It’s February 2013, and the Call of Duty world is franticly preparing for the biggest event in the history of the game.
Sure, the prize pool is the same as 2011’s Call of Duty XP, but this time it’s different. This is a real tournament, a proper World Championship. The most prestigious event Call of Duty has ever seen.
It’s a time before FaZe Clan have ever fielded a competitive roster on LAN. Team FeaR is still an elite team, and Team Kaliber won’t even exist for another five months. This is Genesis for competitive Call of Duty as we know it today.
Of the sixteen North American teams that will get the chance to play in the inaugural Call of Duty Championship, eight will qualify by placing well at the upcoming MLG Dallas event. The other eight, however, will have already guaranteed their spot by finishing in the top eight of this season of Black Ops 2’s brand new League Play system.
It’s a simple premise. You gain points for winning, and lose points for losing, so the teams that win the most games will be the ones at the top of the ladder.
If you’re a pro, however, you’re not, for the most part, playing against other pro players. You could be playing against almost anyone in the Master division – an achievement that was by no means beyond reach for most players that were familiar with the competitive game – which means that in the vast majority of cases you could walk over your opponents with one hand tied behind your back.
In the region of those much sought-after top eight places, then, it’s not about the subtle differences that separate the good from the great, or the great from the exceptional, because those elite teams aren’t meeting all that frequently. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity. The race is on.
The result saw teams grinding away at the ladder, putting in ludicrous hours to try to stay within those top spots. Finishing top eight meant a free pass to the Call of Duty Championship, while falling short meant running the gauntlet at MLG Dallas. Pro teams played day in, day out for that most precious of rewards – safety.
Some eventually decided that it was too much, OpTic Gaming prominent among those that chose to risk MLG rather than continue the relentless grind. Meanwhile, others that had no LAN pedigree and little hope of achieving a top eight finish in Dallas managed to secure a spot at the Call of Duty Championships by simply putting in more hours.
For anyone who’s kept half an eye on competitive Call of Duty recently, this may all be sounding a bit familiar.
–While it was a successful promotional tool for a shiny new feature, Activision quickly realised that using League Play as a qualifier for a major event wasn’t the most competitively sound decision and moved away from it in subsequent years.
Fast forward nearly four years, however, and suddenly the idea seems to have returned. Once again, professional players are grinding away online matches, often against significantly inferior opponents, chasing quantity over quality in pursuit of a guaranteed spot at a major event.
Introducing Infinite Warfare’s GameBattles Pro Points. Welcome back to 2013.
While many have been quick to denounce this system, numerous pro players amongst them, it’s important to identify exactly why it’s so flawed. The Call of Duty community isn’t above hyperbolic reactions to things it doesn’t like, so while the negatives may seem obvious, it’s necessary to quantify exactly why this is a significant problem, lest it be dismissed by the powers that be as inconsequential.
To start with is the obvious quality of life problem such a system poses. Professional players are faced with a choice: either play incredibly long days in the hope of making ground on your opponents, or face the open bracket at a major event.
Let’s be clear, as well, that being forced into the open bracket is not something to be taken lightly. It’s a long and arduous route to even make it to pool play, where the real tournament begins. Playing best-of-three’s along the way means there’s no room for error, and one bad map can make a huge difference.
As you close in on those qualifying places, the teams are by no means guaranteed to be pushovers. At MLG Vegas, two open bracket teams ultimately finished in the top eight. With four fewer spots for North American teams at MLG Atlanta, there’ll be even more dangerous teams, with the likes of Epsilon, fourth place finishers at Call of Duty Championships, also potentially in the mix.
Should teams slip up in the open bracket, they’ll fall further behind in the pro points standings, facing an even tougher grind later or finding themselves relegated to the open bracket for the rest of the season. The risk of the open bracket is, then, something to be avoided at all costs.
Under the current system, that means playing GameBattles in every available waking moment, day after day. It’s an exhausting and mentally draining schedule that leaves little room either for life outside of the game, or even proper practice within it.
That’s the other thing that needs to be understood about the Pro Points grind. While they’re putting in perhaps more hours than ever before, neither the teams nor the spectators will necessarily reap the benefits of that time commitment in an elevated level of competition.
–The whole point of scrims is that they allow teams to practice in an environment in which there is no meaningful consequence for losing. They can study opponents, test and hone strategies, and focus on aspects of their game that need work. They don’t need to win every map in practice, as long as they’re working towards being prepared for the real, important games.
The Pro Points grind changes the game. You cannot afford to lose games, and not only that, but the goal becomes winning as fast as possible. Time spent testing ideas that may or may not work is time other teams are gaining ground. Particularly against weaker opponents, there’s also the temptation to cut corners, knowing you won’t be punished as much, in order to speed up wins.
By forcing players to spend the vast majority of their time in an arena that is not necessarily conducive to productive practice, the quality of the competition is affected. The yearly cycle already has periods in which teams have to learn how to play most effectively on the new game, which can only be exacerbated by prescribing how teams must spend their time between events in this manner.
The irony is that an “inclusive” and open system has done little to benefit amateur teams, however. If anything, amateur teams are being pushed further and further from a level playing field with pro teams by the inclusion of GameBattles in the Pro Points system.
While, technically speaking, anyone could play the ladder and work their way into a position for an invite to events, the practical reality is that the only teams that can afford to do so are those who compete full time, on a salary. If competitive Call of Duty isn’t your job, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the rate at which players who can put in twelve hour days rack up points.
Thankfully, it’s likely that the current situation will resolve itself shortly. With the bulk of Pro Points coming from events, and plenty of events on the horizon, for once, LAN performance should quickly become the determining factor in the standings.
That doesn’t mean the shortcomings of this period should be ignored though. Call of Duty isn’t in its esports infancy any more, and this is a lesson that should have been learnt nearly four years ago. The effective length of a Call of Duty season is not long, and the game cannot afford to keep repeating old mistakes.
This year has seen further increases in prize pools and more LAN events on the cards than ever before. There are definitely reasons to be excited for the future of competitive Call of Duty, but the devil’s in the details. The structure and scale are moving into place, but with more attention paid to the fundamentals, the smaller things that make such a big difference, Call of Duty could truly start to become the esport that fans have believed it can be for so many years.