Things are not looking great for the future of the Call of Duty League and its franchised teams, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean CoD esports will die.
After the failure and closure of the Overwatch League and the direction the CDL seems to be headed, it just feels like esports got too big for itself. The downturn of esports is not specifically a CoD problem, but the CDL’s seemingly impending downfall is a symptom of it.
For those of us who have been around the esports scene for a decade or more, it was an exciting time watching competitive gaming grow. Esports events were getting coverage on ESPN, making appearances at the X Games, and big-time investors like pro athletes and owners of NFL teams were getting involved.
As it grew, esports investors were sold on the promise of what the future of competitive gaming could be. Team owners buying into the CDL spent a lot of money for a slot in the league, and it’s difficult to say if any team or especially the league has made a return on its investments yet, even after deferments. It’s likely nowhere close.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the closure of in-person events did not help anything, and it seems like the league has never recovered from that big of a setback.
Other gaming companies bought in big on esports, too, like how Activision purchased MLG and all of its assets to invest heavily into the competitive scene. More on that later.
But when it comes to any company in the world, if money is not being made, changes will come. And in the gaming industry over the past few years, those changes have come in the form of mass, sweeping layoffs.
Microsoft layoffs spell an unceremonious end
Activision Blizzard was purchased by Microsoft at the end of 2023, and since then, the world’s most valuable company has cleaned house in its gaming division with around 2,000 layoffs at the beginning of 2024.
One of the most recent rounds of layoffs has left Activision Blizzard with a skeleton crew of an esports team. After layoffs on Jan. 30, 60 out of 72 esports staff were let go, leaving just 12 full-time workers on the team, according to Twitter/X user @_TheRotation. The CDL’s entire observer team was let go, and some will return on a contractor basis, but it seems clear where the future is headed, specifically at Activision Blizzard.
Microsoft looks ready to cut bait with just about anything that’s not bringing in profit anymore, and it has shown it’s willing to go to extreme measures by way of these layoffs. And according to Atlanta FaZe coach Crowder, the CDL quietly lowered this season’s Major prize pool without notifying any of the teams. In short, things seem very bleak, so don’t be surprised to see the CDL be another casualty of the merger moving forward.
The people let go at Activision Blizzard also included several members of the defunct Overwatch League talent team, such as Matt “Mr. X” Morello and Soe Gschwind, who had been with the league since its inception.
And if you’re looking for the future of CoD esports, Overwatch itself may be a big hint.
CoD’s future? Look at Overwatch
With Activision Blizzard’s other major esports league, the Overwatch League, gone, Blizzard has now introduced the Overwatch Champions Series.
The OWCS is a community-focused esports model, which will allow teams to qualify in open tournaments and play against the best in the world. This is how CoD started out, with MLG events and such, featuring multiple events throughout the year.
The OWCS features a global circuit with multiple regions and is run by FACEIT, a tournament organizer, and there are already several qualifiers and Major events scheduled throughout the year.
If the CDL is to shutter its doors like the OWL, then this is likely where CoD esports would head—back to its roots, the glory days of open events like MLG Anaheim where anyone could show up and make it to the main stage.
CoD esports will very likely continue to exist. It’s the biggest and most successful game franchise year in and year out, but its esports side just may be a bit smaller and less ambitious than originally planned in the 2010s when the scene was exploding and lighting up dollar signs in the eyeballs of millionaires and billionaires the world over.
I think the solution for the future lies in the past—in the CoD World League and Major League Gaming.
Activision’s biggest esports asset is being wasted
When Activision bought Major League Gaming for $46 million in 2016, it said it wanted to make MLG the “ESPN of esports.” After a few successful years of the Call of Duty World League and the eventual founding of the CDL, it has done no such thing since.
“Our acquisition of Major League Gaming’s business furthers our plans to create the ESPN of esports,” former Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said in 2016. “MLG’s ability to create premium content and its proven broadcast technology platform – including its live streaming capabilities – strengthens our strategic position in competitive gaming. MLG has an incredibly strong and seasoned team and a thriving community. Together, we will create new ways to celebrate players and their unique skills, dedication and commitment to gaming.”
And now, Activision sits on MLG as it lies totally dormant and unused. The future of MLG is murky if not completely unknown, but I think the company would be best suited in the hands of a passionate group who wants to see it thrive.
And who better than the folks who brought MLG to that $46 million purchase price?
Adam Apicella, former vice president of league and event operations at the CoD World League and founding employee of MLG, posted to Xbox head Phil Spencer on Twitter/X as the Microsoft acquisition was coming to a close.
“Hey [Phil Spencer], congrats on the acquisition, AB is a perfect fit,” Apicella said on Oct. 13, 2023. “Amidst the massive move you made you also gained a small but mighty asset called MLG. More than ever, that brand is needed in today’s rudderless esports world. Would love to be involved in that resurrection.”
For those of us who pine for the glory days of MLG events of old, where CoD fans would be watching events in the same room as Super Smash Bros. and StarCraft II, there’s likely no one better. And after recent events, he’s campaigning to return to MLG once again.
“If Microsoft/AB let me run MLG from within, gave me the ability to run CWL next to Halo (and their amazing esports team) and other internal IP, we would build the most powerful internal marketing engine in the industry,” he said.
Apicella went on to say that MLG “doesn’t need 100s of employees or $100m in funding,” and that “it could literally be folded into internal marketing beats and lift all ships” and “also be done fiscally efficient with common sense and reasonable spending.” He said it “would send shockwaves through the industry.”
At this point, many fans likely hope that if Apicella or anyone else who longs for MLG’s heyday gets a crack at rebuilding it, with CoD in tow, it’s not too late.