Call of Duty is no stranger to criticism from the competitive community. Every year, without fail, there are flaws so significant that they will be labelled “game breaking”, to varying degrees of justification.
Black Ops 2 in 2013 had weapon balance issues and uncompetitive score streaks like sentry guns. There was a period near the beginning of Ghosts in 2014 that saw people playing with the “Support Squadmate” streak enabled (fortunately that particular horror didn’t last very long). Ever since the release of Advanced Warfare in 2015, most people’s favourite new hate has of course been the new movement system.
I’ve written about why I think the competitive circuit is a bigger factor in making an esport interesting than the game itself (within a certain context, of course). From a competitive standpoint however it’s clear that Call of Duty has a problem, and while it’s perhaps more pronounced this year, it’s not a new one.
Call of Duty has a continuity issue. That a new game is released each year, and with each release the game changes so much, means that every single year we reiterate through the same problems. Even where developers learn from past mistakes with the esports community, in their efforts to introduce new features to appeal to the casual audience – an effort which is certainly valid, much as competitors would like to be the centre of attention – they inevitably introduce more variables which the esports side must contend with in trying to fashion a competitive environment from what is a fundamentally casual game.
Meanwhile, we also lose out on some of the fantastic elements of other esports that are allowed to mature past nine months, which is roughly the effective competitive lifecycle of a Call of Duty game. More complex and detailed strategies develop, the greatest players in the world find increasingly innovative ways of optimising their play in an arena they know intimately, and viewers who aren’t themselves hardcore competitors don’t have to learn a whole new game just as they were starting to understand the previous one in a bit more depth.
So what’s the solution? Do we accept our fate, condemn ourselves to repeat this saga every year and hope that not only do the developers listen to each complaint, but patch it quick enough so as not to have wasted a significant portion of what is already a short season? Maybe, but as an exercise in imagining the potential of Call of Duty as an esport, I think there may be a better way. What follows is an idea for maintaining continuity in competitive Call of Duty, and going some way towards relieving the issues we encounter with the release of a new game each year.
I’ve already explained why I don’t think it’s necessary for the competitive ruleset to cater to a casual community, and that argument will form the basis for the proposed system.
The basic principle behind this concept is to set up a system in which the fundamentals of the game, the arena in which players compete, maintains some semblance of consistency across the years.
The first rule we’re going to set in stone is that competitive Call of Duty will be boots on the ground. A full discussion of why BOTG is superior to advanced movement is perhaps a topic for another article, but while I do think it’s better for the game, it’s also suspected that the next title will return to the classic Call of Duty feel, and that is reason enough for now.
Once Call of Duty has returned to its proper state, the competitive ruleset should maintain BOTG – even if the public game includes advanced movement.
After that we’ll fix the game modes. Hardpoint and SnD are a given, they’ve been the most reliably competitive modes throughout the franchise’s history. Whether the third is CTF or Uplink is a separate debate, but a third mode should be decided upon and stuck to.
I don’t think four modes is necessary, CTF and Uplink aren’t distinct enough from each other and inevitably one ends up being preferred. Which is superior is another discussion for another time, but once decided, the three core modes should be consistent year on year.
Next, we’re going to build a map pool. Instead of having the entire pool recycled each year, and trying to figure out which new maps are viable and which aren’t – sometimes having to make do with maps that are less than optimal for lack of a better alternative – the map pool is going to take the very best from years past, and collect them in a competitive playlist.
Activision has already demonstrated a willingness to remake or remaster old favourites, so we’re going to take the very best of past games, maps that have not just been passable but have produced the greatest Call of Duty gameplay, and bring them into each new game.
The specifics don’t particularly matter in this initial concept and should be decided in conjunction with professional players, with the principle being to settle on a collection of maps that have been proven for competitive viability.
While we’re at it, once a suitable map pool has been chosen, let’s put them into a proper, ranked competitive playlist. It’s a vital feature of an esports title that Call of Duty has been sorely lacking, and an overhaul to competitive Call of Duty would be a perfect opportunity to implement a working system.
Look to titles like Overwatch, League of Legends and Counter-Strike for inspiration on various models for a ranked playlist. Any of them would be a viable starting point.
The map pool doesn’t need to be permanently fixed. In a manner similar to that of Counter-Strike, maps that become less interesting or converge towards an unbalanced state after prolonged play can be removed or updated, while each year maps from the new game could be evaluated for competitive viability, and a decision come to (again in conjunction with pro players) as to whether any should be added to the map pool, or replace an existing map.
Developers that are interested in having their own maps better represented in the pool could then design with these guidelines in mind.
With the basics set, each year then becomes not an entirely new game to learn, but rather a significant meta shift. As in League of Legends, where major patches change which champions are strong or make changes to game mechanics, each new game would still make significant changes to how Competitive Call of Duty plays, but fundamentally the game would still be the same.
As it stands, we spend too much time figuring out every single aspect of a new Call of Duty, going over every detail just to put together a competitive game, before pro’s can even begin to put their skills towards finding the best possible strategies and tactics. The net result is a game with a lot less depth to it than there could be, as the knowledge base of the best players and analysts in the world is entirely reset every nine months.
A level of continuity would also help maximise the time period in which competitive Call of Duty can be played. Right now, there is a period at the start of each game that is unplayable while the competitive community figures out how it should be played, and a period at the end when the game becomes obsolete in anticipation of a new title. Fix the basics, and teams can get playing quicker, while work put in at the end of a cycle still holds some value after the switch.
Trying to balance between competitive and casual players doesn’t work – they’re two groups with entirely different priorities. So instead, let’s make competitive Call of Duty almost an entirely separate mode, a la Zombies. Competitive players and viewers don’t want many of the things that make traditional Call of Duty matchmaking so successful, so why not appeal to that group in a separate format?
Following this model, a “competitive mode” wouldn’t even require huge amounts of additional work. A consistent map pool cuts any need for a design process in that area, the maps simply need to be ported and reskinned in line with the game’s visual style.
Collaborate with professional players and experts to develop a rule set that removes any aspects of the public game that aren’t compatible with competition (as happens now), and even the most basic of ranking systems would be a step up from what we get now.
One of the obvious criticisms of this is the idea that a new game each year helps maintain interest, and that without a full change the game would get boring. Such a standpoint, however, seems to place very little faith in Call of Duty as an esport. Look at the giants of esports: League of Legends, DotA 2, the various iterations of Counter-Strike; none of them are new, and in their rise to prominence many improved with time.
Done right, I don’t believe Call of Duty needs a complete overhaul each year to be interesting – in fact, I think the change often does more harm than good.