The Call of Duty World League (CWL) kicked off its esports season this weekend in Las Vegas. And this year, the competitors will play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 multiplayer in five players against five players (5v5) combat with all of it broadcast on MLG.
The event is expected to draw 12,000 to 15,000 people to the Hard Rock Hotel this weekend. Nearly 2,000 players are competing in a sold-out open bracket in addition to 16 professional teams with their own berths. This year, the teams are playing the same kind of matches that the public is playing with Black Ops 4 in terms of 5v5.
But there still isn’t any esports mode involving Blackout, the battle royale feature in Black Ops 4. I spoke with Jay Puryear, director of brand management at Treyarch, and Adam Apicella, vice president of league and event operations at Activision Blizzard’s MLG. They say they’re keeping an eye on Blackout play and are trying to figure out whether it will be appropriate in an esports format.
Fans will at least get a chance to play an informal Blackout tournament at CWL, and they can also get a peek at Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s first content drop, dubbed Operation Absolute Zero.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You have a big event coming right up. Can you tell me about that?
Adam Apicella: We’re in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Casino. This weekend will be the kickoff for the CWL season featuring Black Ops 4. We have nearly 2,000 players competing in a sold-out bracket in addition [to] our 16 professional teams here. It’s a sold-out crowd, a sold-out bracket. We’re excited for the weekend.
GamesBeat: How many fans are you expecting?
Apicella: All told, over the course of the weekend, we’re expecting 12,000 to 15,000 total.
GamesBeat: What does the venue look like? Do you have a space where everyone can all compete at once? How does the physical space work?
Apicella: This is a unique production for us. The venue’s a little different from our normal stadium or convention center. It’s spread over three spaces. The main stage is The Joint at Hard Rock. We’ve taken that over for the big main space production. In the middle room, we have our sets where the casters are at. We have some of the pro matches going on there, and we also have our sponsor booths. We have a big three-story booth where you can walk up and play Blackout. We have a Zombies experience and a DJ. It’s a really fun experiential room.
The last room, we have our open bracket. We have almost 500 PS4s deployed. At each of these stations, the players will compete, and if they do well enough, they’ll make it forward in the bracket to play against the pros.
GamesBeat: Did they have to qualify in some way before they can go up against the pros?
Apicella: There’s a blend. We have pre-qualification that goes on online and also based on last season’s results. If you did well enough in any of those preceding qualifiers, you’d get a preferential placement with the pros. If you didn’t make it through any of those qualifiers, we sold a very limited quantity of passes, 256 open-bracket team passes. They sold out in 45 seconds. If you didn’t make it through any of the qualifiers, you had to try to get one of those team passes to make it into the competition.
GamesBeat: What you notice that’s different about Black Ops 4 compared to last year’s game?
Jay Puryear: The biggest thing for us is going to the 5v5 format. We looked at some of the meta and the way the game was being played in the public arena. We tried to map what the public is playing with what the pros are playing.
We believe that with the dynamic team makeup, the way we’re using the specialists, we’ve created a unique meta for the pros this year. Putting together a team that complements not only how individual players play but also the team makeup. We believe we’ve created a unique metadynamic. Being able to see the public and the pros playing the same format is going to be pretty exciting this year. So far, as Adam mentioned, with the ticket sales and where we’re at, this event is going to be a wonderful way to kick off the new season.
GamesBeat: As far as the pace of the matches, compared to [Call of Duty: WWII], it seems like a faster game, a more mobile game.
Puryear: I think you’re going to see a lot more momentum and different types of momentum in matches. Obviously, we have the heal mechanic this year, so we anticipate teams — while the front plays at a frenetic pace because that’s just how good they are, I think you’ll see an ebb and flow to the team waiting for an ability to charge up. Like if you look at Crash, where you can heal before you go into a hardpoint. I think you’re going to see the ebb and flow of matches where, depending on if the specialist abilities are ready — you’re going to relax a second, heal up, and then, you’ll go in to try to recapture the hardpoint.
GamesBeat: How long is the season going to run?
Apicella: The CWL season kicked off with the launch of the game, basically. Amateur play started online. It’ll culminate at the end of the summer. We haven’t planned a date yet for the championships, but that always marks the end of the season. Typically, that’s at the end of the summer.
GamesBeat: Is there an interest in doing competitive Blackout in some way? Would you be able to add that to the mix just as entertainment?
Puryear: Right now, we have a three-tiered Blackout experience for people who attend the event, purely for entertainment, having fun, and interacting with Black Ops 4 in a unique way. It’s the same thing with Zombies. This is the first time I can think of at a CWL event where we’ve really celebrated the game to this extent, where you have not only the competitive multiplayer being showcased but the ability to play Blackout and Zombies. It’s a unique strength for the people who are able to attend. We’ll be watching that, and we’ll see how it goes.
GamesBeat: H1Z1 tried a competitive version of a similar game, where you had teams of five in 100-person matches, but their season didn’t even finish. Is there something inherently hard to do about making Blackout a tournament game?
Apicella: Without speaking from a game design perspective but more from a production and a league operations standpoint, it’s something we have our eye on. We’re assessing as much data as possible. When we take a look at an esports product, we try to let the community tell us what they want. It’s an active conversation, but right now, we just love that people are streaming and playing it. We’re trying to collect as much data as possible around potentially, if we ever did something with it, how we’d present it and produce it.
Any time you have 100 players in a match, that’s a difficult narrative to tell. Some other games out there are doing it, obviously. We’ve been watching them and seeing how it’s being done. If we do it, we’ll definitely want to do it the Activision and Treyarch way and make sure it’s true to the game. But right now, we’re just taking a lot of notes and seeing what the community is doing with it.
GamesBeat: If I were watching it, what I would want is just to have an overhead map and see where everybody is, who’s surviving and who’s not. And then, once people come into contact, what happens at that point? For spectating, it seems like … a different view is necessary compared to the view that the players see.
Puryear: I’d agree with that. That’s a potential solution. But like Adam said, we’ve been watching the community. I don’t know if you had a chance to watch the Doritos Bowl that we did on Twitch, but we’re definitely looking at it. The most important thing Adam mentioned is we want to do what’s right for Blackout and what’s right for the Call of Duty franchise. That’s our key focus. We’re taking in all the data to see what the next steps are.