More than 1,000 professional and amateur video gamers have brought their trigger fingers to New Orleans this weekend in hopes of going home with a share of a $200,000 prize and a shot at the world championships in August.
The Call of Duty World League, now in its third year, made New Orleans one of six cities to host an open-play tournament, a three-day competitive event that draws both players and spectators.
On Friday, rows of tables stretched along two sides of a darkened hall at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as hundreds sat before monitors hooked up to PlayStation 4 consoles, playing Call of Duty, an immensely popular first-person shooter franchise, which this year is once again set during World War II.
Many were clad in uniforms bearing team names like “Kaliber” and “Complexity,” their online monikers across the back. Spotlights swept back and forth overhead, and a panel of on-screen commentators promised “a hell of a contest.”
The players, however, were immersed, barking orders and calling out positions to one another over their headsets as their four-person teams worked through their brackets in a double-elimination tournament.
“You get a little bit shaky, I guess, but once that countdown goes down and you get into that first map, you forget about everything really,” said Josh Blackford, a 23-year-old player from Birmingham, England. “I forget I’m even at an event when I start playing.”
Blackford and three teammates form Barrage, the eighth-seeded team in the United Kingdom, and they won their first match Friday afternoon.
The teams playing at the tables were battling to be among the four that join 16 teams already seeded at the top. The matches among those 20 teams will take place on the main stage in full view of the audience, complete with commentary.
To get there, teams must win about a half-dozen head-to-head matchups. And the skills gap in a tournament like this one can make for a rude awakening, said Coty Heim, a 22-year-old player from Sandusky, Ohio.
Heim said he had just walked by a second-round match where a team was losing 250-10.
“It wasn’t even close,” he said. “You have people who fly all the way out here and they get destroyed in the first two rounds. And they’ve been practicing all month.”
Heim’s team, seeded 108th, was heading out to find lunch after winning its second match, against the 21st seed.
“I’m feeling really good about it,” he said. “I think that was the best team we had in our bracket. … I’m not going to say it’s easy from here on out, but I think we just continue our pace.”
Competitive video game playing, also known as esports, has been surging in popularity over the last decade, with tournament play increasingly becoming part of a particular game franchise — Call of Duty, League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients and others — and gaming culture in general.
OpTic Gaming, one of the major teams competing this weekend in New Orleans, has green-shirted fans who come out in droves, said Call of Duty World League spokesman Xav de Matos.
“Their fans follow them everywhere,” he said. “They buy out the first row. They make the most noise.”
The top teams rake in millions through tournament play and can pay their players an annual salary with benefits. Product sponsorship of teams is common well below the top teams.
The members of Barrage, for example, had to fund their own travel to New Orleans but have sponsorships through headset maker Lucid Sound and BLK, an apparel company.
Blackford and his teammates, who hail from Scotland, Cardiff and Manchester, play eight to 10 hours a day.
“We treat it like a job,” he said. “We get on at a certain time, we play at the same time, and we get off at a certain time. We’re going hard at it, yeah.”
“I guess, like everyone else, you just want to be the best,” he added. “And you’ve got to bring yourself to the best tournaments and play against the best players to prove that you’re the best. It’s pretty much as simple as that. I want to play against the best players in the world.”
Teammate James Stacy, 20, is the only member of Barrage still in school, and he had to use much of his winter break catching up on his training. He got into competitive gaming when casual play got too dull, and he found friendship and camaraderie among the other players he met.
In his third year at the University of Liverpool, Stacy said he’d love to end up gaming professionally, but he can also see himself putting his degree in business management to use.
It may sound a bit strange, he admitted sheepishly, but he’d like to open a cafe that caters to people and their dogs.