Pros left out by MLG's new rules face a long road back to the top
Raj “Historify” Kothari could barely grip his controller. His pro Call of Duty: Ghosts team, Fuse, were fighting for their lives in the most important match of their careers. Kothari had shepherded his team for over a year, leading them to this pivotal moment: a chance at entering Major League Gaming’s Call of Duty: Ghosts League, a regular online competition that affords the 12 teams competing in it fame and fortune.
But Fuse fumbled their chance. They needed to win just one more match. After dropping their series to Elevate 3-1, Fuse had one last chance against Optic Nation, but couldn’t get things going. Optic Nation crushed Fuse, ending their tournament run one win short.
Nearly a full year of effort crystallized in one heartbreaking moment.
Chances to enter the league don’t come around too often, considering the event runs for nearly three months. Only four survivors of the 192 team open bracket at MLG Anaheim, where anyone can compete if they have the controller and cash to enter, qualified for season three of the MLG League. Kothari and his team Fuse were the fifth.
“Placing fifth at Anaheim was equivalent to placing dead last,” Kothari says.
That’s the harsh reality for most Call of Duty amateurs and professionals. Maintaining a professional team outside of MLG’s league is tough, with few major events to test your mettle or peddle your brand. Making it into the league is tougher. And with new rules recently instituted by MLG, which limit player movement in free agency, the league is even more insulated from pros like Kothari.
Fuse was better than 187 teams at MLG Anaheim. It was a solid showing, beating Justus, a competitor in season two of the MLG league, in the winner’s bracket before falling to ELevate and then Optic Nation, the eventual champions. Justus managed to ride into fourth place by avoiding Optic in the lower bracket and stringing together a few wins, despite losing to Fuse earlier. And that one placement made all the difference.
Justus is now part of MLG’s Call of Duty League, one of four teams from the open bracket who qualified for the third season of the league. Fuse and Kothari are not, after a result he called “heartbreaking.”
Being part of MLG’s league is a big deal. It’s the biggest regular competition around, with weekly broadcasts that provide tons of exposure between a sparse list of live tournaments. League players receive lucrative streaming contracts with MLG.tv. It can make or break a Call of Duty career.
And for a team like Fuse, one series, one game, one round, even one kill could be the difference between making the league and missing it, between sticking together as a league team or breaking apart. Maybe if Fuse had lost that match to Justus, they would have made a lower bracket run by avoiding the Optic Nation buzzsaw and placed fourth.
The consequences were dire. When Kothari went on vacation a few days later, he came home to find the teammates he'd worked with for the better part of a year had left him behind, with nary a word to their captain.
“I know that Fuse is considered a ‘Pro’ team," Kothari says. "However regardless of our event placings for the past year we have had to fight through the open bracket and have absolutely nothing to show for it.”
Fuse has placed fifth at MLG Columbus, 13-16th at UMG Philadelphia, ninth at UGC Niagara, and fifth in the open tournament at MLG Anaheim. But despite solid tournament showings, and often placing above many teams actually in the MLG season, they're now outside looking in. And it’s likely to stay that way, with the protections in place for those league teams.
“Those in the league may not necessarily be the best in the game but have everything going for them,” says Kothari.
“The MLG season format leaves only a glimmer of hope that maybe you might be able to get into the season for one season. But even then there is no guarantee you will keep your spot.”
Kothari and long-time teammate “Thing2” both contemplated quitting after the Anaheim tournament, after a year’s work ended in disappointment. That’s the reality for many Call of Duty pros, given MLG’s format: is it worth spending another few months out of the season and on the fringes of Call of Duty, just for another fleeting chance at making it in?
Instead of the monthly tournaments favored by the MLG of a decade ago, the league has adopted a model more similar to professional sports, with regular matches, a set number of teams, and rules limiting roster movement.
“One thing that players loved about MLG was that it was a chance for anyone to make their name. Every event and every team had a story line,” says Kothari. He says he understands why MLG is making the moves from a business standpoint. It probably is better for viewers. "From a competitors standpoint," however, "it is awful for 95 percent of the competitors as well as those new organizations trying to break into the scene.”
