The first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops, released in November 2010, hit an astonishing milestone the following February when it became the single biggest-selling videogame of all time in the U.S. In its first six weeks it had generated over $1 billion in sales. Its sequel hit shelves on Tuesday and could do even better.
Millions of players log in to Activision Blizzard's servers every day to compete in Call of Duty matches, but Activision wants more. There's a certain segment of the audience that it is still looking to capture, some of the highest-skilled, most devoted shooter players in the world: Professional gamers who support themselves (and sometimes get filthy rich) playing in big-money tournaments. So the gaming publisher has added features to Black Ops II aimed at making a spectator sport out of Call of Duty. Players can "shoutcast," or broadcast their matches to viewers via YouTube livestreaming directly from their game consoles.
It's a start, but experts in the field of "e-sports" say that Black Ops II may still be unfit for duty as a pro game.
The addition of shoutcasting to Black Ops is an indicator that e-sports isn't just about the competitors, it's about the fans.
Hundreds of thousands of players subscribe to e-sports commentators on YouTube to watch livestreamed matches, and they pack sports arenas around the world to watch the finals of major game tournaments. Then they practice every day in the hopes of becoming the Michael Jordan of videogames. With e-sports being especially popular in Europe and Asia, reaching these fans might be a way for Call of Duty to become a truly worldwide phenomenon.
But pro gamers have a fundamental problem with Call of Duty, and unfortunately, that problem is exactly the aspect of the series that causes Activision to make such obscene amounts of money off the franchise in the first place. Like clockwork, it releases a new Call of Duty on the second Tuesday of every November. To pull this off, the titles are developed by two different developers that switch off years. And every year, millions of players abandon the game they've been playing for the last 12 months and shift en masse to the new one on launch day.
The new games can bring all kinds of changes. Guns fire differently.
The physics of the world have been tweaked. This makes it challenging and fun for casual players, but it's a nightmare scenario for pros. The most important thing for professionals is to be able to practice and play the same game, with the same rules, for years and years to hone their skills. (Imagine if they completely changed the rules of Major League Baseball every year, using different balls, spacing the bases further apart, adding a fourth outfielder.)
"A new game release nearly every year is the biggest problem for a game's healthy competitive community," says Rod "Slasher" Breslau, co-host of a web show about professional gaming called "Live on Three."
Pro gamers do play first-person shooters. But at all of the biggest tournaments, with the most money on the line ¡ª DreamHack in Sweden, the World Cyber Games in Korea ¡ª they play Counter-Strike. And the version they play is 1.6, released back in 2003. At the recent e-Sports Cup at Tokyo Game Show in September, they gave out $15,000 in prizes for 1.6. Maker Valve has released new versions of Counter-Strike over the years but the top players have stubbornly stuck with the ancient 1.6.
The amateur players at home love Call of Duty for reasons that aren't compatible with the competitive gaming scene, says Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, Breslau's co-host on "Live on Three."
"I like Call of Duty because I can get 50-kill streaks and airstrikes and tornadoes or whatever," Graham says, "but that doesn't necessarily make the game fit for the competitive scene."
When pros play Call of Duty, Graham says, they tend to focus on the slower, more tactical modes without all of the glitz and glitter of kill streaks and perks. "Search and Destroy," a mode which challenges two teams of players to disarm or defend a bomb, is a go-to favorite for many serious players.
To the extent that Call of Duty has caught on and established an ongoing competitive scene, it's all been based around the 2007 game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Breslau says that Call of Duty 4¡äs PC players still form an active competitive community to this day, something no Call of Duty title since then has been able to replicate. Many players became attached to the specific mechanics of Call of Duty 4, and resisted any further changes.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II will be released on four platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows and Nintendo's new Wii U. Players of one version of the game will be unable to play against those on other platforms. Even when e-sports tournament organizers want to try out Call of Duty, they don't know what to do with all the different games and all the different versions. There's no one good option.
"If me and my buddies have the best PS3 teams that anyone's ever seen, it doesn't matter to anyone playing on the 360," says Graham. "You've got segregated audiences. Starcraft II doesn't have to deal with that."
Starcraft II, also made by Activision Blizzard, is built for the long haul. The company supported the first version of the strategy game for 11 years, and pro gamers were winning millions of dollars in Starcraft matches long after its release. Activision Blizzard created Starcraft II to be a game that would be played for a decade or more.
Giving Black Ops II players the tools to easily livestream their matches is an interesting move, but simply increasing the viewing audience for a game isn't as easy as all that. Unlike Starcraft II or a martial-arts game like Street Fighter IV, also popular in tournament play, the action of Call of Duty games takes place not on one screen but on as many as 10.
"Would you watch an entire football game with a camera strapped to the player's head?" says Stan Press, a marketing manager for the gaming accessory maker Astro Gaming and former pro gamer. "It's pretty tough to really grasp what's happening, and why."
"It's much more difficult to watch 10 screens at once during a match than it is to watch one or two screens for any of these other genres," says Breslau.
All of these issues combined have made it incredibly difficult for players, teams and leagues to coordinate around the Call of Duty franchise and its many moving parts over the last eight years. But there is at least some optimism that this week's launch of Black Ops II might mark a turning point for the series.
"I've never seen such a high level of tools out of the box that support competitive components," says Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founder and CEO of the Major League Gaming tournament organization. "There are tools that are available for the first time to tell that story if someone is watching from home."
But even DiGiovanni, who puts a lot of faith in Black Ops developer Treyarch, admits that the fact that Call of Duty is an annual franchise is reason for concern.
"It brings up questions," he says. Because, even if Black Ops II makes improvements, "the people developing the next version of the game have to be sure not to drop the ball."