Call of Duty is the biggest console game around, generating billions of dollars and finding itself on top of the video game sales charts more often than the Rolling Stones were on Billboard. And yet, despite the estimated 15 million people that own a copy of CoD: WW2 and the millions more who have enjoyed a CoD in the past, the Call of Duty World League Season 1 stream can be seen hovering around 8,000 viewers on Twitch at times.  Why is there a disconnect between the massive game and the struggling esport?

Call of Duty Esports is not Call of Duty

Unlike most esports titles that have been developed from conception with competition in mind, Call of Duty is a light, arcade shooter at heart. Of those 15 million people playing a CoD title, the majority are enjoying 6v6 Team Deathmatch or are more interested in Zombies mode and rarely touch the multiplayer. To these players, competitive Call of Duty is unrecognizable.

The version of the game that is being played in the Call of Duty World League is not a product of the developers. Competitive Call of Duty is the brainchild of a few brave souls from the flip phone era who wanted to create tournaments at a time when devs didn’t know what an esport was. The number of players were changed from 6 per team to 4, to make gameplay more tactical. Objective based modes were favored over TDM because of the team work required. Certain weapons, streaks and perks were banned to favor gunskill over randomness. The result was a fine esport, but one that a casual fan would not recognize. Flash forward to today, where Activision, MLG and the rotating cast of developers are not only aware of esports but actively spending time developing game features around it – even creating an official ruleset – but the basic esport outline has not changed. The casual player does not recognize this version of Call of Duty being played at the professional level.

Compare that to Overwatch, where the only difference between quickplay, ranked and the Overwatch League is the amount of skill and coordination. Anyone who has played an Overwatch match, or watched their favorite streamer/YouTuber play, can turn on the OWL and have a good understanding of what is going on. This is not the case for Call of Duty esports, which needs a guide to transition from pub to competitive.

The Gentlemen’s M1

Update: Clayster broke the GA

The M1 Garand is an iconic American rifle, used in World War 2 and is still in use today in military graduation ceremonies. So you might be wondering why the M1 is nowhere to be found in the CoD: WW2 competitive season, and the answer is another major hurdle the esport faces.

In the version of CoD:WW2 that most people know, the M1 is nothing special. The free flowing, random nature of TDM doesn’t create predictable lanes to set up shop and headglitch, the specialty of long range ARs. The M1 is also outclassed up close by high rate of fire SMGs and shotguns, and it struggles at very long ranges against some LMGs. In casual CoD, the M1 is balanced. A skilled hand can reach the top of the scoreboard with an M1, but an average player can compete in mid to long range gunfights as intended.

When the M1 is used with the superhuman reflexes and laser like precision of a Call of Duty professional however, it an unstoppable, game breaking weapon that will 2 shot kill from any distance. The M1’s long range competition, LMGs, are officially banned from CoD esports. Its short range nemesis, the M1918 SMG, isn’t viable or predictable enough outside of extremely close ranges to consider using for a competitive match. Enter the dreaded “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

Imagine if PSG and Real Madrid decided Barcelona was too good at taking short corners, making traditional corners less viable, so all the players secretly decide to not take short corners anymore. Or if NBA players agreed that 3 pointers were less fun than dunks and changed their own rules accordingly. If you prefer a more like for like comparison, imagine if Overwatch pros suddenly stopped using Mercy and D.Va. This is the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in Call of Duty esports. When the majority of professionals agree that a weapon is too powerful, and the developer does not respond in time with a nerf, the players ban it themselves through private group texts and DMs – a modern version of the back alley handshake or cigar smoke filled deals.

The agreement is enforced through blacklisting, a player or team that does not agree to the new rule will no longer be able to practice or team with players who agreed, effectively ending their chances at a successful career. Some players are better than others at using the M1, is it fair that they can no longer use a weapon that the official rules state is perfectly legal? The instances of a player being blacklisted are few at the professional level, just about everyone at the tournament level goes along with it, but pro players are making these changes with an eye on how they want the game to be played, not how the game will be viewed. Shotguns are also banned through the gentlemen’s and are another example of a weapon that could have balanced the also gentlemen’s M1! How is Sledgehammer supposed to balance their game around what players may or may no be using this week? Should they account for shotguns when making adjustments, should they ignore the M1 when adjusting the BAR’s recoil?

