The 2021 CDL season begins this weekend with a soft-launch - the CDL 2021 Kickoff Classic.
With the main season getting underway in February, fans are being treated to a mouthwatering set of fan-voted matches in the first official competitive tournament of the Black Ops Cold War era.
Before the action gets underway, we had the chance to speak to Johanna Faries the CDL Commissioner.
Johanna was appointed the Commissioner of the Call of Duty World League, back in 2019 and has recently been leading the esports side for both the CDL and Overwatch League.
We had the chance to talk to her about what's new in the CDL, the return of LAN events, anti-cheat and the possibility of expanding to include new franchises!
Gfinity Interviews CDL Commissioner Johanna Faries
Chris Trout: For those who might not be so informed about what's changed, what's new and what cool things you have brought to the table. What is it that you've changed this year to make it just as exciting and as innovative as you did last year?
Johanna Faries: Part of it is that we've switched to 4v4, which is really a return to form.
For those who are less familiar with the history of Call of Duty Esports, it used to be, several years ago, a 4v4 Esport.
Only in recent years had it been played as 5v5, so that was a welcome shift, back to our roots, so to speak and it came with a lot of feedback from our players, our teams, our community and our partners to do that collaboratively.
We're also seeing a shift to PC, which we announced a couple of months ago, which enables more players in our system to choose the league approved controller of their choice; which again just speaks to opening the funnel of engagement, giving players more optionality in their gameplay.
And that only speaks just to some of the mechanics, there's so much more for fans to look forward to, we've been able to think about how we innovate in an online remote world and how we reward and incentivise viewership for those who do tune in.
We're thinking about how we show up in creative ways that are meaningful to our playerbase, across the Call of Duty community, so that they have more awareness of CDL, they have more reasons to lean in and the storylines that were created from the inaugural season are now really starting to take root; you have so many good, organic and powerful team rivalries. Players are now playing on different squads than they were a year ago; so we had a wild Rostermania.
With the entry of LA Thieves, owned by 100 Thieves (one of the biggest brands in all of gaming) to see them find their way into the system here is a highly anticipated headline and one that we're excited to see, in addition to OpTic being reunited with its founder in Hector Rodriguez.
There's a lot of narratives and a lot to look forward to.
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Chris: Do you think that's why Call of Duty has been so successful as an Esport for such a long time? It's all of the things you mentioned there - it's the community, well-recognised teams, storylines and people involved in it.
Johanna: Absolutely. So much of the Call of Duty esports community is about these types of legacies, brands and these personality-driven storylines that have always taken hold with our fanbase.
I think what's different and special is the ability for all of us here at Activision Blizzard, to apply a much more ambitious long-term vision in the form of franchising and the form of city-based franchising as the structure to provide that added boost to what has been such a strong community-driven system for so long.
So, it's really the power of both of those things coming together, plus the power of innovation that we're seeing come through from everyone involved at the franchise level for Call of Duty.
Our Studio partners and how they continue to think big about developing the competitive aspects of the experience and just the incredible recent achievements that the franchise has amassed having gone free-to-play back in the Spring, having gone mobile last Fall; this is really a great moment in time not just for Call of Duty League, but for Call of Duty. And to be able to play in that kind of a sandbox enables us to do really cool things with the Esport.
Chris: Obviously, with the state of the world right now, a lot of esports tournaments have had to move online. Given that there's a lot of hope that things will get better as the year progresses, has the CDL anticipated for a return for LAN events this year?
Johanna: We certainly hope we can make that return. We will be ready to do so when it's safe to do so.
But, right now, we're focused on launching in an online format given everything you just noted.
It's not safe yet to get back out there and we want to make sure that we preserve and prioritise the health and wellness of our players, personnel and everybody that is involved in putting on those World Class events.
So, it's certainly something we have our eye on, we monitor it daily, but we won't rush that decision. We want to make sure that when we do it, we do it right, we do it well and that everybody feels really prepared to deliver on that.
THE LAST OFFLINE EVENT IN THE CDL WAS BACK IN MARCH 2020 AT THE LOS ANGELES HOME SERIES
Photo via @DotEsports
Chris: It's fair to say that there's a lot more you can do with LAN events, being in-person with these spectacular characters, the crowd, the teams and all of the people involved. Do you have some special plans and ideas to innovate the online shows so that they remain as energetic and entertaining?
