On a rooftop in Downtown LA, eight young men are preparing to fight each other for $400,000.
There are hundreds of people gathered around watching, and many thousands more will tune in via an online video feed. Right now, the competitors are selecting from a range of assault rifles and submachine guns – they will need to match these carefully with smoke and frag grenades if they are to stay alive. But whatever happens, there will be a lot of death.
Fortunately, this is not a horrifying real-life take on the Hunger Games, it is the final match in the Call of Duty World Championships, a pro-gaming event pitching 32 teams against each other for a total prize pool of $1m. The venue is a gigantic tent on the top of a multistorey car park at the LA Live centre. Outside, the sun beats down on the city's boundless concrete sprawl, but in here there is an all-enveloping artificial darkness, punctuated only by dozens of huge screens, each showing the biggest first-person shooter in the world.
Now in its third year, the Call of Duty Championship provides one of the highlights on the professional gaming – or "esports" – calendar in the US. The players taking part are the best in the world; they have qualified through a series of regional heats in their home countries, and for the last month, many of them have been practising for eight hours a day, often in houses rented with their team mates. The one thing you learn very quickly about CoD at this level is that it is a team sport – every match involves two sides, each of four players, battling through a series of punishing encounters. Victory doesn't just go to the competitors with the quickest trigger fingers, it goes to the one's who communicate with their comrades most effectively. Information is as vital a currency as ammunition.
All of which contrasts heavily with the cliche about this game series: that it involves little more than running around the map with a gun, blasting wildly at anything in combat fatigues. Maybe that's true of casual players who buy the latest Call of Duty every year then flock online in their millions to compete on public servers. But it is not true here. Here, it is all about structure and strategy. It is about dedication. “Ever since we qualified it’s been non-stop playing,” says Seth "Scumpii" Abner of OpTic Gaming, one of the most popular teams in the modern scene – the Barcelona of CoD. “We actually had a LAN set up at our team house in Chicago and we flew out the team that won the US qualifiers, Strictly Business. We played for three days straight against them. It was a ton of fun, but it was work.”
Formation and psychology
A pro-team in Call of Duty consists of two types of combatants: "slayers" who tend to use assault rifles and are there to kill as many opponents as possible, and objective-orientated players who carry out the activities demanded by the three different game modes used in the tournament. All of these modes require very different approaches, all have different rhythms of action and encounter. In "Domination", for example, teams have to capture and hold the three flag points spread around the map, while in "Blitz", it's about running through a portal in the opponent's base to score goals.
"Search and Destroy", however, is the most gripping mode and the tactical zenith of competitive Call of Duty – it’s where most matches are won or lost. While one side has to plant a bomb, the other must either stop them, or defuse the explosive before it goes off. There are no respawns, so when a player dies, they’re out of the round. It is ridiculously tense; a cat and mouse game played out amid sniper fire and grenades tossed with pinpoint accuracy.
Interestingly though, the tactical face-off begins before a shot is even fired. At the opening of each match the computer randomly picks the maps that players will compete on, but each team gets to veto a certain number of the options – inevitably, they will try to block the maps they know their rivals prefer. It is psychological warfare; everyone knows what their competitors like and dislike because all the teams spend hours researching upcoming opponents, working out their play styles and preferences, their movement patterns, and preparing counter attacks. Nothing is left to chance.
Once in a match, a pro-CoD foursome works like a football team. The slayers are the midfielders, working all over the map to set up plays and break down opponent attacks; the objective players are the strikers, carving their way into beneficial positions and scoring the goals. The best sides move as one, fanning out across the map, covering every channel and constantly watching each other's backs. They talk endlessly, calling out their own positions as well as the exact whereabouts of any enemies they've sighted. Every team member learns the various game maps by heart, memorising every minuscule graphical detail, every window and doorway, every hiding place. All of the maps in CoD have around 50 positions where players will "respawn" when they've been shot – players learn all of these too.
It's up the the team captain to devise the strategies – or simply "strats" – that will be followed in any match. Each player knows the area of the map that they need to operate in, and will stay there until ordered out. The aim is always "map control", forcing opposing players into a small area so they can be picked off as soon as they appear – a technique known as "spawn trapping". Another key element is "rotation" – if a player in a key position is shot, another will rotate into that area until his comrade respawns and takes up the point again. In football, if a player is injured or sent off, the formation is altered to close the gap; rotation works in the same way.
