The release of Infinite Warfare has been accompanied by predictably hyperbolic responses from the competitive community.
While most years feature a reasonable balance of applause and denunciation, however, this year the response has swung more heavily towards the negative.
It’s not hard to understand why. The movement style brought in by Advanced Warfare wasn’t especially popular in that game’s lifecycle, so a third year away from the traditional, boots-on-the-ground gameplay old school fans fell in love with was never going to be met with high praise. Add to that the usual launch flaws and the lack of a coherent ruleset, and it’s not exactly a recipe for a happy competitive community.
So here we are with a game which very few hardcore fans seem to be happy with, but it’s not all doom and gloom quite yet. While obviously a very important aspect and a crucial factor in realising Call of Duty’s potential as an esport, the quality of the game itself in any given year isn’t the sole determining factor in the quality of the competitive season.
We’ve never had a perfect game – certainly not one that could be played competitively without numerous work-arounds in the ruleset and, in more recent years, balance updates by the developers.
Call of Duty as a console esport has always been forced to make the best of a game that has never really been designed with competition in mind. Sure, some years have been better than others (especially when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia), but the real distinguishing factor between each competitive season has been the quality of the tournament circuit.
You can debate the merits of the original Modern Warfare all you like, reminisce on how much fun you had playing it or how much purer a Call of Duty it was, but that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of the competition for that game was held online. On the rare occasion teams got the chance to compete on LAN, it might have been held in a basement, with but a handful of teams and few spectators to speak of.
For most who played it, Call of Duty 4 is up there as one of the greatest Call of Duty games ever made, but almost nobody would argue that 2009 was a better year for competitive, console Call of Duty as a whole than 2015. Of course things have moved on, we should be expecting year-on-year improvement and growth, but that hasn’t always been the case.
For my money, Black Ops 3 was one of the most disappointing competitive seasons in recent years considering the hype. Near its release, I wrote a piece discussing some of the aspects of Black Ops 2 that I hoped would carry over into Treyarch’s new title. I concluded by saying that I was tentatively optimistic we were in for a good year. In retrospect, many of the areas I touched on didn’t come to pass as I had hoped, but the thing that damaged Black Ops 3 for me more than anything else was something I hadn’t even considered.
For the first half of the game’s lifecycle, the competitive circuit wasn’t great. In the first six months of Black Ops 3, the best-of-three, single elimination Totino’s invitational – held barely two weeks after the game’s release – made up a third of the LAN events held in North America, historically the biggest region for competitive Call of Duty.
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Of the other two, one was the single-elimination UMG South Carolina that had so many issues that it was ultimately little improvement on Totino’s, and the CWL Stage 1 Finals, at which a grand total of seven series were played.
MLG’s return to hosting Call of Duty events in the second half of the season managed to salvage something vaguely resembling a competitive circuit, and we were treated to a fantastic Call of Duty Championship to round out the year, but for the most part it was a disappointing year. The CWL might have been a nice addition if it hadn’t taken the place of real events, but I’d happily trade in a year’s worth of online league matches for just one more MLG Anaheim.
Throwing more money around doesn’t guarantee a better esport, at least from a viewer’s perspective. While it certainly helped the pro’s playing this year – which is definitely a good thing – ultimately, it doesn’t matter how great (or otherwise) the game is if it’s rarely played in the sorts of high-stakes settings that make for the greatest matches.
Meanwhile, the stories around those events also suffer. The year before, the rivalry between OpTic and FaZe added tension and gravitas to any event they played in, as fans waited for them to clash – a series few true fans of the game would miss. Whether the exact same story line would have held through Black Ops 3 is questionable, but we never even got to find out – the two teams didn’t meet in a tournament match on LAN throughout the entire year.
Bringing things back to Infinite Warfare, this is where the hope comes from for this year. We don’t have a perfect game on our hands, but we could still have a fantastic season of competition. Rumours suggest that Activision have learnt from Black Ops 3.
While there’s no confirmation yet of how the competitive circuit will look in its entirety, there definitely seems to be a move away from the less interesting online league matches, and the frankly terrible single-elimination tournament format.
This isn’t to say we should just settle for a sub-par game – by all means, continue to try to make your voices heard on matters that need addressing. But if you give up on the game before its even began, you may end up missing some fantastic Call of Duty. Ghosts and Advanced Warfare are two of the least popular games we’ve had in the last few years, but if you missed the former you didn’t see the X Games final, and the latter the Gfinity Summer Championship final, both among some of the greatest series ever played.
If the competitive circuit for Infinite Warfare turns out as disappointing as that of Black Ops 3, feel free to mourn the death of Call of Duty, curse Activision, announce the coming apocalypse, so on and so forth. In the meantime, however, keep trying to make your voices heard in a constructive manner, and to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (sort of): “Don’t Panic.”