LOS ANGELES — College basketball isn’t the only sport filled with busted brackets and Cinderella stories. For the past month, a different kind of March Madness has been building up off the court and inside the first-person shooter Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Over the weekend, 31 professional teams from around the world competed in Ghosts at the annual Call of Duty Championship. The modern military shooter franchise has become a popular choice in e-sports, a thriving industry that pits players against each other in organized gaming competitions. Sponsored by Microsoft and Call of Duty publisher Activision, and hosted by e-sports company Major League Gaming, the tournament emphasized both skill and endurance: Teams spent three days fighting for their slice of the $1,000,000 prize pool.
On Sunday, only one was left standing: Complexity.
Complexity is one of the biggest organizations in e-sports today, with multiple teams and a long string of championships under their name. The four young men on the Call of Duty squad — Patrick “Aches” Price, Ian “Crimsix” Porter, Damon “Karma” Barlow, and Tyler “Teepee” Polchow — never lost a series, blowing past the other teams as they made their way to the finals. With $400,000 on the line, they dominated their opponent, EnvyUs, by winning three rounds in a row. In their last game, Complexity pulled ahead of EnvyUs with a decisive 8-2 victory in Blitz, a mode where teams must enter their opponents’ goal as many times as they can while also protecting their own.
“Honestly, we kept telling ourselves, ‘Run it up! Run it up! Run it up!’ — which means run the scoreboard up,” Price said during a press conference shortly after his squad’s win. “We wanted to beat them as badly as we possibly could. I think we did that. When we play tournaments, we want to — not so much prove a point, but to deliver a message. And that is ‘we are the best team in the game. And we don’t plan on being stopped any time soon.’”
Part of the reason Complexity and others like them are so good is because of how much time they spend training — for them, it’s a full-time job. In addition to participating in several tournaments a year, they scrimmage at least four to five hours in Call of Duty every night.
“As a team, we’ve been in the grand finals for the past 11 tournaments. … We just all told ourselves backstage: ‘This is our time. This is what we’re here for. This is our territory,’” Price said. “We’re very used to being in the grand finals. It’s just where we perform the best.”
The moment was especially meaningful for Barlow, who became the first player to ever win back-to-back championships in Call of Duty. Last year, he played for Fariko Impact, a team that went on to beat EnvyUs for the world title.
“It probably won’t sink in until maybe a bit later or tomorrow, but I’m very happy about winning a second time,” he said. “I’m happy that I won with these guys.”
While hundreds of people watched and cheered for their favorite players on the last day of competition, the venue — a giant tent sitting on the top floor of a parking lot — didn’t always feel that lively. The Call of Duty Championship isn’t open to the public, so the crowd was a mix of players and their friends and relatives as well as members of the press and developers from Infinity Ward (responsible for the Modern Warfare and Ghosts games), Sledgehammer Games (who’s making this year’s Call of Duty), and Treyarch (Black Ops II).
This made the first two days, when the teams were busy fighting in their pools, look a little empty. But as the brackets unfolded and the stakes started to rise, more and more spectators flocked to the four different stages. This was especially true of the “alpha” stage, which had blinding lights, rows of bleachers, and a large projector screen.
It was here where everyone stood up to congratulate Complexity when they emerged from their sound-proof booth at the center of the stage. Streams of confetti rained down on them as they accepted their trophy and championship rings.
With all the lights and cameras focused on the winners, EnvyUs quietly exited from their side of the booth while covered in darkness. The loss was a particularly painful one: Just like last year, they had to settle for second place.
But they’re not going away empty-handed. EnvyUs still earned a cool $200,000. And though they plan on working on their weaknesses, they won’t have much time before their next scheduled match. In April, they’ll play in another Call of Duty: Ghosts tournament at PAX East, the annual gaming convention in Boston. Two weeks after that, they’ll travel to Canada for the Niagara Falls competition. And once that’s over, they have to prepare themselves for a tournament in the U.K.
“The grind is always constant for Call of Duty players, especially this year,” said Ray “Rambo” Lussier during EnvyUs’s press conference.
This also means that Complexity won’t have much time to celebrate. They plan on keeping their momentum going for the rest of the year, and assured reporters that they won’t let the title or the money get to their heads.
“When we picked up [Damon Barlow], we said we’re gonna go undefeated in all the tournaments this year,” Price said. “And I think this is going to be the start of it.”