Call of Duty League staffers hoped matches would run smoother in the playoffs than they did during the regular season, and they wanted their franchises and players to stop attacking them in public as they had for months.
Just before the postseason began last week, however, OpTic Gaming LA released a since-deleted video on its official Twitter account blasting the CDL. OpTic players then called out the league in an interview with Sporting News for not doing enough to improve its user experience when it was forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic, seemingly resigned to connectivity-caused defeat.
OpTic’s concerns proved prophetic: During its first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Guerrillas, its server connection was so bad that Kenny “Kuavo” Williams was booted before the deciding Game 5 of the contest and was unable to rejoin. The team had to scramble on short notice to sub in Brandon “Dashy” Otell. OpTic pulled out the win without Kuavo, but the incident deepened perceptions of the CDL’s shortcomings in 2020.
OpTic was eliminated Sunday, keeping it out of this upcoming weekend’s championship round and a chance at a $1.5 million grand prize (that is part of a $4.6 million pool).
“Of course it bugs me. We’re starting in loser’s bracket and I don’t think we had a fair shot to fight for the placing we deserve,” Austin “SlasheR” Liddicoat said before the start of the tournament. “I mean, my whole life is ‘Call of Duty’ in a moment like this. We’re playing eight hours a day. I’m playing for $4.6 million. Like, this is life-changing money.”
CONTEXT: How the CDL initially responded to critics
Before the pandemic, the CDL held in-person events that allowed all competitors to be on a level playing field via LAN connection. Since being forced online, where different teams have experienced different internet qualities, the CDL has tried to mitigate latency by upping its server total to more than 20 by the postseason. It also implemented a veto process that allows each side to test three servers before the start of a match and choose their favorite.
Those measures have not always been enough, though. Players located farther from servers than others, such as competitors in California, have at times felt disadvantaged.
OpTic has been one of many teams to publicly complain about CDL operations.
“They added servers, but … what they did exactly is they had a Texas server, right, and then they added another Texas server that might have been improved on the first one, but the location of it was still in Texas,” SlasheR told Sporting News. “So if we’re playing a Texas team and I’m from California, the ping for me is like 180 and he’s on 15. (As context for non-gamers), it’s ridiculous to play on that, especially when you’re playing the best players in the world. We might not have been able to beat them online either way, but at least would have had a fair fighting chance (with better connections).”
Added Kuavo: “I personally don’t think it improved at all. I don’t think it went anywhere. It kind of just was a standstill the whole time we’ve been on. I mean, we’ve had server issues since the first event, and we’ve continued to have server issues.”
CDL senior director of product Kasey Kramer told Sporting News the league made sure to put an additional server closer to California for the postseason and admitted the state was a possible blind spot earlier in the campaign. He felt connections did get better as the year progressed and emphasized the difficulty of making improvements on the fly during a pandemic.
Kramer and senior supervising producer Michael Berger said specific criticisms of the CDL this year were something they knew about and are working to address. They did not sound angry at harsh comments from players and teams, shaping them as feedback they would continue to take into account. They wanted to make it clear that they believe for all of the issues the league has endured in recent months, it has successfully grown its viewership and positioned itself well for next year.
“Whether it’s coming from the players, it’s coming from the fans, we’re constantly tracking that, discussing it, working internally talking with our teams and talking with the players trying to build alignment across the board,” Kramer told Sporting News. “So, you know, it doesn’t matter where the feedback’s coming from, but we’re constantly trying to evolve based on it.”
It was an unfortunate break for the CDL when OpTic endured its technological breakdown in the early playoff rounds in an incident announcers dubbed a “worst-case scenario” for the CDL. There were less than five minutes for broadcasters Clint Evans and Joe DeLuca to figure out that Kuavo had disconnected from the match and was being replaced, leading to on-air confusion.
That overshadowed an otherwise good weekend in which server changes made a difference, Kramer and Berger said.
CDL commissioner Johanna Faries said this week that it was impossible to speculate on whether there would be a return to in-person events next year. That determination is contingent on the effectiveness of the U.S. pandemic response.
Faries told reporters an emphasis for the CDL either way would be strengthening communication with teams.
“Our focus is on delivering a great experience with and for players and we’re in dialogue with them every day,” Faries said in a news conference.
Championship weekend begins Saturday and will end with millions of dollars in the hands of the title-winning team on Sunday. During earlier postseason rounds, CDL action received a peak audience of 156,000 concurrent viewers, according to a league spokesman. It wouldn’t be surprising for that figure to expand much further this Saturday and Sunday on the event’s live YouTube stream and the CDL website; the league is enticing potential viewers with “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” beta codes.
Even members of OpTic Gaming, who were otherwise critical of the CDL, gushed about the results of the league’s marketing efforts and the uptick in people following their matches and social accounts.
As was the case last week, though, having a swelling audience adds pressure for the CDL to deliver on its promise of improved online connections. It briefly entered panic mode dealing with the OpTic debacle last week and is searching for a better finish.
A technological success to close a tumultuous campaign would be a welcome burst of momentum heading into 2021, even if it’s too late for the organizations that have already been sent home.
“My main issue is, I wish they would have been more transparent with me,” SlasheR said. “When it first went online they could have said, ‘Hey, this is where the servers are going to be, this is what we can do.’ Because I would have moved if I would have known. … I would have moved myself to a Texas apartment. But I just feel like we weren’t given notice.”
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