Adam Fitch: Brands are still king in city-based Call of Duty League

Adam Fitch
Call of Duty League LA Thieves OpTic Chicago

Call of Duty was home to a handful of the most recognizable organizations in esports for a decade, but all that changed when the Call of Duty League was unveiled in October 2019.

OpTic Gaming, Team Envy, and FaZe Clan are all organizations that fans of competitive Call of Duty will be very well-acquainted with. Having won countless trophies between them, they were undoubtedly the three most popular brands in the FPS franchise. After all, Call of Duty is where the iconic OpTic Gaming got their big break, transitioning from sniping to competing at MLG events across the United States.

So when a reimagined league, that would do away with brands fans all knew and loved, was speculated to be inbound in mid-2019, industry figures, players, and supporters alike were skeptical of the move.

The successor to the Call of Duty World League would instead opt to create a franchise system, utilizing a geographical element and launching all-new brands with the 12 organizations that were happy to put up $25m to buy-in. Throwing away what fans had grown accustomed to – especially in a scene where the majority of the fan base support just a single brand in OpTic Gaming – was always going to be a risk.

OpTic Gaming CWL Las Vegas
OpTic Gaming winning at CWL Las Vegas in 2018.

When the franchises were unveiled in October and November of 2019, there was some relief. FaZe Clan had partnered with a venture capital firm to co-own a team in Atlanta, Envy had secured Dallas, and Hector ‘H3CZ’ Rodriguez would return to Call of Duty by launching a franchise in Chicago as part of NRG. Other well-known organizations, the likes of Luminosity, Misfits, Rogue, also bought in and founded associated brands, too.

While there’s not an accurate method of measuring the growth of location-based fans that have since discovered Call of Duty esports and decided to support their local team, it is easy to spot another trend. A healthy percentage of pre-existing CoD fans have stayed with their favorite teams from the Call of Duty World League and even before that.

Though OpTic Gaming found their way into the new-look league, the departure of H3CZ and Scump saw fans’ allegiance follow them to NRG and the Chicago Huntsmen. Instead, the brand was owned and operated by Immortals Gaming Club and witnessed a fall from grace that is seldom seen in esports.

FaZe Clan fans were avidly supporting Atlanta FaZe, Dallas Empire had a legion of fans from their Envy association, and the Huntsmen became the new home of the Green Wall — the former titanic fan base of OpTic. It soon became clear to any general spectator that the original brands, to a major degree, were still the driving force of the Call of Duty League.

According to analytics firm Esports Charts, the three most popular teams in the finals were Atlanta FaZe, Dallas Empire and Chicago Huntsmen. The first two mentioned did make it all the way to the final series but, nonetheless, the trio racked up the most hours watched on-stream with around double the amount of the other franchises.

Following the end of the first season, which saw the Empire eventually take home the Championship trophy and recognition, this was only demonstrated further.

Stealing a franchise spot

100 Thieves made themselves a household name in Call of Duty in a short amount of time prior to the CWL, namely because of former OpTic Gaming legend Matthew ‘Nadeshot’ Haag owning the side. It didn’t hurt that they accrued a couple of trophies during their time in the shooter, too. They ended up not joining the league from the get-go.

Earlier this month, however, in the height of the off-season, they answered the wishes of their hundreds of thousands of fans by acquiring one of the two Los Angeles slots. The franchise they acquired, interestingly, was previously occupied by the deflated OpTic Gaming. Normally, the departure of H3CZ’ brainchild would be a moment of sorrow, but this was joyous and celebrated industry-wide.

The arrival of Los Angeles Thieves and the following reception — which saw them become the fourth most-followed CDL franchise on Twitter in just a matter of hours behind the aforementioned teams — was another tell that branding and personality are currently more important than location.

LA Thieves Call of Duty League
Los Angeles Thieves officially entered the CDL on November 6.

Speculation and rumors then emerged about what would happen with the OpTic brand, which seemingly would now be abandoned. On October 11, the prayers of the Green Wall were heard loud and clear as it was announced that H3CZ had indeed managed to pull off the ultimate heist.

Chicago Huntsmen, which had become the most-followed franchise after the first year, would cease to exist; making way for OpTic Chicago. Much like the emergence of LA Thieves, only more amplified, not just Call of Duty fans but all of esports erupted in celebration and joy for H3CZ, team legends like Scump and FormaL, and for the iconic ‘OG’ brand itself. Order had been restored.

While they did indeed retain their Chicago slot, none of the fanfare was aimed in that direction. Instead, Call of Duty esports had witnessed the return of two major brands. While there may be local Chicagoans and Angelenos that shared their excitement at these developments, a message was sent rocketing throughout the core of the league — brand is still king and there’s no sign of that changing, especially when it comes to the beloved few.

How does this impact the league?

This eventuality is actually the perfect outcome for Activision Blizzard and their new Call of Duty League. It was a sizeable risk hermetically-sealing the competition with 12 new brands, one that could have seen interest in competitive CoD die down dramatically.

OpTic Chicago Call of Duty League
OpTic Chicago was unveiled on October 11.

Instead, they’ve implemented location-based branding as planned, and have managed to retain the fan bases of the teams that came before franchising. They have a solid foundation of viewers and fanatics from the past and can look to expand the overall pool of supporters through geo-targeted marketing and more innovative in-game advertisements.

With Los Angeles Thieves and OpTic Chicago in action when the league returns, albeit potentially with online-play, the Call of Duty League has just received a huge boost that will undoubtedly help them to keep breaking viewership records moving forward.

Not only that, but merchandising, content, and other team-based revenue streams could well see a dramatic surge with the arrival (or re-emergence in the case of OpTic) of major brands, which is a plus. In a business venture where the success of one brand is the success of the 11 others, a rising tide lifts all boats.

About The Author

Based in Lincolnshire, UK, Adam Fitch is a leading business journalist covering the esports industry. Formerly the lead business reporter at Dexerto, he demystified the competitive gaming industry and and spoke to its leaders. He previously served as the editor of Esports Insider.