Beyond the basic techniques, there are also bluffs to play, and “bait and switch” tactics to perfect. Another aspect of the rotation concept crops up in Search and Destroy, where the bomb-planting team often tries to fool the other side into defending one bomb site, when it’s actually the other that’s being targeted. The attacking players will swap positions, circle key areas, throw distracting explosives and smoke grenades – all to disguise their true destination. Everything is planned, yet fluid, and the changes come in split-second bursts.
If you want to understand the beauty of synchronised movement in Call of Duty, you need to watch CompLexity, the slickest team in the game. Its four members move with balletic precision, bursting out across the landscape, gracefully arching toward Domination points like sharks circling an injured seal. Whenever one player is attacked, another is either near enough or positioned well enough to intercede; and they are mercilessly efficient hitmen. While many teams have one or two key assassins, CompLexity functions like the Holland 1974 world cup side, with every player able to adopt any position and any tactic, racking up caps and kills in the process. It is Total Slaughter.
“We came into the tournament with the goal of not dropping a single tournament,” says Patrick "Aches" Price during a typically confident press conference. “When we talk amongst ourselves backstage, we say, ‘come on this is our time, this is our territory’. When we’re winning, we’re just yelling ‘run ‘em up, run ‘em up’, which means run the scoreboard up. We just want to beat them as bad as we can. When we play tournaments we want to deliver the following message - we are the best team.”
Through the course of the three day event, which starts out as a league competition before moving into a gruelling "double elimination" knock-out phase, there are many star performances and many incredibly gripping confrontations. The Australian teams Immunity and Trident T1 Dotters surprise everyone, putting in some gritty battles against highly experienced US favourites. There are compelling moments from the UK representatives too, especially TCM and Epsilon. The latter shines in a rip-roaring league match against Team Optic; slayers Swanny and Jurd dominate with multiple long-range headshots, teased through the narrowest of sightlines.
“The round two match between EnVyUS and Epsilon was a real thriller,” says Chris Marsh, of esports news and community site, Decerto. “EnVyUS, the eventual runners up, found themselves dumped into the Loser Bracket in the first round and in unfamiliar territory. After beating the heavily favoured Team KaLiBeR, they then had to take on Epsilon. Both teams had big ambitions, EnVyUS carrying the weight of their bulging fan base and Epsilon holding the hopes and ambitions of the UK and Europe. Definitely my game of the tournament.
“Also, the Winner Bracket final between CompLexity and OpTic Gaming was entertaining because it was so close. The teams traded off map after map until they were tied at 2-2. They were barely separable throughout the match up, with the first Search and Destroy and Blitz both being decided by a mere one point. But then CompLexity moved into another gear and gave OpTic a bit of a lesson on how to play Warhawk SnD. Crimsix shone picking up 11 kills without dying.”
Watching the killing
As a spectator sport, the experience is hugely accentuated by the addition of a special viewing mode named Oracle. It allows match commentators - or CoDcasters – to scroll through and display the first-person perspective of any player they choose, while the positions of enemies are shown as glowing outlines. The idea is to give fans the best view of all the key skirmishes, whether they’re in the venue watching on the cinema-sized main screen or at home catching the live feed. Meanwhile, at least two CoDcasters are commenting on each match in a style clearly influenced by US sports broadcasting – if they’re not excitedly relating key moments, they’re analysing tactics and statistics at breakneck speeds.
"Think of it as a football commentator but with more screaming,” says UK caster, Alan Brice. “Every caster has their own style – some are really enthusiastic, some are more analytical, looking to break down every move. And you have to be able to remember all the sport’s key moment – like the final of last year's tournament, with Proofy vs Killa, which was basically decided by a $1m bullet. You need to be able to pull that stuff out, to build the storyline.”
