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You Need to Pay Attention to Call of Duty World League: How it Blazes Trails for the Future of Esports

2019-07-19 - CWL Miami / Photo: Robert Paul for Activision Blizzard

There’s a moment of surprising silence, breath held, you could almost hear a pin drop. When the quick ratatat of gunfire punctuates the stillness, a player falls, and the crowd erupts. Here just blocks from the surf and sand of Miami Beach, players and fans pack into the Miami Convention Center to be a part of what is growing from simply an esports event into a huge expo celebrating the competition of gaming’s most successful franchise ever, Call of Duty.

Call of Duty World League is a fascinating convergence of those who love gaming and people who love the sport. There are plenty of fans at the event who can’t wait for the next Sony exclusive, shoulder to shoulder with people that just can’t get enough of Call of Duty, these teams and players, and the competition.

After going through security, everyone who enters the doors into the Miami Convention Center walks through the grand Hall of Fame entryway. Flags hang on either side of the path showcasing the winners of previous events. Lights dynamically sweep over the area in time to the epic booming music. And at the end, the Call of Duty World League championship trophy sits on a pedestal, one of the ultimate goals of for all of these teams that compete (the other being earning placement in the Championship event that will close out the season).

Call of Duty World League Finals Miami

Hall of Fame / Photo: Chandler Wood – PSLS

Letting the fans experience this entrance is the perfect way to set the stage for the whole event and make everyone feel involved. There’s an empowering and exciting feeling walking through the Hall of Fame that drives a sense of connection. You’re not just an observer. You’re a participant. After a hard left at the end of the Hall of Fame walk, attendees emerge onto the show floor. Barricades wall off banks of PS4 Pro consoles and gaming monitors where amateur teams compete throughout the event for their own spots at Champs. Beyond that, the Bravo stage, an enormous PS4 banner towering over it, runs the secondary Pro games while the main Alpha stage sits at the far end of the floor. With 32 teams competing in the Finals, two stages are absolutely necessary to get all of the games done within three days.

Dotted around the rest of floor are booths from the event’s sponsors. Brands like Astro, Gamer Fuel, and MLG show off their latest products and branded gear. PlayStation, a sponsor of the World League, has an entire area where attendees can play Black Ops 4 for themselves, competing to win prizes. A few food stalls sit in the corner selling overpriced convention center food and entirely mediocre coffee.

And on the Main Stage…

Of course, all of the focus is still on that main Alpha stage, but this year’s Finals have a very different feel from past events. Often the stage is separated from the rest of the action, set inside an arena or theater that segregates the main event from everything else—the experiential part of World League. Attendees at the Miami Finals had the ability to browse MLG and other sponsored merch, wait in line to play CoD against other fans, or grab a bite to eat, all while still in full view of both the Alpha and Bravo stages. Plenty of seating allows players to sit while spectating their favorite matches, but there was also lots of standing room to move about, check out everything that’s on display, and still feel like they’re a part of the whole event. And it was consistently packed, from the first day to the final match. Often there was standing room only, no matter which teams were facing off against one another.

Call of Duty World League Finals Miami

CWL Miami / Photo: Robert Paul for Activision Blizzard

Even the losers bracket games filled the convention center with screaming crowds as the eager casters hyped everyone up. Any player is capable of roar-inducing plays, from crazy double kills with a single bullet to 1v5 comebacks that change the direction of an entire match. There are huge upsets from fan-favorite teams, and crazy underdog stories from organizations that normally don’t sit on top. Even if you aren’t directly invested, there’s an infectious feeling to the environment and you can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. These are really, really good players, with thousands of hours put into these games and it’s insane to watch them play at such an incredible skill level.

One of the highlights of the Call of Duty World League Finals in Miami was the All-Star Match, a game where players from different teams come together as voted by fans to face off against one another. This provides a slight reprieve from the intense competition of the main matches, instead offering a kind of “what if” scenario as the league’s fan-favorite players who normally don’t play together—and in fact are often playing against one another—are partnered in two bizarro five-man teams. It has no bearing on the rest of the competition, but it’s one more of those things that drives an interest for the fans.

