It’s safe to say that there’s a bit of an audience for eSports, and it’s one that Call of Duty has been involved in for quite some time. Activision have held their own Call of Duty Championships each year since 2013, but it’s now, with Black Ops III and the first year of the Call of Duty World League, that it feels like they’ve really gone all in with supporting eSports.
While attending the Gfinity CWL Summer Masters, we sat down with Jay Puryear, Director of Brand Development at Treyarch, about eSports, the Call of Duty World League, and how Activision hope to bring this to continue to grow this over the coming years. Oh, and that all too obvious question, right at the end.
TSA: Bringing Major League Gaming in house this year and founding the Call of Duty World League, you’re obviously stepping up your eSports presence, but it kind of feels like you’re maybe a step behind the curve in doing so. Do you think that’s fair?
Jay Puryear: “One step behind the curve,” I don’t think is fair. The difference is that Activision and what we’re going to do with Call of Duty World League needs to be what’s good for COD.
Every game’s a little bit different in this space and they’re going to do things that they think are right for the community. One of the reasons why we created CWL is to really add a structure and a direction on exactly where we think eSports needs to go, and more importantly where eSports fits with what we’re trying to do with Call of Duty.
TSA: So you’ve had the Call of Duty Championships over the last few years, and now you’ve built a proper league around that for the first time.
Jay: I think the biggest thing for us was being able to move [the date]. If you think about it, COD Champs was really early in the year – end of March, early April – and looking at it from a competitive landscape, the game launches in November, here we are four or five months later and here’s our championship! Here’s the ultimate event!
So we were really looking at how do we extend the season? How do we support the players and support the league for a longer period of time? That allows us to create storylines, get the fans involved, you know. We’re looking at it really holistically on how we deliver the best entertainment experience with Call of Duty.
TSA: There’s clearly a long term vision for what you’ve wanted to do, but what was the driving force behind that? Was it spotting eSports’ rise or trying to push it yourselves?
Jay: It’s a competitive game, right? So it’s a natural fit!
I think for us it was really seeing how the community in eSports, the players, and the overall scene of eSports, with how passionate and positive experience it is.
COD Champs, like I said, happened so early, it was how do we really extend that experience. There was a lot of, like, “This is great, but it’s very fast”, so for us, from a strategy standpoint, it was to make it feel like more of a season. […]
Teams are going to come in, we have the qualifiers in December, then here’s Stage 1. Then we convert to points, you have relegation, a little bit of a break, and then here’s Stage 2, and we’re having the big Stage 2 finals in a couple of weeks.
TSA: For people trying to view this for the first time, how do you get them invested in what’s going on? Now there are a lot more rounds, there’s a lot more build up and there’s not as big a central focal point.
Jay: So, I think it’s twofold. The first thing we’re doing is that we introduced the live event viewer into Black Ops 3 this year, so we’re actually broadcasting the CWL matches weekly into the game. Now you’re able to see teams from around the globe participating, and we think that eSports is very aspirational, so now you can actually watch it in game, see somebody do something, see a particular strategy or wall run that someone’s using, and you can now go out of the live event viewer hop into a game and try it.
The players are very aspirational because they’re so good, and being able to try something you just saw and realise, “That’s impossible, and yet I just saw it happen?” I think it’s a wonderful way for the players and the community to connect in ways that probably doesn’t happen in traditional sports.
If I see LeBron James dunk a ball, or some other basketball player, if I go out and try to do that, I’d probably be just as frustrated, but here you have a chance to actually do it.
TSA: I mean, LeBron James has got at least a foot on you, so you’ve got a good excuse!
Jay: I know, I know… [laughs]
TSA: Bringing it to those real world parallels, how do you go and pick a team to support? You don’t have a local team, you don’t have the same bond to if you grew up near to a team’s stadium.
Jay: That’s the power that we can use with the league and with Activision. What we need to do is to continue to build those stories. I need to give you a reason why you should care about a particular team or care about a particular player, so we’re really working on how we develop those storylines.
What are those rivalries? Is it OpTic versus some other team? Is it player A versus player B? I think there’s a lot of people in the community that feel that way, but we need to really develop those storylines and bring other things into the fold that makes that a lot more compelling and give you a reason to care, other than just watching a great match.
TSA: What about getting those stories in front of more people? For example, we’re getting a dedicated eSports TV channel in the UK, which feels like a strange attempt by old media to copy new media.
Jay: Well that’s the interesting thing, right? The thing about this generation that follows eSports – taking myself out, of course. I’m old, trust me! – the way this community consumes content is just completely different. So it’s up to us to make sure that when we’re creating these storylines, we are making them accessible to them in the mediums that they’re using. That’s just about us continuing to work with players and organisations to create that content.
But they’re there, right? They’re already on YouTube, streaming, and I think that the really interesting part for us is that, when you look at how strong their social media network is, you can reach a lot of the fans pretty quickly. It’s different to your point about traditional broadcasts, where I’m going to put it on a channel and hope somebody finds it.
TSA: Looking forward to next year and the year after that, you’re always moving on to the next Call of Duty. It’s not just starting with a fresh league table, but you also have drastically new gameplay of late. How do you get past players having to learn each game’s new quirks?
Jay: So, let me answer that in a couple of different ways. Yes, when you look at other games, they’re very consistent, but if you look over the last couple of years, the top teams have been the top teams almost on any game. I think that goes to the professionalism and the talent that they have as players. So they do a lot of the same [things with each game]. They’re looking for lines of sight, what weapons feel right, what new perks and combinations are like.
It’s also important for us, moving forward, that we have consistency on modes – the maps are changing too, right? So we’re having the modes, we’re having the CODcaster feature so we’re even able to have events like this. For us it’s about creating a foundation that says here’s CODcaster, here’s the modes, here’s the maps and everything that makes the most sense.
Then part of me feels it’s a bit of an advantage and it freshens things up that we’re playing a game for eight or nine months, and then we get a chance to do something different. Sometimes the players are… passionate as well, and they have their views on things, but I think overall we look at how consistently the teams and players are continuing to resurface from game to game.
TSA: Last question, and it’s the obligatory ‘are eSports sports’?
Jay: Yes! [long pause and laughter]
Look, I think if you look at traditional sports teams, I think there’s things that you can say, but these guys are practicing six to eight hours a day, they are having sports psychologists coming in to help them, they’ve got nutritionists, they’re living together in a house, they go through strategies, they’re watching film.
They’re competing as a group at a skill level that is higher than most people can manage when it comes to this game, and then you throw in the fact that what they’re training for is inherently competitive? My answer is yes.
Thanks to Jay for sitting to chat with us. As explained at the start of the interview, this took place at the Gfinity CWL Summer Masters, and you can read our feature about this and how to try and get into eSports from earlier today.