Call of Duty Challengers: How Activision Revolutionized the Path-to-Pro System in Amateur Esports

How Activision created the ideal Path-to-Pro system in Call of Duty Challengers
How Activision created the ideal Path-to-Pro system in Call of Duty Challengers /

The world of gaming entertainment has come a long way in recent decades, and esports specifically, has skyrocketed over the past seven to eight years. One of the biggest beneficiaries has been the Call of Duty League.

Since Activision Blizzard made the executive decision to take Call of Duty esports to the world of franchised leagues, in the form of the Call of Duty League, we have seen exciting additions. One of these additions was the birth of the Call of Duty Challengers division.

What is Call of Duty Challengers?

Call of Duty Challengers serves as Activision’s Path-to-Pro circuit for the CDL. Challengers is a tournament-based format where amateur players and teams compete against one another in a series of double-elimination cups, ladder matches, as well as in the brand-new Challengers Elite league. All Challengers competitions take place through Activision’s Gamebattles website, where players fight to earn pro-points which are crucial for anyone looking to go pro in Call of Duty. These points can lead to higher seedings for tournaments, which means a better chance at claiming higher pay-outs, and an even greater chance of earning themselves a spot on a CDL team.

The eligibility requirements for entering Challengers are simple to understand. All aspiring Challengers players must be at least 18 years of age upon their first day of competing unless otherwise specified by League Operations. There are currently three regions where Challengers competition takes place: Asia-Pacific (APAC for short), Europe, and North America. Because of the current online competition format, which was brought on because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all players competing in Challengers must play in the ladder associated with the region in which they currently reside. All Challengers teams are limited to a single four-person squad, with multiple squads fielded by one organization being strictly prohibited.

What makes Challengers even more exciting is the fact that it is a mix of top-tier amateur talent as well as seasoned CWL and CDL players who are all vying for a spot in the big leagues. However, for the sake of creating some semblance of fairness, Challengers teams can only have up to two players who are already affiliated with or have previously been tied to one of the 12 teams that make up the CDL. And while there are a number of CDL teams that are currently fielding a roster in Challengers, like the New York Subliners Academy and London Royal Ravens Academy teams, a lot of the focus, at least from the fans’ point of view, tends to be put on the complete unknowns of the league. After all, that is what makes any great amateur scene a joy to follow, as the unpredictable nature of Challengers leads to a lot of key moments.

This was a point that was made clear to me in a conversation I had with current Challenger commentator Brodie “Nfinity” Lyon who has been a propelling force in the EU amateur CoD scene. “The unpredictability of it is always fun.”   

OWL Contenders vs. CDL Challengers

So, how do the CDL Challengers compare to Blizzard’s first franchised league amateur scene, Overwatch Contenders? The Overwatch League, which was founded back in 2016, was the first esports title to adopt a city-based franchise model, similar to that of most traditional sports leagues and Blizzard’s popular hero shooter also had its very own Tier 2 scene: Overwatch Contenders.

However, much like the games themselves, Contenders and Challengers are radically different in terms of how the two partner studios go about handling their amateur scenes. The first thing to note is that to compete in Contenders, players only have to be 13 years of age, (or 16 years of age in relation to China) by the time of their first involvement in this swiss-style round robin tournament. However, like with Call of Duty Challengers, these players will not be eligible to play on an OWL roster until they have turned 18. This can all be found in the Overwatch Contenders handbook.

The second key difference is that Contenders is currently made up of seven regions, which are split up into two separate conferences: the Atlantic Division, which is made up of teams from North America, South America, and Europe; and then there is the Pacific Division which comprises teams and players from within Australia, China, the Pacific territories, and South Korea. Add on the fact that Contenders has a total prize pool of $2.5 million spread out across all competitions versus Challengers which boasts a smaller sum of $1.38 million. You would think that Contenders was leaps and bounds ahead of CoD in that regard. However, take off the rose-tinted glasses and you will find that it is not as cut and dry as it may seem.

For starters, since there are more regions of competition across all of Contenders, naturally there would be a need for a higher prize pool. And while it is impossible to avoid any sort of favoritism when it comes to what is often shown on broadcast, Contenders takes this issue to an extreme, according to fans of the Tier 2 scene. In a recent Path to Pro update on the Contenders Reddit page, it was revealed that the South American region would be effectively fizzled out of mainstream attention. 

But then the question remains, how has Activision gone about rectifying these glaring issues from Contenders through Challengers?

How Effective Activision Has Been About Advertising Challengers

Despite the several setbacks that have come about as a result of Blizzard’s mismanagement of Overwatch Contenders, Activision’s partners have seemingly found a way to get the best out of their Path-to-Pro system.

However, despite the improvements that Activision made to the Challengers scene since the CDL got underway, advertising was less than stellar at the beginning. Unlike Contenders, there was no dedicated social media platform for Challengers. This meant that the only ways you could keep up with the action were either by hearing about it from the people or by following the tournament bracket which was a very big problem early on for the amateur CoD scene. But, like with all things, the community found a way to make it easier on people, which led to the creation of the CDCUpdate Twitter page. The page, which was founded at the start of the Minnesota Launch Week back in January 2020, has become a significant part of the way in which people follow Challengers. I had a chance to talk with its owner, Alisha. 

