In 2008, James “Clayster” Eubanks, then 16, decided he had what it took to be the number one Call of Duty player in the world. Growing up in Virginia, Eubanks owned all the latest consoles and specced-out gaming PCs; his house was the first on the block to have DSL. Now, he put all that practice to use, grinding up the Call of Duty ranks every single day, balancing his competitive ambitions against school, part-time jobs, girls. Playing the game professionally wasn’t an established career path yet, but there eventually came to be a loose circuit of tournaments. “It was really hectic,” Eubanks says. “But it became more and more sophisticated as the years have gone on.” Every year, tournament prizes got a little bigger. The competition got harder. He got more famous.
Then, the esports industry ballooned, as the massive popularity of League of Legends and Starcraft II esports kicked off a wave of big-money sponsorships and international stadium events. Publisher Activision began looking at competitive Call of Duty through a new lens. In 2020, Activision launched the Call of Duty League: 12 teams with five players each, representing 12 different cities around the world. As a top competitor playing on the Dallas Empire, Eubanks helped his team take the first Call of Duty League championship in July. He was thrilled. Then everything changed.
In August, Activision decided that professional Call of Duty games should be four-versus-four, not five-versus-five. Twenty percent of the league’s players had to go. Days after his big victory, the Dallas Empire dropped Eubanks, who had been designated fifth on the roster. “Got about 24 hours of happiness before I got thrown back into the blender, but that’s the story of my career,” Eubanks wrote on Twitter.
CDL commissioner Johanna Faries says Activision’s decision was “an outgrowth of a very extensive process” that included feedback sessions with teams, players, and “all key stakeholders.” While Eubanks believes that the new format is better for the game overall, he says he was never consulted about a move that would directly impact him and has “no idea how it happened.”
As esports expands—generous appraisals put the global esports market at $1 billion—it has come to resemble other professional sports like soccer: international leagues, slickly branded teams, investors seeking vanity projects, 18-year-old wunderkinds. There is, however, still one major difference: Nobody owns soccer. The beautiful game isn’t anyone’s intellectual property. Esport games are.
This simple fact, for esports game publishers, incentivized the creation of these leagues in the first place, as a way to advertise their products. For professional gamers, it’s helped stabilize a tumultuous line of work: A regular paycheck, and benefits, too. Balenciaga sneakers. Hair and make-up. Well-attended Twitch streams and vlogs from a clean pool behind the Los Angeles team house. But at the same time, franchised esports is a modern experiment in what happens when a marketing initiative becomes its very own industry. While players acknowledge the opportunities they’ve been given to literally game for work, they’re wary of how much power the publishers hold.
“If they truly cared about competitive Call of Duty, and it being a competitive esport, a lot of things would be done differently,” says Eubanks. “Call of Duty esports will always and forever be a marketing tool for Activision and for Call of Duty.”
Publishers made a game. They sell the game. They own the IP. Anything having to do with the games has to go through them. And now they own the leagues, too: In 2013, Riot Games launched its own League of Legends league, the League of Legends Championship Series. Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch and Call of Duty followed years later. These game publishers sell spots in their franchised esports leagues for anything from a reported $10 million to $60 million. Activision Blizzard charged a reported $20 million as an entry fee for the Overwatch League’s original 12 franchise teams, which attracted investors like Robert Kraft and Jeff Wilpon. (Tom Martell, Riot’s director of operations for global esports, told WIRED they intentionally charge under market value to promote long-term stability.) There is, of course, just one top-level league for each game; and at least for Call of Duty, fan-favorite teams like 100 Thieves have been unable to participate because of the huge buy-in.