While in many ways CWL is similar to physical sports, there are also some big differences between the two. There’s a persistent forward momentum to Call of Duty World League that traditional sports just don’t have, both on a micro and a macro scale. From the events featuring a ton of teams and various matchups across a three-day span, to switching to the latest Call of Duty title every year, CWL pushes the idea that things are going to be changing a lot. Something like the Super Bowl features only two teams in one epic matchup, but the Call of Duty World League Championships will be 32 teams whittled down across multiple matches over four or five days. Sure, it does all culminate in that big final championship match, but before that week starts, it’s anybody’s title. OpTic could come back after a huge upset of not winning a single map at Finals. An amateur team could come up to take home the trophy. CWL has a constant feeling that this is anybody’s game.

Call of Duty World League Finals Miami

Photo by Owen McCormick/Robb McCormick Photography

That massive event alone sets it apart from the singular game of a physical sports championship. Every team and every player has different specialties and styles of play, and no two matches are ever the same. You might have an incredible sniper facing off against someone who’s known for fast and loose run and gun tactics. You might get teams better at Hardpoint while the other is better at Search and Destroy. The constant variety means you’re never watching the same game twice, and that’s all during a single event. That doesn’t even take into consideration that, unlike most physical sports, the game fundamentally changes every year too.

New Year, New CoD

Following August’s Championships, there will be a few short months off before the 2020 Modern Warfare season starts up. Players will change teams. New maps, modes, and an entirely new game to learn will wipe the slate for everyone, each new season marking a complete fresh start. In fact, to connect that forward momentum, past Championships have had the multiplayer of the next game playable for spectators. Last year, at the CWL Champs in Columbus, Ohio, while teams were competing in Call of Duty: WWII, attendees had the chance to try out Black Ops 4 a few months before its release.

While Activision hasn’t announced anything yet, it’s curious that the multiplayer reveal for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is coming just two weeks ahead of the CWL Championships. Multiplayer wasn’t available at E3 2019, so if there’s any opportunity for fans to get their hands on the game before launch, this event seems like it would be it. As a celebration of not only the sport, but the CoD franchise, Champs is a great place to bridge the gap as the season of one game closes and an all-new Call of Duty prepares for release. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that the Los Angeles event will be the first place that the public can try out Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty World League’s trajectory of growth is tied to both the blossoming world of esports and the dominating popularity of the Call of Duty franchise. It has a ton that it can learn from both how gaming conventions provide an experience for attendees and sporting events put on a grand show. Because it sits so squarely at that confluence of gaming and competitive sporting events, it needs to lean into its own unique identity as both. Embrace the competition, but also continue to broaden the appeal by making it effectively a CoDcon. In this way, CWL can also attract people that may only have a cursory interest in the competitive side of CoD.

Photo by Owen McCormick/Robb McCormick Photography

Location is also a huge consideration for CWL. How many Call of Duty fans locally are going to be interested in attending the event? What makes for a strong market, especially when scouting new locations? Sure, places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas are proven and see repeated events return, but Miami was a brand new market for such a major event. Turnout and reception was surprisingly strong, as fans crowded into the air-conditioned convention center to beat the humid Miami heat. With the beach literally within walking distance, there was still a very strong Call of Duty community that was here for the penultimate event. What does this spell for location considerations for other events? Could we see CWL continue to explore new markets to both appease existing fans and attract new ones? If so, may I suggest Salt Lake City?

Yes, Call of Duty World League is live streamed for the world to watch, but similar to widely-broadcast sporting events like the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals, or conventions like E3 or PAX, there’s a big difference between watching it on a screen and actually being there. Particularly for someone like me, with no specific investment in any players or teams, it’s the excited and competitive atmosphere of the event itself that I love to be a part of. If a CWL event does roll into your hometown sometime, it’s worth checking it out in person, even if you’ve never considered an interest in esports or the league before. The thunderous roar after an epic play alone is worth the price of admission, and it’s an experience that you won’t soon forget. Pay attention as Call of Duty World League continues its forward trajectory. As big as CWL has gotten, it’s still in its relative infancy, and it has a ton of room to grow in the years to come.

Travel and accommodations for the Call of Duty World League Finals in Miami were provided by Activision.