While eSports like Riot Games’ League of Legends, Valve’s Dota 2 and Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft II steal most of the spotlight in professional gaming, Call of Duty continues to rise in the ranks as a global eSports powerhouse. The partnership between Major League Gaming (MLG), Activision and Microsoft known as the Call of Duty Championship has grown exponentially over the last five years.
After being open to the public as part of Activision’s Call of Duty XP event, the past three years have seen the Los Angeles-based $1 million tournament rely on MLG.tv, CallofDuty.com and Xbox Live livestreaming to reach millions of fans. This year, the event was open to the public at the LA Event Center across the street from the Staples Center, which hosted the League of Legends Championship a couple years ago. Having actual fans fill the stands instead of just friends and family members made a big difference in the atmosphere. It also helped that the 32-team tournament format saw most of the top teams, including last year’s finalists, eliminated early.
The exciting format opened the door for a brand new team, Team Revenge, to make it all the way to the Championship match; although they ultimately lost to Denial, which took home $400,000, top prize in the $1 million cash pool. Mike Sepso, president and co-founder of MLG, was on hand to make sure all of the drama was livestreamed to millions of gamers worldwide. He explains why Call of Duty’s growth will one day soon fill a sports arena in this exclusive interview.
How have you seen this Call of Duty Championship evolve over the last couple of years?
The growth over the years is off the charts. We’ve already had more viewers watch more hours in two days than we did all of last year. So viewership is going through the roof. It’s great this year because we were able to have a live audience. Those tickets sold out in a couple of hours, so it was pretty cool. And the energy is awesome this year and the competition is amazing. The teams from the rest of the world have definitely increased their skill level and they’re a lot better. We had so many upsets on Day 2 with top teams getting out of the tournament early. It’s been really interesting.
So we’re starting to see parity in Call of Duty, which the U.S. used to dominate.
We’re seeing there’s some talent in the rest of the world. Because there’s an MLG Pro League in the US, they don’t get as much kind of practice at the top level as the U.S. teams do, so that makes a huge difference. But they are playing more and through our partnerships with groups like Gfinity and CEVO. We’re building up that infrastructure in Europe, so those teams are definitely getting better.
How are the EXO suits in Call of Duty Advanced Warfare impacting the actual gameplay experience for pros and audiences?
It’s pretty cool. It adds a whole new dimension to the game. You’re not just running around on the ground. You’ve got three dimensions to work with. It adds an element of speed, it adds an element of surprise and it really extends the area of the gameplay. You have a whole new vertical dimension to play in.
We’ve seen eSports dominated by PC games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and StarCraft II. What potential do you see with Call of Duty and other games on the console side?
We’re starting to see Call of Duty on the Xbox catch up to the PC world. Certainly in the U.S. it already has, and I think in parts of Europe like the UK and France it’s huge, and in Australia it’s huge. We’re seeing it grow really quickly in Brazil. We’re going to see some parity there as well.
Do you see Call of Duty as a better mainstream entry point to eSports versus a more complex MOBA like League of Legends?
Call of Duty is the most successful video game franchise in the history of the industry. There are over 20 million people playing Call of Duty and it’s been around for so long. It’s such a recognized brand and it’s also more accessible. You play it on your Xbox in your living room. You don’t need a really super high-end computer to play it on, so especially for the North American market it’s a much easier entry point. It’s also easier to just be a spectator who’s not necessarily a player because you can tell what’s going on.
Call of Duty was part of MLG’s first X-Games event. How have you seen ESPN help introduce more people to esports?
The integration with X-Games opened us up to a whole new market and added some credibility, since we’re able to make MLG’s Call of Duty competition a Gold Medal event at the X-Games right next to all the other action and racing sports. It’s been great. And interestingly, it’s huge at the X-Games. It’s one of the biggest competitions in terms of spectators and in terms of ticket sales, and these pro teams like Optic, Faze and Envyus are absolutely super popular with the X-Games audience.
When it comes to eSports these days, we’ve seen arenas like Stapes Center and soccer stadiums around the world sell out. Do you see Call of Duty being able to attract that kind of attendance?
Yeah, I definitely think so. At our major Call of Duty events you can tell people get pretty excited about the game and we’ve had up to 10,000 attendees. It’s about finding the right format too. We don’t necessarily want to rush right into arenas just because it’s great for watching. We also like the community aspect, and having a bigger open format for the game to get more amateur players in and people trying to qualify in to become pro. We have different models. We’ll be selling out arenas in the U.S. for Call of Duty very soon.
How many people actually watch this championship through MLG.tv livestreams?
Several million were watching this weekend. It’s pretty substantial. It’s a big audience. It’s comparative with other eSports, and with traditional sports as well at this point.
Where do you see Call of Duty five years from now as an eSport?
It’s going to continue to be one of the fastest-growing eSports titles because of the support that Activision puts into it and the level of communication and interaction we have with the studios. You can already see the advances that are happening every year in terms of integrations into the games specifically for the eSports community, whether it’s the gameplay, the weapon balance, the maps being created, the game modes; and on the broadcast side the spectator modes and all the tools that are being built into the game to help us make the broadcast better.