The drama isn't entirely contained within the onscreen skirmishes. Competitive gaming is rife with inter-team rivalries and personal feuds, which tend to explode when a player leaves one side – or is chucked out – and then joins another. Team OpTic star Clayster, for example, was at CompLexity for almost a year and his arrival with the team arguably kickstarted its incredible run of seven tournament victories. But then in December, he was moved out of the squad in favour of Karma and resentment has simmered. On the closing Sunday of the event, in a decisive match between the two teams, Clayster manages to shoot his ex-captain Aches, then proceeds to empty his gun into the prone avatar – a classic Call of Duty diss. Later, Merk from EnVyUs takes obvious delight in his side’s victory over OpTic – the team that ditched him in September. “I’m sure they miss me,” he says on stage with a wry smile; the crowd cheers in recognition of the slight.
If the rivalries are becoming more intense, there's a convincing explanation: the stakes are getting higher. A few years ago, prize pots were in the hundreds of dollars and most kids were in it for fun, but now this is big business. In South Korea, strategy simulations like Starcraft and League of Legends are effectively the national sports; tournaments are watched on TV by millions and the players are superstars on six-figure salaries.
The West is a little behind, but it's getting there. Formed in 2002, the Major League Gaming organisation runs big prize tournaments throughout world and has collaborated with Activision on the CoD World Championships. “There are millions of people a month watching competitive esports,” says co-founder Mike Sepso. “I think that surprises a lot of people. Generally speaking this is the first content category in the entire media landscape that has got TV level viewership without having to rely on traditional television distribution – it is a digital sport with a digital broadcast model. The audience is growing every year. And while the traditional sports leagues – the NFL, NBA, etc – are on a downslide with younger demographics, esports is rising. We’re getting to them on Xbox and through the internet, we’re going directly to where they live.”
Gaming teams are now run as professional organisations, owned and managed by businessmen who offer decent salaries to the best players. It's a serious investment: good teams are able to secure lucrative sponsorship deals with the sorts of brands desperate to reach a generation of teenagers who no longer watch TV or read magazines. All the players at the world championships wear official team shirts festooned with the logos of energy drinks, tech firms and joypad manufacturers. “Esports has shown incredible growth the last few years and it provides potential sponsors a number of great opportunities to get involved from the ground up,” says Andrew Holt-Kentwell, the global associate esports manager for gaming hardware manufacturer, Razer, which sponsors several teams and tournaments. “A recent report by SuperData Research showed a monthly figure of 70 million unique individuals watching esports across the world each month, rivalling even the most popular traditional sports.
“The teams are interesting because of the personalities that resonate with other players – people like Peter ‘Doublelift’ Peng from Counter Logic Gaming, or Lee ‘Flash’ Young Ho from KTRolster. These guys are hugely famous in their own right and command the respect of hundreds of thousands of fans across the world.”
Financial success as a pro-player isn't just about performing well in the game, it's about establishing a personal brand across multiple social media platforms. To really make it, these young men need to acquire a weird status that combines athlete, gamer and TV celebrity. While they're not competing, they are making YouTube videos or streaming content on the gaming media site Twitch. "Social media and content creation are a way to not only market your brand, but your players as well," says Jonathan Boyd, owner of the VexX Gaming team. "This allows people to connect with those players on a more personal level and hopefully helps create true fans of your brand and team."
Most pro-gamers share tips on how to be a better player, or provide analysis of recent matches, or just goof around on screen, while sharing jokes with fans on Twitter. Nadeshot from Team Optic is not the best player on the pro-scene, but his geeky charm and relentless social media presence has earned him a huge fanbase; one insider tells us he's earning $20k a month from his YouTube videos alone.
"Nadeshot and I got into Optic at the same time,” says Ashley, also known as MiDNiTE, who makes YouTube and Twitch videos for the team. “I watched him starting out on Youtube and he just ended up being really good at it. It was a steady growth for a while, but then Black Ops 2 came out and the scene for competitive Call of Duty just, like, blew up – and Nadeshot was always streaming, I mean he was streaming for eight hours a day, he's been doing that for four years now, just dedicated to that grind. He's so consistent. And he has a good personality – he's kind of goofy, he's likeable. The reason he's so successful is, he's just that kid you think you know.”
