our goal for the future of Call of Duty Esports was to partner with ownership groups who are committed to bringing the next professional sports teams to their cities and building a community of home market fans. We have found those partners and the 2020 Call of Duty Esports League is officially locked with 12 teams,” said Bobby Kotick, Chief Executive Officer of Activision Blizzard. “We are proud to select the best 12 teams from 11 markets and four countries that will represent Call of Duty Esports and bring epically entertaining competition to millions of fans around the world.”

The 12-team structure mirrors that of the OWL, which also started with a dozen teams.

“We just like the symmetry, first of all, with how Overwatch League had done in its first year and we really wanted to focus on North America and Europe to start and really grow from there,” Johanna Faries, commissioner of the new Call of Duty league, said in a phone interview.

In an email, Kotick also noted that there were more than 12 interested parties for the league, a fact that bodes well for potential expansion. The OWL grew from 12 to 20 teams for its second season. For now, the Call of Duty league is focused on its inaugural 12 franchises.

“I feel like it was a really nice blend and balance of operational know-how from an Overwatch League perspective, know-how from a Call of Duty esports perspective and then know-how from a traditional sports background,” said Faries, who formerly worked with the National Football League as its vice president of club business development.

The leadership teams for the 12 franchises break down as follows:

Atlanta: Paul Hamilton, president and CEO of Atlanta Esports Ventures, a partnership between Cox Enterprises and Province, Inc.

Chicago: Andy Miller, Founder and CEO, NRG; and Hector Rodriguez, co-CEO, NRG

Dallas: Mike Rufail, owner and CEO, Team Envy

Florida: Ben Spoont, Founder and CEO of Misfits Gaming

London: Amish Shah, Founder/Chairman, ReKTGlobal, Inc.

Los Angeles (IGC): Ari Segal, CEO, Immortals Gaming Club (IGC), along with Lionsgate and The Anschutz Corporation (owner of the Los Angeles Kings, LA Galaxy, LA Live and Staples Center)

Los Angeles (KSE): Stan Kroenke and Josh Kroenke, KSE esports; owner, Los Angeles Rams (NFL), Colorado Avalanche (NHL), Colorado Rapids (MLS), Denver Nuggets (NBA), and Arsenal F.C. (English Premier League)

Minnesota: Brett Diamond, COO, WISE Ventures Esports, owned by the Wilf Family with investment from Gary Vaynerchuk

New York: Scott Wilpon, Farzam Kamel, Rohit Gupta, co-founders of Andbox

Paris: Drew McCourt, founder and owner of c0ntact Gaming LLC

Seattle: Francesco Aquilini, Managing Director, Aquilini Group

Toronto: Chris Overholt, president and CEO of OverActive Media

The league will not include old-guard CWL franchises 100 Thieves and FaZe Clan, both among the more popular teams in the Call of Duty competitive community. The winners of the final CWL championship, eUnited, also did not secure a spot in the new league. The eUnited players, however, are all expected to be signed by teams in the new league.

In a recorded statement posted on Twitter in this summer, 100 Thieves owner Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag noted the steep cost of buying into the league.

In addition to paying player salaries at or above a league-set minimum, teams will also provide them with health and retirement benefits. The asking price for franchise slots alone was rumored to be $25 million per team. Faries declined to comment on the accuracy of that figure.

Despite the popular status of several CWL teams that did not transition to the new league, Faries said she is not concerned about a potential fan backlash.

“I think we were really mindful about how important it was to bring that [fan] community along for this ride from Day 1,” Faries said, noting the inclusion of former CWL teams like Envy, OpTic, Splyce and Luminosity. “So, while we may not be 100 percent representative, at the same time the shift to a city-based franchise model actually required different shops and different types of organizations coming into the fold. I’m pretty excited about where we’re landing just with our inaugural 12.”

Overwatch League releases its 2020 schedule

The league has not yet revealed its schedule nor its format. While teams will begin play in their home markets, it is unknown whether the league will use the same homestand format the Overwatch League will employ next season, with several teams traveling to a designated host city for a series of matches. Faries said details on the league schedule and competitive structure will be revealed in the coming weeks, with October being a particularly big month for the Call of Duty franchise. The game’s latest installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, releases on Oct. 25. Faries would not confirm that the league will use that game for its competitions, but it would be a stunning development if it did not.

“We, as a league, are tremendously excited by how Modern Warfare is already seeming to take hold, and what it will mean for the entire esports ecosystem,” Faries said, referring to the game’s recent online beta test.

Faries declined to comment on the status of media rights for the league. Before its launch, the OWL partnered with live-streaming platform Twitch for its first two seasons, receiving a reported $90 million for the rights. The league later expanded its broadcasts to streaming and linear outlets for ESPN, ABC and Disney. It is unknown what, if any, money that expansion generated.

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Despite the close ties between the new Call of Duty league and the OWL, Faries said there will be elements of the new league that will be distinct to Call of Duty.

“The fact that we live under the same organizational umbrella here for Activision Blizzard just allows us to cross-pollinate ideas, to create efficiencies and maybe learn quickly on where to optimize or go in a different direction,” Faries said. “Then there are moments where we want to inject really, really unique things that can only happen by virtue of Call of Duty. Those will be unique and never before seen.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Brett Diamond as COO of WISE Ventures. He is COO of Wise Ventures Esports.

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