Activision CEO Hirshberg: 'CoD esports athletes [are] the most elite'

Millenium Esport won Call of Duty Stage 2. Provided by Activision

Sept. 2 marks the return of Call of Duty XP, a three day celebration for fans of the franchise. But for the first time ever, the event will host the epic conclusion to the Call of Duty World Championship, a yearlong event that started earlier this year in January. 32 premier teams from across the world will compete in Los Angeles for their share of the $2 million prize pool, a record sum for a tournament that debuted back in 2013.

It's a watershed moment for the Call of Duty franchise, which has been an early promoter of the esports scene since the very first Call of Duty XP event in 2011. That's thanks in part to the introduction of the CWL, a structured, yearlong event.

While the CWL has had its share of ups and downs in its first season, it's a venture that the CEO of Activision Eric Hirshberg considers a resounding success. "To give you an example of the kind of effect the creation of a global, yearlong league has done, our qualifying rounds this year were more viewed than our championship rounds last year. To put that into context, our championship rounds last year made Call of Duty the most viewed shooter on console," he said.

Hirshberg attributes that success to the players. "They give you the momentum of a story: a beginning, middle and end. Those narratives are what fuel an interest in sports. People love watching the best players in the world play the game they love."

Unlike other console esports, a new iteration of Call of Duty is released each year. That turnover isn't lost on Hirshberg, who feels the changes add an extra layer of difficulty for the professionals. "That makes CoD esports athletes the most elite," he said. "Because not only do they have to be the best, but they have to constantly adapt to each new iteration of the game."

With Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, along with the remastered version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, scheduled to hit shelves Nov. 4, Call of Duty XP will represent one of the final tournaments to be played on Call of Duty: Black Ops III. That means this could be one of the final times that OpTic Gaming has the chance to face their rival, FaZe Clan, in a LAN event, something that hasn't happened this year.

"I think a lot of people are looking forward to that matchup," admitted Hirshberg.

For the fans planning to attend the event, it won't just be all about watching the professionals, however.

"We basically created a theme park that leaped out of a video game," said Hirshberg. "We've built full-size versions of maps in the game and will allow fans to play paintball in them. We are going to have a zombies haunted house laser-tag event. We are going to have a virtual-reality exclusive event at CoD XP where you get to fly the Jackal, which is a combat ship in Infinite Warfare. We are going to have zipline missions. It's really like you're living the game."

"That's the model for sports," said Mike Sepso, former co-founder and president of Major League Gaming (MLG), who joined Activision Blizzard's esports division a little less than a year ago as the senior vice president. "It's not just about sitting down and watching the game, it's about the whole entertainment experience. I think that's something that XP is going to do really well. The CWL has really been able to make Call of Duty esports look and feel more like traditional sports, and that's going to help us tremendously in terms of reaching a bigger and more mainstream audience."