5 things to know as Call of Duty League returns: More tournaments, 4-on-4 and brand power

The Call of Duty League begins its 2021 season with a noteworthy addition and some changes league executives hope make for an exciting encore to a successful first year of competition.

"We feel a lot of momentum and increased interest in CDL 2021," commissioner Johanna Faries told USA TODAY Sports last month. "It’s been an awesome and wild first season and offseason."

Rosters turned over rapidly, but the player-to-player rivalries formed during Year One remain strong, despite the league moving completely online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are five things to know ahead of the 2021 Call of Duty League's kickoff weekend, which starts Thursday between the Minnesota Røkkr and the Los Angeles Thieves at 3 p.m. ET on YouTube. 

More tournaments, more eyeballs? 

A luxury of esports leagues that has become a staple of competition are midseason tournaments. CDL saw growth around the high-stakes tournaments it operated last year and wanted to go bigger on the "big moments that matter," Faries said, which gave fans more reasons to watch. That line of thinking bore the 2021 season format. 

All 12 teams will compete at five "majors" during the season. Seeding for those majors will be based off the results during the home series, best-of-five PC matches played prior, and each win counts toward their total points — the top eight teams in the overall standings will advance to the playoffs. 

Preston 'Priestahh' Greiner of the Minnesota Rokkr. (Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TODAY Sports)

"We’re really looking at growth. And what I mean by that is growth in viewership in moments that matter," Faries said. "We really have an eye toward those tentpole tournaments, obviously the postseason we want to crush it again and we want to see more activity and engagement among the Call of Duty player-base to adopt an awareness and affinity for CDL.

"If we start to see adoption and engagement around our live broadcasts, especially our tentpole moments throughout the year, I think we’re doing our jobs well in 2021." 

These inflection points are a tactic traditional sports leagues are not averse to either, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver has embraced similar ideas recently.

"I think that also speaks to the fluidity and the convergence we’re seeing across traditional and esports properties now, where so many executives like myself have made the jump from traditional sports into esports and vice versa, because this is really what we consider to be the future of sports and entertainment," said Faries, who joined Activision Blizzard after a stint at the NFL. "So we love when we see winks and nods to esports structures, kind of flowing even beyond our own industry. I think it signals that esports is being taken seriously and starting to convert more at a mainstream level."

Four's up 

Historically, competitive Call of Duty had been conducted in a 4 v. 4. But the first year of CDL pitted five players against each other. In 2021, based off feedback from players and fans, the league decided to institute 4-on-4. 

What’s new in #CDL2021?

? New Game
? New Teams
?? 4v4

That and more as we take a look at a busy offseason! pic.twitter.com/puWltfs97V

The simplified gameplay is meant to attract fans who may not have the most knowledge of the game.

“Just because there are fewer bodies, so to speak, which can help new and emerging viewers latch on, understand the strategy in a more digestible way and sometimes slow down the action," Faries said. "That enables more casual players, who maybe are leaning into the esports piece of it for the first time, to start to understand the strategy, the skill-based positions, why certain teams and players are going to be strong on a given map or a given mode.”

Brands are here

One CDL city, Los Angeles, boasts two teams. And one of those teams will look different in 2021, as popular gaming brand 100 Thieves now controls the Los Angeles Thieves. 

100 Thieves was founded by CEO Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, the Call of Duty World Champion and one of the most decorated and popular Call of Duty esports athletes in history. It is co-owned by Drake, SB Projects founder Scooter Braun, and Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert. Thieves took the spot of OpTic Gaming Los Angeles; the OpTic brand has returned to Chicago under original owner Hector Rodriguez.  

"I think there’s power in that," Faries said. "It’s great to have world-class brands who are dominant in esports and gaming and beyond opting to invest in our system. I think that affirms the mission we have. It certainly points to the growth we seek to generate out of our leagues, so anytime we can associate with brands of that nature and also create." 

The Thieves name is certainly a nod to the parent company, but the backing of the larger Thieves brand allows the team to grow CDL interest around southern California at scale. That's a partnership the league sees as beneficial. 

With YouTube, 'we're both in it to win it' 

Despite accruing 1.1 million YouTube subscribers during the first year, the league feels they are scratching the surface of their partnership with YouTube. 

"We've learned a tremendous amount here in the early stages of the partnership," Faries said, as YouTube also looks to grow in the esports space, typically dominated by streaming giant Twitch. "We're both in it to win it." 

CDL saw growth in both live viewership and subscriber count and began thinking content-first to leverage the power of the platform and bring new audiences into the fold. The next step is focusing on the viewer, with incentives and viewers for subscribers. Account linking will be in place for the 2021 season, so fans can earn points and win digital items as they watch and then use their rewards while playing in the next hour. 

“How do we celebrate the players who are engaged with Call of Duty as a brand, let’s say, and make sure that they feel in tuning into CDL broadcasts, that brings real value to them as players?” Faries said.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War 

The league will play its matches on the latest installment of the COD franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. 

As the second esports league produced by Activision Blizzard — the Overwatch League has been in operation since 2018 and is also overseen by Faries — using a game produced by the same company is "certainly an advantage of being vertically integrated in a way that we publish the game and then can really think about how we amplify the esports experience within that,” Faries said.

“I think it’s also something investors, certainly our franchise partners and brand partners, value as well," she added. "Talking to the makers of the game when you’re also talking to the operators of the league. The synergy affords quick-turn innovation, the ability to really generate new ideas and get after them nimbly, just given the pens that we hold franchise-wide.”

The game franchise itself has reaped the reverse-benefits of the league, as the competitive nature has sprouted popular online formats such as Warzone. The task of incubating Warzone elements into the league began last season – as light-hearted pregame content – and was well-received, and there are “great ideas coming in that vein” in the coming months.

“A much broader canvas on which to paint when we think about competitive Call of Duty,” Faries said. “And how we make our city-based franchise league with multi-player modes great, but also thinking about expanding into new territories where we’ve seen such a great influx of new players coming into the franchise.”

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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