MINNEAPOLIS -- Blizzard/Activision launched its Call of Duty League on Friday amid rising social media ire around game developer Infinity Ward and Modern Warfare as well as some unfavorable social media coverage of preparations leading into opening day. Fans of other esports were arguably tuning in to see just how much of a mess the CDL launch was going to be.
Would the launch weekend be the Fyre Festival/Dashcon/2017 Halo World Championship/[insert disastrous event of your choice here] of esports?
The answer is already a hard "no." Despite pushback against spectator changes, a remarkably soft start time -- the league website did say start times were subject to change, so at least they warned us -- and empty seats in the crowd, opening day was not the disaster that was advertised on social media. That being said, there were a lot of things that could have been better, beginning with the crowd. Here are a few ups and downs from Day 1.
A staple of past Call of Duty events was that stream numbers suddenly skyrocketed whenever OpTic Gaming or FaZe Clan were on the stage. While the first match was well attended due to a well-hyped battle between the Chicago Huntsmen and Dallas Empire, the audience thinned for the rest of the matches both in person and on stream.
I've already written my opinion on the lack of in-game promotion and a disconnect between Infinity Ward and esports. In addition to this, there's also a lot at work with new brands replacing the old and a generally less organic feel (maybe we should stop trying to force esports events to have some kind of concert element). The matches ran long due to a late start time, and since the launch took place on a Friday night rather than a Saturday, the crowd optics were not great, to say the least, which is sad because the COD matches themselves were fun.
I also can't help but think that Friday would have been significantly better attended (or at least would have had higher stream views) if there had been more promotion going into the weekend. More specifically, the league should have been advertised in the game, the team skins should have been made available in the game much earlier, and the YouTube streaming deal should have been announced much earlier with promoted streams. I'll give the latter a pass since I don't know the details or timing of the contract negotiations, but if you're launching a multimillion-dollar league, it should be heavily promoted in its own game, especially a game that is a ubiquitous AAA title that sells well every year. That's a gigantic market that's not being reached in time for the league launch.
Empire vs. Huntsmen
As previously mentioned, the Call of Duty League knew what it was doing picking the Chicago Huntsmen versus the Dallas Empire as the headlining match. Despite the name change, the Empire are effectively Team Envy, a COD staple organization. Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez and Seth "Scump" Abner took a gigantic portion of OpTic Gaming fans with them to the Huntsmen, and the chatter between both teams leading into this match was as good as COD gets. Scump's reaction after the Huntsmen took an unexpected 3-1 victory was also as fun as COD gets.
"I don't think ... I can't repeat that again," Scump said, laughing after the match. "It was something along the lines of, 'You guys aren't very good.'"
"Both teams, you could tell they really wanted to win that and there was a lot of trash talk leading up to the event and there was a lot of animosity in the match for sure," the Huntsmen's Matthew "FormaL" Piper said. "But to come out on top like that is just so satisfying."
The Empire were heavily favored going into this match due to their online prowess leading up to launch weekend. Their roster is an interesting combination of veteran players such as James "Clayster" Eubanks, Ian "Crimsix" Porter and Cuyler "Huke" Garland, alongside the young talent of Anthony "Shotzzy" Cuevas-Castro and Indervir "iLLeY" Dhaliwal.
"From how they were playing online to the event, online is just a different atmosphere," FormaL said of the Empire's performance. "Guys are playing at home. They're really comfortable. They take different challenges and they play a little bit differently. Onstage when the lights hit you and the crowd is going ... it affects you mentally."
I'm naturally biased in my commentary on the spectating since, like most humans, I'm naturally resistant to change and am used to viewing Call of Duty from a first-person perspective only. The third-person and longer aerial shots were a bit jarring but with more spectating practice likely will be a good addition to the viewing experience. What I take more issue with is the in-game overlay that wouldn't allow for both the player portraits and the in-game stats. I would like to see both while I'm watching, but if I have to choose one over the other, it will be in-game stats every time.
The game itself
Day 1 ended with a somewhat controversial victory, when the Minnesota RØKKR took a 3-1 victory over the LA Guerrillas after the Geurrillas' Andres "Lacefield" Lacefield accidentally selected the hardline perk. A blanket ruleset on banned competitive perks and items should have been supplied from Infinity Ward before the launch, and this match is another unfortunate example of the disconnect between the game developer and esports.
Some pros have been more vocal about the game than others. Among the myriad game issues, including maps that are suboptimal for competitive play by nature, pros weighed in on the choice to play Domination for the first time since Call of Duty: Ghosts.
"I think actually it was half-and-half for CtF (Capture the Flag) and Dom," Florida Mutineers' Preston "Prestinni" Sanderson said of pros voting for Domination. He added that his personal vote was "definitely not Domination."
"That game mode is so boring to watch. I'm not a fan of it. We voted for CtF. I think the reason it went to Dom is because there were teams already ahead in the game mode and they didn't want to risk ... you know, you get good at a certain game mode, you don't want to give it up. They would have to restart and renew their practices with CtF and they would have to relearn an entire game mode, whereas other teams wanted CtF, everyone would have had to start fresh and they didn't want to do that. So I feel like that's why it went 6-6 in voting or whatever and we ended up playing Dom because it was already the first mode in."
"In Ghosts [Domination] actually played even slower than this game," FormaL said. "This game is actually kind of good for Dom just based on where the spawns come in and how you have to work to get to a flag and the teamwork you have to use to open up a flag when you're in a trap."
FormaL highlighted the Huntsmen's ability to trap the Empire on Hackney Yard in Domination as one of the main reasons they won -- by exposing the Empire's inability to escape.
The pros also talked about the narrow gun meta, which saw the MP5 as an overwhelming favorite.
"I mean, I run the gun every map so I don't mind it," Prestinni said. "But at the same time, I would like some variety. It's always positive to have variety."
"After playing [Modern Warfare] for a couple of months now, there's just a few little things that need tweaking," FormaL said. "But other than that it's got a really good time to kill, it's got a lot of teamwork involved, it's a little bit slower than past CODs, but it also has a lot of playmaking ability."
If there's one thing I love about COD pros, it's that they're ultimately unflappable. Bad version of COD? They might complain, but they'll still make the game look as good as possible. At the end of the day, they're just here to play and they'll always do that to the best of their ability regardless of conditions, since a lot of the veteran players came up from a time when "esports" meant winning a couple of hundred dollars at a random LAN event. That's why, at the risk of beating a dead horse, the lack of promotion and game state around the league launch is particularly infuriating.