The first day of the Call of Duty League's inaugural championship weekend is in the books, and with no major hiccups in production, it was a fantastic day of Call of Duty -- and arguably the best we've seen from Modern Warfare all year.
We say goodbye to the London Royal Ravens and Chicago Huntsmen, and look forward as the Dallas Empire and Atlanta FaZe face each other on Sunday for the $1.5 million prize.
Championship Sunday preview: Atlanta FaZe vs. Dallas Empire
Emily Rand: All five members of the 2019 eUnited champs roster played each other in some fashion Saturday. James "Clayster" Eubanks said before the matches, and reiterated after Dallas Empire's win over the Atlanta FaZe that, "They know how I think, I know how they think." In his pre-championship news conference, Clayster elaborated on this, saying that there will always be tendencies he'll spot from his former teammates and that they'll spot from him.
Clayster and the Dallas Empire will meet those same former eUnited teammates in Chris "Simp" Lehr and Tyler "aBeZy" Pharris again in the grand finals. It's fitting that these are the two teams in the grand finals, since they've been the top two teams all year -- yes, even with the Empire's horrible launch weekend performances and the Florida Mutineers' rise through online play. Dallas and Atlanta have given us the best of what competitive Modern Warfare has to offer and they know each other incredibly well. Despite Atlanta's edge in series won, it's Dallas who has won the more important matches: first during the Chicago Home Series grand finals, where the Empire took their second title of the year, and now during championship weekend to qualify first for the grand finals. Even in its series losses, Dallas has looked evenly matched with Atlanta. This should be a fantastic series and an appropriate ending for the Call of Duty League's inaugural season, regardless of who wins.
That being said, since I accurately called these two teams in finals (along with a host of other people, I'm sure) I'm sticking with my Dallas Empire pick.
Arda Ocal: Post Malone being announced as a part owner of Team Envy (and therefore the Dallas Empire) a couple of days before they have a chance to win a world championship is a 200 IQ play. Instant return.
So, we have Dallas vs. Atlanta in the grand finals. It's fitting in a way, because you basically had a mini tournament among the three-headed monster of the CDL to determine what the grand finals would even be, and in the end, the two teams that made it to the winners final are running it back for the world title.
Dallas was a team that was always in the conversation for the best team in the league. And the Empire boast some of the best players, with Anthony "Shotzzy" Cuevas-Castro winning MVP. This is a team that never earned less than 20 points (a 3rd/4th place finish) at any home series event it participated in, and claimed three victories this season. At any single point of the season, if you said Dallas was going to compete in the grand finals for the championship, nobody would bat an eye.
But the exact same can be said about Atlanta, who similarly has not dipped below a 3rd/4th place finish in any home series, making six finals and winning two. Chris "Simp" Lehr habitually broke his own records on Hardpoint. The "Tiny Terrors" were uncontainable for much of the season. Atlanta defeated Chicago twice this postseason, leaving no doubt that it earned its way to the grand finals.
Who has the edge? The best-of-nine format feels like it favors Dallas, simply based on the amount of experience on the team and the players' having been in these kinds of situations before. Dallas is also 3-1 in a championship series this season. The "clutch" factor in finals performances would favor Dallas. Overall, the record heavily favors Atlanta. Plus, it's the only team to really be able to make Dallas look truly mortal at many points of the season.
I give the slight edge to Dallas.
For a matchup like this, though, you just have to sit back and enjoy the festivities.
A fond farewell to the London Royal Ravens:
Rand: I might not be a true fan of the London Royal Ravens like our editor (who is, in fact, editing this very piece*) or our head video producer, but it was difficult not to root for the Ravens throughout this year for a few reasons.
I've mentioned this nearly every time I've spoken about the Ravens, but they were the absolute unluckiest team this year. If there was a disconnect to be had, a referee direction or miscommunication that happened, or a DDoS attack, it happened to the Ravens. This was on top of the Ravens themselves making in-game mistakes in crucial matches that kept them just below the likes of the Florida Mutineers and New York Subliners (fourth and fifth in the regular season, respectively) throughout the year. Given the talent in their lineup, it shouldn't have been shocking that the Royal Ravens made it to championship weekend, but based on the year they had, it was.
According to Sean "Seany" O'Connor -- a standout for the Ravens' run through the losers' bracket -- it was all of these mishaps that prepared them mentally to make it to top four when it mattered. They sped up their plants on Search & Destroy and even won on Domination, by far their worst map mode, making visible adjustments to prove they belonged in top four. The Chicago Huntsmen were the better team, but the Ravens should be proud of their champs performance overall.
Ocal: I am, in fact, the third-biggest Royal Ravens fan around, third only to our two aforementioned bosses (I have no shame at all and will absolutely curry favor wherever I can). Kidding aside, it would have been a great Cinderella story for London to make it to the grand finals. After not winning a single home series, Trei "Zer0" Morris' connectivity issues, Seany's monster performances, the twins Matthew "Skrapz" and Bradley "Wuskin" Marshall and their entertaining personalities and sound bites, not to mention the "Water Bottle Incident of 2020"... It just would have been such a fitting end to see them go all the way.
