Millions of players log in to Activision Blizzard’s servers every day to compete in Call of Duty matches, but Activision wants more. There’s a certain segment of the audience that it is still looking to capture, some of the highest-skilled, most devoted shooter players in the world: Professional gamers who support themselves (and sometimes get filthy rich) playing in big-money tournaments. So the gaming publisher has added features to Black Ops II aimed at making a spectator sport out of Call of Duty. Players can “shoutcast,” or broadcast their matches to viewers via YouTube livestreaming directly from their game consoles.
It’s a start, but experts in the field of “e-sports” say that Black Ops II may still be unfit for duty as a pro game.
The addition of shoutcasting to Black Ops is an indicator that e-sports isn’t just about the competitors, it’s about the fans. Hundreds of thousands of players subscribe to e-sports commentators on YouTube to watch livestreamed matches, and they pack sports arenas around the world to watch the finals of major game tournaments. Then they practice every day in the hopes of becoming the Michael Jordan of videogames. With e-sports being especially popular in Europe and Asia, reaching these fans might be a way for Call of Duty to become a truly worldwide phenomenon.
But pro gamers have a fundamental problem with Call of Duty, and unfortunately, that problem is exactly the aspect of the series that causes Activision to make such obscene amounts of money off the franchise in the first place. Like clockwork, it releases a new Call of Duty on the second Tuesday of every November. To pull this off, the titles are developed by two different developers that switch off years. And every year, millions of players abandon the game they’ve been playing for the last 12 months and shift en masse to the new one on launch day.
The new games can bring all kinds of changes. Guns fire differently. The physics of the world have been tweaked. This makes it challenging and fun for casual players, but it’s a nightmare scenario for pros. The most important thing for professionals is to be able to practice and play the same game, with the same rules, for years and years to hone their skills. (Imagine if they completely changed the rules of Major League Baseball every year, using different balls, spacing the bases further apart, adding a fourth outfielder.)
“A new game release nearly every year is the biggest problem for a game’s healthy competitive community,” says Rod “Slasher” Breslau, co-host of a web show about professional gaming called “Live on Three.”
Pro gamers do play first-person shooters. But at all of the biggest tournaments, with the most money on the line — DreamHack in Sweden, the World Cyber Games in Korea — they play Counter-Strike. And the version they play is 1.6, released back in 2003. At the recent e-Sports Cup at Tokyo Game Show in September, they gave out $15,000 in prizes for 1.6. Maker Valve has released new versions of Counter-Strike over the years but the top players have stubbornly stuck with the ancient 1.6.
The amateur players at home love Call of Duty for reasons that aren’t compatible with the competitive gaming scene, says Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, Breslau’s co-host on “Live on Three.”
“I like Call of Duty because I can get 50-kill streaks and airstrikes and tornadoes or whatever,” Graham says, “but that doesn’t necessarily make the game fit for the competitive scene.”
When pros play Call of Duty, Graham says, they tend to focus on the slower, more tactical modes without all of the glitz and glitter of kill streaks and perks. “Search and Destroy,” a mode which challenges two teams of players to disarm or defend a bomb, is a go-to favorite for many serious players.