On Friday, the Call of Duty League's inaugural season will begin with a headlining match between the Chicago Huntsmen and Dallas Empire at the Minneapolis Armory.
These are, effectively, two of the most popular brands going into the league -- along with the Atlanta FaZe -- due to the history their players or managers have in Call of Duty. The Huntsmen are led by former OpTic Gaming frontman Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez, a legend in the Call of Duty scene. The Empire play under the Team Envy banner, one of the most prominent brands in the iconic first-person shooter's history.
Despite the marquee matchup and the purported fervor surrounding the start of this new geolocated league, there's been a distinct lack of hype around the upcoming Call of Duty League within the community itself.
Instead, much of the discussion that has been taking place among people firmly entrenched in the competitive scene has been about the myriad issues with the game itself.
Why are so many people mad about the game?
If Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's problems were simply a series of bugs that could be identified and (hopefully) patched, that would be simple. Call of Duty professional players have dealt with in-game bugs -- yes, even slide-canceling -- across every iteration of COD releases past. The crux of the significantly larger amount of complaints this offseason going into the league's launch has to do with a fundamental disconnect between Infinity Ward, the developer of Modern Warfare, and the Activision/Blizzard esports team.
One of the unfortunate pillars of competitive Call of Duty is that every year the game becomes almost entirely new.
Unlike any other game that has grown into an esport, Call of Duty is an AAA title that launches a new title each year. It has a massive casual player base that repurchases each new release without fail. In the United States, specifically, Call of Duty is a cultural mainstay that is prominently featured in a variety of media, some complimentary, many negatively and others where the game simply exists, like that one episode of "The Office."
It's the default competitive game in the U.S. media, although Fortnite likely reached similar cultural ubiquity last year.
Competitive Call of Duty grew from this player base in the form of junior high LAN parties and local tournaments with maybe $500 at stake into some of the most recognizable brands in competitive gaming like OpTic Gaming and FaZe Clan. Alongside various fighting games and Counter-Strike, COD has the most organic growth of any esport in the West.
And with the creation of geolocated franchises, a new competition format and a league backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from new owners, this is perhaps the biggest year in the history of Call of Duty esports -- a chance for unprecedented success or remarkable failure.
Ideally, the Call of Duty client would advertise the existence of the upcoming esports league, marketing the CDL to its aforementioned large player base. In turn, the league, via the prowess of the pro players themselves, would market the game back to the general public.
This has not happened. The recent announcement of CDL team bundles available in-game on Friday is the only hint of the esports scene in Modern Warfare. That kind of marketing should have begun a lot earlier, with additional league promotional material in-game leading up to opening weekend.
Most of the marketing disconnect likely comes from developer Infinity Ward and its attitude towards COD esports. Call of Duty has multiple developers -- Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games -- that have been in a rotation over the past series of releases. Infinity Ward is the original developer of Call of Duty circa 2003, which is one of the reasons why the most recent Modern Warfare title was billed as a return to the original Call of Duty, before Infinity Ward's restructuring and before most people knew what an esport was.
Nostalgia and a name brand don't guarantee success, though. Modern Warfare, from its map pool to slide-canceling to the rightfully-maligned 12hz practice environments, is decidedly not esports-friendly in myriad ways. This year will also mark the first time that Domination, widely regarded as a noncompetitive game mode, will return to pro play since the 2013-14 pro season with Call of Duty: Ghosts, over the vastly preferred Capture the Flag. One of the reasons likely is that Capture the Flag isn't even available in Modern Warfare for public matchmaking, although it is available as a private mode.
These are only a few examples of the yawning chasm that seems to exist between what this COD release offers and what the competitive esports community wanted. Due to the amount of ire directed at them over in-game bugs and problems such as poor respawn locations and map design (looking at you, Shipment), Infinity Ward released a Trello Board of projects and problems it is preparing to patch before the CDL launch this weekend. While the developer's actions might satisfy some pros and fans, patching the game two days before a major event could open its own can of worms.
I'll be in Minneapolis this weekend to cover the league launch. I have no doubt that the pros will make Modern Warfare look as good as it possibly can look. There will be no shortage of interesting storylines in and out of game, and at the end of the weekend, everyone will have praise, derision and hot takes to spare about the present and future of the CDL.
But as big as those questions are, the biggest one, to me, is about the game itself. One of the biggest hurdles the Call of Duty League might have to clear is getting series fans to appreciate Modern Warfare.