Sadly for Royal Ravens fans, it was not meant to be, but to finish in the final four is still a massive accomplishment in itself, especially over other teams that have won home series events this season (including knocking off Toronto in the postseason runback).
This was a team that was habitually exciting to watch both in and out of the game, and led the European contingent of the CDL often singlehandedly. This was still overall a net positive season for London. Hopefully the momentum (and the memes) carry over into Season 2. At least the Ravens have an extra $450,000 in that team bank account.
*Editor's note: London Royal Ravens forever. See you next season, boys.
A fond farewell to the Chicago Huntsmen:
Rand: Similarly to how Dallas and Atlanta, the first and second seeds from the regular season, made it to grand finals, it's oddly fitting that the Chicago Huntsmen came in third overall at champs, despite the obvious talent on their lineup. They had similar highs to Atlanta and Dallas, but were unable to be as consistent as either of those teams from week to week.
Only two teams can move on, but it hurts to see Chicago eliminated and not make the grand finals, especially given how Matthew "FormaL" Piper and Seth "Scump" Abner both predictably stepped up to another level when the championship was on the line. Preston "Prestinni" Sanderson joining the lineup alongside brother and former teammate Alec "Arcitys" Sanderson was more than a reunion of twin brothers, it brought invaluable speed to Chicago's game in the form of Prestinni. Prestinni is often denigrated for his K/D ratios, specifically how many times he dies, but as the entry, that's his job and he does it both quickly and well. Despite a few communication hiccups, you could easily see his contributions to this Huntsmen lineup. Dylan "Envoy" Hannon is a superstar, and was one of my favorite individual players to watch all year.
Ocal: All three of the top CDL teams at the start of the season (Atlanta Chicago and Dallas) had their "moments of doubt" throughout the season. The challenge with the Huntsmen was that theirs came just before the postseason. But people still believed in this team, and how could you not? The championship pedigree is there, the legacy is there, the talent is there ... In many ways they were leaders in the CDL, from viewership to social media engagement and content. Owner/CEO Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez is a content machine. Scump could be a top streamer, with tens of thousands of people watching him play Warzone all day, but he wanted to compete. He wanted to win. This team wanted to compete and win. To me, that's incredibly admirable: Put the easier path to money and fame aside and grab that 'chip -- a Herculean task in itself -- notwithstanding all the challenges of the league being online and everything that came with the pandemic. Chicago will almost certainly see this as a failure, but long term, Chicago laid a foundation to help this league succeed.
It was especially painful to see the reaction on camera after the loss. Prestinni with his hands on his head, completely dejected in the moment. His twin brother, Arcitys, slouched in his chair, letting out a deep sigh. Envoy wiping his face with his hands, looking down at his desk. Scump pushing his hair back as he pondered what just happened. The CDL's stream puts the agony and the ecstasy of competition in full view, with the Atlanta players popping off right below them in the same camera shot.
In the team news conferences this week, Mike "Hastr0" Rufail, founder of Team Envy who own the Dallas Empire, said that he and H3CZ went fishing a couple of weeks ago and talked a lot. They see themselves as partners in this league who need to help the scene continue to grow. They are friends, but also rivals, and understand the necessity of competition and feuds. No other scene understands that better than CDL. While we won't get the Hastr0/H3CZ final this year, the rivalry of their teams will live on for years to come.
Player and/or play of the day:
Rand: This was some of the best COD we've seen all year, and that included some jaw-dropping runs of play like Atlanta FaZe's Jovel "Cellium" McArthur razing through St. Petrograd or Chicago Huntsmen's Matthew "FormaL" Piper's snipes on Arklov Peak.
My player of the day goes to Clayster on Rammaza Search & Destroy against Atlanta. This was the map that sent Dallas immediately to the grand finals over FaZe, and while you can (rightfully) argue that FaZe botched their man advantage and setup, Clayster came up big in Round 6, winning his 1v1s for Dallas.
Ocal: Game 4, Hardpoint between Atlanta and Chicago. St. Petrograd. Match point. Chicago had the lead for the first half, but Atlanta surged back. The Hardpoint shifted to Restaurant with Chicago having regained the lead 227-193. Atlanta was in position to defend. Cellium patiently waits in the kitchen, and absolutely runs roughshod through Chicago, scoring seven frags in a row before finally needing to respawn. It was an incredible show of poise, patience, skill and resilience in a moment where the Huntsmen needed the points the most, with their playoff lives hanging in the balance. Cellium shut the door on them, leading to Atlanta closing out the series, eliminating Chicago and punching its ticket to the grand finals for a revenge matchup against Dallas. Watching it in real time, I couldn't help but move to every frag Cellium was able to get after I jumped out of my seat, excited at what was unfolding in front of me.