Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare wasn’t the most popular in the long-running first-person shooter combat series. But you wouldn’t know that from the growing popularity of the Call of Duty World League, the official esports league for professional Call of Duty players.

Last weekend, thousands of Call of Duty fans converged on Anaheim, Calif., for one of the major stage events in the CWL. 120 teams competed in the CWL Anaheim Open for a $200,000 prize pool. The winners of this competition will head to the Call of Duty World League Championship in Orlando, Fla., from August 9 to August 13, 2017.

We talked with Jay Puryear, director of brand development at Call of Duty World League, and Ashton Williams, community manager at Infinity Ward, maker of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, about the growth of league. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Fans at the CWL Anaheim Open.

Image Credit: MLG

Jay Puryear: We’re talking about the CWL in Anaheim, the Open this weekend, as well as H2, which starts June 30 in Columbus. Champs is this August, the 9th to the 13th. Just up front, we’re not quite ready to talk about WWII. We’ll talk about that a later time. But we can talk about CWL and the events going on, how things are going on with the overall strategy.

GamesBeat: So this is all still Infinite Warfare?

Puryear: Yeah, it’s just Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

GamesBeat: You guys have a big event about to start. Can you tell me more about the event in Anaheim?

Puryear: At a high level on the CWL, for Call of Duty over the last few years, Anaheim has always been one of the bigger events in the esports community. I don’t know exact number as far as attendance, but we’re in the 3,000 to 5,000 range. They’re playing for $200,000 in prizes, all the best pro teams in stage one of the CWL. We also have the open portion. We’ll have up to 150 teams competing to get into the winners bracket and ultimately claim a share of the prize money we’re giving away.

Stage one ended a couple of weeks prior to this event. We also had a relegation, where we had four teams win a chance to be able to participate in stage two. Stage one finished up, we gave the money away in Columbus, and then we had eight teams qualifying to play for the last four spots in stage two. All through this, they earned CWL pro points for Champs in August.

Above: In the pits at the CWL Anaheim Open.

Image Credit: MLG

GamesBeat: It sounds like it’s generally getting bigger and gathering more momentum.

Puryear: We’ve seen all of our main events, starting from the first one in Vegas in December—we’ve seen every event draw more attendance, more teams participating, and more viewers online watching, both through the MLG player and other distribution platforms.

GamesBeat: What’s the advantage that you have with MLG inside Activision? What accrued benefits are you getting if you didn’t have MLG?

Puryear: We’ve been able to integrate their team with our team. We had CWL with a different partner last year. Having MLG inside Activision lets them have more access to development, looking at what’s important and what we’re able to do from the Activision corporate side. Having everybody under the same umbrella has gotten everyone focused on what the execution of these events needs to be. How do we promote? What can we do socially? How can we use the MLG channels to promote events and drive awareness?

We’ve been able to integrate GameBattles into Infinite Warfare. We have a GameBattles beta that allows people to go to the GameBattles website, and once they have an account and sign up for some activity, they can see that reflected in the game. Again, we look at integration across the development side — working on improvements, tools, modes, letting them know where we’re at, and getting feedback from MLG. We have GameBattles integrated. And then just overall being on the same page as far as what our roles are has been extremely beneficial.

Above: Call of Duty World League is Activision’s official Call of Duty esports league.

Image Credit: MLG

GamesBeat: As far as esports as a business, what do you see growing the fastest or growing most effectively as far as how good a business it is?

Puryear: I’d defer that to the MLG folks as far as the business side of things and where they see it going. For Ashton and myself, just looking at how the fans and the community have responded to the game this year, seeing the events year over year growing in popularity—like I said, this year we’re seeing more and more people attend the LAN events. We’re seeing significant engagement with GameBattles. The community is continuing to grow, from the launch in November. Seven or eight months later we have more people involved in the esports scene than we did then. For us, we’re seeing continued growth.

Having MLG and everyone else on the same page allows us to do the best job. The discoverability they’ve been able to bring to the game through the live streams and the viewer, and the GameBattles integration, it’s bringing these esports features to the front. It allows more and more of our community to discover that and get hooked.

GamesBeat: What do you notice about some of the teams these days – how professional they’re becoming, whether the top teams are coming back and winning consistently, or if you have different winners each time?

Puryear: This year has been interesting. We’ve seen lots of different teams winning. We have what we call 2Ks over the weekend. Some teams will win the 2Ks, play all weekend, and then come to a LAN event. Some of them have been very successful. In stage one, for the first time ever, we had a European team win the whole thing. We’re seeing a lot of different teams and different players climb to the top and play better. People are coming up from the community. It’s great for us and for Call of Duty.

The other thing is, it’s been great to see how the organizations, the teams and the players–how they’ve matured from November until now. The way they’re handling themselves, the way teams are going out with their sponsorships, it’s great for the overall growth and where we’re going. To see those guys come in and grow along with the community has been great to see.

