Franchising is the talk of the town in the Call of Duty (CoD) scene. Sources indicate Activision is planning to implement an Overwatch League (OWL) style model into the CoD World League (CWL) as early as the Black Ops 4 season, starting later this year.
Activision seeks to revitalize the CWL’s struggling viewership with an adaptation on their OWL system following successful sales. To mimic North American sports leagues, the OWL forgoes a promotion/relegation system (as CoD currently offers) for a franchise model where organizations buy their spot.
In place of promotion, there are two subdivisions of the OWL where amateur players can make their names. Organizations with less funding have little hope of competing in the premier division, but their players can progress through the “Overwatch Open” and “Overwatch League Contenders” options. However, the exact format Activision is planning for CoD is yet to be known.
No need to imitate real sports?
According to ESPN, Activision plan to put OWL teams first in line to purchase their spot in the CWL. Only two organizations currently operate in both esports, Dallas Fuel’s parent Team EnVyUs and OpTic Gaming, owner of the Houston Outlaws. Those willing to buy-in will likely create another off-shoot brand for Call of Duty. If they are focused around a single city, this may generate some local support for each team. However, changing staple names such as OpTic Gaming to the “Houston Desperados” or similar will surely alienate some fans.
In franchising Overwatch, Activision introduced a larger roster to allow substitutions. If this trend continues into CoD, top rosters will seek to acquire the strongest players from the weaker regions. This may strip Europe and Australasia of their best talents to create larger, more versatile teams. This would all but eliminate true regional powerhouses to root for. Australia’s finest Denz and Shockz would probably be scooped up, leaving no national team for Aussie fans.
If the OWL is followed closely, almost the entire competitive scene would take place in the US-based league. All international players would, therefore, require a P1 visa to travel and work in the States. Only Europe’s Splyce currently has access to these visas. Activision should have the influence to remedy these issues but the concern is not unfounded.
Will open events survive with franchising?
In Overwatch, the OWL comprises almost the entire season’s action, with few competitions outside of league matches and playoffs. In other esports including CoD, invitational and open events command the greatest viewership. League matches tend to lag behind due to their relative lack of importance. I believe they are not only the most exciting competitions but also provide a great platform for amateurs to make their name.
If there are no open events, will it be possible to see miracle runs of unknown players and organizations to the top? EUnited’s unexpected title at CWL Atlanta 2017 and Unilad Esports’ journey to 4th place at CWL Anaheim 2018 provided the underdog stories and enthralling losers’ bracket runs rarely found outside of CoD. These events are crucial in the landscape of our scene, and I hope Activision deeply considers the viewers’ preference.
The potential of an OWL-style Contenders League also has its problems. There is a tendency for amateur players to “stat-pad” in search of recruitment by a top division team. “Stat-padding” involves playing to make yourself look good, rather than purely to win. When there is no possibility of promotion, this league may prove a collection of individual-minded players. Competition and integrity would suffer as a result.
My final concern involves player conduct. CoD pro players are often very outspoken on Twitter, with generally light-hearted “trash-talk” common both before and during matches. If Activision takes a hardline stance on player behavior as in Overwatch, the rivalries and storylines that fans enjoy may struggle to prosper. We should not have to rely on out-of-game controversy to sustain our esport, but another selling point of CoD may be on its way out the door.
A Brighter Future?
Maybe I am overly pessimistic. The franchising system should help the CWL ride the wave created by the OWL. Many view CoD as the second-rate cousin of the esports scene, but major backing from Activision will change perceptions. With a greater focus on the competitive aspects, stickers and other in-game content should make a return, last seen in Black Ops 3.
Furthermore, there should be a larger emphasis on competitive balance. Activision will compel developers to fix glaring glitches quickly and time updates more carefully in regard to competitions. A guarantee of player security and the return of prominent advertising are likely benefits.
The extent to which an OWL model will be introduced is hardly set in stone, but I am skeptical that it can be successfully ported into CoD. There will definitely be positives for promotion and advertisement, but I fear the CoD that I know and love is slipping away with this announcement; the differentiating factors ceasing to exist.
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