Call of Duty League’s inaugural season has been beset by novel challenges. Not only has gameplay been shifted from live, in-person events around the world to online-only play, but the game modes which players compete in do not include the one that is most in-demand by gamers around the globe.

Assessing the opportunity inherent in the massive popularity of “Warzone," a battle royale mode available both in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and as a free-to-play standalone game, the league will run an exhibition tournament during this weekend’s event wherein 48 players from all 12 teams compete for $10,000.

“It gives us some opportunity to experiment,” said Call of Duty League Commissioner Johanna Faries to The Washington Post about the “Warzone” exhibition. “That’s a good look for us, to understand ‘what do we like about it?’ How does this become a broader conversation about the role that ‘Warzone’ can play in the broader Call of Duty esports ecosystem?”

“Warzone” has rapidly grown its playerbase since its March release with 50 million downloads in its first month, aided in part by the stay-at-home conditions of the covid-19 pandemic.

The mode has also been successful at drawing in highly influential gamers and traditional athletes, such as the NFL’s Marshawn Lynch, Rob Gronkowski and Ezekiel Elliot. Monday night on Twitch, two of the most watched streams were of Fortnite-associated gamers Turner “Tfue” Tenney and Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore, as well as Nick “NICKMERCS” Kolcheff playing Warzone.

In addition to the debut of “Warzone” at a Call of Duty League (CDL) event, the league also confirmed a leak from earlier this month by officially announcing a change to its championship weekend structure. Instead of limiting it to eight teams, now, all 12 teams will be competing.

Call of Duty League is broadcast exclusively on YouTube, where it has amassed 882,000 subscribers and 139.5 million views. According to Esports Charts, viewership grew after the opening weekend with, reaching almost 112,000 peak concurrent viewers for the third event of the season, falling to 60,400 peak concurrent viewers for the most recent event.

“My vantage point is so holistic, viewership of course is a huge proxy for where are fans today … but we’ve been enjoying an incredible launch of this product,” she said, noting it is only a few months since the league started.

“Being able to standup the regular season in such a different way is a testament to the strength of the product that we have,” Faries said. “We’ve certainly learned how to be resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges.”

To draw more engagement, CDL announced a new program that will incentivize fans to watch matches by giving access to team emblems, sprays and animated player cards they can use in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare."

Among the challenges endured, the league has drawn criticism for its poor server performance as competitions moved to online-only from its usual lag-less LAN format. Its own players said playing conditions were unfair due to lag in which competitors saw different response times from servers, which impacted their gameplay. Dallas Empire’s Ian “Crimsix” Porter called servers during matches held between April 10-12 “unplayable.” Minnesota RØKKR’s Justin “SiLLY” Fargo-Palmer also made light of the situation during that same weekend’s event.

The league upped its server count to nine prior to the subsequent event, which started April 24. Earlier this month, the league added more server backups across all locations.

Faries said the league tried to avoid such complications by “testing, testing, testing” with teams. She said that intricacies arise in tournaments because “brackets unfold in real time … we needed to feel good about any given matchup scenario.” Most players are currently playing from their homes.

“It’s been particularly edifying to me to feel like our players and our teams are really happy with the improvements we’ve made week after week,” she said.

Faries would not comment on any recent changes in interest from sponsors in light of the conditions created by the pandemic, nor about how teams are planning to make up for lost revenue from hosting live events. She said that continuing to broadcast matches is a “winning strategy,” especially when all traditional sports leagues were shuttered. The league has regular season event weekends scheduled through July 26th.

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