“I think Challengers overall is great,” said Alisha. “Last season was its debut and while there were some ups and downs it was really interesting seeing how we could pursue the AM scene through Covid-19 and the structure Activision Blizzard for the remainder of that season was impressive.” She then went on to say that while she believed that Activision could improve upon their coverage of the Challengers scene, particularly in relation to the Challengers Cups, that she was still very optimistic about the future of amateur CoD. 

She was also quick to note that, due to the current online format the league has found itself in, that it has become that much harder for players outside of North America to be scouted. And from an observer's point of view, that would certainly seem to be the case. However, thanks to the efforts of Alisha at CDCUpdate, as well as the larger amateur CoD community, things have certainly become much easier to keep track of.  

What Is Challengers Elite?

Activision announced the start of a brand-new tier of competition this past January known as the Call of Duty Challengers Elite series. The Elite series is a series of online tournaments/leagues that works similarly to that of the old Call of Duty: World League. In order to get into the Challengers Elite series, which will consist of a series of round-robin tournaments spread out across the season, players are tasked with winning their way through a series of intense qualifying matches until only eight teams remain. Those teams would then be placed into a small league format wherein the top four teams would be guaranteed their position in succeeding editions of the tournament and the bottom half of the ladder would be thrust into a relegation style playoff. 

While this has already proven to be a popular addition, there were, unfortunately, a few drawbacks. For starters, the qualifying matches weren’t streamed via the CDL YouTube channel. This created a rather minor problem, not just for the players involved in the competition who could have possibly benefitted from a bit more screen time, but also for the passionate Challengers fan base who wanted to see their teams competing. Thanks to the efforts of Alan “IHoldShift” Donofrio and Brodie “Nfinity” Lyon turning on their personal streams, the Challengers fans were able to watch the matches. “The thing with Challengers this year is that everyone has a chance to get into Elite via these qualifiers,” Nfinity stated when asked about his role in the competition. “The biggest challenge is making sure that I am consistently on top of my game heading into Challengers Elite.”

Unfortunately, there was still one more glaring issue that fans noted from the announcement. The biggest issue that arose from this was that only teams based in the North American and European regions would be eligible to compete in Challengers Elite. Though unlike with Contenders, this was mainly down to the immense difficulties that come from being an online format as not many people were able to help out with providing coverage of APAC Challengers events. This of course has not gone down well with many fans as there is a lot of untapped talent in the region when it comes to CoD. However, as the season progresses, and Activision goes about adding more events to the Challengers calendar, many in the CoD community such as Alisha, Nfinity, and the majority of the fans will be hoping that there will be a shifted focus towards the APAC region. After all, if Blizzard could make it work for both the OWL and Contenders, then surely Activision could afford to spin a couple of cameras towards APAC for Challengers.

What is the CDL Scouting Series?

Back in December, Activision began advertising for a new addition to the Call of Duty Challengers calendar. Enter the CDL Scouting Series.

As the name implies, the CDL Scouting Series served as the gateway for many of Call of Duty’s top emerging talents. For this event, which spanned three days from Dec. 15 – 18, 48 players currently not in the CDL, based on their individual pro-points from last season, were invited to partake in a draft. The coaches from all 12 CDL teams put together squads of players and have them compete in scrimmages against the other teams. These highly prominent members of the CDL staff would then give live feedback on each performance.

Despite Activision and the CDL not broadcasting it through their main YouTube channel, the players, coaches, and teams were all encouraged to do so on their own accounts. This proved to be an ample opportunity for the viewers, as well as many aspiring CoD players, to gain an insight into the kind of things that are expected of the players who wish to compete in the CDL. And since these were all streamed on YouTube, it meant that anyone could go back to these videos and gain a better understanding of the kinds of things they could look to add to their skillset in-game. It also gave these top-tier coaches a chance to interact with the CoD community in a manner that was both comfortable as well as professional. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

While things were less than ideal in terms of an advertising point of view at inception, Activision has seemingly heard the pleas of the passionate fan base and has continued to improve the Challengers scene. Challengers went from not being streamed at all, to having its own dedicated YouTube channel as well as a frequent broadcasting slot on the main CDL channel. We even had the likes of the Scouting Series and the introduction of Challengers Elite within a couple of months of each other.

If there is anything that should be taken away from this, it is that Activision has shown an increased interest in amateur CoD over the last couple of years. While there is certainly a whole lot that could be done on Activision’s part to improve the overall quality of Challengers, it has managed to stand well above its predecessor in so many ways. And though the issues regarding the lack of coverage for the APAC region remain a key topic of discontent at present, thanks to the efforts of several esteemed members of the CoD community, the gap has grown considerably closer. As we press on through the Black Ops Cold War season, we can only look upon Activision with a smile on our faces as the Call of Duty Challengers scene continues to grow at an exponential rate.