Johanna: We do! It's a great question, because we learned so much last year about having to do that in a short period of time, not just to pivot operationally, but to make sure that we were thoughtful about the innovation we could still inject into the experience.
So, by way of example, last year with CDL champs, we opted to place that event virtually inside of Warzone's Verdansk Stadium.
It was widely appreciated and well-received amongst our fans and community and it really spoke to the power of what we can do as an Esport just given some of the challenges in the real world that we were all facing.
There's going to be more of that, we applied so much of those learnings here in the off-season to think about the virtual experience when fans do tune in.
The high-quality experience for a viewer that we can deliver despite not being in an arena - the incentives and rewards that we can offer to celebrate those among our playerbase who do tune in to enhance their own gameplay experience and make tuning into the CDL additive to the value that they see as Call of Duty players more generally.
There's so much more to come in that regard and I think that's why I'm really excited to see everything unfold here in a matter of weeks.
Our kick-off classic will start to prime some of that experience, but certainly in earnest once we get started here in mid-February on the 11th. There's so much hard work and creativity that's gone into making the online experience top-notch and we're excited to see it come through.
Chris: At the moment in the community, there's a lot of talk about cheating and cheaters; not just with Black Ops Cold War, but Warzone as well. Are you worried about the number of cheaters, particularly at the amateur level? And how are you working to combat foul play in the league?
Johanna: As far as the topic of cheating goes, competitive integrity is a priority for us, we're always going to be monitoring it closely.
How those dynamics are taking shape, I think we feel very very prepared to closely monitor for that (just as we did last year).
But with time our side in the off-season to prepare for continued online competition at the pro level, there's a lot of investment that has gone into how we closely monitor our play given the stakes are so high.
And even at the amateur level where we won't be necessarily monitoring with the same types of equipment at the pro elite level just given the sheer number and quantity of competition that is happening on any given week, we're having advanced conversations on how we can continue to make sure we uphold fairness and balance.
Frankly, our community of players have been great partners in this regard, where we continue to see our competitors in the amateur system, upholding the same types of values and expectations and reporting when they do see something or sense that there might be some foul play; so that our competition operations team can continue to monitor it.
So, that's always going to be a priority, there's always going to be added investment in those areas. But we feel really really good about how pro play will be orchestrated this year and we don't expect any issues on that front.
Chris: And do you think there's any room to improve the measures at the moment? Perhaps to implement something like anti-cheat?
Johanna: There are discussions about what we continue to do there, in terms of automation and other tech.
So, certainly, something that we have a passion for and the right people are having the right conversations at this time.
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Chris: Do you think that in the future the CDL could expand to include more franchises?
Johanna: Expansion is certainly still on the table, but the matter of when, where and with whom really all depends.
We're really focused right now on making sure that our twelve franchises are feeling great, healthy and strong in 2021. We're all eyes on delivering for the fans and our players this year.
So, while we are running in parallel, those types of questions and analyses and thinking about what future expansion might look like, we're mostly focused on execution in the near term and making sure that we position the CDL for growth this year.
I will say that there has been a tremendous amount of interest from organisations around the world, to get involved, which is great to see. We feel a great sense of potential and wind at our backs as we go into 2021, so that's where we really want to focus our energy, harnessing that momentum so that we continue to position the CDL as a world-class Esport.
Chris: And finally, just a quick opinion question: Who do you think the standout teams are to watch this year?
Johanna: Well everyone has their eyes on LA Thieves, just given the legacy that they've had and now they're in the system.
All eyes are on them and it will be interesting to see how they gel as a team and how they represent the city of Los Angeles in this new dynamic way.
I'm super excited to continue to see some of the rivalries that took shape last year, you have the battle of the north between Toronto and Minnesota; which I personally loved to see. Both are tremendous organisations, best in class content, awesome regional rivalry.
And the same goes for our two teams in the EU - the battle of Europe continues with the London Royal Ravens and Paris Legion.
And as I mentioned before, a lot of new faces are representing those organisations, so I'm particularly focused and interested in seeing how these new teams, that have assembled in the off-season, compete together because it's not necessarily going to be the same starting four that fans might have expected to see as compared to last year.
I'm excited all the way around, can't wait to tune in and get started here in a couple of days.
We'd like to thank Johanna for her time and the great insight for what the CDL has in-store for us.
You can catch the CDL CDL 2021 Kickoff Classic this weekend!