Esports is getting more popular than ever, and that’s ringing true with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s online multiplayer play. Game studio Treyarch has revealed that League Play, a new ranked competitive mode introduced in February, is more popular than any previous competitive modes in a Call of Duty game.

In fact, as the chart below shows, the number of hours put into League Play is second only to the number of hours in Black Ops 4’s most popular mode, Team Deathmatch. That’s important, as esports is getting more important and more competitive when it comes to shooter games.

“League Play has been huge for us this year,” said Matt Scronce, a senior game designer at Treyarch, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s more popular than a competitive mode has ever been in Black Ops.”

League play is modeled after the official esports league, Call of Duty World League. The matches use the same rules as the official league, with modes that are limited to Hardpoint, Control, and Search & Destroy. Players can only use a certain type of weapon, attachment, perk, scorestreak, and Specialist. Players start in a division of 50 players and have to battle for the top position in the ladder, earning ladder points with victories. An event typically lasts a few days.

Above: Call of Duty’s League Play mode is very popular.

Image Credit: Activision

“We’ve had ranked play in our last few games, and it’s usually for a certain very passionate segment of players that are really good,” said Tony Flame, expert game designer at Treyarch, in an interview with GamesBeat. “They follow the professionals in esports and they want to play the same game that the people they look up to are playing. The pro players, you can see their following on social media. They have hundreds of thousands of players following them. There’s a lot of people interested in that.”

But Flame said that in past years, there has been an astronomical barrier to entry to get into ranked play.

“We looked at that. Part of that is just, sure, it’s more hardcore and more stressful. There’s going to be a barrier,” he said. “But we looked at the actual systems in place for ranked play and asked ourselves if there was anything in there that actually keeps players out.”

In other games, players get evaluated, ranked, and then they stay in a certain tier. They can grind away and try to move up, but they’re often stuck.

Seraph has a deadly revolver that can kill in one shot.

Above: Can you play Call of Duty with teens? Are your reaction times good enough?

Image Credit: Activision

“That’s how these ranking systems work. That’s what they’re designed to do, to put you where you should be, but we don’t design any other part of our game like that, where you’re stuck like that,” Flame said. “We realized there was an opportunity to get more people into this competitive gameplay, this ranked gameplay, but where they’re always moving forward, always progressing toward something.”

So Treyarch got more ambitious with the design of Black Ops 4’s League Play. The team took some risks, and they paid off, Flame said.

“We saw more people coming to play League Play than we’d ever seen before. We were very surprised, to be honest. And we saw the people who came in to play stay engaged for longer,” he said. “While it’s not necessarily been what the hardcore audience has expected because they have something in mind like what they’ve had in past games, they’ve been very engaged with it. They’ve given us a lot of feedback on it. We’ve also had a silent majority that just plays a lot of it.”

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

Image Credit: Activision

Because of its popularity, Treyarch has dedicated more resources to paying attention to League Play nuances and updates.

The team released a new system that layers on top of that progressive rank system in League Play called Skill Divisions. This layers on the system that players are used to from typical ranking systems.

“You’re probably familiar with things like a masters division at the very top percentage of players,” Flame said. “Different games have gold and silver and bronze, things like that. For us, it’s master, elite, expert, advanced, and competitor. We have those five tiers.”

That takes the bottom 50 percent of players and it doesn’t punish them.

“You’re not told that you’re in the zinc division or whatever,” Flame said, laughing. “You’re not given a rating that’s so low that you just feel demoralized. Okay, you’re in this group, you’re a competitor. You’re not in the top 50 percent, but that’s okay. You’re still close to average. But everyone above the 50 percent mark is getting recognized for it, and that scratches the back of the people who’ve invested in our game for so long and gotten so good at it that they want to be rewarded for it.”

If you’ve invested so many hundreds of hours into Call of Duty, then you’re going to get rewarded with something like a better ranking.

“We can at least say, ‘Hey, you’re an elite player. You’re better than 85 percent of players. Congratulations,'” Flame said. “Players feel great about that. We’ve seen a good response so far”