What Activision’s YouTube deal says about Call of Duty esports

“We absolutely have to diversify," said esports branding head Brandon Snow.

USA TODAY USPW / reuters

This January, Activision signed a multi-year deal with YouTube, making it the exclusive home of both the Call of Duty and Overwatch leagues, ditching Twitch entirely. The Call of Duty League has 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, and its 2020 championship bout earned a peak viewership of 330,000 people, all on Google’s video platform.

The esports channel for League of Legends, the most popular professional video game franchise on the planet, has 3.29 million YouTube subscribers, and its 2019 world finals attracted 44 million peak concurrent viewers across YouTube and Twitch.

The disparity between these two leagues can’t solely be explained by Twitch viewership. The 2019 Call of Duty finals drew a peak concurrent audience of just 182,000 on Twitch, according to The Esports Observer, and this year’s 330,000 figure was actually a record for the franchise. In terms of live esports audience numbers, Call of Duty can’t compete with League of Legends, and it consistently struggles to keep up with comparable first-person shooters like Counter-Strike or even Overwatch.

Activision’s solution? Change the metrics.

“We did have to change our mindset,” said Brandon Snow, who leads Activision’s esports partnerships, including its relationship with YouTube. “We had to move away a little bit from, ‘Hey, it's all about how many people are watching at any one time,’ to, ‘It's all about how many people are engaging with our content on the platform.’ Part of that is live and we've had some good live numbers, but part of it is also the content, and the shoulder content, and the VOD content that we put around it.”

Snow has been with Activision Blizzard for nearly three years, and before that he worked in traditional sports as an internal profit consultant for the NBA. He talked about maximizing the YouTube platform by pushing out fresh, entertaining videos that extend the brand and weave narratives around players, casters and popular personalities. The Call of Duty League YouTube channel reflects this effort, with videos like How to get the MOST kills in Warzone?! and IT’S CHAMPS TIME, WHO WILL BE CHAMPIONS?! (plus a few more titles that may or may not make sense with “?!” ending punctuation).

In this ecosystem, streaming a match and publishing the VOD is only part of the equation. It’s about creating original content, engaging and retaining viewers, and attracting people who aren’t drawn to live matches on their own.

“That's a much different mindset than just running a live-event business on a platform like Twitch,” Snow said.

Activision’s quest to engage new viewers on YouTube reflects a broader strategy to expand the Call of Duty audience. With last year’s Modern Warfare, this meant making the game more friendly to new and casual players, with less of a focus on competitive features — tricky, when simultaneously attempting to establish an esports league. Modern Warfare still doesn’t have a ranked mode, and developers at Infinity Ward said they designed its maps to be easier for new players to navigate.

These moves have pissed off plenty of competitive players, including 100 Thieves CEO and former Call of Duty pro, Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag. He laid out some of his issues on an episode of The Mobcast in November, saying, “They made this game so that a casual player would have a great experience and that the best players and competitive players would have a negative experience.”

Nadeshot continued, referencing his former team, “If OpTic is not playing in the finals, there’s like 40,000 people watching a tournament. And I’m not even trying to sound like an asshole, that’s just the reality. ...They have this thesis that if they create this league, they’re gonna have like 500,000 or a million people watching a Call of Duty tournament.” He called that idea “insane.”

This is all piled on top of recurring concerns about the league’s stability, partially tied to Activision’s annual release schedule for Call of Duty games, which means the competitive scene is uprooted each year. Star talent like Scump and FormaL are aging and no one is showing up to replace them. Players and fans are growing increasingly vocal about Activision’s perceived mismanagement of Call of Duty esports.

“They’re very passionate,” Snow said. “We learn a lot from that passion, and quite frankly, they have a lot of good ideas that we need to be very mindful of.”

The rebranded CDL held its inaugural season in 2020, alongside a new competition format, minimum salaries and benefits for players, and a location-based franchise model, with teams spending a reported $25 million apiece to participate. Twelve teams competed in 2020, and after a mid-year format change, all of them were ushered through to the playoffs.

Activision is playing a multi-pronged game, and esports are only part of it. Call of Duty is a blockbuster franchise outside of the pro scene, and its support systems are mainly geared toward engaging that massive, core player base, not catering to the smaller competitive crowd.

On YouTube, this means dropping more story- and personality-driven content in VOD format. The goal, Snow said, is to expand the CDL audience by creating videos that will attract lapsed or casual Call of Duty fans, and pull them into the pro scene.

Naturally, this also means diversification. Right now, the CDL audience is heavily male, with a large concentration in ages 18 to 35.

“We absolutely have to diversify and get more broad in who engages with the league,” Snow said, noting that inclusion was one of the top objectives for himself and CDL Commissioner Johanna Faries. “We want to deliver what the core likes to see, but we wanted to find ways to engage a broader audience, I'll call it a casual gaming audience,” he said.

Snow described the Call of Duty market as a dartboard with 200 million points, or fans, on it. Hardcore players are the bullseye, but there are plenty more points in the surrounding layers.

“We're very much focused on, how does the product we put out there in CDL not only engage with the center of our bullseye, but just tapping into that 200 million will help us engage a massive audience that should be much more broad than we are today,” Snow said. “And I think we're laser-focused on figuring that out. And hopefully we'll be trying a bunch of different things next year, around different products we've got in the Call of Duty franchise to help us get there.”

He didn’t specify what those products would be, but he talked about ongoing efforts to expand the Call of Duty brand, like Call of Duty Mobile, Warzone and Cold War. The goal is to stay true to the franchise while simultaneously adding components to tempt casual players, maintaining a robust competitive scene, and growing a new league exclusively on YouTube.

“It can be a balancing act, but we believe it's possible,” Snow said.

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