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Daniel Tsay spent a number of years learning the ropes at the NBA. Now he is general manager in charge of esports for Call of Duty. And he’s the man behind the latest season of the Call of Duty League, which kicks off in a big way with its first major tournament on December 15 to December 16 in Raleigh, N.C.
Activision hopes to draw thousands of in-person fans to the Call of Duty League’s Major 1 tournament, and it hopes to garner a big digital audience as well. This is the established hybrid structure of modern esports, and Tsay is hoping the players and fans will have a lot of pent-up demand to meet in person.
This tournament will have a kind of festival atmosphere, said Tsay, in an interview with GamesBeat. And the professional players will be playing matches in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, which had an explosive start this year with the biggest opening days in the franchise’s history.
The festival includes the CDL Major I Weekend on December 15 to 16.
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Major I is available to stream on the Call of Duty League YouTube channel. Raleigh will host 12 CDL Pro Teams battling for points and $500,000 of prizes. The U.S. and United Kingdom military esports team will compete in the Call of Duty Endowment Bowl III, presented by USAA.
And Raleigh will be hosting the first Call of Duty: Mobile in-person World Championship Finals. I talked to Tsay about this and more.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the feeling for the tournaments that you want to convey?
Daniel Tsay: I just love to share about what we’re doing and the excitement around the structure of this Major One that’s coming up. That would be cool to dive into.
GamesBeat: Is it similar or different from what’s happened before?
Tsay: We have our first major coming up from December 15-18. It’s exciting because it’s our first major, which sets the tone for our competitive season. But what’s particularly exciting is what we’re doing uniquely this year, in that it’s becoming a festival atmosphere. It’s an aggregation of all these different Call of Duty products into one house, such that we can really say it’s a melting pot of Call of Duty. We have our first Major 1. We have the first-ever LAN Call of Duty Mobile championship. We have the third annual CODE Bowl. We also have a challengers open that’s taking place. And as part of the Call of Duty CODE Bowl showcase, we’ll be showcasing Warzone Mobile, which is really exciting. We have every Call of Duty property represented. It’s going to be something for everyone that weekend.
GamesBeat: What is the glimpse of Warzone Mobile that people will get?
Tsay: We’re looking for a showcase activation between some of the CODE participants, as well as some influencers. They’ll be able to show this little competitive environment around Warzone Mobile. It’s going to be super exciting to bring to the table.
GamesBeat: Is there going to be some hands-on with Warzone Mobile? I’m just curious if the Call of Duty Mobile people are going to be able to see some interesting contrasts.
Tsay: We’re going to have a little bit more to share on that, because I think it’s aspirational, for sure, that we’ll be able to get those types of touch points. I’m going to let that news come as we firm up those details, but certainly that would be awesome.
GamesBeat: Do you detect a lot of pent-up demand for coming back in person, people being able to attend in a less inhibited way than they could during the pandemic?
Tsay: Definitely. Last year was our first opportunity to really get back to a full live event LAN circuit with our majors. You saw us go all across North America and engage with our fans. If you got to attend any of those in person, you saw people cheering loudly. A lot of passion, a lot of excitement and happiness. It all culminated in our championships, where we sold the most event tickets we’ve ever sold before. Definitely a lot of demand.
Right now, with this event that we’re creating for Raleigh, ticket sales look very strong. I anticipate us selling out. But then also the fact that we have this amazing festival of all these different properties, which we haven’t done previously, I think it’s going to be something special.
GamesBeat: Are there changes in the play because we’ve moved on to a new game? What are you noticing as far as how the teams are coming together on that?
Tsay: Every new game is exciting, because there are some gameplay differences that our players need to adjust to. What I think is even more exciting is the fact that our season is starting so much earlier than we did previously. We started on December 2, this past weekend, instead of our usual start in February. By starting our season 35 days after game launch, we’ve also created this learning curve. Not only are things different, but you have to learn the game that much faster. I’d say what’s unique about this one is our players have had to learn in 35 days how best to play the game. I think that learning curve is still happening. People are still discovering how to play the game most effectively, which is really cool to see as well. You’re going to see an evolution.
GamesBeat: Maybe more for my benefit, what are the–it’s Hardpoint, Search and Destroy, Control? Are those the main modes?
Tsay: Those are the three game modes. That’s correct.
GamesBeat: Do you rotate through all the maps available for those, or are you selecting certain ones that people will play on?
Tsay: Our regular qualifying matches are played best of five. We play Hardpoint, then Search and Destroy, then Control. If needed, we do Hardpoint for the fourth map and then Search and Destroy for the fifth map to get a best out of five. There’s a variety of maps you can play within those modes, and yes, that’s a pick and veto system that our teams employ prior to the match.
