Has Call of Duty missed its chance to become a top-tier esport?

Several years ago, it may have been possible to believe that Call of Duty was the “next big thing” in esports. It was becoming hugely popular on YouTube and had a devoted fan base that most other games could only dream of. Then, in 2011, Activision held the Call of Duty Experience, or CoD XP.

This was a huge convention that celebrated all things Call of Duty, with maps being replicated in real-life for paintball, zip-lining and a host of other activities.

However, the biggest draw of the event was the reveal of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer, showcased in a $1m (£706,000) tournament for the world’s top teams to compete in. At the time, this kind of money was unprecedented, rivalled only by that year’s Dota 2 ‘The International’. To both fans and players that had been trying to give Call of Duty esports its due rights, this seemed like the start of something beautiful.

However, there would be another wait before Call of Duty could start being taken seriously – it seemed the Modern Warfare 3 showcase tournament was just that – a showcase. Following it, competitors struggled to find opportunities to play, especially North Americans who were regularly having to travel to Europe for any chance at making money. Yet, the tides began to turn the following year with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

The game was almost unanimously adored by both competitive and casual players, and the game separated the huge division between the two.

“The yearly release cycle of the Call of Duty franchise is one of the dividing factors between Activision and the esports community”

That year, there was a total $1.4m (£989,000) prize pool, including yet another million-dollar tournament. There seemed to be a growing connection between players, fans, and more importantly the developers behind the games.

Viewership continues to struggle

At the forefront of this immense growth was Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, CEO and founder of 100 Thieves, who provided competitive Call of Duty with a prominent figurehead to hoist in front of the millions of sceptics around Call of Duty’s potential as an esport. He regularly appeared amongst the behemoths of Twitch at the time, pulling in tens of thousands of viewers as standard. However, Haag later cited himself as one of the reasons that viewership didn’t seem to grow as expected after the breakout Black Ops 2 year, due to him signing an exclusive streaming contract with MLG.tv, which made other pro players follow suit.

Photo Credit: Sky Sports

Though it may be unfair to suggest Haag single-handedly stunted any growth competitive Call of Duty has seen, there is a correlation. MLG.tv became the exclusive Call of Duty streaming platform from Call of Duty: Ghosts onwards, and there were clear drops in viewership for streamers themselves. Unfortunately, that trend has continued for the esport itself, despite now also being available on Twitch. For example, the first event of the Advanced Warfare season (November 2014) had over 250,000 viewers. The most recent event (January 2018) struggled to reach 50,000 viewers at its peak. Now, that’s not to say there are generally less fans now than there was before; but interest is clearly dwindling in the franchise; as the money goes up, the numbers are going down.

Compare this to the recent ELEAGUE Major in which Cloud9 took down FaZe Clan in what is already being named one of, if not the greatest final in the history of esports. CS:GO is a five-year-old game that continues to excel, beating its own record for most viewers on a Twitch channel, generating more than 1,130,000 concurrent viewers in the Grand Final. From this angle, it looks like Call of Duty has missed its opportunity to become a top-tier esport; though it may teeter on the edge of glory, there must be serious improvements in viewership to give it this honour. 

Held back by an annual release cycle

The yearly release cycle of the Call of Duty franchise is one of the dividing factors between Activision and the esports community. Naturally, Activision seek to get their money’s worth each November and shift the competitive side of their game to the newest title. With this comes an assortment of issues.

First and foremost, a different game means players must learn an entirely new game, and perfect it within 9 months. Countless players have buckled under the pressures of having to learn an entirely new game having hardly mastered the previous, and for this reason we’ve seen a pretty unstable infrastructure in terms of the capabilities and preservation of both teams and individual players. Only in the last couple of years, with contracts and salaries getting involved, have we seen this infrastructure start to improve.

Not only this, but for the most part, competitive and casual fans alike haven’t particularly enjoyed the games being played since the beloved Black Ops 2. Call of Duty: Ghosts was a fan-favourite due to the personalities and drama occurring around the scene, but it is not commonly seen as one of the better titles in the franchise. Advanced Warfare initiated the “jetpack” phase, but was once again carried by storylines, not least OpTic Gaming’s failure to win Champs and Nadeshot’s subsequent retirement.

