When the Call of Duty League launched in January, there was no way of knowing the challenges that awaited the new esports league and its 12 teams. Before the season could pick up momentum, in March the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to play out the remainder of the season online, forgoing stops in Dallas, Paris and New York. Servers were overhauled to ensure online gaming would succeed, technology like cameras and headsets were sent to players’ homes, and several found themselves competing from their bedrooms.
It could have spelled disaster for the fledgling league, but Activision Blizzard may have unknowingly thrown out a lifeline. Call of Duty: Warzone was released on March 10, two days before the CDL’s pivot online, and in less than six months, the battle royale game mode picked up 75 million players, making it the 6th most-watched game in the world right now on Twitch.
Though it is not one of the three games modes features in CDL matches (Search & Destroy, Domination, and Hardpoint), its instant prevalence could not be ignored. “Seeing how popular Warzone was out the gate gave us the chance to ask ourselves ‘what do we want to do with this and how do we want to deliver something special?” said CDL Commissioner Johanna Faries, a Harvard graduate who spent years 12 years at the NFL (including five in fan development).
The league quickly organized Warzone Weekend in May, offering a prize pool of $10,000 to the winners. Though the sum pales in comparison to CDL’s $4.6 million champion’s share, all 12 teams still participated. The marketing push continued when the Warzone season 5 update was released on Aug. 3. In it, players can parachute from a plane into a stadium called Verdansk, which is outfitted with CDL banners and advertisements all around the building.
“There’s nothing better than having our stadium in Verdansk where we can really speak to the sport,” Faries said. “It’s such a great example of how we’re continuing to push CDL… the collaboration across teams and our entire franchise is tremendous.”
Faries credits the success of Warzone Weekend with maintaining CDL’s momentum at a time when that easily could have faded. Last weekend when the Call of Duty League Playoffs began, the match between the Atlanta FaZe and the Chicago Huntsmen broke the CDL viewership record with 143,000 concurrent viewers. The previous high was 115,000 viewers. The viewership is an improvement from previous years but is still significantly less than games like Overwatch (1.12 million in their 2019 Grand Finals) and Fortnite (2.3 million during the 2019 Fortnite World Cup). However, both Overwatch (2016) and Fortnite (2019) began their competitions earlier than the revamped CDL, giving them more time to accumulate fans.
The CDL also has no shortage of sponsors who are advertising the tournament in unique ways. One of CDL’s partners, T-Mobile, is offering fans the chance to win $100,000 and branded gear if they’re able to predict a perfect CDL Playoff bracket. If none exist in the end, the closest one will still win $10,000. Another partner, Chipotle, will be giving out free burritos throughout the entire championship weekend.
Overall, owners and players are happy with the result.
“I’ve been around in business for a long time and I’ve been around a lot of people. [Johanna] is electric,” said Amish Shah, the owner of the London Royal Ravens in a press conference on Thursday. “We’ve had so much adversity this year, and she’s kept it all together…. This league I think is going to succeed because of her leadership.”
Ahead of the Call of Duty Championship Weekend, Activision also unveiled a trailer for its new Call of Duty: Cold War game, set to be released Nov. 13.