The Call of Duty League didn't have much post-championships blues on Monday, but a couple of announcements that day did set up some lasting implications for the 2021 season and beyond. Those announcements -- a move from a five-person roster to four starters per team and the fact that the CDL won't be expanding until Season 3 at the earliest -- led to another punch in the gut for Call of Duty fans on Tuesday.
James "Clayster" Eubanks, a back-to-back Call of Duty champion and three-time titleholder who won the inaugural CDL championship with the Dallas Empire on Sunday, announced he's now a restricted free agent, and it's likely other CDL teams are making tough calls about who the odd person out on their squads are, too.
ESPN experts Emily Rand and Arda Ocal discussed the news, the format changes and what's next for the league in the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War era.
What are your thoughts on the 4-on-4 change and lack of expansion for the CDL going into Season 2?
Emily Rand: It has to be said that returning to 4-vs.-4 is great for competitive play and the viewing experience. After a season of Modern Warfare, which was horrid competitively for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with how many players were playing for each team at once, it's amazing to already have a return to what I would say is the superior competitive mode to watch and play.
Similarly, the decision to not expand also makes sense, and not only due to money likely lost this year from an inability to hold live events, among other things. This decision also shows a bit of Activision learning from how the Overwatch League arguably expanded much too quickly in its second year. If the teams had stayed 5-on-5, I would have definitely supported this decision to not expand, especially after such a rough season.
Where do we even begin with these two changes in tandem?
I can't help but wonder as to whether there was no communication from any league operations to Treyarch or vice versa when making these decisions side by side. They seem to have been made by completely different parts of the company and/or team owners. It makes sense to undergo some sort of cost-cutting measures after the coronavirus pandemic so adversely affected the inaugural season, but surely the CDL could have found buyers for two more teams to mitigate the necessity of every current organization having to drop at least one player regardless of how good their rosters were this year. This offseason is going to be a mess.
Arda Ocal: On top of what Emily said above, it should also be noted that many players, at least on the Dallas Empire based on what they have said in news conferences, knew that this was coming for a period of time. Owners certainly did, as they were part of the conversations leading up to the announcement, as Mike "Hastr0" Rufail has said during CDL news conferences. After the initial reactions of "it will be a better spectator esport" and "why not before CDL Season 1," your next thought is, "Wow, this erases 20% of the starting spots in the league," and that's both sad and extremely spicy going into offseason.
Every single team is looking at its roster knowing one person's gotta go. We've already seen a three-time world champion axed, and we haven't even officially hit free agency yet.
Which teams will be the most affected by this change?
Ocal: It's easy to point to the teams that didn't perform this season well and say them: the Seattle Surge or Los Angeles Guerrillas, for example. Maybe they change more than the one player cut necessary to go to four starters. For these teams, suddenly the free-agent pool becomes even more enticing, with much more top-tier talent available, not to mention the Call of Duty Challengers players hoping for looks.
Rand: I disagree with Arda a bit on the lower teams being affected, if only because they would have made changes regardless. I'm looking at teams like (obviously) Dallas but also Atlanta FaZe, Chicago Huntsmen, Florida Mutineers and New York Subliners -- rosters that seemed to click, especially after adding a player or two midseason.
What will the largest effect from these decisions be on the 2021 season?
Rand: That talent bottleneck that already existed between Challengers and the league? It's about to get much worse, and that means it'll be much more difficult for players to make it into starting professional lineups.
One of the best things about this year was seeing players come up from Challengers rosters and have major impacts on their new teams. This inaugural season alone we had Maurice "Fero" Henriquez, Joseph "Owakening" Conley , Makenzie "Mack" Kelley, Zack "Drazah" Jordan and Darien "Hollow" Chverchko, and this isn't even mentioning teams such as the Dallas Empire, who won a championship by betting on rookies Anthony "Shotzzy" Cuevas-Castro and Indervir "iLLeY" Dhaliwal from the beginning. Moving back to 4-on-4 without additional lineups at the pro level from expansion teams is going to create more of a blockage between semipro and pro teams that was already a bit of a problem this past year given the talent in Challengers.
Ocal: In the short term, there will be backlash, such as Call of Duty veteran Ian "Crimsix" Porter cursing out team owners whom he said voted for a four-starter format to save money.
Some owners voted for it to remain 5v5 and for that I praise you. But to the others who voted 4v4, you ought to be god damn ashamed of yourselves. 12 players this year are gonna lose their livelihoods so your deep pockets could stay a little bit deeper.— Empire C6 (@Crimsix) September 1, 2020
The announcement timing is rough, of course, and people such as Crimsix and Clayster didn't even get a day to celebrate their Season 1 title before fielding questions about format changes and roster implications. But in the long term, the move is good for the CDL. Matches will be more entertaining for the viewer, and many players prefer competing in fours.
What's your immediate reaction to the Clayster move by Dallas?
Rand: I'm so mad!
The most gutting part of this entire decision is that Clayster knew about the 4-on-4 decision before Champs and went out and won a title for the Empire anyway. He's now gone back-to-back at COD finals between 2019 and 2020 with two different lineups and was demonstrably a massive part of Dallas' success over the past year.
They had to cut someone, but did it have to be Clay?
Truthfully, though, that sentiment could have applied to anyone who was cut from a top team like Dallas. This was a roster working perfectly together, and cutting anyone from it would seem like a massive loss. Therein lies the biggest hurdle in paring down these lineups from five to four.
Clayster already said in his pre-and post-championship news conferences and interviews that he had a slight chip on his shoulder when facing the Atlanta FaZe due to the fact that they hadn't wanted him. You get the sense that Clayster has dealt with this sentiment a lot and surely will find another team to guide to success in the CDL next year. It just stinks that it had to be him again.
Ocal: Let's shine a light on the roller coaster of emotions Clayster had to go through here.
First, he and his teammates find out about the four-person roster change change a month or so before the playoffs. That's already swirling in his head. He told me via Twitter message that he knew it would be him, too; imagine how hard it is not to focus on that and try to win a championship with a team he feels he will let him go right afterward.
But he toughs it out, and the Empire do it -- they win. Clay becomes a three-time world champion and easily in the conversation for top-five COD player of all time. Not even a day later, 4-on-4 is officially announced, and he has to answer questions about it during the a post-championship news conference. Celebration cut short.
Then, seemingly while streaming, he finds out officially he's been let go. He pours his heart out in several social media posts, and now he has to hope that one of the now 12 fewer spots in CDL will go to him.
With that said, without knowing the team dynamic, this is how I see the Dallas team: You have Crim, who is without a doubt the greatest COD player of all time, the veteran leader. Cuyler "Huke" Garland, the loyal Envy player who finally got the chip. Anthony "Shotzzy" Cuevas-Castro, the reigning MVP and now world champion in two different esports. And Indervir "iLLeY" Dhaliwal, who didn't have the best maiden voyage in CDL but showed flashes of brilliance, and on paper has more longevity.
Is Clay the odd man out? It seems ludicrous to think so, but that's how Dallas saw it.