The Call of Duty League kicked off its inaugural season last year with a bang. The CDL launched with an ambitious vision to merge esports with city-based teams, and it all started with a live event at the Minneapolis Armory. Not long after, that vision was forced to change.
Like most gaming leagues around the world, the CDL was forced to shift to an online format, eschewing in-person events. Perhaps surprisingly, the season was still a success; the league says last year’s finals between Dallas and Atlanta was the most-watched Call of Duty match ever, with a peak of 330,000 viewers. (The winning team even won an actual throne.)
According to CDL commissioner Johanna Faries, the league was able to learn from the experience of running a remote competition last year and make some notable changes for season 2, which starts today. “There’s so much that we’ve done structurally with the season, but also strategically with how we celebrate our community and deliver world-class experiences, that I’d argue will be more of an improvement over last year,” Faries tells The Verge.
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The list of changes for season 2 is large. The league is adopting a new structure centered on five “major” tournaments throughout the year, and it has shifted to 4 vs. 4 competition, meaning each team had to drop a starting player from its roster. Games will also be played on PC this year, and — in one of the more unique aspects of competitive COD — the game itself will shift to last year’s Black Ops Cold War. Other changes are slightly smaller in scope, like the ability for teams to design their own jerseys. There’s even a new team: Optic Gaming has moved from LA to Chicago, opening up a spot for the new Los Angeles Thieves.
Faries says players and teams are involved in all of these decisions, particularly the ones that impact them most directly, like the roster changes. “Players and teams were exceedingly involved in that process,” she says of the move to 4 vs. 4. “We tend to mine for feedback pretty rigorously. We don’t like to make decisions in a silo or a vacuum. And I love that the outcome was well received, but we had a sense that that would be the outcome given how collaborative the process was.”
The structural changes, meanwhile, were put in place to ensure that there are still plenty of big moments throughout the regular season, while also making each individual match feel important. “We love this notion of stage-based play, where nearly every month there’s going to be a new run at winning a major tournament in the regular season,” Faries explains. “That said, what’s also good about it is that every match is going to matter.” Teams will earn points from every match, and the top eight clubs will make it to the playoffs at the end of the season. “It all adds up,” she says.
The 2021 season is also kicking off at an opportune time. Call of Duty is arguably as popular as it’s ever been. Not only was Black Ops Cold War one of the top-selling titles of 2020, but the franchise has also reached new audiences through Call of Duty Mobile and the battle royale Warzone. It’s not clear how the CDL plans to take advantage of that, but Faries admits that there’s “such an opportunity” to bring new fans into the league through those games.
Of course, the other big question is when the league will return to in-person events. Faries says that having teams based in cities around the world playing matches in home arenas is still the ultimate vision for the CDL. “We all want that,” she says. “We’re going to do it when it’s safe to do so, responsible to do so.” So while the 2021 season will start out online, the future of the league depends on both the global popularity of COD and tapping into those major cities across the globe. “The two working together is really where the power of the vision of the CDL comes from.”