The road to the Call of Duty Championship isn’t an easy one. It’s filled with gut-wrenching losses, surprise upsets, and an ever-shifting play field as new games change the rules from one year to the next. And if the most recent esports event is anything to go by, the 2016 Championship will be exceptionally chaotic.
The Call of Duty World League (CWL) wrapped up its first season on April 3 with a tournament that pitted the best teams in North America against each other in the popular first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops III. The World League is just the latest example of publisher Activision’s huge investment in the lucrative esports business. Research firm Newzoo said in a recent report that the hardcore esports audience is 131 million strong, and that global revenue will reach $463 million in 2016.
In the CWL’s North American Stage 1 finals, Optic Gaming beat Rise Nation 4-3 after an exciting match in the bomb-planting mode Search and Destroy. At first, it looked like Optic’s dominant 3-0 performance earlier in the day would lead to a quick victory. But Rise made a surprising comeback by winning three straight games, bringing the score to an even 3-3. The last match was incredibly tense. Both teams were neck and neck in the best-of-six series, eventually tying with five wins apiece. The Stage 1 winner wasn’t crowned until the last round.
The audience at ESL Studios in Burbank, California erupted in loud cheers when Optic Gaming emerged as the victors. With the win, Optic solidified their spot as the No.1 ranked team in North America and earned points that’ll help them qualify for the Call of Duty Championship, when players from around the world will compete to see who has the best Black Ops III team.
Creating Call of Duty’s Super Bowl
Though the Call of Duty Championship series has been around since 2013, its schedule underwent a major shakeup with the introduction of the CWL. Announced last year, the World League is Activision’s attempt at expanding the first-person-shooter franchise’s esports offerings while also making them more accessible to the games’ millions of fans. In the old format, teams competed in regional tournaments to land a spot at the Championship in the spring (usually composed of 30 or so teams). But starting this year, it’ll take place in the fall.
The CWL turns Call of Duty esports into a yearlong event that’ll award victorious players a total of $3 million.
“[Before the CWL] there was still a good six or seven months post-COD Champs that was sort of a weird time,” said Jay Puryear, director of brand development at Black Ops III developer Treyarch, to GamesBeat. “We’re trying to look at it holistically. … [Black Ops III] launches. Let’s give everybody about a month to a month and a half to play the game, start the season in the middle of January, and run that through to the end to COD Championships.”
Teams from three major regions — U.S., Europe, and ANZ (Australia and New Zealand) — play through two seasons to earn points that’ll help them qualify for the big international tournament. In the U.S., each season (or “stage” in CWL parlance) consists of 11 weeks of matches, with teams competing online on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Their performance during this time determines their placement in the stage finals, where $250,000 is up for grabs.
Activision and Treyarch hope that these changes will increase the level of skill and competition. And by pushing the Championship toward the end of the year, the finale takes on a more significant meaning.
“It’s really more of a culmination — or our ‘Super Bowl’ of Call of Duty,” said Puryear.
Another new addition is the way the CWL categorizes the teams. They’re either in the Pro Division or the Challenge Division. Teams have to fight each other for the limited number of slots (12 in the U.S.) in the Pro Division, which guarantees participation in the season-ending stage battles. The Challenge Division basically consists of other teams that weren’t able to move up to Pro. It’s also, in theory, a roadmap for amateur players to climb the professional ladder and give them a chance to earn money and fame.
“It’s also a great place for individuals to showcase their talent,” Puryear added. “We’re noticing more and more organizations and other players going in and scouting [for new players]. We’re starting to see all the things you would think of in a traditional sport.”
Since the CWL only kicked off in January, it hasn’t produced any rags-to-riches stories just yet. Optic Gaming, Rise Nation, and others who made the cut for the NA Stage 1 finals are established organizations with sponsorship deals and years of experience. But the lineup has already seen some upsets.
A pair of Challenge Division teams (Cloud 9 and King Papey) moved up after knocking out two bottom-ranking Pro teams during the Stage 1 relegation matches. They’ll go on to compete in Stage 2, which starts on April 19.
A matter of perspective
According to Optic Gaming’s Ian “Crimsix” Porter, the CWL’s longer schedule benefits the players as well.
“I think it’s a really good thing because the first couple of months of the game — they’re not really competitive,” said Porter to GamesBeat shortly after the finals. “[At that point] whoever plays the most is gonna be the best. … Call of Duty competitive should be about execution, teamwork, and basically who shows up that day. If someone is beating you in the knowledge department, then it doesn’t matter how you play.”
Porter is known as one of the best players in Call of Duty esports today. In 2014, the 22-year-old played for Complexity, a team that went on to win the Call of Duty Championship (and the $400,000 grand prize). He joined Optic Gaming in November 2014.
One thing Porter didn’t like about the new format is the way U.S. teams have been using the new ban and protect feature. Before a match begins, players on both sides can ban or protect specific weapons and abilities for that battle. In Porter’s experience, teams always ban the same handful of things that “nobody really wants to use,” like flashbang and concussion grenades. (Reddit user Tuhnnz posted a detailed breakdown of the most common items the NA teams got rid of.)
“And the only time people do use that stuff is when they acknowledge that the team they’re playing [against] is better than them,” said Porter. “So they have to use cheap tactics.”
But not all teams consider those items as “cheap tactics.” Treyarch’s Puryear told me that each region has a certain playing style, so they use systems like ban and protect in different ways. This is one of the reasons why he believes the 2016 Championship will be so much fun to watch. When teams from U.S., Europe, and ANZ meet this fall, their styles will inevitably clash as players try to suss out each other’s strategies.
“Having this cross-region [competition] with ban and protect and not knowing exactly what their big strengths are … . This will be really interesting for the fans to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen that strategy before,’” said Puryear, “Or, ‘Wow, they’re using that specialist in a way [we haven’t seen in North America].’”
In the meantime, Optic Gaming aren’t going to let their Stage 1 win get to their heads. They learned that lesson the hard way last spring, when they won three tournaments in a row in the lead-up to the 2015 Championship. According to Porter, they thought they would just “steamroll everybody” in the finale.
Hubris was their downfall. Porter and his teammates — also known by fans as the “God Squad” because of the amount of talent they all possess — finished in seventh place. Looking back, Porter said they didn’t take the Championship as seriously as they should have. But they’re determined to not make the same mistake twice.
“Winning like that [in the Stage 1 finals] — how can you not go back home and wanna just play more,” said Porter. “We [almost choked]. Almost lost. But we didn’t. We’re gonna go back and we’re gonna keep playing as much as possible. Keep grinding.”