Black Ops III seemed to follow in the footsteps of its bloodline, with more money on the line, increased viewership and much larger growth than had been seen previous. In fact, the World Championships topped the previous record for Call of Duty esports events by 40%, with matches surpassing 20 million views.

Following this though, came Infinite Warfare; the trailer was the most disliked gaming video in the history of YouTube, and it seemed doomed from the off. Pair that with an insistence on streaming on MLG.tv, as well as a negative response even from casual players, and Activision and MLG seemed to be laying their bed. Though MLG ran a pretty efficient campaign across the year, including the finals being held in the Amway Centre, home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, Infinite Warfare had already put itself and the franchise in a difficult position.

None of the top tier esports have anything near a yearly release cycle; Dota 2 was released in 2013, League of Legends in 2009 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in 2012. This means teams, players and fans have had a long time to adjust to the game, teams and players, and devise strategy that places them apart from their enemies and create a huge skill gap for players to aspire to find their footing in.

The divide between casual and competitive expands

For whatever reason, there has long been a discontent and disconnect from casual players to their competitive counterparts. It is a commonly-held belief that the reason for the deteriorating state is due to Activision’s desire to cater to the competitive minority (and not possibly because a game released every year for 15 years could get monotonous). A video from Youtuber Eight Thoughts recently took Twitter by storm as it cited OpTic’s Seth “Scump” Abner as ‘ruining Call of Duty’. Though the video was clearly not well thought-out and derogatory in nature, it brought a lot of casual players out of the woodworks, complaining about the game fixes suggested by pro players. Suggestions that Call of Duty should cater more to the competitive side of the game are often met with criticism, despite how it may work out better for all parties.

It could be argued that Call of Duty fans still look at the franchise through rose-tinted glasses, nostalgic of a time where playing in a 6-man party on Modern Warfare 2, overpowered perks and ‘noob tubes’ on deck was all that a young man or woman needed following the trials and tribulations of attending school. This, however, ignores the steps forward that Call of Duty has taken so as to improve the game for every player, regardless of which side they fall on. The most evident of these being the inclusion of League Play in World War II (which the community hasn’t had since Black Ops 2), which is a clear attempt to bridge that gap between casual and competitive players. Combine that with regular weapon fixes and more consumer interaction and it is clear that whilst Activision fund esports more, they are also attempting to keep casual players content.

“Most would find it hard to believe that the Overwatch League and Call of Duty World League were run by the same people were it not for the name value of Activision.”

Furthermore, public match rules have still not been changed to replicate the rules which are used in the CoD World League, which seems to be quite the oversight. This gap can be closed further simply by giving competitors and casual players the same game to play; this being a common source of discomfort from casual fans dipping their toes into esports for the first time.

Activision turn their attention to the Overwatch League

It’s hard for Call of Duty esports fans to comprehend the level of support, investment and simple nurturing that Overwatch has received from Activision and MLG from the off. This is a game that had no proven prowess as a game, let alone as the world’s biggest and most expensive esport.

It almost feels like a personal insult to see so much advertising and marketing go the way of Overwatch when the Call of Duty community has been clamouring for even half that level of support for the last decade.

Most would find it hard to believe that the Overwatch League and Call of Duty World League were run by the same people were it not for the name value of Activision.

But with this comes the concern that Activision and MLG may simply slowly phase out the support they have been providing Call of Duty in recent years, becoming an afterthought to their favoured lovechild. Though Call of Duty esports had a loyal and committed fan base prior to MLG support, it’s hard to say it would have the same now if people start losing their careers over it, now esports has become the monster it is.

It’s hard to say whether Call of Duty has missed its opportunity to become a tier one esport, but there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that opportunity is there. In the Black Ops 2 year, it seemed like Call of Duty was well on its way up in the esports world, but has since become somewhat of a joke in esport circles. Be it due to its residence on console, the yearly cycle or the “casual game” tag that it houses, it is a constant struggle for fans of the game to be taken seriously in the competitive world. As much as we would like to see the game succeed, it is hard to be optimistic.