'Black Ops 4' shakes up competitive Call of Duty

An in-game screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Provided by Activision

More than 400,000 Twitch viewers tuned in on Oct. 12 to see their favorite streamers try out "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" and its new battle royale mode, Blackout. Treyarch and Activision's new entry in the blockbuster series ditched a single-player campaign for its own take on the ultrapopular 100-player last-man-standing game mode. The change helped energize players and fans across the competitive scene ahead of the 2019 season of Call of Duty World League.

The season, starting with the Las Vegas event on Dec. 7, will be the first time in competitive Call of Duty history that teams won't be playing 4v4. Treyarch announced that "Black Ops 4" would feature 5v5 competitions, a split between 6v6 casual matches and the 4v4 matches that pro players have always had.

"The idea behind this is to make the game played by casual players almost identical to the one played by pros. The only difference would be the skill level," Splyce head coach Mark Bryceland told ESPN. "In the past, the discrepancy between the number of players has made the game played by casual players at home completely different to what we play. Other esports are built with this same idea that it should be competitive out the box."

Treyarch hopes the change will bring more interest to the competitive scene, although the players and coaches ESPN spoke to are split. Several have claimed the change will make the league top-heavy, allowing for the best teams to add another star player to their roster. Others have said that it could lead to more amateur talent getting the spotlight as new roster spots open up.

One thing many players agreed on was how the 5v5 change could introduce a stronger variety of playstyles while helping the league prepare for an Overwatch League-like franchise system.

"One of the biggest things the change to 5v5 allows for are new types of rosters," 100 Thieves head of esports operations Eric "Muddawg" Sanders told ESPN. "The 4v4 setting and pace never allowed for two Assault Rifle players in the same composition."

Traditional team compositions have consisted of one assault rifle player, one or two submachine gunners and a flex player who can switch between roles.

"World League play has only allowed for one long-range assault rifle player and a combination of submachine gun players to bring pressure on different parts of the map," Sanders said. "The additional player lets us add another assault rifle, which should open up teams to a variety of playstyles. You'll probably see a few different approaches to how teams use that new composition."

Teams still have time to figure out what type of setup works best for 5v5 play before the new season begins, although the bigger concern is if Treyarch will have enough time to fix the mechanical and design issues that players have with "Black Ops 4."

"Treyarch always has better mechanics than Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer. Their games are the smoothest and most fluid," said retired pro player Jeremy "Neslo" Olsen. "They do take time to add patches. I think that's why they released this one a month earlier, to give themselves enough time so they aren't sending out patches three days before major events."

Players have lamented the lack of smoke grenades and EMPs, both of which were strong counters in previous games. Specialists, which were a big source of complaints in "Black Ops 3," have also returned to cause issues. Players have also found that certain maps don't work well in a 5v5 setting, even in a mode like search and destroy.

"Some maps don't work in a 5v5 environment," said FaZe player Anthony "Methodz" Zinni. "They've said they designed the game around it, but it doesn't always feel that way."

The official rule set, released on Oct. 26, confirmed 11 different maps between search and destroy, hardpoint and control rotations. Treyarch has already responded to some concerns by adding hacienda to hardpoint's map rotation, which could be a sign that they are willing to make a lot of changes before December.

While no official announcement has been made, some players believe that this change is part of a bigger effort to get Call of Duty in front of a general audience. Rumors that Activision has been planning a franchised league for the shooter have come from multiple sources since June.

"I think franchising is on the horizon," Zinni said. "5v5 feels like a norm across esports. Although I don't think 5v5 is gonna bring more people to the scene by itself. The game itself will, especially with all these top streamers playing Blackout."

Treyarch's new battle royale mode has brought a ton of excitement to the franchise, as tens of thousands of viewers have watched the game since release. "It's more popular than regular Call of Duty, which has been on the decline for the past few years," Olsen said. "We can't act like it's the flavor of the month either since Fortnite is one of the biggest games in history. Activision could easily do with Blackout what Epic is doing with Fortnite."

"Blackout also solves a problem that a lot of players have since you can stream it easily," Olsen added. "You can't stream practice, and you need to make some kind of content."

Treyarch hasn't announced any competitive support for Blackout yet, even though unofficial events have been held since the game's release. Still, players and community members alike believe that competitive Blackout is an inevitability. "If Blackout does become an esport, I think it'll live alongside regular play. I think it'll be an ally," Sanders said. "Either way, Blackout is a good thing for the game. It increases the baseline of 'Black Ops 4' just by being on the front page of Twitch. Its effect is only positive."