The Gentleman’s Agreement is another relic of the flip phone era, a time when players needed to balance the game themselves. Unfortunately, as is the case with the M1 and FG currently, there are times where it might be appropriate. But players are not game designers, they are interested in preserving their specific playstyles over a truly balanced comp game.

Sledgehammer released a patch recently that made the M1A1 a competitive option, yet it was no wear to be found in the competitive scene. Turns out, the gentleman’s did not only ban the M1, the players decided to blanket ban all semi-auto weapons in CoD:WW2. Who is to say that a meta of M1s, carbines and shotguns would be a worse viewing experience than what we have now?

What’s best for the players is not always what’s best for the viewers, this is why the best competitions have rules created by neutral third parties, with input from past and present players, viewers, refs, etc. Players need to play the game under the official rules, and the developers need to constantly stay on top of the rules to ensure a balanced, exciting competition. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” is another obstacle for Call of Duty esports viewership.

Getting the Word Out

How about, and forgive me for going off the top of my head, “Watch CWL Atlanta”

Even though the competitive side of Call of Duty is disconnected from the pubs, it is still a frenetic, high intensity esport that has potential to bring in big viewers – just need to know about it. The reasons we mentioned above will still be an issue for some (most?) viewers, but a major problem for CoD esports is the majority of those 15 million CoD fans don’t even know there is a professional scene to like or not like.

When you fire up CoD:WW2, you are greeted with a splash screen of news. The news will usually be advertising the latest weapons or featured playlists of WW2. This splash screen does not contain any information about the Call of Duty World League. You can even watch the live CWL events in Headquarters, and the game does not tell you that unless you are already in Headquarters looking at the screen! The Theater will flash “Live Event” when you look over at it, but that means nothing to someone who is not already aware of the CWL and its tournaments.

“Live Event” is the only kind of notification a player can see.

We can bash the pro players for streaming Fortnite instead of CoD, or secretly banning shotguns and the M1A1 for no reason, but this splash screen disaster is inexcusable for every decision maker at MLG, Activision and Sledgehammer. There are 15 million people out there right now who liked the idea of CoD enough to buy it, and every single one of them could easily be made aware of the CWL whenever they log in. Other esports are advertising events; Rainbow 6 Siege is getting IGN ad space for their championships, ESL has spots during NBA games. Activision has a bigger, free advertising platform that is exclusively made up of their target audience!

via GIPHY

Sledgehammer already did the hard part, they built a game that people like, with a way to watch every live CWL event with all of your friends online. Activision and Sledghammer, try telling people about it.

It is hard to say that CoD esports is struggling, it has come a long way from the flip phone days of community center tournaments. There is a pro league and enough prize money for hundreds of players to potentially have a CoD career, but Activision’s money is the reason for all of this, not a large viewer base. If CoD esports wants to join the levels of LOL, CS:GO or even Overwatch, some major changes will have to be made.

There is competitive Call of Duty happening right now. You won’t see any shotguns, LMGs or any semi-automatic rifles. You won’t see the FG-42 and you probably won’t see your favorite pub modes and maps. MLG Atlanta is happening this weekend, followed by Group B of the CWL on March 14th. We’ll tell you since Call of Duty didn’t.

About The Author

Vince G
Esports Staff Writer

Vincent is a washed up former college volleyball player who prefers video games now, since they don't hurt his surprisingly old knees. His all time favorite games are Bioshock, Mirror's Edge and Catherine. Vincent is currently playing and covering all things competitive Call of Duty. He is a Diamond in WW2 ranked play, and doesn't care that it was probably a glitch that placed him there.