5,000 Puppies in a Casino: What Really Happens at a Call of Duty Tournament

There's cheering. There's music. There's a lot of Mountain Dew.

I love video games. I love live events. I love Las Vegas (a place that I truly believe should not exist, but while it does, it’s pretty amazing and bizarre). And, naturally, I love Mountain Dew. So when I got invited to cover the Call of Duty World Championship in Las Vegas (brought to you by Mountain Dew), I was pretty ecstatic. It turned out to be one of the strangest events I have ever been to.

The tournament took place on December 7-9 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Call of Duty World League (CWL) has a giant, international tournament every year for whatever game they’re currently on. For 2018, it was Call of Duty Black Ops 4. They flew me and my fellow producer out to shoot some videos at the tournament, mainly because I host a video game talk show. It would be my first time covering a professional eSports tournament, but that didn’t mean I was an amateur in this world. I’m a pretty avid gamer and I stay up-to-date with a couple of games’ professional scenes. Though I will admit, especially before this tournament, I was pretty clueless when it came to Call of Duty. I hadn’t played a CoD game since 2015, and I had never watched a CWL match in my life. I assumed my natural expertise on “all things nerd” would help me orient myself pretty immediately, but I was shocked at how much I felt like a fish out of water.

First of all, nobody ever seemed to know what was going on, when things started, or where the events were held. I got a pretty cool blue media wristband that I was told could “get me in anywhere”. It turns out, that is very far from the truth. I walked into at least six or seven doors that I was immediately ushered out of, even after flashing my special band. The schedule we were given did not match any of the signs, and the signs didn’t match what the people at the held desk were saying. Everyone just seemed to wander around, following bright lights and loud noises. It was like they released 5,000 puppies into a casino.

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There were two main areas at the tournament. There was the main stage area, which was about 12 hours a day of constant video game matches. And there was the Mountain Dew room. It was loud and constantly full of smoke (from the dozen smoke machines they had around the room. You could play Call of Duty, watch matches, buy some Mountain Dew Game Fuel, and generally meander. Loud house music along with live commentary blasted from the speakers all day. It was honestly sensory overload to be in there for more than ten minutes.

The tournament took place over three days. It centered around the pool play. Pool play involves four groups (pools) of five teams competing, for a total of 20 teams. Three of the teams in each pool were predetermined based on their ranking from the previous season (Call of Duty World War II). A mini tournament was held just before CWL to determine the fourth team in each pool. The final four teams, the fifth in each pool, were the top teams of the open bracket.

The open bracket is exactly what it sounds like and was honestly my favorite part of the tournament. The first day of the tournament was mainly dedicated to this bracket, which was made up of teams who signed up at the tournament. Like, came up off the street and decided to play. So, if my producer and I had found three random people to sign up with us, we could have entered. Amateur teams from across the country (and the world) entered the tournament this way and four of them actually got to compete with the 16 best teams in the world. It was awesome.

I will always root for the underdog, and even though most of these open-bracket winners got eliminated pretty quickly once tournament play started, some of them made some splashes. Most notably, Team Sween from the UK beat the overhyped 100 Thieves, which if you’re unfamiliar, is the team that Drake is a co-owner of. This amateur team who didn’t even have a proper logo fully eliminated one of the most popular teams at the tournament. It was a beautiful sight to see.

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There’s no lore when it comes to Call of Duty, so the crowd has to find something else to identify with. No characters, no real story. As a League of Legends fan, I assumed the event itself would be the main attraction. People dressing up, games to play, booths, vendors, that sort of thing. But Call of Duty is not that kind of franchise.

First of all, if you tried to cosplay at CWL, your options would be pretty limited. Basically you would be either “bearded male soldier with a mohawk and gun”, or “female soldier with a mohawk and gun.” Showing up to a massive event dressed in army fatigues with a prop gun is also just a pretty good way to get kicked out before the first match. But more importantly, that doesn’t seem to be what the crowd wants. It’s a pretty blatantly masculine crowd. They show up with backwards hats and their team’s jersey, Mountain Dews in hand. They watch the matches, they yell and high five, and then they go home. It’s honestly not that nerdy, at least in the “scrawny dudes in a basement” sense of the word. It feels very much like a football game. Which felt even stranger.

Then we got to the finals.

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It was the first time the main stage area was fully packed. Thousands of people filled the room, filling every possible seat and forcing finds to find room in the aisles or sitting on the floor. People went wild anytime their team did well. It was exhilarating, even without a team to root for.

Optic Gaming, the superstars of Call of Duty, took the win and their $100,000. The rest of us cheered, took a final sip of our Mountain Dew, and packed our bags. The trip was definitely not what I expected. But I suppose that’s to be expected at a Call of Duty tournament in Las Vegas.


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Media via MLG, Inverse, CWL