2018 was another landmark year for Call of Duty. Black Ops 4 kept the franchise's best-selling game of the year streak alive and nearly 200,000 viewers tuned into the Call of Duty World League's 2019 season debut in Las Vegas. It only makes sense that Activision Blizzard would want to capitalize on this excitement and push the competitive shooter to the next level.
That's just what they did during their earnings call earlier in February, confirming rumors that the Call of Duty World League would follow Overwatch League's footsteps in becoming a city-based franchise system. Few other details were given out during the call -- however, Overwatch League franchise owners believe it will begin in 2020.
The reaction in the competitive community has been mostly positive -- although the six players, coaches and managers that ESPN spoke to all agree that Activision Blizzard has to adjust its approach to fit the intricacies of Call of Duty.
"Franchising has the potential to add positives, but I'm not convinced that locking teams into a region is the best approach," 100 Thieves head of esports operations Eric "Muddawg" Sanders tells ESPN. "The beauty of esports is how accessible they are. Anyone can play the game regardless of their location, age, or physical ability. Restricting a team to a single region may help raise the viewership floor, but I also feel it could severely limit the ceiling of that same fandom."
While Call of Duty and Overwatch are both first-person shooters, the communities around each game couldn't be more different. The Call of Duty community has to adapt to a new game every year -- which could create problems within a franchise.
Activision Blizzard would need to find a way to help stabilize the pro scene more so the yearly change doesn't have as much of an impact as it does now. They've started off with the creation of a Call of Duty Path to Pro system, an amatuer league that will hopefully be a consistent source of quality talent. However, some players believe that a developmental league like this might not be enough to maintain Call of Duty's healthy competitive system.
"Call of Duty didn't just decide to be an esport, it's content driven. If you just franchise everything a lot of brands out that have been in the community for years will get left out," said retired player Jeremy "Neslo" Olsen. "Call of Duty needs to focus on its niche, a niche that gave us 300,000 viewers a few years ago. It's always been about how anybody can compete, anybody can make a name for themselves. Once you take that away you'll see a lot of people leave."
A huge part of the Call of Duty World League and the franchise's competitive history has been built on the mentality that any team could come in and win a major tournament through the open division bracket. While that doesn't happen very often, it's still a big driving factor that brings players, teams, and viewers to CWL LANs and hundreds of online tournaments. Open division qualifiers won't be possible in a franchise system, as teams will need to be established beforehand. An amatuer league could help provide stability with a steady flow of talent to top teams, but competitive play might not be as appealing without the 'anyone can win' mindset.
"The effect that the yearly release has on players is immense, the turnaround to master a new game every year is a variable that makes it hard to tell who can transition," said Team Envy manager Marcus Lovejoy. "There's going to be a lot of fresh talent and players moving around after a new games comes out every year. It's not like Overwatch."
Every other franchised league, in both sports and esports, has a static product that teams build around. While Overwatch has regular updates that add new characters and mechanics, Call of Duty comes out every year with a new setting and features-- alongside regular updates that change how the game plays post-release. "I think it's important to have as much player feedback as possible to get the most polished and well rounded game when it drops rather than go through a bunch of updates after release," said UYU player Anthony "Methodz" Zinni. "It all depends on the game, we need a good game every year."
Outside whatever changes that Activision Blizzard needs to make to mold Call of Duty to a franchise system, the players ESPN spoke to agreed that the history of the competitive shooter needs to be a top priority. That history is full of passionate fans, powerful rivalries, and brand names that have been anchors in the community for years. It'd be a mistake for names like Optic, Envy, and Faze to change to fit into a city-based system.
"I think Call of Duty needs to leverage the existing brands in the space. Overwatch was a new game with a relatively young scene prior to Blizzard building out the Overwatch League," Sanders said. "Competitive Call of Duty has been around for over a decade and it brings a rich history that shouldn't be swept under the rug."