It feels like ever since developers started getting involved with competitive Call of Duty scene, pro players and hardcore fans have collectively become less and less happy with each year.
Obviously, it’s almost impossible to complain about tournament funding – the likes of the Call of Duty Championship and the sizeable prize pool across this year’s CoD World League. Where things tend to fall down however is when developers (henceforth referred to as Activision, to encompass the various game developers that make up the Call of Duty franchise) start mandating competitive rules and features.
I like to think that Activision mean well, that if there was a clear path to a perfect competitive circuit they’d take it. If not, we might as well give up and accept our fate, but while Activision might not have the exact same priorities as many professional players I can only assume that both want a competitive game with as large an audience as possible. Where opinions divert, then, is in how to accomplish that.
A trend that began in Black Ops 2 with the addition of score streaks and a hesitance to remove things from the competitive ruleset is the idea that in order to appeal to the largest potential audience – that of people who play the game casually, in public matches – the competitive ruleset should be as close to the public game as possible.
The logic goes like this: there are millions of people who play or have played Call of Duty, but a very small percentage of them watch the game competitively. One of the reasons casual players may not be interested in competitive CoD is perhaps that, in the past, the rules have made it almost unrecognisable to people who play casually. The range of weapons was much narrower, there were no kill streaks to be earned, and many of the features of the public game – including many guns, equipment and perks – were banned.
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So why would these people be interested in watching competitive Call of Duty? The pro’s might as well be playing a different game. This is an idea that seems validated by many of the biggest esports in the world, such as League of Legends, Counter Strike and DotA 2, where competitive games are played under the same ruleset as you’d find if you jumped into a casual match.
There are several flaws with this theory. One of the first is in those examples, often cited by fans that support the principle if not by the developers themselves. The problem with comparing to games like LoL and DotA is that, unlike CoD, they’re fundamentally competitive games (although that’s not to say that they’re flawless in that respect). They are played almost exclusively on the understanding that the highest goal is to win, that it matters what the final score is and that it doesn’t matter how many kills you got if the result is a loss for your team.
As for CS:GO the comparison doesn’t technically hold to begin with as the “casual” mode bears little resemblance to the competitive setting. The difference in Counter Strike is that a huge proportion of the player base play in competitive match-making, though even here there have been subtle differences to the professional ruleset in the past.
This simply doesn’t hold true for Call of Duty. The reason players of these other games recognise them in their purest competitive form is because, while they may not take it as seriously as professional players, they understand fundamentally that the game is a competition, because that’s how they play too.
In a public game of Call of Duty this is not the case. Sure, some people play to win. A lot of them don’t really care that much though, the objective in any particular mode is simply a tool to give some direction to what is essentially a deathmatch.
The motivators for players in public matches can be anything from maintaining a kill/death ratio or dropping a nuke to doing something worthy of a montage for Youtube. Where in other games people look to pro’s for the greatest examples of the skills they value most, in Call of Duty their idols are as likely to be pub stompers and trickshotters.
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I agree that it’s important to introduce the player-base to the idea that Call of Duty can be played competitively, but I disagree with the approach taken by Activision so far. Fundamentally, CoD is not a competitive game. Let someone play a few public matches and it quickly becomes evident that it is not designed for balanced competition, there’s too much randomness and too many gimmicks. The public game is not a good setting to convince players of the validity of Call of Duty as an esport.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Black Ops 2 was a breakout year for Call of Duty, but I’m not convinced that success should be attributed to a move in the direction of public settings for the competitive game. As well as a number of external factors, Black Ops 2 was also the first and only year in which the game included a functional, ranked competitive mode in public matchmaking.
It’s a feature, common in every major esport, which Call of Duty has been sorely lacking. Add a mode in which competitive integrity is the ultimate goal, in which there is a tangible consequence for winning or losing, and players will soon begin to recognise the game in a competitive setting.
Those that then take an interest will care about their performance, and are therefore much more likely to be drawn to the elite in that field – professional players.
If anything, adding elements of randomness may only diminish interest in competition for new players. Once they accept that, under competitive circumstances, winning is the only thing that matters, it follows that players’ skill should be the determining factor in the result of a game – nobody likes to feel cheated out of a victory. These players then are as likely to become frustrated by features they deem less skilful or more random as professionals are.
It’s always worth debating whether or not certain features need adding or changing and “it’s always been like this” isn’t necessarily a valid argument in itself, but competitive integrity should always be the highest calling. Casual players like many of the features of the public game, and many of the uncompetitive aspects certainly have a place and perhaps are even vital to the success of the franchise as a whole.
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When it comes to the esports side of the game however the answer isn’t to bend the competitive ruleset to resemble to public game, it’s to make the competitive ruleset more accessible to public players.
In this Activision have almost objectively failed. Since Black Ops 2 the “competitive” playlist has only declined, to the point that now, just days before the release of the newest iteration, there isn’t even information as to whether Infinite Warfare will even include a public competitive mode.
From when anyone from casual players even to pro’s could jump into a competitive experience at any given time, we’ve returned to a situation in which players must seek out competitive games on third party sites for anything even vaguely resembling the game as played at a professional level.
It might be easy to point to numbers over the past few years and say that Activision’s involvement has led to growth, but that’s a very linear way of looking at things that ignores many of the other factors affecting both the esports industry and the Call of Duty competitive circuit itself.
Ensuring that the player-base recognise the competitive game is certainly a noble goal, but I think Activision’s approach has it backwards. Catering to a casual audience in this manner may even be doing more harm than good. As a consequence of an attempt to attract new players and viewers, the core fan base recognise the game they love less and less.