GamesBeat: These are the kinds of modes that just aggregate the athletes together in the most intense space, right?
Tsay: Exactly right. Part of what we do is, before the season starts, we get together with the players and studio. Everyone works together to figure out which maps are best to display the competitive viewing experience. Some maps are more conducive to excitement. Some maps are better for competition than others. What we’ve ultimately rolled out is the maps that players have tried and told us, “These are the best maps for competitive.”
GamesBeat: Do you see any interesting stories or narratives emerging that will hold the attention of fans?
Tsay: The first one, I would say, is heading in on our Major 1 again. We’re taking a different format to this major. It’s part of an initiative that I personally want to continue pushing. I’d like our majors to look a bit different from each other. Not just rinse and repeat. Our first major is going to take on a pro/amateur format. We have amateur teams, four of them, that can qualify into this tournament and play alongside our 12 Call of Duty League professional teams. There’s a group stage format, and then of those four groups, the top eight teams then enter into a double elimination tournament.
The reason why that’s interesting to me is you can have regular amateur players eventually on the big stage competing against the pros. One of the things we were very intentional about was putting this at the beginning of the season. If you really show up, you have an opportunity to convince GMs to sign you to their professional teams. That’s going to be one really interesting storyline to look at. It was very intentional that we entered with this amateur funnel at the beginning.
The second thing that I’m really hopeful about is just the increased awareness and viewership that’s going to come from some of the changes that we’ve implemented. This community-oriented approach. The fact that we have the amateur funnel, which obviously directly touches the community. The fact that we’re cross-pollinating across the different Call of Duty ecosystems with our first major. But again, the season start, it’s been a labor of love across the studio teams and internal league staff to move up our season in a material way. We’re doing so in hopes that we could activate during the high-engagement period of the game launch.
I think that’s working, based on the record-breaking opening weekend we just had. It was a very successful weekend in terms of viewership. Certainly the best we’ve ever had in Call of Duty League. I’m excited to see that play out. Hopefully it continues for the rest of the season.
GamesBeat: Did you release any numbers related to that?
Tsay: We haven’t yet. Our weekend literally just ended yesterday, on Sunday. We’re still aggregating it. But we can get that to you once we have official numbers. Even based on my unofficial reading on Twitch, though, we’ve set the record, which is really exciting.
GamesBeat: I see a lot of improvements in the game itself compared to last year. Are there any things that you think particularly affected esports?
Tsay: Honestly, I think that there’s a bunch of inside baseball changes that people probably don’t get as much, but overall I’d say that the pace of the game feels really good. I know our players enjoy the movement of this game. Again, I think it’s been–the community feels it’s a really good game given the record sales. That demonstration by the consumer also validates what we’re seeing from our pros. It’s a fantastic game that Infinity Ward has put out.
GamesBeat: I just looked at some of the maps, and they’re very interesting ones.
Tsay: The other thing about maps that we look out for, we may change maps throughout the season, which keeps things interesting. It’s only Major 1. We have the maps that have come out, but as you know, there will be more maps coming out throughout the life of the game. If they’re great competitively and our players want to play on them and add them into the rotation, we’ll do that. It’s a feedback process driven by what the players enjoy playing on. That conversation will continue to happen over the next couple of months.
GamesBeat: Because some of this is happening faster, do you predict a bit more unpredictability in who’s going to dominate?
Tsay: Yes, 100 percent. I think that’s what’s exciting. The enemy of viewership and fan interest is knowing what’s going to happen. To me, I’ll always love things that create excitement and stakes. Even just this opening weekend, right now in our top three is a team, the London Royal Ravens. They were voted to be one of the worst, if not the worst team in the off-season. They’re one of three teams that are undefeated. Another team, the Boston Breach, nobody had them in the top three, but they’re up there. It speaks to, one, any given day a team can win. But also it’s what I described earlier. There’s going to be an evolution. There’s a skill aspect around how quickly you can learn the game, how quickly you can jell with your team. I love that that’s going to be a narrative.
GamesBeat: As far as the regions go here, is there anything to note about the competition you’re seeing in different regions, whether it’s Latin America or India and so on?
Tsay: Nothing too deep there, but what I would say is, one thing we’ve been doing through our Challengers program, which is our amateur ecosystem we’ve created, we’ve tried to go wider with our global regions. We have APAC, EU, NA, and LatAm. Some of the investments we’ve been doing over not just this season, but last season, are increasing those opportunities. For example, last year there were no Challenger Cups, which you can think of as these online tournaments that have some prizing. That didn’t exist for LatAm before, but that’s something we’re doing now. Top regional players are now getting flown in and supported by the league to enter things like Major 1 and our pro/am format. We’re hopeful to leverage the global fanbase and player base and bring them into the fold.
