The event served as the rebirth of Call of Duty’s esports element, as the newly-christened Call of Duty League launched over the weekend, featuring matches with all 12 of its city-based franchises. It also served as a reminder of the paradoxical place Call of Duty occupies in the esports world. As one of the world’s best-selling video game franchises, the league oozes potential but has struggled to reach it with a robust esports audience, sporting low viewership numbers compared to other major U.S.-based leagues, like the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and Overwatch League (OWL).
Also unlike those two properties, Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty League features a game with realistic action — there are no magic powers or fantastical colors on these battlefields. Further, the competition is console-based, and does not have a substantial viewership, despite sales across all of its titles exceeding 300 million copies. A Call of Duty title has been the best-selling game in the U.S. for nine of the past 11 years, according to the NPD Group, a market analysis firm.
Opening weekend exemplified this odd dynamic. Viewership numbers, perhaps impacted by the 11th-hour announcement of an exclusive broadcast partnership with YouTube and the surprising news of Kobe Bryant’s death Sunday, were modest. The 8,400 capacity Minneapolis Armory did not sell out; a rough count of attendees suggested several hundred attendees on the floor at any given moment. But thanks to the caliber of the event’s production and the competition on display, fans on-site left largely satisfied.
“It was amazing,” said Hayden Sherva, 17, who drove to Minneapolis with his father from Fargo, North Dakota. “It was a really great time to come out here and experience that. I was real lucky just to have Minnesota get its own team and for them to host it here. We’re just having blast. There’s so much energy.”
The dynamic was even appealing to those uninitiated in the world of esports.
“I was like, ‘Man you gotta be kidding me.' But it’s a new generation, they watch this like the NFL or baseball,” said Hayden’s father, Ryan Sherva, 42, when his son told him about pro gamers and the CDL Opening Weekend. “It happened to be really cool. It’s a real deal."
Oliver Lee, 18, from Stillwater, Minn., who described himself as a “huge fan,” wants to see the league ascend to join some of esports’ more proven leagues.
“I was here yesterday, I’ve been here for 9 hours today, and I’ll definitely be here tomorrow,” Lee said on Saturday. “I want the League to be compared to League of Legends and Dota,” he said.
Reaching the viewership numbers of those premier leagues remains a far off goal for CDL. Overall numbers for the weekend were low, with a peak at 102,900 viewers, and with an average of just under 50,000 viewers throughout the weekend.
That peak showing does not place it into the top 500 recent events, according to Esports Charts. Both the peak and average viewerships are lower than several previous Call of Duty events over the past two years, which were part of the now-defunct Call of Duty World League Championship, as well as one pro-am tournament.
Activision Blizzard’s cause was not helped by the timing their streaming rights deal announcement, in which the parent company informed fans where the matches would be shown online only hours before matches began Friday.
That deal with Google to broadcast on YouTube did not include a dollar amount. When Activision Blizzard partnered with streaming platform Twitch two years earlier around the streaming rights for the Overwatch League, the deal was almost immediately reported to be $90 million for rights through that league’s 2019 season. This new, exclusive deal with YouTube includes rights for the Call of Duty League, Overwatch League and Hearthstone esports — all Activision Blizzard properties. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Broadcast rights are one way for team ownership groups to capitalize on their investment into these franchises, reportedly sold for $25 million a piece. Despite a modest viewership this past weekend, investors feel there are other mitigating factors that make CDL a good bet.
“This one’s much safer, way safer,” said Gary Vaynerchuk, a marketing guru with a rabid online following who is a minority owner of the CDL’s Minnesota Rokkr, in comparing Call of Duty League to Overwatch League and LCS.
“You’ve already seen the format of [the league] works with Overwatch, to a degree,” said Vaynerchuk. “I feel like CoD has more a lot more flexibility to go broad, and has more permission and is more known, and so it becomes an execution game.”
Vaynerchuk’s faith is grounded in the cultural footprint Call of Duty has created over the franchise’s history.
“For me Call of Duty was so much more culturally relevant to the masses than Overwatch,” he said. “It’s the same reason hip-hop was able to become bigger than jazz, because the potential for growth was there.”
Indeed, Call of Duty has garnered at least as much love, if not more, among pro athletes as video game mainstays NBA 2K and Madden NFL. Super Bowl quarterback Patrick Mahomes plays it avidly and participated in a recent title launch. Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andre Wiggins, along with A-list actor Michale B. Jordan and rapper Vince Staples were scheduled to participate in a promo match in between league matches, which was ultimately postponed in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death.
“When I got the chance to come to this big event, I couldn’t pass up on it. Call of Duty’s my main game,” Timberwolves player Andrew Wiggins told The Washington Post. “I love it,” he said, in reference to when he heard about the pro league.
The mainstream cultural cache of CoD stands in contrast to League of Legends, which does boast Gordon Hayward and Rick Fox as evangelists, as well as many celebs as investors, but stays largely out of NBA locker rooms and the backstage rooms of rappers and rock stars.
Another advantage for CoD as a spectator sport is that the game play, if not the different game modes, is easier to follow than Overwatch and League, which feature sci-fi or fantasy characters, each with their own unique abilities, and more frantic battles.
“Coming here, seeing it, I get it,” said Levi McCormack, 38, of Minneapolis. “I SAT next to someone who explained the different game modes to me. But there’s always a learning curve. If you didn’t know football, the NFL would look like guys just slamming into each other."
CDL is the second high-profile, geo-located league for Activision Blizzard, after Overwatch League, and features the same slick production values, salaried players, traditional sportslike structure and name-brand ownership groups. The Wilfs, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, the Vancouver Canucks’ ownership group, Jordan, and Vaynerchuk, have all invested in franchises.
For now, Call of Duty League must either find a way to get more of the people who play the game to watch, or appeal to non-gamers to give it a shot. Based on conversations with players and top league officials, their strategy to accomplish this relies on promoting players, creating tournament-based formats in which every game matters, and making players accessible to fans — something that is expected in the esports community.
“We had gotten a sense that there was a lot of interest in our community to preserve what had already been there, in terms of tournament formats from prior iterations, the Call of Duty World League,” said CDL Commissioner Johanna Faries, who came to CDL from an executive post at the NFL.
She said her team, in consultation with players and owners, tried to incorporate existing models and improve upon them to create something more “unique.”
The league will conduct 13 tournaments during the season, which goes until late June, in its teams’ home cities. Each tournament will feature eight of the 12 teams, split across two groups. The top two teams in each group will advance and compete to determine a winner. The top eight teams advance to the playoffs, with six advancing to Call of Duty League Championship Weekend, where a season champ will be crowned.
CDL’s next event is set for London on the weekend of Feb. 7 and will feature teams from London, Paris, New York, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Looking at the rest of this season, Vaynerchuck said he sees this season as setting a baseline for attendance and revenue figures. For next year, he said he hopes to see growth but won’t bail if it stalls, noting that both UFC and MLS have seen ups and downs in terms of such metrics.
“I didn’t get involved in this for a 12 month flip,” said Vaynerchuk.
Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and a docuseries TV producer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @VildeHaya.