Competitive Call of Duty is exploding, thanks to cash and tech push from Activision

Competitive Call of Duty is exploding, thanks to cash and tech push from Activision

There have been three major games in eSports over the past few years: League of Legends, StarCraft 2, and Dota 2. But for the last year, the Call of Duty scene has been ever so slowly making strides toward joining the elite titles.

However, at the end of June at the Major League Gaming Spring Championship, the competitive Call of Duty community may have reached a tipping point.

Call of Duty was fucking crazy,” said Rod 'Slasher' Breslau, veteran eSports journalist on a recent episode of eSports talk show Live on Three. “The whole place was packed. It had about as many or more people than StarCraft inside of the venue. It really was nuts. It was the biggest Call of Duty event that I have ever seen outside of the Call of Duty XP event. It was by far one of the greatest achievements for Call of Duty as a community.”

Anecdotally speaking, I've never seen a Call of Duty event at MLG reach more than 30,000 concurrent viewers, but that weekend I kept tuning in and seeing viewership topping 60,000 regularly.

“It's finally reaching it's potential,” said game journalist Alex Rubens, editor of “Take Nadeshot from Optic Gaming as an example. He's the scene's largest streamer on Twitch. Just a month ago, it was huge if his streams broken 6500-7000 viewers. Now, just a month later, they often break 15,000 without a problem. Things are getting bigger for sure.”

Sleeping giant

This eruption has always seemed inevitable. Call of Duty is one of the biggest games on the planet, and it's consistently the top multiplayer game on consoles. In fact, Call of Duty's Black Ops 2 and Modern Warfare 3 were both the number one and the number two most played games on Xbox Live in 2012. Call of Duty dominates the online console space. It was actually a little bit bizarre that professional Call of Duty hadn't yet exploded into mass popularity. So what changed now that is allowing it to finally reach its potential?

It's difficult to know where the journey began for competitive Call of Duty. It's popularity has been steadily building since, well, the original Call of Duty became a big multiplayer game on PC.

As for Call of Duty eSports though, the first catalyst seems to have been the Call of Duty XP event/convention in 2011 which hosted a $1 million tournament. A one-off event will never keep an entire competitive scene healthy, but if nothing else this was a nod of support from Activision to the competitive community and a signal that they wanted to support it going forward.

And support it they did. With Black Ops 2 in 2012, Activision and Treyarch built tools directly into the game specifically to make the game easier to commentate and observe. This allows tournaments like MLG to easily convey the complex action taking place on the map, making it a more pleasant viewer experience overall.

“Go look at the Halo qualifiers that happened last weekend,” said Rubens. “They're hard to follow because of how they're being displayed. It feels cluttered and uninformative. Call of Duty was like that before, Treyarch did alot to change that. That's an unprecedented tool for console games that they built right into the game.”

The “CoDcast” mode allows a commentator or broadcaster to join the match as a spectator and then have access to tools that allow them to see the action from a multitude of angles. It also helps spectators understand the action through things like score displays and nameplates which show viewers which player's perspective is being shown. It also gives casters tools like picture-in-picture, the ability to broadcast players' microphone feeds, and the option to keep the scoreboard visible at all times. 

This is the sort of top down support and technology that makes competitive play not only possible, but enjoyable.

Crossing the divide

All of this has led up to what is likely only the beginning of Call of Duty's success in professional gaming.

“What Riot did with League of Legends was ground breaking, but Call of Duty hasn't had that,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, CEO of Major League Gaming, about the League Championship Series, a full-time League of Legends league that provides support and salaries for teams as well as a consistent viewing schedule for fans.

“There are plans with the console transition to do more, but a lot of people just aren't aware, and I think we're just ahead of a big growth curve for Call of Duty,” DiGiovanni continued.

The problem with Call of Duty so far is that it's spectacularly popular with a segment of the gaming audience which doesn't really partake in the wider gaming culture. So many, if not most, of them likely aren't aware that professional Call of Duty exists. And if they are aware, they might not understand how much fun it is to watch. It is taking time to spread the word from the PC-centric world of eSports to the console-centric world of Call of Duty.

“I'd also attribute a large amount of recent growth in the scene to the Twitch Xbox app,” said's Rubens about the Xbox Live app released in May, that allows viewers to watch game streams from a console rather than a PC. “There's a good amount of people that play some matches, back out to the dashboard, and load up the app to watch their favorite player.”

Up and up

At this point it seems all but certain that Call of Duty is going to continue growing as both streaming and Call of Duty itself continue to become ever more popular. The only question left is where Call of Duty will fit into the current eSports paradigm, and how many games the eSports landscape can support.

“I don't think it will be a challenge to give StarCraft 2 a run for its money but the League of Legends community might be tough,” said Rubens. “Almost everyone who plays League of Legends is competitive about it, you have to be, but there's a good 95% of the people who play Black Ops 2 that have no interest in playing at a more competitive level. We are seeing more players watching pro players and these events though, so who knows.”

“This summer and early fall will be the time to shine for Black Ops 2.”