Esports is becoming a true spectator sport, but will the
average Joe one day care about competitive League of Legends or
Overwatch or Counter-Strike the way they care about watching
football on Sundays?

A number of factors are at play for esports to garner the same
level of popularity as mainstream sports like football,
baseball, basketball and fútbol everywhere but the U.S., some
of which are within the control of the gaming industry and some
that are not.

This week, CWL
is underway. It’s the grand finale to a year-long
season of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and the
first-place team will take home $600,000, the largest chunk of
the $1.5 million prize pool for the tournament. Call of
Duty: Infinite Warfare
is the No. 4 competitive video game
in terms of earnings, according to e-Sports Earnings. And it’s through the lens of
this franchise, its competitive history and this particular
tournament that we can look at the various ingredients
necessary to take esports into the mainstream.


Where would the NFL be without stadiums and broadcast
television? Esports as an entity is a toddler at this point,
but there’s visible growth happening when you look at the way
these leagues are maturing. Though competitive Call of Duty has
a rich history, it wasn’t until January 2016 that Activision
introduced the Call of Duty World League (CWL).

The CWL brings with it a direct line to the game-makers
themselves, which makes the prize pool bigger and the viewing
experience better. Casters, the folks who drive the viewing
experience for the audience and commentate over the action, are
now able to actually offer a high level of production value to
the experience.

For example, Activision and Treyarch made it possible for
casters to change the colors of the teams to fit their
real-world team colors for the Black Ops 3 seasons. The caster
also offers the ability to silhouette players in their team
color whether or not they’re in direct view on the screen.

“The line of scrimmage in the NFL is a big inspiration for
player silhouettes,” said Kevin Flynn, director of product
marketing for the CWL. “We try to be hyper aware of innovations
that impact the viewing experience of spectators.”

For reference, the talent at the professional Call of Duty
level is so high that most players are usually behind full-body
cover at any point in the game. To an amateur, without player
silhouettes, we’d have a difficult time seeing any of the
players on the map at all.

This seems like pretty obvious stuff, but these refinements
wouldn’t be possible if the publisher of the game wasn’t
somewhat invested in the competitive league play and viewing

Sometimes that investment comes in the form of an ever-refining
CoD-caster, and sometimes it comes in the form of actual
investment. Activision acquired in January 2016, just
before the launch of the CoD World League, in a deal valued at
$46 million. Plus, Activision has
implemented an in-game streamer so that folks playing
IW or Black Ops 3 on a PlayStation 4 can
watch directly from their console. And that doesn’t include the
live streaming on YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and even on
broadcast TV in Europe.

Now, this is hardly ESPN, but it’s a start to uniting the
game-makers and the viewers under the same roof. And while most
viewers of a tournament like CWL Champs are amateur CoD players
or industry folks, it’s not difficult for a non-gamer to make
the leap into watching a game like this.

Last weekend was the Stage 2 Playoffs, which determined the
seeds for this weekend’s Champs tournament. I happened to be
tuned in when a handful of friends came over, and threw it up
on the big screen when they arrived. Three of my five guests
never played Call of Duty, and certainly never watched esports.
And yet, after peppering in a few questions to understand the
basics, they seemed perfectly content and maybe even excited to
watch the action go down.


Part of that is due to the casters, who work hard to explain
the rules of the game, the strategies and the context of those
strategies in laymen’s terms.

But beyond explaining the difference between gamemodes like
Hardpoint, Uplink and Search & Destroy, these casters also
do an incredible job of setting up the storylines of the teams
and the players. This is yet another area where the CWL is
taking cues from Big Sports.

“The casters do a great job of demystifying things, breaking
down and celebrating big moments, just as traditional sports
have done so well,” said Flynn. “We’re also trying to emphasize
the star power of these guys and celebrate rivalries, as the
NBA has done so fabulously with players like LeBron versus Stef
Curry, and Kyrie Irving versus Kevin Durant.”

