The Call of Duty League exists in a different landscape than it would’ve a decade ago. 10 years ago, the series was coming off of the release of Call of Duty Black Ops, the highest selling title in the franchise, and heading into the release of the capper to the Modern Warfare trilogy, which would become its second highest selling title. COD was in the best place it’d ever be, as its sales would sometimes dwindle and reception of its further titles would become more and more polarized. By all standards though, it continued killing it year after year, dominating the consciousness of people who played games or were even vaguely aware of them. And when I was just a kid 10 years ago, shooting the shit at lunch with my friends about what games we’d had the night before, COD was the game to play and being the best COD player was the thing to be.
Things are very different now. While there have obviously always been shooter franchises besides Call of Duty, very little ever actively threatened its ascendancy. Series like Counter-Strike or Halo continued to dominate their niches, but nothing quite spoke to the biggest possible audience like COD did when it really took off. Like the Head of Leagues at Blizzard Activision Johanna Faries told us in an interview before the kickoff of CDL’s latest season, “Call of Duty brings such an enormous canvas on which to paint, even from just the brand itself.” All the while, competitors and other legacy series have tried to chase what COD captured, with most of them falling away. Now though, it’s sharing a space with games that don’t resemble it much, and facing a diverse competitive landscape that is both fiercer and larger than ever.
The Overwatch League, which inspired the COD League or CDL, is one of the existing premier leagues, sporting a look and feel entirely foreign to anything COD has on offer. Battle royales, the sub-genre that has taken over the shooter space and gaming world, reign supreme as Apex Legends and Fortnite continue carving out bigger spaces for themselves. Valorant is taking shots at everything it can, both aesthetically and design-wise. Other tried and true favorites have reliably remained around, with Call of Duty as familiar as ever. That familiarity is what Activision is relying on to make CDL a success.
CDL is very much a consolidated effort to recapture the legacy of what competitive COD has been. You can see that in the return this season to 4v4 after previously being 5v5. “You know 4v4 actually is part of Call Of Duty esports roots as well. It used to be played as a 4v4 sport. Only in recent years did it shift to 5v5,” Faries assures me. You might also see a glimpse at the nostalgia they’re hoping to enrapture audiences with in the return of Optic Gaming in some form this season, and the rekindling of franchise rivalries that have long been a part of competitive COD.
“It’s not manufactured,” Faries tells me. “This is born out of going on a decade of legacy in this scene that we’ve now been able to create a new stage for and a new structure for to amplify and bring it much more into, you know, mainstream culture.”
That legacy is a prominent one and before Faries even invoked the term, it was what was on my mind during our entire conversation. Call of Duty isn’t so young anymore. The darling franchise has launched one of the premiere titles of the year just about every year since 2007, when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released to widespread acclaim. The competitive circuit of the game is just about as old as the series itself. 10 years ago, COD was at the top of the world, and while the franchise certainly isn’t unpopular today, it’s facing a whole new set of challengers for the crown. It’s banking on its long connection to players to make its latest shot at esports land. Positioning itself as the legacy title of the bunch is a bold strategy. Maybe it’ll pay off, or maybe something fresh could help COD stay at the top.
Warzone, Call of Duty’s take on the battle royale genre, launched last spring to become a massive success. After a previous attempt in the form of the maligned Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode, here was a standalone and fully fleshed out experience that could take on the contenders that’d stolen the spotlight from COD. It worked: as of last December, the free mode had attracted over 85 million players, and in the last month or two, it’s even captured me. Yet despite this attention and fervor around it, it hasn’t quite taken center stage where it could prosper.
“We dabbled in some Warzone competition programming last year. We saw how popular the launch of it was back in the spring. And we really enjoyed bring some of that forward as pregame content, leading into our pro matches last year,” Faries told me when asked about Warzone’s growing role and importance to the brand, especially surrounding CDL proper. “We knew that we had a real opportunity to take the off season to think more about what else can we do here. How else can we appeal to a Warzone audience that now has a new attachment to the brand?”
The answer is that it’s “too soon to say,’ according to Faries, who added that “there will be more to come and we’ll continue to workshop on those ideas about what can Call of Duty esports deliver for the Warzone playerbase, with the eye towards real, world-class competitive structures.”
In the meantime, CDL has its head down in its ongoing season. The people behind it seem confident in the strategy and thought going into it. They’re also naturally looking around and seeing what strategies they can best adopt from all kinds of sports leagues, digital or not, moving forward. And as for competition, Faries welcomes it, telling me, “We love the competition because, you know, we often say we stand for something more than just our leagues. We’re here to really put esports categorically on the map.”
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.