As a female member of Optic, Ashley is aware she is in a tiny minority. There are no women competing in this competition, although there are dozens around, spectating, cheering on their boyfriends, or here as journalists or presenters. “You’d think it would be difficult, but if you do it correctly, you receive the right attention,” she says. “If you represent yourself in a sexual way, you're going to get that kind of sexual or negative attention. But if you take it seriously, if you take yourself seriously within the community, other people will take you seriously as well. I feel very outnumbered at events like this - there are a LOT of men. But it doesn't make me feel weird at all - I don't feel like I'm looked at as not equal."
It is, however, subtly telling that Ashley automatically thinks about representation; that women in this environment have to consider how they portray themselves and what their appearance implies to their male peers. It is indicative of a wider malaise in game culture, where high profile women developers, gamers and writers are frequently subject to sexist and misogynistic abuse on forums and in social media. This is something that needs to change. Meanwhile, one team competing here, the Lightning Pandas, claims in its social media profiles to be the first all-gay CoD side, but later concedes this is just “a joke” – because, of course, being gay is funny. It’s a shame that esports seemingly hasn’t just borrowed the glitz and conventions of traditional televised sports, it has the same mono-cultural hang-ups too.
But then this is a very young phenomenon. Most of the players, and even the team managers themselves, are in their early twenties or late teens. Older team owners take on a sort of parental role – Toby Parrish, who runs the Mutiny squad as well as three others, puts the players up at his home during competitions – he and his wife cook and clean for them.
At 24, Raymond Lussier of EnVyUS is one of the oldest participants in the championship and his demeanour is that of a thoughtful elder statesman. Operating under the ironic team name, Rambo, he compares Call of Duty to chess, perhaps seeing similarities in the way the best players seek to dominate the map, restricting the movements of their opponents. Whatever the case, his reference to a board game immediately sets him apart.
Indeed, there were some who thought that he was too old to be here. However deep the tactics go, the game remains heavily reliant on lightning fast reflexes – that twitchy intensity that fades as you approach thirty. But he has modified his play style and takes a defensive position, hanging back in map sectors where a mature head often works better. Outside of play, he is a sober presence amid a constant flurry of bro fists and chest bumps. In five years time, perhaps the scene will have more of these assured figures, and more women competitors, to broaden the culture a little.
The end, the beginning
Complexity takes it in the end. An anti-climactic final sees the team beating EnvyUS 3-0, the latter side clearly exhausted by its comparatively punishing route to the final. Later, the victorious team stands on the main stage grasping a giant cheque for $400,000 as ticker tape rains down. During the final the names of the competing sides were trending worldwide on Twitter. You may not know these guys but millions do, and according to SuperData, the average fan is watching sports 19 times a month, for 2.2 hours at a time. No wonder that beyond this rooftop tent there is a growing pantheon of eager sponsors and of game publishers desperate to get their titles onto the professional roster.
There will be another tournament in a few weeks and most of these teams will be back, blasting each other across Call of Duty’s complex, hyper-confined maps. The major esports players can now travel the world on professional athlete visas, courted all the way by giant brands like Coke and Red Bull. In an era of mass media fragmentation, everyone is looking for the sure things – the things that young audiences buy into in their droves. Besides cool new social applications, it is esports that is uniting these tech-savvy youngsters – or at least the YouTube and Twitch communities that spring up around them.
On a rooftop in Los Angeles, as earth tremors gently shook the city, a team of four boys took home $400,000 from playing a video game. They did it through skill and guile in front of millions of viewers – a weird and enthralling spectacle of noise and death. Alongside other huge tournaments based around titles like League of Legends and World of Tanks, this is a new paradigm in sports. Social media turned geeks into the world’s most important business entrepreneurs, now esports may turn them into superstars. But if you are waiting to see it all covered in traditional media, you’re probably in the wrong generation. This all goes out across the web, via Twitch, YouTube, games consoles and countless other digital outlets. The rise of professional gaming represents a kind of revolution in terms of spectated sports and mass entertainment – and it will not be televised.
• Call of Duty World Championship 2014: how online gaming is becoming a spectator sport
• Call of Duty: Ghosts – the billion-dollar new beginning
• Starcraft: how Day became the biggest star in esports
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