Late Thursday afternoon, Guillermo Cifuentes waited in line outside GameStop in West Hollywood, California, to pick up his preordered copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. A veteran of all four Black Ops games, Cifuentes was excited to explore the new cinematic single-player campaign and play with his friends online.
"What is Fortnite? Is that a game?" Cifuentes said, making his allegiance clear.
But bagging the newest version of his beloved first-person shooter wasn't the 19-year-old gamer's sole reason to brave the 90-degree Southern California heat. Cifuentes wanted to meet CoD esports star Kenny "Kenny" Williams, who was somewhere inside the store. He last saw his favorite player from afar at the Call of Duty World League Championship at UCLA in August.
"I'm rooting for Kenny," Cifuentes said. "The man's a fragger."
Kenny was not inside GameStop by chance. Hours earlier, new Call of Duty World League franchise OpTic Gaming Los Angeles revealed its 2020 roster, and Kenny was on it. He was joined by fellow 100 Thieves alumni Austin "SlasheR" Liddicoat and Eric "Muddawg" Sanders, OpTic's new general manager. Muddawg rounded out the lineup with OpTic Gaming holdovers Thomas "TJHaLy" Haly and Brandon "Dashy" Otell, plus Jordan "JKap" Kaplan from Evil Geniuses.
"It's obviously a transition from the old guard to what it is now," Muddawg said. "Dashy wanted to play with TJ, SlasheR wanted to play with Kenny. Then the guys figured we'd need a support/role player for the last slot, and they all agreed on JKap, so we just went ahead and pulled the trigger.
"I thought it was a really good opportunity to drive the [OpTic] brand forward and create a very competitive roster to give the fans something to cheer for."
Previous relationships aside, Muddawg also took into account the competitive meta possibly shifting with Modern Warfare's introduction.
"I think it'll be similar to traditional Call of Duty games, where it's a much slower paced, much more tactical mental game," Muddawg said. "That's kind of why we constructed the roster the way we did with five very intelligent players. It's going to sort of reward mental play over twitchy mechanical skill."
Muddawg accompanied Kenny, SlasheR and JKap as part of the elaborate Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launch event GameStop is hosting through the weekend. GameStop partnered with Activision to offer a suite of in-store experiences, including playable consoles preloaded with the game, a photo session with actors dressed as soldiers in desert gear, and a signing booth manned by Infinity Ward developers and members of OpTic Gaming L.A..
With eye-catching "MW Stop" signage and a storefront window "shattered" by a gray, bombed-out car, the event was hard to miss. Inside, walls that usually feature hundreds of games, consoles and toys were covered by CoD branded paneling and draped in military mesh that ran across the ceiling, all bathed in dim, nightclub-blue light.
"This is dope," Kenny said. "I love interacting with fans. ... I've never been to anything like this. I didn't even think the GameStop would be this big, it's way bigger than the ones we have at home."
Kenny held court at one of the two gaming stations, taking on all challengers in the 2-on-2 Gunfight mode. Nearby, JKap got carried for a time by 21-year-old Michelle Cifuentes (no relation to Guillermo) as they dueled a pair of skilled 13-year-old boys. "We were a good team," Michelle said, diplomatic in victory. Michelle stopped playing CoD regularly around Black Ops II because of school and a full-time job in Hollywood, but she still picks up every new game to play on the weekends.
Building ties with potential fans like Michelle is one of Muddawg's top priorities as OpTic attempts to grow its local fan base. They'll be competing for support not only against the Kroenke-funded Los Angeles Guerillas based in Inglewood, but NRG's Chicago-based franchise that features OpTic legends Seth "Scump" Abner and Matthew "FormaL" Piper -- not to mention former OpTic CEO Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez. If the rivalry brewing between OpTic and its founder wasn't already apparent, Thursday's dual roster announcements left no doubt.
"Los Angeles is an esports hotbed, so we are really trying to level up our fan activations [and] engage with the city," Muddawg said. "I'm really excited about the potential of watch parties. Fans want to come together and celebrate something together, especially in esports. You find people online for years and years, but when you meet them in person, develop that true friendship, it's really a special thing."
Kenny echoed his general manager's enthusiasm, hoping to connect with local fans at more in-person events and on social media. "Anyone wants to interact with me, just @ me on Snapchat," he said. "L.A. is like my favorite city of all cities. Having cool fans in L.A., having fans that support you is like the best thing ever. You can't even put a value on that."
After nearly two hours in line, Guillermo Cifuentes finally made it into the experience. He went directly to the register to pick up his Dark Edition, which, among other goodies, included a pair of night-vision goggles. His pile of swag only grew after he traversed the store: T-shirt, desert hat, photo with the actor-soldiers and a poster signed by Muddawg and SlasheR.
But best of all? Meeting Kenny.
"I said 'Hi' twice, and he fist-bumped me, too," Cifuentes said before heading home to play. "It was lit. Took forever to get in, but hey, there's pros and cons."