Call of Duty is Trying to be the Next Starcraft

“Call of Duty eSports. Get used to saying it. I have.” That’s what Mike “Hastr0″ Rufail tweeted to his followers earlier this month. Rufail, like hundreds of Call of Duty shout casters, are excited to see where Call of Duty is going with the latest release: Black Ops 2.

The cliche of “doubling down” could be applied non-sarcastically this time around as Black Ops 2 brings to the table some of the most innovative and game changing features to a mass market shorter to date. Read along as I pull apart the inner workings to see how Activision is attempting to establish yet another uber-competitive property and bring eSports to the next level–mainstream.

If you said Call of Duty has a fun game to watch up to now, you would be dead wrong. Spectator controls since Modern Warfare have been awful, and that in turn makes it difficult for viewers to follow the action in a meaningful way. Contrast the lackluster spectator experience to that of Starcraft II (also published by Activision) and you see how developing an interface designed to relay information quickly and effectively makes a very complex game easy to follow.

Included in the spectator mode in Starcraft II are different overlays that enable the spectator to show different real time statistics such as production, supply, unit composition, investment level, units killed, and even live actions per minute. The scoreboard included is also beneficial as it allows the viewers to immediately connect to the players and develop sort of an attachment to them. Much like in real, physical sports, the relay of data helps keep the viewer informed about all aspects of the game in a conscious manner.

Black Ops 2 features one of the best spectator modes in a console shooter to date. “CoDcasters” as Treyarch prefers to call them, can customize the in-game overlay to show different things such as a scoreboard, perks, weapons, and they can even pull out to show a complete player listing with current kill-streaks allowing the caster to quickly transition over to faster paced action. The competitive community has already responded positively to the additions in spectator mode mainly because they no longer need to join teams to properly spectate.

It’s not all about spectating, it’s also about playing for probably close to 99% of us. For the players, league play has been introduced to allow players to play against similarly skilled players in different game types ranging from classic TDM to new games like hardpoint–and everything in-between. The leagues go from iron, bronze, silver, gold, platinum and master. Right now Treyarch is holding a trial league to test things like balance and game type selection, and for the most part, it’s hit or miss.

Players who are on teams that have leavers tend to do worse, and since it’s a league match, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell for another player to join your struggle. In game types like “Search and Destroy” being down 1 or 2 players is almost a guaranteed loss. (This happened to me and my team lost by a single round) Another criticism is the allowance of Xbox Live party chat during league matches. I firmly believe that if a player is participating in the ladder, they should be playing to the best of their ability, and part of that requires the player to participate in team communication. Besides that seemingly obvious exclusion, a post-game lobby with the ability to give feedback would be great.

Looking at the actual ladder system, it’s more-or-less what Blizzard has done with Starcraft II, but adjusted for Call of Duty. Players play a few placement matches, get placed in a league (Macro scale) and a division (micro scale) to track a player’s progression in the game. Players win/lose points based on game outcome and will move appropriately on their ladder. If Treyarch wants league play to take off, they need to build more incentive for players to participate–like bonus experience, because as it stands, there is no reason to play in league matches except for the pride in knowing you stand among the best–but until we get percentage breakdowns, we can only guess how good we really are.

For the record, I hold a platinum rank, and no, I don’t think I deserve it.