The Path Forward for CoD Esports

Opinion piece by 2018 World Champion and ex-LA Guerrillas Head Coach Embry “Bevils” Bevil.

Setting the Stage

It’s no secret that the Call of Duty League (CDL) and competitive Call of Duty (CoD) as a whole has been severely underserviced by Activision since its inception. It has always been an afterthought. Kept alive by those passionate despite the glaring issues and neglect that comes release after release alongside the bizarre steps backward that can only be attributed to the apathetic approach from those calling the shots. Pre-CDL, this indifference to the competitive side of the game was justifiable. We were a minority of the consumer base; of course they weren’t going to cater to such a small fraction of their community when that could potentially lead to the dismay of their larger demographics. We weren’t their responsibility, let alone a priority. Making do with what we had made sense at that point in time, we were building our scene on a foundation that was never wholly ours. Activision’s onus to competitive CoD changed when they launched the CDL, charging gargantuan price tags for an exclusive slot in their new flagship league and sending CoD esports into a new era.

 No longer was the competitive side of the game something that Activision allowed to be run through Major League Gaming (MLG) as a side project with minimal interference. Now the reins were theirs and with that cash-in worth hundreds-of-millions of dollars came the responsibility to build upon the foundation that had already been laid out for them. Instead, we are now three seasons in with the fourth rapidly approaching and in that time we have seen one game that could be categorized as competitively sound in Treyarch’s Cold War. The other three? They are not even in the ballpark of being games that offer a compelling competitive experience for the pre-existing fans, let alone one that would capture the interest of larger audiences in a day and age where there is so much competition for attention. 

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that when these games are made they are not made with esports in mind. The true issue at hand is that it has become increasingly more apparent they are no longer made with traditional multiplayer in mind, period. This observation is nothing new. The writing has been on the wall ever since Blackout released to thunderous applause in 2018. Though the cost for this new mode would not reveal itself immediately due to the studio’s ability to deliver a compelling multiplayer experience alongside Blackout, it would soon become apparent what that cost would be. Treyarch has always been the exception when it comes to their game design. I’m nowhere near a fan of every innovation they have brought to the franchise over the years but when playing their games, it’s easy to see that they deeply understand what made Call of Duty the titan that it is today. In a franchise so hell-bent on chasing whatever the new trend might be, Treyarch unapologetically stays true to their roots and the fans of their games. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for all of the studios working on Call of Duty and it wouldn’t take much longer for the impact to be felt.

Post-Franchising Title Releases

With Infinity Ward’s 2019 reboot of Modern Warfare, the tides had officially turned. Gone were nearly all elements that constituted CoDs’ of old and when posing the question of ‘why?’ the answer could always be traced back to the same place. Why the removal of hitscan for bullet velocity and ballistics? Warzone. Why the removal of traditional Create-A-Class for Gunsmith? Warzone. Why Tactical Sprint? Warzone. Why is Dead Silence a Field Upgrade and not a Perk? Warzone. The list could go on and on, and a seemingly endless number of these observations can be made. It was more than clear where priority was given. Battle Royale had usurped Multiplayer and relegated it to little more than a means to level up guns to then go and play Warzone. To their credit, Warzone proved to be immensely successful which could be a boon for all facets of the franchise, including the competitive side of the game, if handled with the proper care. Alas, CoD esports has remained near the bottom of the priority list, both throughout development and during the life cycle of the releases. One of the main hypothetical appeals of franchising, extra support for the competitive community, was quickly shown to be just that. Hypothetical.

CoD esports was granted brief respite in the following season with the release of Treyarch’s Cold War. A refreshing callback to Treyarch games of old while successfully implementing some more modern aspects of the franchise. Although not a perfect game, Cold War was excellent for multiplayer and competitive play and was made all the more impressive by the fact that Treyarch was under a rushed development cycle. A testament to the adage of “Sometimes less is more.” Something Call of Duty has seemingly forgotten in its conquest to become a hub for every type of FPS player under the sun. This game is the sole outlier in the post-franchising releases and the reason for that is quite clearly Treyarch’s intent on making a Call of Duty multiplayer experience, not a feeder into the Warzone experience.

