Call of Duty League Commissioner on Why It’s Time for a Franchise Model

Call of Duty” esports is officially headed for a city-based model.

Publisher Activision Blizzard announced over the summer that the newly coined Call of Duty League will have a franchised, home-and-away structure immediately when it launches its inaugural season in early 2020. It’s set 12 teams in 11 cities, and the roster mania has already begun.

If any of that sounds familiar, that’s because much of what Call of Duty League is doing is similar to the Overwatch League, which also falls under the Activision Blizzard umbrella and is jumping into a home-and-away format with its third season next year. Those similarities aren’t necessarily an accident, Call of Duty League commissioner Johanna Faries told Variety.

“We feel like we’ve learned a lot, first of all, from what Overwatch League has been able to accomplish, and ‘Call of Duty’ as an esport has been thriving for many, many years now,” Faries said. “So those two things combined create this great opportunity for us to shape the new vision.”

Getting down to the nitty-gritty, Call of Duty League’s first season will span 26 events over 28 weeks starting in early 2020 (official dates have not yet been announced), with a prize pool of more than $6 million. Each of the cities represented in the league — Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles (with two teams), Minnesota, New York, Paris, Seattle and Toronto — will host two home series events, with five-versus-five competition on the soon-to-be-released “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” on PlayStation 4.

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Teams will consist of seven to 10 players, and one announcement that quickly caught the eye of fans: Each player will get a minimum base salary of $50,000, along with health care and retirement benefits. Teams also have to award at least 50% of all prize winnings to players. According to Faries, that was a top priority in shaping the new league.

“That was the guiding principle from Overwatch League,” she said. “We believe wholeheartedly in supporting our players and standardizing their experience to be treated like the professionals that they are. So that was part of the philosophy since day one.”

While it’s easy to note the similarities between Overwatch League and the new Call of Duty League, there’s one big inherent difference: When Overwatch League launched in 2017, it was essentially starting from scratch with a whole new game. That’s far from the case with “Call of Duty,” which released its first game in 2003 and has seen several esports iterations over the past decade. Faries said the league hopes to use that to its advantage.

“‘Call of Duty,’ just by virtue of what the game is and the legacy that it has, not only in esports but more broadly, allowed us to lean more into what’s new, what’s fresh,” she said. “What we do around celebrities and influencers who love this game as much as we do, how are they a part of the action? How are we taking this into mainstream culture in a really relevant way?”

Call of Duty League won’t just be focused on the 12 pro teams, but instead have three tiers: professional, amateur (dubbed Call of Duty Challengers) and community (named the Call of Duty City Circuit).

Challengers, which will have a prize pool of more than $1 million, gives “Call of Duty” esports an official path to pro channel, and Faries said it was inspired by the existing amateur pipeline. It should, she said, “feel familiar to core fans of the ‘Call of Duty’ esports experience.” City Circuit, she added, has the league “treating fans as not just a spectator, but also if they want to have the opportunity to compete, they now can on behalf of their cities.”

In terms of team ownership, many of the owners in Season 1 have already invested in past “Call of Duty” esports leagues, as well as Overwatch League. Faries pointed to the balance in ownership when it comes to “Call of Duty” experience, Overwatch League and traditional sports when setting up the 12 franchised teams, the slots for which she said were in “high demand.”

“We wanted to make sure we were lighting up markets that are highly engaged ‘Call of Duty’ markets, but we also need to make sure that those ownership groups have the operational savvy, have the business savvy, have the player and league operation and competitive operation savvy to be first-class in what we bring forward,” she said.

Many more of the details about the league, though, have yet to be revealed. Branding for the teams has only just started to roll out, with ReKTGlobal revealing the name (London Royal Ravens), logo and colors for its franchise. Faries stayed mum on names, but teased that the league has been eyeing some famous fans to get involved — “a huge part of what will differentiate this league.”

“Just by virtue of how many pro athletes, musicians, actors, streamers, influencers, content creators — they all have such a deep love and affinity for ‘Call of Duty,'” she said. “We knew that that needed to come through in the expression of the league.”

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