GamesBeat: What’s the capacity of the Raleigh convention center? How many people could fit in if you sold it out?
Tsay: Right now the capacity is about 3,000. We can confirm that. But I think right now it’s about 3,000.
GamesBeat: For the mobile games, are they all playing in person in Raleigh at the same time, or are they separate in some way?
Tsay: It will all be the same weekend. We’re going to limit the amount of overlap significantly. Every property has their moment to shine. Call of Duty Mobile world championship, they’re all there on LAN. They have their own stage, which looks great. They’ll be competing in person so people can go watch them. Then at a certain point it’ll turn over to Call of Duty League. Then at a certain point it’ll turn over to the CODE Bowl on their stage. It’s really a festival atmosphere, where you can come and get a taste of what you like most.
GamesBeat: Where are you broadcasting online?
Tsay: We’re on the Call of Duty Twitch channel as well as callofdutyleague.com.
GamesBeat: How are things looking on that front? Have you seen a strong response on the digital side?
Tsay: We just started our opening weekend and our season this past weekend on those two distribution channels. Again, the Call of Duty Twitch as well as callofdutyleague.com. It was a record-breaking weekend. I think it’s as simple as that. The viewership and the awareness and the reach has been great. A lot of things play into that: the teams, the player narratives, the fact that we moved the season up, as well as the distribution. It’s all played into that. But we’re very happy with where we are right now on viewership.
GamesBeat: As you’ve developed the league, what are some things that have been done, and what are some things you think still need to be done to build this into a bigger esport?
Tsay: The principle that I’m focused on from a product perspective is, how can we increase the stakes of all these matches? I come from the NBA, where we have an 82-game season. One question is always, how do we make each game matter? I’ve adopted that philosophy here, wanting to make sure every game is must-watch TV. There are different ways to go about that. How many points is it worth? What’s the prizing? What are the consequences if you lose? That’s one area where we’ll always try to innovate to make this esport bigger and more enticing.
You touched on this a bit earlier, but globally, if we can start bringing in more and more global audiences, that will also help us in terms of growing the fanbase. Right now we have a pretty strong presence in North America. As we continue to grow that fanbase in different regions–we have a big presence in Europe as well. But if we continue growing that, I think that will really help grow the esport.
GamesBeat: You definitely picked a hard part of the business. I can imagine that the last few years have been pretty crazy, trying to manage esports during the pandemic. It’s good to see things coming back.
Tsay: For sure. There was a lot of innovation across the industry during the pandemic, but it feels like things are starting to get back to normal. I think the pandemic helped accelerate or show us things that probably work better for the industry going forward. Certainly we operate online gameplay plus LAN. Figuring out the right balance of that has been helpful for us.
GamesBeat: Are there some interesting things that could happen with Warzone 2.0? I don’t know if that comes into the picture at any point during the year.
Tsay: Maybe? As part of being GM of Call of Duty esports, I oversee our Warzone esports program as well. We have certain properties for that. World Series of Warzone has been really successful in the last couple of years. Obviously that’s kept pretty separate from Call of Duty League. I don’t see those combining in a very explicit way. But part of the power of the Call of Duty ecosystem is the cross-pollination that can happen.
One thing you may have seen during our Call of Duty League off-season was CDL pros competing against Warzone pros and influencers. That’s been really cool. I love to see those two audiences and fanbases competing. “We have the better players!” That will be something we can tug on in the future.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me to wonder how the mobile players are going to fare when Warzone Mobile launches and those players are all in the same battles as the console and PC players. Competitively, I wonder how that might turn out. Is it clear to you whether you are going to separate them in an esports setting, or are you just going to see what happens?
Tsay: We haven’t figured it out yet. We’re still waiting for the game to properly come out. We’ll take a look at everything. But what you bring up is a great point. It’s funny. FPS as I remember–I still play them, but growing up playing them, keyboard and mouse has the advantage. You can be much more precise. But now I see a lot of narrative around console having an advantage. Certainly within Call of Duty. It’s funny to see how the different platforms that you play on impact how people perceive the competitive advantage or disadvantage. The mobile piece will be interesting to keep an eye on.
GamesBeat: I play with an Xbox controller on the PC. That’s been a good approach for me.
Tsay: Yeah, yeah. Console, you have aim assist for Call of Duty. For you, you’d still have a bit of it as well. Those mouse and keyboard players don’t have it.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we mention?
Tsay: The season has just begun. We’re happy with the start we’ve had. Positioning ourselves for the December season start is something that’s taken the greater part of 2022. So far, based on our opening weekend, it’s been really successful. I’m excited to continue that momentum in two weeks with our Major 1 kicking off in Raleigh in that big festival atmosphere. We have a lot of optimism about the season, but it’s just beginning, which is exciting.
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