Activision Blizzard had big plans for its inaugural season of the Call of Duty League (CDL) in 2020. Those plans focused largely on in-person events, with teams traveling from city to city, where fans could cheer on their favorite franchises from packed arenas.
The coronavirus pandemic had other ideas.
As lockdown orders spread across the U.S., the CDL (and its sister league, the Overwatch League) had to quickly pivot, moving to an online-only format in March. In addition to the adjustment to remote play and broadcast, it was still finding its footing on its new exclusive partner of YouTube, with viewership lagging particularly in March and early April.
But the league is enjoying something of a victory lap now. Its big season-ending event, Champs, which saw the Dallas Empire claim the inaugural championship title, drew record-shattering numbers this past weekend, not just for the league, but “Call of Duty” esports at large. It peaked at more than 330k viewers, including co-streams, making it the most-viewed “Call of Duty” esports event ever (the previous confirmed peak for a “Call of Duty” esports event was around 200k, according to the league).
“To finish as strong as we did, to see fans tune in and show up for the biggest moment of the year like that, amidst that pandemic, amidst all the pivots we’ve had to make, was really awesome and such a huge achievement for us,” CDL commissioner Johanna Faries tells Variety. “I think it speaks to the strength of what we’re building and really gives us that confidence going into Season 2.”
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She admits the first season has been a “rollercoaster-type of experience,” but credits the resilience of the league and its 12 franchises for pushing forward. In regards to Champs’ record numbers, she points to a number of factors, including beta drop codes for “Black Ops Cold War” and other exclusive viewer rewards throughout post-season.
But when it came to the season’s eventual uptick, reaching a pre-playoffs peak of 115k viewers with the New York Home Series in July, Faries said it turned around when they were able to shift their focus from pivoting to remote play to the content itself.
“I think a lot of it was about making sure we could align on content plans, get smarter in partnership with YouTube, for example,” she says, noting that the CDL’s YouTube page passed 1 million subscribers early last month. “When we poured our focus and our creative muscle behind not only operating in a seamless way in light of COVID-19, but then really being able to optimize the fan experience with a content-first lens, you saw immediately the growth that we started to enjoy.”
And now that CDL has crossed the finish line on its inaugural season, it’s already announced one big particular dramatic change for the 2021 cycle: a move from 5v5 to 4v4 in “Black Ops Cold War.” While it’s a decision that has been applauded by many fans as a return to the roots of “Call of Duty” esports and one that makes for more competitive gameplay, it’s also one that presents an inevitable numbers problem: now that the 12 franchises have built five-player teams of the best “Call of Duty” players in the world, they now have to bench one of those players or cut them altogether.
It’s already started to play out in the off season, with James “Clayster” Eubanks becoming a free agent just days after winning the championship title with the Dallas Empire.
Faries also confirms news first broken by ESPN earlier this week that CDL has no plans to expand beyond its 12 teams in 2021, meaning there won’t be extra slots in that respect. She says the decision to move to 4v4 was made “in collaboration with our teams, our owners, our GMs, our coaches, our players” after months of dialogue.
“A lot of it was about thinking ecosystem first,” she says. “There was so much feedback coming in from different stakeholders about the merit of making such a move. So in many respects, it was informed, it was done in deep discussion with so many people who play a role in making sure that we’re delivering the best possible fan experience.”
Looking forward even further, Faries says she has “nothing to announce yet” in regards to whether the league will open up franchise slots in 2022, adding that they’re “focused on delivering a really fundamentally exciting and stronger product output in Season 2.”
And as far as getting back to their in-person plans next year, it’s dependent on the pandemic. While that aspect is still “critically important” for them, Faries feels confident about their ability to carry on remotely if needed. Launching off of the success of Champs, Faries notes that they “need to find really special ways to reward our ‘Call of Duty’ player base, and to establish CDL as a place to really go as a viewer and as a player for unique rewards and unique experiences” moving forward.
“It goes without saying, this has been a very challenging year, and in many ways challenges that no one could’ve controlled or expected,” she says. “So backs really against the wall, the CDL teams and the CDL family writ large still delivered, and still really put this league on the map because we know how strong a product it really is and can become.”