Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty League marks a new era for the realistic first-person shooter — one which now aligns it with the franchise model of the most popular esports leagues in the United States, the League Legends League Championship Series and Overwatch League, which also feature traditional sports leagues-like features, such as all star games and slick live productions.
The first tournament will begin Friday night at The Armory, an 8,400 seat venue that was once home to the Minnesota Lakers, before they moved to Los Angeles. However, as the season begins, fundamental questions remain, and novel ones have arisen. As of Friday morning, there had been no announcement as to a broadcast or streaming partner for the league. Call of Duty pro players were openly lamenting the timing of a game update that addressed several of their big complaints, but which took effect just days before the season’s start, altering the mechanics and conditions in which they’d trained for the past several months. Even beyond this weekend, there will be a lingering question of how the league’s new travel schedule — a series of tournaments hosted by each of the franchises in their home market — will impact players and the league’s commentators and broadcast talent. Perhaps most important of all, given the pivot to city/region-based franchises, will be whether teams will be able to attract local followings and sponsorships — a pivotal question also facing the Activision Blizzard-run Overwatch League this year.
The most striking developments for those gathered in Minnesota for the launch and longtime esports observers online was that no broadcast deal was announced Thursday and a last minute “patch,” which changed the game’s dynamics.
Matches will be streamed on Twitch and via the Call of Duty League website this weekend, but there was no formal announcement of a partnership with Twitch, as there had been with the 2018 launch of the Overwatch League.
Ambiguity has been a hallmark of CDL since it was announced in 2018, with esports organizations, players, and fans left with a dearth of information following the conclusion of the CDL’s predecessor, the Call of Duty World League, last August.
Such issues are not insignificant to the league, despite being the top selling game in the U.S. in nine of the past 11 years, according to NPD Group, the competitive scene has long struggled to gain substantial viewership, lagging far behind other top esports titles such as League of Legends.
Working in the league’s favor is the fact that it will feature teams that bring both deep esports experience as well as traditional sports knowledge. Call of Duty mainstays such as FaZe Clan, Optic Gaming and Envy will be represented, though last year’s champs, eUnited, and 100 Thieves, did not purchase franchise rights for the new version of the league.
The league commissioner is Johanna Faries, who assumed the role in 2018 after nearly 12 years working for the National Football League, an experience she called “a blessing.”
Faries said she believes the Call of Duty League represents a form of entertainment that has the potential to attract new fans and offer them something more than what traditional sports is able to provide.
“There is something intuitively appealing to how Call of Duty is played, it’s so watchable … you drop into a match and you understand what these teams are trying to do,” she said. “Call of Duty is a juggernaut franchise that enables innovation and in-game opportunities that frankly go farther than traditional sports can stretch.”
Specifically, Faries pointed to the ability to create, “virtual experiences and real-world experience at scale and the ability to establish a global league out of the gates.”
As an example of the kinds of innovation that is possible, Faries said that the League worked directly with developers to create new camera angles so that fans could follow action more easily.
But other kinds of in-game tinkering have been more controversial. After fielding complaints from players for months, Infinity Ward, the developer of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the version of the game used for league play this year, released a patch that addressed many of the most pressing issues, including reducing the effectiveness of slide canceling, a move where a player goes into a slide and then pulls up (cancels the slide) thereby gaining better aim.
“We pretty much finally got the patch we wanted, but the timing could not be worse,” Minnesota Rokkr player Justin “SILLY” Fargo-Palmer, 24, said Thursday. The Rokkr is co-owned by digital marketing and entrepreneurship guru Gary Vaynerchuk and the Minnesota Vikings’ Wilf family through its WISE Ventures.
“[The game] is completely different now,” Fargo-Palmer said, explaining that patches “can literally make a team that would win go to last place” by adding a degree of randomness to the game. Changes of this kind are common in esports leagues, but the timing of the change is what most aggravated the CDL’s players, according to conversations Thursday.
Regarding the patch, Faries said, “We are in active conversations with our players daily. … To take Call of Duty League to the next level, it takes time.” Faries also noted that short term turbulence might be necessary for long term gains.
Fargo-Palmer said several bugs were also created by this latest patch, one of which is that the speed of capturing an objective does not increase when all five players are holding it, as would normally happen. He said teams will simply have to work around it.
How those immediate issues play out will be witnessed this weekend, but on the horizon remains the issue of added travel, something some see as a positive development for the league, while others are wary of the increased burden after most Call of Duty World League matches were held last year in Columbus, Ohio, with major tournaments held elsewhere. This season, tournaments will be held in each team’s city at least once. Except for the launch weekend, where all teams will compete, tournaments will host eight teams split into to groups. The top two teams from each group will then advance to the Sunday finals.
“I like going around for a few days a time, you get to explore a little bit,” said Fargo-Palmer. “I’m a little upset we don’t go to Paris or London.”
On the home front, in addition to fan attendance, another bellwether for the league’s ultimate success is how well teams are able to attract local sponsorships — something which has been elusive for esports orgs historically, owing to their location-agnostic natures. Changing that paradigm is at the core of Activision Blizzard’s esports strategy and will be on display both in the Call of Duty and Overwatch League this year.
According to Brett Diamond, COO of the Rokkr, the team has secured two deals from local companies, including a car dealership and a cellphone company.
Yesterday, the league announced it had secured sponsorship from PlayStation 4 and Mountain Dew, both sponsors in previous years, as well as gaming peripheral companies Scuf and ASTRO.
Even as many questions remain to be answered ahead of the start of play, Fargo-Palmer said it, “feels awesome” to be a part of the league and has high hopes for the year.
“We absolutely have to win a championship,” he said. That quest for Fargo-Palmer and the rest of the league begins Friday.