The folks pulling the strings of the Call of Duty League have a singular goal in mind: grow. The CDL is expanding its Path to Pro system, boosting the production value on pre-recorded videos, and dabbling with new titles from the Call of Duty universe. Last year, Activision launched a championship series for Call of Duty Mobile, though the finals were canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down operations across the globe.
Meanwhile, unofficial tournaments for Warzone, Call of Duty’s battle royale installment, were gaining popularity, and Activision eventually joined the fun with Warzone Weekend, a showcase for pros in between official CDL matches. Warzone Weekend kicked off in May and ran throughout the 2020 CDL season.
That was just the beginning for Warzone esports, according to Activision’s Head of Leagues Johanna Faries.
“We've taken a lot of the time in the off-season to think about, what does the next-level proposition for Warzone look like for CDL and the broader Call of Duty esports community?” Faries said. “In the next few months, I think we will have exciting things to share around what that means for us and what fans can look forward to, not just in 2021, but beyond. We’re really, really happy to think that CDL is stretching entrepreneurially into the Warzone conversation in ways that I think will be quite exciting.”
The CDL is preparing for its second season, following a debut marked by a global pandemic and myriad technical issues as the league quickly transitioned to an all-virtual format. Throughout 2020, pro games were marred by server issues, dropped players and rushed substitutions, even stretching into the Championship weekend.
Take the London Home Series finals between the Dallas Empire and Paris Legion in July as an example: Teams were able to test and veto certain servers beforehand, but the only available sources were in California, Texas or Illinois. The teams ended up playing on Texas servers, lending a clear potential advantage to the Dallas team in terms of latency. Dallas Empire won that series, but even team star James “Clayster” Eubanks called it “so unfair.”
Hey, we won, so I can't get roasted for being salty, but it's completely unfair that the server selections vs Paris are CA, TX, and IL. We veto CA 'cause they're 4 CA, they veto IL because it's the furthest away from all of them, and they're stuck playing on a TX host. So unfair.
— NYSL Clayster (@Clayster) July 19, 2020
Faries didn’t get into details about server locations or speeds, but she said the league is working closely with teams to build a more robust ecosystem for the 2021 season. It all officially begins on February 11th, but first there’s the Kickoff Classic on January 23rd and 24th, featuring six fan-voted, preseason matches among top teams.
“There's been a considerable increase in server support,” Faries said. “And again, I think a good work-plan flow, if you will, on everybody knowing where the servers are, what the contingency plans look like should something happen midstream. All signs point to being very ready for that.”
Despite the technical issues, the CDL’s first season performed well enough on YouTube, which has the exclusive rights to stream pro Call of Duty games. The CDL YouTube channel surpassed 1 million subscribers in the middle of 2020, amid a surge in the live-streaming market during global stay-at-home orders. In comparison, the official League of Legends esports channel has 3.4 million subscribers, while Counter-Strike has 1.4 million and Overwatch has just over 600,000, and these titles also enjoyed pandemic-related growth spurts.
With the CDL on YouTube, Activision is focused on enticing lapsed or casual Call of Duty fans to join the esports scene, watch games and interact with personalities. It’s not just about live viewership, but about building a feedback loop of constant engagement, as Activision’s head of esports partnerships Brandon Snow told Engadget in September.
Faries said it’s working.
“We're seeing a lot of attention, a lot of interest from potential partners, investors, new fan bases all over the world in a very early stage of the CDL's existence here,” she said. “And that all points to me that we are onto something, that we are continuing to challenge the conversation around what great esports leagues look like, not only from an engagement perspective, but from a business perspective.”
The CDL’s 2021 season begins in just a few weeks, and Faries teased news about Warzone esports not long after that.
“We also now have these expanded areas where we can engage our player base if they happen to be a CoD Mobile player or a Warzone fanatic,” she said. “These are places that fans can expect CDL to continue to be entrepreneurial. I'm very excited about that.”