Sadly an all too familiar pattern was soon to repeat itself. With each great year for CoD esports, a vastly inferior game is soon to follow and take us two steps back. Great games that had the potential to be built upon all sacrificed on the altar of the yearly release cycle. This trend has shown itself time and time again throughout CoD history and it boggles my mind when I hear prominent figures in the community refer to the yearly cycle as a ‘unique strength’ of ours in esports. This has been the single biggest bane to the growth of competitive CoD. Black Ops 2 to Ghosts. Black Ops 3 to Infinite Warfare. Black Ops 4 to Modern Warfare. And the latest recurrence, Cold War to Vanguard.

What’s there to say about Vanguard that hasn’t been said ad nauseam? Let’s call it a masterclass on how to make an uninspired Call of Duty and leave it at that. Even the most objective CoD fan would struggle to find an area this game shined in. During this year, it became clear that now two out of the three development studios’ ideas of what Call of Duty is had shifted. Sacrifices to gameplay and reluctance to fix player complaints for an unwanted plate of ‘realism’. A pillar of development so critically important that it would be abandoned as soon as it was time to monetize the game.

That brings us to the present. Modern Warfare 2. The compromises multiplayer and by extension CoD esports make in this game are more drastic than ever. Maps being non-viable for competitive play and or outright removed for reported legal reasons, other maps being lazy cut-outs from Ground War, and probably the most egregious example, removal of red dots from the mini-map without even the slightest courtesy of a private match toggle. All accompanied by the same anti-Multiplayer, Warzone-focused gameplay features introduced in the previous Modern Warfare entry. To further add insult to injury, this is the first game slated for a two-year cycle, an otherwise decent-sounding change presented at precisely the wrong time. How this will unfold and what it will mean for the CDL is yet to be seen but as it currently stands, calling the game far from ideal would be putting it generously.

What’s the issue?

This brief outline of the titles released since the launch of the CDL is to establish, in my opinion, the two leading issues that competitive CoD faces so solutions can be presented. I believe the two primary concerns in CoD esports that nearly all other issues stem from are switching titles yearly, or now bi-yearly, along with the Multiplayer and CDL being given as little thought as possible from the studios during the development and following life cycle of their games. Any real, meaningful change is unlikely; this much is obvious to anyone who’s been around for a little while. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to theorize about why something is and what something could be.

1.) It’s my opinion that Activision, since cashing in and taking full control of CoD esports, has had an obligation to give the CDL the resources it needs to succeed and so far has failed to live up to that obligation. At the end of the day, the developers working at these studios, primarily Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer, have no interest or incentive to care about CoD esports and their incentives to care about traditional Multiplayer at-large are quickly diminishing year after year. As such, they are thinking about it as little as humanly possible during the development period and life cycles of their games. The onus is on Activision to influence or incentivize the studios in a way that results in them providing more than the absolute bare minimum to keep the league running. This is a requirement if Activision has any intention of growing their league.

Ground War for Battlefield players, 3P for Fortnite/PUBG players, DMZ for Tarkov players, and of course, king of them all, Warzone for all the Battle Royale fans. Throughout this amalgamation of trying to convert every shooter player into a CoD player, the existing CoD multiplayer base and by extension, CoD esports are being hung out to dry. While no CoD ever released has been an inherently competitive game out of the box, the competitive scene has always been able to forge an engaging experience out of the titles due to them being developed to be compelling multiplayer games. This is clearly no longer the case and it leads us directly to the next issue.

2.) Switching games yearly as an esport is nonviable and never will be, particularly in the context of the current dev studio cycle. With their current priorities and their reluctance to ensure each new release is at the very least suitable for competitive play, the cycle of one step forward two steps back will continue. The blow from going from a well-liked game to one that is inferior is felt far and wide every time. From the league staff, to the teams, to the fans. It’s not possible to consistently and efficiently move forward as a league when interest in the esport can vary so wildly year to year. CoD is home to some of the best personalities in esports and if not for that fact, would have most likely fallen by the wayside already due to waning interest from more game releases than not being poorly received by both the competitive and multiplayer community. Make no doubt though, this is still the trajectory that the league is headed toward if there isn’t significant change. The league will remain propped up in the short term but for there to be any staying power once the people who built it up are gone, significant changes are needed in multiple areas, starting with the most important aspect: the game itself.

