Despite delays, Challengers criticism, and Vanguard, 2022 CDL Championship proved CoD esports still has potential

An exciting, eventful Call of Duty League season has come to an end.

Photo via Call of Duty League

After an inaugural season upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and a 2021 season forced almost completely online due to the disease, the Call of Duty League finally got to complete a full season without any league-altering hiccups in 2022.

Although a far cry from the “world tour” the CDL initially planned to take its 12 teams on in 2020, which would have featured 24 events in four countries in less than seven months, the league did manage to pull off a preseason tournament, four Major LAN events, a midseason crossover with its second-tier Challengers scene, and a $2.55 million end-of-year extravaganza in the shadow of Hollywood.

So it’s difficult to call this past CDL season and Champs, specifically, anything but at least a step forward for the esport—although you wouldn’t struggle to find those who disagree.

Vanguard, the iconic franchise’s latest installment, laid at the center of many of the problems the CDL’s teams faced this year. If you ask nearly any Call of Duty pro what they think of Vanguard, few would have any positive words to describe a game that has been anything but competitively balanced since launch.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s what aBeZy, a two-time world champion, said after falling short of a record-tying third title: “Thank god I’ll never have to play this dogshit CoD ever again. Literally the worst game I’ve ever played.”

While Vanguard proved to be a burden on those who get paid to practice and play it for numerous hours each week, the game ultimately delivered some of the most exciting and competitive matches of any CoD title in recent memory. Of course, that’s likely due to players not being able to truly expect what the notoriously unpredictable game would throw at them next, but from a viewer’s perspective, it was entertaining nonetheless.

The 2022 CDL Championship possibly proved this the best. The first five matches of the tournament all went to a deciding game five, which tied last year’s Champs total. And even when the series didn’t go to a game five, almost all of the matches were intriguing in some capacity.

What is not entertaining or interesting are delays, and the CDL Championship really failed in this regard. While most of the matches were kept relatively tight, the tournament experienced two massive delays on different days of the event.

The first such delay came on day one when a worldwide CoD server outage led to a break between the first and second matches in excess of 90 minutes. This isn’t the CDL’s fault, though; the blame lies solely on Activision and its developing studios.

The outage aside, a multi-billion-dollar games publisher and developers who have worked on one of the most popular and financially successful franchises in history should not be skimping on features that would benefit an Activision-run esports league. But that’s what they did by forcing players to play online CoD during a LAN event, which, according to several pros, has been the unfortunate norm since the inaugural season of the CDL.

Had Vanguard truly been able to be played on LAN, that day-one delay would’ve been nonexistent. The same cannot be said for the delay that occurred on day three when an audio issue torpedoed a high-stakes encounter between OpTic Texas and New York Subliners, one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament to that point.

After OpTic went up 2-0 in the series, putting Scump and his team just one map away from eliminating NYSL and Crimsix, Scump’s former world-champion teammate, a supposedly major issue in the Subliners’ audio setup caused a delay that nearly eclipsed two hours. While the break didn’t slow down OpTic, who completed the sweep, the CDL’s main stream on YouTube lost about 20 percent of its viewers over those nearly two hours.

Thankfully, the delays came to an end and the final days of the tournament were relatively free of any drawn-out series. But it was actually kind of a good thing that there was a two-hour delay on Saturday, Aug. 6 because Challengers got to shine on the main stage.

As the de facto minor leagues of CoD esports, Challengers is supposedly the esport’s path to becoming a pro. It’s proven to be somewhat successful in that regard since a considerable percentage of CDL players previously competed in Challengers. But even then, the scene severely lacks the necessary support of Activision and most of the CDL teams.

Only a handful of the league’s 12 teams fielded a Challengers squad this season. The Toronto Ultra pulled double duty and created two “academy” rosters, the Minnesota RØKKR signed an all-Spanish team, and the Boston Breach entered late in the season to support a team led by Censor, who signed with Boston to be a content creator and brand ambassador. 

With only a quarter of the league deciding it was worthwhile to support possible future CDL stars, content creators such as Xposed and retired pro ZooMaa decided to help out teams. Some recognizable organizations such as Team WaR, Renegades, and UYU also had teams competing under their brands this season.

But for the most part, Challengers is barren. Players compete almost exclusively online in Cups and Challengers Elite, the latter of which is only for the upper echelon of online teams. There are Open tournaments, the most lucrative events and the only LAN opportunities for teams, although it’s difficult for many teams to justify spending the money needed to travel to these events with how little recognition, prize money, and sponsors they receive.

Even the format of the Challengers Finals and its qualification process were extensively criticized when the CDL announced that only eight teams would compete at the final event of the season, which promised more prize money than the three Open events combined.

There is likely no better way of showing Activision’s lackluster support of Challengers, though, than the photos captured of the Challengers Finals setup in Los Angeles, which featured nothing more than what was necessary to churn out a two-day CoD tournament. With no Challengers branding and no official spectator area, the grand finale of the Challengers season easily could have been mistaken for a small regional LAN event.

So when NYSL’s audio went haywire and caused the longest delay of Champs, it was a great opportunity for the players, teams, and commentators to showcase the Challengers losers bracket finals matchup between WaR and eventual champions Iron Blood Gaming. The match should have been put on the main stream far sooner, but the fact that north of 80,000 people were watching a Challengers match is a positive development for the scene regardless of when the CDL decided to make the call.

Most certainly hearing the criticism throughout the season, CDL general manager Daniel Tsay seems rather committed to improving the state of Challengers, although there will likely be roadblocks in securing any significant monetary support from Activision. Despite this, Tsay has already said the league is further along in the planning process of Challengers events than it was last season, which should mean the events will also be announced earlier.

Despite all of the issues in Challengers, puzzling decisions by the league, and the inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent support from developers, the 2022 CDL Championship attracted the second-largest peak viewership of any event in the league’s history, only behind CoD Champs 2020, according to Esports Charts. Additionally, this year’s Champs event became the most-watched CDL event in terms of hours watched despite having less air time than two of the previous three Champs events.

Make no mistake, CoD esports is nowhere near the level of popularity of League of Legends, CS:GO, or even VALORANT, which is significantly younger than most other top competitive games. But it must be said that the CoD community has proven time and time again to be exceptionally persistent and willing to be supportive if they feel inclined to do so.

The onus is with the CDL to extract that support out of fans, though, as many of those supporters have waited years for the franchised, multi-million-dollar league to prove it is an improvement over past iterations of top CoD leagues, such as the CWL and MLG Pro League.

But the 2022 season was a step forward for the esport, at the very least. Now it’s on Activision to capitalize on that progress and take the CDL to another level.