The Call of Duty League started its opening matches Thursday, and they run through this weekend so that you can watch a lot of havoc on Valentine’s Day.
The new league will run its full season through the summer as an online-only esports league. The league features 12 teams in city-based territories, including the brand new L.A. Thieves team taking over the berth from The Immortals. I spoke with Kenny “Kenny” Williams, who joined the L.A. Thieves team after playing for Optic Gaming Los Angeles last year.
In the second season played in the pandemic, the league has a lot of momentum. The Call of Duty franchise is riding high these days with the success of the annual campaign multiplayer games as well as the added fandom from Call of Duty: Mobile and Call of Duty: Warzone. The latter battle royale game has seen more than 85 million downloads to date.
CDL’s viewership in the last season was up 23% year-over-year in the 18-year-old to 34-year-old age range. Every year, the teams can change their rosters, always seeking the best talent. But at 21, the Memphis, Tennessee native is a veteran. This season, the CDL teams have shaved back from five players to just four, and so Williams is grateful to be one of the top 48 Call of Duty esports players in the world. He wants nothing less than to be the best.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Thieves is new to the league this year. How do you feel about being on a brand new team?
Kenny Williams: I’ve played for this team before under a different name. They’ve treated me like family, so I’m really happy they’re back in the league. It’s one of the only teams where I felt like I wanted to win for the team more than I wanted to win for myself. They’re back, and I want to return the favor and win more for them. Hearing the call that they were back was one of the greatest moments of last year for me. Last year was a pretty bad year, I’d say. But I’m excited they’re back and I want to win for them again.
GamesBeat: What’s it like being a pro gamer right now? Are you excited about where the league is going, with the changes they’re making?
Williams: Being a pro gamer, it’s the dream life. I get to stay home and play video games. I love doing it. With me only being pro for three years, I’ve come to a point where I can feel the mental part of it. People might not think so, but there’s a lot of mental elements that go into play. The league is going to grow fast. Esports in general has grown pretty fast in the past few years. If we can stay on the level we’re at right now and keep everything rolling without any distractions, the league can grow fast and grow big.
GamesBeat: It must feel good to get in close to the ground floor, too, to be in here at the beginning of something.
Williams: It does feel good to be at the start of a league like this. We were part of a different league before, so knowing the difference between the two — if they need opinions about what we liked about the old league, it’s some of the same faces, but it’s not the same environment. It’s a learning process. I’m excited to be a part of that learning process and to grow with the league. It’s good for me as a player, and for Call of Duty in general, for the league to get started now.
GamesBeat: It looks like it’s set up a little better for rivalries. Are you feeling some of that yet?
Williams: Yeah, definitely. I like that the league pushes the rivalries. It was more about fan voting now, but it gets people hyped for matches. Even if we should get hyped for every match, there are certain matches that need a bit more hype to a certain extent. I like that the league pushes that to an extent. I can feel the weight on my shoulders, but in the end you just handle business. On one level you treat every team like every other team. But I definitely like the hype matches.
GamesBeat: Did you have to get used to the four-on-four format compared to 5-on-5 in the past?
Williams: I played 4-on-4 before. Switching to 5-on-5 was a big difference. Coming back to 4-on-4, it wasn’t that big of a change. A lot of the old concepts came back into play really fast. After two years of playing 5-on-5, the whole game plan and gameplay — the whole aspect of how Call of Duty pros play completely changed. I don’t even know how to explain it. Just movement and shooting, people have gotten more talented. I don’t think that’s a 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 thing. But the way people play now, it’s way more fast-paced than old 4-on-4 Call of Duty. I feel like that fast pace came about because of 5-on-5, but it hasn’t changed since we switched back to 4-on-4. But other than that, I haven’t had to adjust that hard.
GamesBeat: Do you like seeing the league and the game continually change, or would you rather it settled down and stayed this way?
Williams: Personally, I like seeing the game change every year. I do think it should stay 4-on-4. 5-on-5 was a little too much. It led to a lot of inconsistency in gameplay, and also — there are aspects I can’t talk about. But I think 4-on-4 bases is way better. It plays out much smoother. It may be more enjoyable to watch 5-on-5, but the mental aspect, thinking about what you need to do, processing certain plays as a pro player, it’s way better for us to play 4-on-4. 6-on-6 introduced a very fast-paced gameplay, though, and that’s stuck with us. It’ll still be an interesting year.