Unfortunately, Call of Duty happens in a digital world with
virtual characters, and the viewer doesn’t necessarily get to
know Clayster or Scump or Gunless as anything more than a
gamertag on a screen. The CWL is working to give more insight
to player profiles, and the players are putting themselves out
there as real people with real lives.

For example, only a few weeks ago one of the greatest AR
players in the game, James “Clayster”
, was traded from his long-time home at Faze Clan (a dominant force in competitive Call
of Duty) to the new, rising team on the scene, eUnited. He was
traded for the game’s newest superstar, Pierce
“Gunless” Hillman

And Clayster explained the whole thing to fans, in his own
words, via YouTube.

It’s the equivalent of trading Dak Prescott for Aaron Rodgers,
who fittingly is the mainstream athlete that Clayster most
likens himself to.

“I’m a big Aaron Rodgers fanboy,” said Clayster. “I love the
way he goes about things, the logical decisions he makes,
always calm and cool. He shows hype when he does something
crazy, but he’s always grounded in logic.”

So imagine the drama surrounding the Stage 2 Playoffs when
eUnited outplaced Faze and Clayster went on to play in the
finals of the tournament.

And then there’s the story of Optic
, undoubtedly the most dominant team in Call of Duty
for a few years running. Two of the veterans on the roster,
Damon “Karma” Barlow and Ian “Crimsix” Porter, have won
championship rings on other teams and have quite the resumes.
But Seth “Scump” Abner (considered the best
player in Call of Duty history) and Matthew “Formal” Piper (a
legendary AR player who moved from competitive Halo a few years
ago) have yet to get their rings.

“I think the worst thing to do is to put pressure on myself and
the team,” said Scump. “It’s just another tournament, and we’re
going to work map by map and go through it together. I can’t
think about it.”

For some perspective, Optic Gaming is currently playing their
first match of the day, and viewership on the stream alone is hanging around 50,000

The last two years in a row, Optic Gaming has choked at Champs,
despite the way they’ve dominated tournaments and league play.
Will they finally clutch up this year? Will Scump and Formal
get their rings?


The NFL is nearly 100 years old, and esports is a baby by
comparison. But the model of esports is around amateur players
becoming viewers, and the ESA says that more than 150 million people
play video games regularly in the United States alone.

That audience shouldn’t be difficult to convert, and each of
those players-turned-viewers inevitably becomes some sort of
evangelist for players of other games, or non-players. We watch
action movies all the time, and we love rivalries and underdog
stories. Esports brings those two things together in a way that
is instantly gripping, even for this nearly 30-year-old female
tech reporter.

Plus, the sheer amount of cash being pushed around in this
industry is staggering. Forget the $4 million prize pool across
the whole season of Infinite Warfare. These players
have deals with brands like Lootcrate, Brisk Mate, Scuf, Turtle
Beach, Astro Gaming and more. In fact, Optic Gaming just got an
endorsement deal with Chipotle.

“I used to play for $2,500 for first place in tournaments and
now I’m playing for $150,000 today,” said Scump. “And when the
bigger matches of the tournament get going later today, this
place is going to be insane.”

My generation dreamt of being a pop singer or a quarterback,
making riches and bathing in fame. Today’s young people dream
of playing video games to make their millions. Just this year,
there are 20,000 players who are trying to be CoD pros by
participating in the pro point program, up nearly 400 percent
from last year.

These players are becoming role models, breaking stereotypes of
the way that most people think of gamers.

“There’s a level of accountability you have to hold yourself
to,” said Clayster. “The players and organizations have taken
steps toward breaking the stereotype of the basement dweller. A
lot of parents don’t understand it, but there are tons of fans
watching me and looking up to me that I’ve met personally and I
try to explain to them and their parents what a big deal it is.
That we’re playing at Amway Center for $1.5 million.”

Just like my dad grew up watching football with his dad, and I
grew up watching football with my dad, there is a generation of
gamers out there who will raise their children watching
esports. And I’ll probably be one of them.