What’s the solution?

CoD esports, for as long as it’s around, will always make the best of whatever it’s given and with very little support it has shown to be capable of producing admirable results. It has proven to have staying power, all while never being given the tools nearly all successful esports have had the benefit of utilizing to elevate their scenes to higher levels. For Call of Duty esports to reach its ceiling, it needs to stop changing titles and be given a standalone game developed as a live service to be iterated on for years to come. A hub for all things competitive Call of Duty. At the bare minimum, it needs a group of features codified and ensured to carry over from title to title intact at launch. Even still, we would be left up to the mercy of the current game and its viability which is why I believe a standalone game is the only true solution.

You boot up said game. There’s a Warm-Up Playlist, a truly Unranked Playlist without skill-based matchmaking or attention-driven matchmaking, a robust Ranked Playlist that motivates and properly awards players with a sense of improvement, a Private Match for customs, and a Theater Mode that is functional beyond the bare minimum. Hell, maybe even take some inspiration from Halo and throw in a Forge-type community Map Builder if we’re feeling extra wild. Of course, off to the side is the cash shop and battle pass in typical Activision fashion, but we can ignore that for now. 

In the game they could feature a Pick’Em style activity a la CS:GO whenever a tournament comes around to boost engagement and reward fans, team shops with custom designed skins and camos along with real-life merchandise, ability to watch the CDL broadcast in-client and earn rewards for doing so, an in-game hub for league and team content featured in an accessible manner. The possibilities for growth would be endless and in turn it would create an attractive environment for new suitors while paving the road to profitability for those already involved that have been itching for the opportunity to grow their brands meaningfully. This is just scraping the surface with pre-existing ideas from other popular esports titles. Possibilities for innovation in monetization would be endless for both the league and its teams.

Coming back to Earth

The idea of a standalone title for competitive Call of Duty, while requiring a large amount of groundwork, and faith in the potential of CoD esports, would solve a vast amount of the problems the CDL faces today. Profitability, expansion, Challengers, all issues that become much more approachable within the right environment and with the right tools. CoD esports has wide appeal, it has the right people. They just need the tools.

The entirety of this hypothetical also hinges on the idea that Activision would be willing to move away from the yearly release cycle, at least for the esports side of operations. A change unlikely ever to come into fruition while the status quo still sings to the tune of $1b in barely over a week, but one that is not completely hopeless with the current plan to shift towards two-year life cycles. 

I believe the subset of consumers purchasing the new Call of Duty release primarily for the 6v6 multiplayer experience has been shrinking year after year and will continue to do so, hence the initial pivot from Activision and their studios to begin supplementing new releases with their spin on whatever this year’s trend might be. The 4v4 competitive CoD experience on the other hand, is something that despite constant neglect year after year, has shown to have deep roots and the potential to attract new fans and players alike. It is a scene that has been primed to grow into a top-dog for years now but has yet to be given the attention it needs to flourish. I am cynical that any meaningful change is likely to come. It’s more probable that the CDL will continue to drift along its current course waiting for a second wind unlikely to come as the waves slowly widdle it away. I hope I’m wrong in the end; only time will tell.

As I finish writing this on November 19th, mere weeks away from the CDL season opener, it is now the fourth consecutive day private match has been broken resulting in no teams, both professional and challenger, being able to practice. Due to it being the weekend, it is looking like that will be upped to at least five consecutive days. All Challenger cups slated for the weekend were forcefully postponed. The CDL Moshpit Playlist, a tide-over for the competitive community until Ranked Play launches, was due to arrive with the Season 1 Update and has still yet to see the light of day. Occurrences such as these have happened more times in the past few years than I could possibly remember. Be it game-breaking bugs, balancing issues, servers not working on practice or official match days, or even Krampus himself, it is more than clear the CDL, its operations, and its community is given little to no thought by the developers and is being actively held back.

Breaking Point
Author: Breaking Point

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