During the day, they’re soldiers, students, and workers. But at night, they throw on their headsets, sync their controllers, and prepare for digital warfare, hoping that, some day, they can turn their love for Call of Duty into a career.

Not every team that participated in this year’s Call of Duty Championship consists of full-time professionals. For these players, competing is a hobby, but it’s one they take very seriously. The annual Los Angeles-based tournament — a joint effort between Microsoft, Call of Duty: Ghosts publisher Activision, and e-sports organization Major League Gaming — awards the top eight teams with cash from its $1 million prize pool.

A few players, like the young men from Complexity (this year’s winner) or from the popular French team Vitality Rises, already do this for a living. They’re big enough to attract sponsorships and passionate fanbases. Some even live in “gaming houses” with their teammates, coaches, and managers, practicing every day while also trying to grow their own personal brands with livestreams and YouTube videos.

Others aren’t as lucky. They squeeze in as much time as they can for practice when they’re not going to school or working. Some live in countries where the competitive Call of Duty scene is small or nonexistent. But they do it anyway, either for fun or for improving their chances of going big. GamesBeat spoke with a handful of lesser-known teams from different parts of the globe to find out who they are and why they still compete when bigger teams clearly have more time and resources to prepare.

2014 Call of Duty Championship

Above: NSP play their last match of the day.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

A look at e-sports from around the world

South Korea has long been a hotbed for the Starcraft series. The best players become celebrities, and thousands fill stadiums to watch games in person. But for those competing in Call of Duty, it’s a different story.

“It’s not very popular there. I can’t imagine more than 10 people would be watching this in South Korea,” said Young Ju “Infi Benjinuri” Park via translator.

Park and his teammates make up the South Korean team NSP. In addition to fighting the jet lag from their long flight (they arrived one day before the tournament began), NSP had little time to get over another obstacle: playing on Xbox One. Since Microsoft’s latest console isn’t available in South Korea until this September, NSP only had their Xbox 360s to work with.

Know your e-sports slang

  • Scrims: scrimmages or practice matches
  • LANs: tournaments where consoles connect to each other and not through the Web

“At any given time, less than 50 people are connected to [Call of Duty: Ghosts] online,” Park said. “We have a hard time finding opponents to just play and practice our game. There’s another team here from Singapore — we try to connect with them every once in a while. Every two weeks or so.”

The Singaporean team, Echelon, were in a similar situation. The Xbox One isn’t available there either, and the only reason Joshua “Blaqkrow” Lim got one was because he bought it through an import shop.

“It’s tough there for competitive gaming, especially when you factor in the lag when you face other opponents [online] in America, the EU, and Australia,” Lim said. “The latency is really, really bad.”

Michael “elts47” Teoh, who joined Echelon only days before the tournament began because another member had to drop out at the last minute, also complained about the lack of high-level competition in his country.

“[The e-sports community in Singapore is] extremely small,” Teoh said. “That’s the sad part because we believe that we have the potential to grow. Not only in Call of Duty, but especially in other games like Dota 2, League of Legends, and Halo. We actually were competitive Halo players and made the transition to Call of Duty. So we believe there is a lot of untapped potential in Singapore. It’s just that there’s no formalized e-sport organizer there.”

2014 Call of Duty Championship

Above: First place winner Complexity got the $400,000 cash prize, a trophy, and these championship rings.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

Things look a bit better for teams below the equator. Australia has its own equivalent to MLG — the Australian Cyber League. The ACL hosts LAN tournaments in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne every year, and the best two teams from the Australia and New Zealand regional qualifier earn a spot at the world championship. This year, that honor went to Immunity and Trident T1 Dotters.

“E-sports isn’t as big in Australia as it is in America or Europe or Asia,” said Issei “Iskatuu” Chimura, Trident’s captain. “We’re already in the top 16, but if one of our teams comes in the top eight, it’s just gonna blow up. We’ve just been preparing like every other team does: scrimming and practicing daily. It’s a lot of dedication involved. A lot of going over things, finessing things.”

2014 Call of Duty Championship

Above: Team Echelon [left] plays a match on one of the smaller stages.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat
Rize ZA, who represented South Africa, is a young team with just five players on its roster. But only one of them, Daniel “Pupsky” Bechus, actually made it to L.A. Two Rize members were too young to qualify (MLG rules state that you have to be at least 18), so he ended up replacing them with players he knew from the U.K. They were all set to go until disaster struck: His other South African teammate got his visa denied by the U.S. government. So a third U.K. player took his spot.

“[E-sports in South Africa] is getting a lot bigger very quickly,” Bechus said. “There are a lot of teams. [If you include] all ages, there are probably about 40 or 50 teams. There are quite a lot of LANs popping up everywhere, mainly in Cape Town, with some decent cash prizes.”

The Xbox One also isn’t out in South Africa, so one of the first things Bechus did when he arrived was head to the player’s lounge so he could familiarize himself with the Xbox One controller, which is much different than its predecessor. While it didn’t take long for him to get used to it, he said he’s still “a little better” on the Xbox 360.

