Rise Nation intent to 'stay humble, stay hungry'

Rise Nation poses with the CWL Anaheim Open trophy. Courtesy of Major League Gaming

Rise Nation Call of Duty flex player Pierce "Gunless" Hillman isn't ready to say "dynasty." Not quite yet.

OpTic Gaming from 2015 to this May, the compLexity Gaming and Evil Geniuses roster circa 2013-2014 -- those were dynasties. Both teams brought in double-digit championships to cement those legacies.

And despite tearing through its competition so far this year, despite not missing the top eight at a tournament since December 10, 2017, despite three Call of Duty World League titles in the span of three months this year, Gunless said his team hasn't even sown the seeds of a dynasty.

"We've just got to do what people who have been a part of dynasties do. OpTic, they've won a countless amount of championships in those three years they were together," Gunless said following Rise's victory at CWL Anaheim in Anaheim, California. "EG and compLexity, I think they've won just as many tournaments as OpTic, almost.

"We're not a dynasty yet, nor even close. I'll answer that question when and if we win the championship."

OpTic brought in 13 major titles during its reign. The core of the compLexity and Evil Geniuses rosters won 12 of their own. But as OpTic rebuilds following May's roster shuffle, a new team is on the rise -- and if Rise can beat OpTic on Tuesday, with the two teams tied at 8-3 in Division B of the CWL Stage 2 standings, it might be another sign of a changing of the guard.

If things turn out right, this might be the first dynasty in any esport run by an active professional athlete.

Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, all 6-foot-5, 325 pounds of him, isn't the most likely choice as the owner of the best Call of Duty team in the world. But the former second-round pick out of Indiana University has been a gamer for most of his life, and when he purchased Rise Nation in 2014, he did so with world titles in mind.

"The roster we put together, we were kind of feeling everything out, trying to get the pieces in place," Saffold said. "They seemed like they had some good chemistry, but what they've been able to do is beyond our expectations."

Rise Nation was dominant in Anaheim, where it went 6-2 in matches and 22-11 in maps according to CoD Stats. The addition of former world champion AR player Austin "SlasheR" Liddicoat has helped turn a powerhouse squad into one that's nearly unstoppable: He and Gunless were in the top-15 of nearly every major kills/deaths stat at the CWL Anaheim Open, with Thomas "TJHaLy" Haly upping his game in the bracket stage to become a difference-maker as the No. 6 player with a 1.6 K/D on Search and Destroy maps.

Anaheim wasn't an outlier, either. Rise is 13-5 on Hardpoint and 11-4 in Search and Destroy maps so far in CWL Stage 2, though it is 4-7 on Capture the Flag.

"We're definitely reinventing our strats and stuff like that like in Search and Destroy and always practicing every day," TJHaLy said. "I feel like our S&D has always been above other teams this year, and that's what's been keeping us ahead, I think."

Since picking up SlasheR, Rise is 84-42 in maps against CWL competition and is winning 71 percent of its Search and Destroy games, 65 percent of its Hardpoints and 64 percent of its Capture the Flag games. According to CoD Stats, that Search and Destroy percentage rivals that of the compLexity/Evil Geniuses roster during Call of Duty: Ghosts and OpTic during Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare; that team went 70-22 on Search and Destroy maps en route to a Stage 2 title and the Call of Duty World Championship.

But losing has helped Rise, too, and that's probably why Gunless isn't keen on diving into dynasty talk. Rise dropped into the losers bracket at CWL Seattle in April and had to battle its way back to an eventual grand final win. Two five-game matches during that losers bracket run helped steel Rise's roster.

SlasheR had just joined the team about two weeks before Seattle, but Rise came away with the title.

"The losers bracket helped us out a lot because it let us get a lot of matches in, got more chemistry with Austin and it helped us out in the long run in understanding the meta a lot more," Gunless said. "Seattle had just changed the meta, and all those matches, like seven or eight matches -- I don't know how many maps -- helped us out quite a bit."

Rise currently leads Division B of the CWL Pro League with a 6-1 record, with those former dynasties, OpTic (5-2) and compLexity (3-4), in second and sixth in that group, respectively. But Rise's best competition, and the team that gave it the most trouble in Anaheim, is in Division A.

Red Reserve managed to reset the bracket in the CWL Anaheim finals and was also runner-up to Rise at CWL Atlanta in March. Between a five-game set in the winners bracket and those two grand finals matches, Rise and Red Reserve got to know each other well, and they'll likely share plenty of time on-screen in the future. Red Reserve, at 10-3, is the leader in Division A, with Team Kaliber (9-4) and Echo Fox (8-4) just behind.

"The thing about Red is that we're good at the same maps," TJHaLy said. "Sainte Marie [Du Mont] is probably our best Hardpoint, and we left that in the veto for the first series, and they ended up beating us on that map twice. We're just good at the same maps, and they're just a really good respawn team. They're a good Search team, too, so they always give us a run for our money."

But Red Reserve didn't get over the hump and beat Rise. Few teams have. And a win at the CWL Championships on Aug. 15-19 in Columbus, Ohio, will give Rise four first-place finishes at offline majors since March.

If Rise checks that box, Gunless might be on his way to having a different answer to that dynasty question. The next deciding factor would be how Rise adjusts to the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 when it hits the circuit -- and, of course, if this roster can stick together long enough to build on its success thus far in 2018.

Saffold knows his team's strengths, though, and he knows how much the switch from Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare to Call of Duty: World War II helped his squad, well, rise. Black Ops 4 might run at a faster pace than World War II, but verticality won't be as big of a factor as it was in Infinite Warfare.

"This is a true skill game without any type of boosting," Saffold said. "Boots on the ground has been really tremendous for these guys, and I just hope that they're able to carry this momentum into champs."