GamesBeat: Changing over to Cold War, are you enjoying that? What do you think about it compared to last year?
Williams: Last year was definitely not my favorite. This year, I love this game. It’s going back to the basics of where I came up from, three years ago. It plays out in a way that I think every Call of Duty should. Even if the maps aren’t the best, they’re very good for 4-on-4 bases. The fact that I love the game, even though I don’t favor the maps too much, it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing with Call of Duty. The maps make the games good. With a game like this, where the maps are kind of iffy but the game is still enjoyable, it just goes to show that there’s a lot that can be put into this game. It has a lot of potential. I’m in love with the game right now. I get on every day and I’m happy to play it.
GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite map, favorite gun, and favorite mode?
Williams: Favorite map right now would be Checkmate. Game mode would be Checkmate Hardpoint. I play pretty well on that map when we play. My teammates have noticed it. I’ve got free rein to do so much more on that map. Favorite gun would be the Krig 6, even though I don’t use the Krig right now for our team. It’s more enjoyable to use the Krig for me, but the better weapon is the XM4, so I use the XM4.
GamesBeat: Do you play Warzone at all, or do you try to avoid other games so you can concentrate on Cold War?
Williams: I’ve played it before, but I haven’t played too much recently, no. I’m all business. This year is a big year for me. Like I say, last year went so terrible that I just really want to win this year, especially for this organization. I’m straight, trying to win, do whatever it takes to win. No distractions.
GamesBeat: That’s dedicated. I’m sure you get asked for tips about 20 times a day, but what do you like to say to people who want to get better?
Williams: Grinding the game the most is maybe the easy answer, but it is a big thing. Whoever grinds the most usually wins the most. For people who are coming up and want to get good, grinding the game, finding your good sense, finding your favorite gun — a lot of people switch up too much and try to use all different types of guns. You need to find the gun you’re good at. If you eventually want to go pro one day you’ll end up using only one gun. If you’re a flex you’ll use two, but the best possible way is to find the gun you like the most, get good at it, grind the game out, and take it from there. As simple as that sounds, it’s the way to get good at Call of Duty. I’ve been grinding for 10-plus years, and I’m here.
GamesBeat: How do you like the structure of the events in the league this year, how they’re going to happen?
Williams: With the circumstances we have now, it’s perfect. I like playing every weekend. It’s been such a long off-season that I’d hate to play one weekend and then wait another month again. The schedule now is perfect. I have no problem with it.
GamesBeat: I’m sure everyone wants to get back to in-person events. Have you learned anything from the all-digital approach, though?
Williams: I hope for LAN to come back, but obviously with what we have going on in the world right now, it’s hard. I’m just glad the league came up with the schedule we have. It works perfectly with our schedule on the team. We don’t get to travel, but we get to play every weekend, and that’s fun.
GamesBeat: Does the team play close together in the same area, or are you actually in totally separate locations?
Williams: Our team, we play together. Our theory is that when you play together in person, it’s way easier to practice. Through a headset you can’t pick up that same passion, or otherwise read what someone means. In person you can show somebody, point at the screen, things like that. So we play together in the same house. It makes it much better to practice.
GamesBeat: Listening to you guys talk when you play, it sounds like someone sped up your voices 10 times.
Williams: A lot of people say that, yeah. I used to talk really slow, back when I was in school. But as I’ve started playing Call of Duty — when you call out, you’ve gotta get it out really, really fast. One funny thing I will say, a lot of people don’t believe this, but whenever you hear us calling out really fast, all four or five of us, we can hear every single thing that’s being said. I could tell you every single thing every single person said. A lot of people tell me, “You talk really fast.” But my teammates know what I’m saying, and I know what they’re saying. I guess it just came with playing so much. It feels like a superpower, honestly.
GamesBeat: Are you waiting for the day when there’s 24 or 36 teams out there?
Williams: I don’t know. I think I’d like to keep it small. If you’re really talented, you’ll be a part of the league. Obviously there are a lot of talented players out there, but you have to earn your spot. Extending the league could be good, but at the same time — if you want to earn your spot, be better than everyone else.
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