The COVID-19 global pandemic has led major sports leagues to cancel or postpone their seasons, and the world of esports has been impacted as well. One league that has adapted to the new challenges is the Call of Duty League. The current season is continuing, albeit with some significant changes. The change is dramatic--all on-site matches have been transitioned to an online format.
The move has not been without its own set of challenges and new considerations under the strictly digital format. To get an inside understanding of this transition, GameSpot spoke with various professional gamers, team owners, and casters to hear directly about this change. These interviews were conducted just ahead of the Florida Mutineers Home Series event, which runs May 8-10.
View From The Top
Eric Sanders, the general manager of OpTic Gaming Los Angeles, one of the participating teams this weekend, remarked that the Call of Duty League is being proactive in ensuring that online play is "as fair as possible." This includes analysing player connections and evaluating the best servers to use to ensure an optimal experience.
Sanders admitted that the new online-only tournament setup will mean that the "feel" of the competition will be different with no in-person crowds cheering on the action. But he's confident his team is up to the challenge of competing in this new environment.
"Not having a live crowd will definitely impact the feel of the tournaments, but I try to look at the silver lining--traditional sports can't compete at the moment and we are lucky enough to continue to still be competing in the game we love," Sanders said. "Even though a crowd will not be there, the matches are just as important, so the players will bring the intensity."
As the general manager of OpTic Gaming, Sanders puts a big emphasis on connecting with his players and forging relationships. However, this is not as easy in the new setup. "The biggest challenge is simply not being able to be with the team each day. I truly believe in building a relationship with any player I'm managing, and that gets more difficult to do without face to face interaction," he said.
He added: "We are carrying on with business as usual but utilizing voice servers / video chat to communicate with each other. We work in an industry that is based in the digital world outside of live events, so other than location, we haven’t had too many changes."
With Call of Duty League matches moving to a strictly online setup, that puts a huge premium on network connections (under a normal setup, Call of Duty League matches are played on LAN connections). Sanders said he's worked with Activision's Call of Duty League organizers to ensure his team has the "best competitive environment possible."
Minnesota Rokkr boss Brett Diamond, tells GameSpot that he's extremely proud of his entire team--staff, coaches, players, and fans--for rallying together during this difficult time.
"In our last in-person meeting, we reminded the staff that everything we've achieved in building this brand has been from making the best of what we have to work with every step along the way," he said. "Family and health should be everyone’s priorities. Beyond that we’re going to keep hustling, creating content and building the community one fan at a time."
Diamond also said it's been important for him to remember and consider that everyone has a unique circumstance. "This situation is stressful for everyone, and we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem for our staff and players," he said. "Our coaches and players have a level of professionalism that sets them apart. Their mindset and competitive nature fuels them in this challenging environment."
In terms of logistics, Diamond said he's spent time recently upgrading his team's at-home internet situation and giving his players and staff the necessary equipment to keep the business moving.
"We focused on the basics: upgrading home internet, getting portable hard drives, lighting, web cams, back drops, etcetera to everyone that needed them. Long term we're looking at investments in more remote production resources," he said.
A Player's Perspective
Practicing and training is a pivotal part of any athlete's preparation for competition, and esports are no different. Professional player Maux of the Florida Mutineers tells GameSpot that he and his teammates are training from separate locations in adherence of social-distancing guidelines. Normally, everyone is in the same physical location for practice sessions.
"Other than all of us being home, practice sessions haven't changed. We still practice in scrims every day and have coaching sessions to go over strategy," Maux said. "With no social distractions, I feel it’s been easier to focus on the game so yes I'm still competing on the same level as before."
Another Florida Mutineers player, Havok, pointed out that one of the benefits of competing in an online environment is that he and his teammates can focus better during stressful moments, but he also commented that there are issues as well. "The lack of crowd makes the game easier to control when matches get hectic but also gives matches a less authentic feel to them so it's hard to get into the right mindset before the match," he said.
Another team competing this weekend is the Minnesota Røkkr. Justin "Silly" Fargo-Palmer tells GameSpot that, after a rocky start with the new format, he's been impressed to see the League respond with positive changes. "The league is doing a great job of adapting to these new issues. Things may have started off a little rocky, but things are getting better and better as the days go on," he said.
Given the global pandemic that's causing suffering and hardship around the world, players might have more on their minds than before. Silly said he's trying to do his part to keep himself and those around him safe by staying home. "I do absolutely feel like I'm still competing at the same level even with everything going on. I'm lucky enough to be able to do what I usually do," he said.
