With the 2021 Call of Duty League in full swing amid the ongoing pandemic and sudden weather-related hiccups, Johanna Faries, vp and commissioner for Activision Blizzard, is rolling with the punches.
“One of our league values is agility, and we’re pulling on agility each and every day,” she told The Hollywood Reporter after some matches were postponed in Texas due to severe and unruly conditions. Luckily there was little time to ruminate. She had to think of what was next: the first Major tournament.
In the Major, which begins the week of March 1, twelve teams compete for a “high-stakes prize pool,” explains Faries, adding that high-stakes points are to be won. “We spent a lot of time in the off season thinking about these tentpole tournaments as these key inflection points to drive fan engagement around where big stakes are incredibly important, not only for a specific stage — it really is the climactic moment of our five stages — but also, how much those can determine the fate of any given team’s ability to advance to the post-season,” she says. At the end of the season, eight teams enter the playoffs to compete for the championship, in which the Dallas Empire team defeated Atlanta FaZe in 2020.
Season gameplay moved from Modern Warfare to Black Ops Cold War this year, the latter being the latest game in the first-person shooter franchise that has roughly 400 million worldwide players. As Faries explains, early conversations about the competitive aspects of game design – such as what the maps look like — occurred between players, general managers and coaches in advance of the studio publishing the game. Developers were then able to take those insights and think about the different modes of the sport and how they would serve competition settings.
The League is only in its second year (after launching amid the coronavirus pandemic), and Faries remembers having to pivot to a significantly more versatile approach that put fans first. “I think as we came out the other side of having to shut down live arena based events in our 12 cities around the world for CDL last year, and instead come back with online play, what’s happened since then is some of the strongest growth we’ve seen,” she says.
This not only includes subscribers to the official CDL YouTube channel and viewership over the championship weekend last August —which was the most watched esports event in history with peak numbers at 330,000 viewers — but even activity in the last couple of weeks with “remote, virtualized structures,” as Faries puts it, continuing along with the “avidity and passion” of fans.
Faries used to work in the New York headquarters of the National Football League, and brings with her the experience massive fandoms as well as how to approach broadcast scheduling. “Putting primetime matches in the windows when you really want fans to start to create appointment viewing habits has been critically important to how we’ve structured our strategies since we’ve launched this league.” This desire to understand fan behavior remains a critical factor in Activision’s growth strategy.
Highlights of the season so far include OpTic Chicago and Atlanta Faze battling it out in recent primetime spot. “It was arguably the biggest rivalry we had from last year’s season,” Faries says of the two teams, adding that they each have massive fan bases and brands attached to them: Atlanta Faze comes from a partnership with FaZe Clan, while the Chicago team derives from OpTic Gaming. “It was the highest [viewed] match we’ve had as a league, even as compared to last year outside of our championship weekend.”
Household names include James Clayton Eubanks, best known as Clayster, who won the trophy with the Dallas Empire last year and now plays for the New York Subliners. In other words, he’ll face off against his former teammates. “That’s something we’re all watching,” says Faries. (Incidentally, Clayster’s Twitter profile reads, “Do good, die great.”)
Faries also mentions the Minnesota and Toronto teams, who are battling it out over the North, but it’s not a Game of Thrones reference. “You have these two purple teams who are some of the best content generators in the League and arguably in all of esports, and they just go toe toe every single week,” she says.
Considering the specifics of esports fandom, Faries points out that League fans tend to be young as compared to traditional sports, and digitally native — people who have grown up with new media platform spaces and are typically highly engaged and interactive, the opposite of the average linear broadcast consumer. She explains that these fans give feedback on what they’re watching so quickly that Activision Blizzard can adapt and pivot in a way that’s much faster than traditional sports leagues.
“This is an audience that so many brands are looking to reach and it’s been awesome to build sports leagues of the future that are resonating and moving with fan bases of the future.”