GamesBeat: How are you setting up the physical locations this time? Has that changed any compared to past events?

Puryear: This year’s event is in a new hall. We’re going to have more spectators than we had in previous years. I don’t know the exact number, but we’ve definitely expanded the venue to match the size of that growth and the fans coming out. Everyone loves coming to Anaheim.

GamesBeat: Are they paying to get in?

Puryear: Yes, it’s paid admission, including a VIP section. We block off an area where they can sit, and that includes gear and some other perks. That generally sells out within a handful of days after we announce.

Above: Facing off at the CWL Anaheim Open.

Image Credit: MLG

GamesBeat: What’s your larger view of esports and where it is now?

Puryear: For us, our biggest event is the world championships, which is going to happen in August this year. Just to see the amount of players engaged—year over year we’re seeing pretty incredible growth. Our goal has always been to be the recognized leader in our esports category with Call of Duty and CWL. Our immediate goal is to be the biggest esport on consoles, and I think we’ve been able to do that, to show that we’re continuing to do that.

Our first thing was to establish the CWL as a foundation that allows players and organizations to know that there is a future in Call of Duty esports. By doing that, we’re seeing teams and orgs participate in CWL that normally wouldn’t necessarily follow Call of Duty. They want to be involved. We’re seeing more and more teams participating in opens, trying to earn CWL points, so they can qualify for stage one and stage two, and earn enough to pro points to have a chance to go to champs. We’re seeing growth from game to game, and over the course of the year, with what we’re doing in Call of Duty esports and CWL. Awareness of CWL and what we’re trying to do keeps growing.

This year we’re going to give away $4 million over the course of the season. Players and organizations can get behind that. They know there’s a revenue stream for them. Prize money is available. That stability means they want to participate in the CWL for years to come.

GamesBeat: As far as having too many options to play in Call of Duty tournaments, is that sorting itself out? Is the scene still too fragmented from your perspective, or is it coming together?

Puryear: Like I say, on the business side I have to defer to the MLG folks as far as their overall plans for the CWL. I do know that we’re running global events this year – in Europe, in Australia. We continue to run North America events. I go back to what I originally said. We’re seeing incredible growth in the awareness of Call of Duty esports and the CWL. As those venues continue to grow, we have more teams with more players and more of the community watching. The growth looks great to us, as far as what the future’s going to look like. It’s just a matter of how they want to structure the CWL league to ensure that growth stays there.

The last thing we want to do is have so many different events that, to your point, it stops making sense to run them. They’re definitely looking at the right number of events to produce. I can tell you that the players and the community love these events. For them, they’d be happy to have as many as they can. They like the environment, the enthusiasm, the passion, watching their favorite pro players.

Above: 120 teams are competing at the CWL Anaheim Open

Image Credit: MLG

GamesBeat: People have brought up before that Counter-Strike is seeing more momentum as a sport, because the game doesn’t change. Call of Duty changes every year. You can have people who are good at one game but not the next one. I wonder if that’s a permanent situation as you see it.

Ashton Williams: What makes the development process for Call of Duty so interesting is the fact that we have such heavy involvement from players and the community. Even though the game changes each year, I think the pro players see that as a challenge going into each new season. It’s also something on the development side where we go through and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re asking pre-launch.” We can work with the teams and organizations and actors prior to launch in November. We don’t have any kind of issue with teams as far as the status of the game and the integrity of the game for them. They’re working with us to help make it better and make the overall league better. I see where you’re going with the comparison to Counter-Strike, but I think Call of Duty has an advantage in having the teams be so involved in the development process.

GamesBeat: Did you pick up any difference in the enthusiasm for this particular Call of Duty this year? Are there parts of the multiplayer game that the esports teams have particularly liked?

Williams: I don’t think there’s anything too specific. For them, they’re looking at maps and game modes and how to play on those maps – which, again, is something they work with us on to tweak them if we need to along the way. But for them in general it’s having that excitement of a new game and getting to work closely with the developers. We’ve had them in the studio for play sessions and feedback sessions. I don’t think there’s too much difference in that regard.

Puryear: With the CWL, what we’re trying to do from a franchise level—we’re trying to make sure we have the same maps and modes that are playable, and the same feature sets in CODCaster. If you’re viewing for the first time or you’ve been watching for a while, there’s a lot of things we’re doing that are very similar from game to game. I think that helps alleviate some of the concerns you were talking about as far as going from game to game. You know that we play Search and Destroy, Hardpoint, and Uplink. You’ve been able to watch, through the CODCaster, and follow the game from game to game in a very easy, familiar fashion. What you’ll notice as far as differences are obviously the weapons and the environments and the maps.

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