Another player, Obaid "Asim" Asim, said he feels a new sense of camaraderie with his teammates. "We all treat each other like brothers. Luckily, most of our families have been safe. Anytime anyone on the team has something they have to deal with, we completely respect and give them all the time and support they need," he said.
No Home Field Advantage
One of the more unique and compelling elements of the Call of Duty League is its city-based structure, just like more traditional sports. The idea of "home field advantage," however, goes away when tournaments are held online. Asim tells GameSpot that he and his teammates have been trying to make up for this by getting extra pumped up during practice sessions and in matches to try to capture some of the energy of an in-person event.
"What we've been doing to make up for the lack of that home field advantage is treating every day of practice like it’s game day," he said. "Any time any of us makes a big play, we hype each other and try to get everyone super energetic and encouraged to take over. As much as we miss the crowd and the big stage, winning is all we want and need to accomplish."
Another Røkkr player, Adam Jerome "GodRX," shared a similar sentiment. "Without the 'home field advantage' we are making sure that whenever our teammates do something on the map, we let them know and try to gas them up so that they and the rest of our team have good energy throughout the match to keep it rolling so we can pull through with the W," he said.
He added: "There is a big difference being able to hear the crowd compared to online matches. When you make a play, you feed off of the crowd’s energy and it gets you fired up. Online, you make a play and it’s not the same. Yeah, you get fired up but you don’t have that ‘6th man’ to hear and get you going."
Commentating is a critical part of any professional sport, and this of course includes gaming. The commentators bring expert knowledge of the game and engaging commentary to help viewers stay informed and entertained. But what happens with casters are commenting on the action remotely?
"Initially, it was bizarre!" Call of Duty League caster Miles Ross tells GameSpot. "We quickly discovered how much we relied on non-verbal communication when working together. My co-commentator Philip 'Momo' Whitfield and I found ourselves making little mistakes that felt so alien to our work style, and we quickly realized we had to develop new signals. This gave us a great chance to work on some new tricks, to reset and review how we prep and find our groove."
Ross is now calling Call of Duty League matches from his bedroom. He explained this unique setup to us (and why he's not winning any brownie points with this neighbors).
"My bedroom has been turned into a studio. I've been sent headsets, microphones, a backdrop, a seriously powerful PC and a ring light setup to make sure the show goes on as well as leveling up my selfie game. It's like the caster's box in an event studio is now in my home. Just like at matches, I have a screen with the match on in front of me, a camera and a bright light, and a director's voice comes into my headset to count us in, reminding us to go big and blow the roof off--much to my neighbor's contempt."
"The team's agility during this period has been unmatched, we are on constant tech calls making sure everything is not only streamlined, but uniform across the talent team, with constant collaboration to just make things better and better."
After a few weeks of competition in this new setup, Ross said he's responded to the changes positively. He also noted that the viewers are happy that Call of Duty League matches can go on in this new manner, and they've been patient and understanding during some of the initial launch struggles.
"They understand that this is a new way of doing everything, it reminded me that we really are all in this together, everyone is working this thing out day by day, whether that's understanding how to get groceries, celebrate birthdays and weddings, or put on a world class Call of Duty broadcast from basements and bedrooms," Ross said.
At the same time, Ross said he's eager to get back to calling games live and in-person where he feels more comfortable.
"Even though production has nimbly adapted where it feels as though not much has changed, I do miss the aura and roar of the crowd so much," he said. "Pre-COVID, the CDL community demonstrated an incredible passion over the world with crazy energy from London to LA. The lack of an audience is different, but the online format has also created a lovely connection and engagement across YouTube chat, Twitter and Instagram. I'll never forget the candid approach the audience now has to tweet me to stop breathing into my mic or an Instagram DM that they can hear me thanking my wife for a bottle of water mid-show."
The Call of Duty League continues this weekend with the Florida Mutineers Home Series event, which runs May 8-10, featuring the Mutineers, Atlanta Faze, Paris Legion, London Royal Ravens, OpTic Gaming Los Angeles, New York Subliners, Toronto Ultra, and the Minnesota Rokkr. As for the long-term plan the Call of Duty League, Activision plans to keep the digital format for the foreseeable future.
The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is changing every day, and it will be some time before things return to normal. For Sanders, he's looking forward to getting back to in-person events, but he foresees the growth and expansion of the "metaverse" of digital events, too.
"Live events are special experiences that truly bring a community together," he said. "I do not think we will see live events going away long term, but I do think there will be more live digital events, in a variety of ways outside of just esports. More publishers are realizing that their game can function as a metaverse so I imagine we will see many different types of activations within games in the future."
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