Up in Canada, Vexx Revenge were a bit more prepared. They practiced on Xbox One for about a month, playing against Wild Gaming (the other Canadian team who traveled to the states) and most of the American teams who were heading to the championship.

“I’d say it all depends on where you live,” said Shane “Slumber” Burnham about the popularity of e-sports in Canada. “In the Toronto area, it’s really popular. We have a lot of friends there that are into e-sports. Toronto is really good, like Ontario. And Quebec is really into e-sports, too. I’m not too sure about the West Coast, but where we live, it’s pretty big.”

2014 Call of Duty Championship

Above: Chimura preferred playing on the main stage, where players can see the audience, making it easier to hype up his team.

Image Credit: Activision

Playing as a hobby, not as a job

Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt, a well-known MLG commentator, recently told Official Xbox Magazine that if you can’t dedicate eight hours of your day to Call of Duty, “your team will not be a top-16 team.”

But the reality is that some players just can’t afford to spend that many hours on the game. They do what they can, even if that means putting aside the controller to study pro gamers’ livestreams and recordings of past matches to pick up on opponents’ tendencies.

“[In Singapore] there’s no such thing as gaming houses,” Teoh said. “There’s no such thing as playing seven or eight hours a day. Funny fact, we’re talking about Call of Duty, I’m actually serving [in] the army — all males in Singapore who are 18 years and older are required to serve two years. I had to take a leave to come here.”

Since the Call of Duty e-sports scene fluctuates wildly from one country to the next, it’s no surprise that the players I spoke with simply can’t survive through competition alone. For example, half of NSP’s four-man team go to school while the other half have day-time jobs. They can only play two hours a day.

Bechus, who’s a first year student at a university in Cape Town and mostly plays on the weekends, admitted that it’s difficult to compete against the big teams when you don’t have much time to get ready.

“When they get that much time on their hands — it’s pretty much what they do for a living — there’s just more motivation for them to study the game at a higher level and take more time to study other teams,” he said.

Vexx Revenge spend a lot of their nights and weekends practicing, too, as Burnham works 40 hours a week and the rest of his teammates are still in school. And despite the presence of the ACL in Australia, local tournaments don’t generate enough money for teams like T1 Dotters to make a living.

“Immunity and Avant Garde are really the only competition in Australia in the 18 and over [category],” said Chimura. “So us and them scrim all the time. We share strategies. Because all of us — we go to school, [universities], have apprenticeships, things like that. Whereas for the American teams, it’s basically their job. They stream all day. They play all day. They have gaming houses. We’re not as privileged as they are.”

These guys were acutely aware of the disadvantages they faced when going up against the big teams. But surprisingly, no one blamed their losses or disappointments on their situations. They just did the best they could with the time they had.

2014 Call of Duty Championship

Above: Trident T1 Dotters pose for the camera.

Image Credit: MKAU Gaming Australia

For love of the game

After I spoke with Chimura, the Trident T1 Dotters continued their shocking run until the U.S. teams Optic Gaming and EnvyUs knocked them out of the top four. They ended up in fifth place, took home $70,000 for their troubles, and as Chimura predicted, their success put a giant spotlight on the Australian e-sports scene. Vexx Revenge was the only other international team who placed in the top eight, earning $25,000.

Unfortunately, the future isn’t as bright for NSP, who, like Rize ZA, didn’t last the first day. Park and his teammates are all older compared to their peers, ranging from their mid-20s to their mid-30s. For “practical reasons,” Park said, none of them will likely ever get to play full-time. And it doesn’t sound like anyone else in South Korea is hungry enough to take over.

“The younger guys are into League of Legends,” Park said. “They’re not really into buying a game console or buying a game together with us. We don’t really have other people to pass down the torch.”

After losing their first three games, Echelon were out. Teoh and Lim just considered themselves lucky for even having the chance to compete. They at least have one cool story to bring back with them to Singapore: You know that magnitude 5.1 earthquake that struck La Habra, Calif? Echelon and three other teams were playing late into the night when it hit downtown L.A., shaking the place pretty hard.

No matter what kind of difficulties these teams faced — even those brought on by Mother Nature herself — the games went on. Regardless of where they were from, all 31 squads had to deal with crushing defeats and emotional victories, hopefully learning some lessons about Call of Duty and themselves along the way. Some will jump right back into practicing to get ready for the next tournament, while others may just stop playing altogether.

It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of organizations and companies that contribute to the competitive Call of Duty scene, as well as the money that surrounds it. But this year’s championship reminded me that behind all the noise are real people just doing what they love.

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More information:

Microsoft Corporation is a public multinational corporation headquartered in Redmond, Washington, USA that develops, manufactures, licenses, and supports a wide range of products and services predominantly related to computing through ... read more »

Activision (Activision Blizzard) is an American video game developer and publisher headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, but now operating worldwide. It was the first independent developer and distributor of video games for gaming console... read more »

Major League Gaming (MLG) is the global leader in eSports. The company operates MLG.tv, the #1 online broadcast network for professional level competitive gaming; the MLG Pro Circuit, the longest-running eSports league in North America... read more »

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