The MLG season is great for the league and its players. Similar to the NFL, the league broadcasts regular weekly matches, providing players plenty of exposure, building consistent storylines around the games, and helping team and player brands build a fanbase. It brings regular viewers to MLG, as opposed to monthly events where viewership is constrained to a weekend.
But things like the new rules MLG instituted last week in order to protect the players on the twelve teams qualified for their season, make living in that reality hard for players on the outside.
Making it onto one of the 12 season teams is no longer a prospect of getting your talent noticed by playing in the weekly online tournaments hosted by MLG dubbed “2ks”, due to them awarding 2000 pro points to the victors, or events like UMG Dallas in August. The only way in is getting selected in the MLG Draft later today, and getting called into a starting lineup. Or waiting a few months for the season to finish and hoping you make it through the next qualification tournament.
A player like Dillon “Attach” Price, who had a position on one of the 12 MLG season teams lined up after MLG Anaheim, nearly missed his chance to play in the league. Justus had the top overall pick in the draft, and threatened to take Price and hide him on thier bench, preventing the teams that wanted him from putting him in the lineup.
Lucky for him, MLG changed their draft rules to award conditional picks at the start of the first round to teams without full rosters. Rise Nation will be able to take their target, Price. But other players may not be so lucky. Justus will still be able to take a talent at their position, keeping them out of the lineup of new team Radius, who has three open roster spots.
For the less gifted, the draft will be, as Kothari puts it, “a joke.” Sitting on the bench of some league teams is almost meaningless for a career, even if you maybe get into a game when a starter misses time. And that’s if you even get drafted in the first place.
Draft eligibility is determined by Pro Points, earned in official MLG competitions like the weekly 2k tournaments hosted on GameBattles. Kothari is ranked #22 out of all eligible players with 24,840 points, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be selected at the end of the second round, as his rank would suggest, or even at all.
“The draft is a tricky thing, it isnt about skill or pro points most of the time. It’s more about who you know and who you are ‘friends’ with... a popularity contest,” explains Kothari. “I doubt I will get drafted, simply because I tend to really only play with my team regardless if it is for fun or for practice… I’m sure some of my teammates will get drafted.”
Even if you do get drafted into a starting lineup, you need to make a tough decision. Do you abandon your current team to play in the league? Though in some ways, the answer is obvious.
“It really becomes a matter of what is in the best interest of my career at that time,” says Kothari.
MLG is exerting a lot of control on the roster of Call of Duty teams with their restrictions. In some ways, that makes sense. MLG is the biggest driver in Call of Duty esports right now. Adding consistency to rosters can help build team and player brands. It prevents teams from making rash decisions, and protects players from being removed by teammates at the drop of a hat.
But in other ways it does not. The Call of Duty Championships, with $1 million on the line, is still the biggest event of the year. But MLG rules could prevent a team from making the moves they want to prepare for it, since a new lineup could be illegal in the season. It prevents both teams and players from making the roster decisions they feel are best.
Kothari wants MLG to return to the days of pool play, like in the Black Ops 1 season, or at the Call of Duty Championships.
“Pool play did everything,” he said. “It showed every match and storyline provided a lot for the viewers. Everything that MLG wanted.”
That doesn’t mean Kothari wants the league abolished. It serves an important purpose - providing viewers with regular match content. But he thinks that consistent performance at live tournaments, not just the one big event that feeds into the league a la MLG Anaheim, should decide who competes in the league.
Regardless of the format, and how tough it is to make it into MLG’s league, Kothari can’t stay away from competitive Call of Duty. He’s already built a new roster for Fuse, featuring Austen “Phaze” Park, players known as Assauhlt, and Anticity.
“I love this new team I’m playing with,” he says. “Sometime it’s good for a some change and it’s needed at times. Ideally I would like for this team to stick together for as long as possible.”
Sticking together may require qualifying at the next big MLG tournament, but Fuse and Kothari will need to cross that barrier when it comes. For now, the possibilities, at least, are exciting.