Call of Duty League 2021: A Year in Review with Esports General Manager Daniel Tsay

As we commence the 3rd year of the competitive Call of Duty League, General Manager Daniel Tsay discusses the state of the league, overcoming obstacles in a pandemic, and why everyone should be following the continued growth of this popular esport.

Jan 14, 2022

Preparing to head into its third season in 2022, the Call of Duty League (CDL) represents Activision Blizzard’s best esports personalities concentrated on the goal of massively expanding the appeal of competitive Call of Duty. In the 2021 season, twelve pro teams competed for a total prize pool of $5 million spread across five Major tournaments plus the ultimate Call of Duty League Championship to close out the season.

With leaders like General Manager Daniel Tsay guiding the Call of Duty esports initiative, the CDL has experienced double digit growth in viewership numbers, and he’s just getting started. Read on as he discusses his background, managing expectations, a day in the life, and more.

Photo of Daniel Tsay, General Manager, Call of Duty Esports

Daniel Tsay, General Manager, Call of Duty Esports.

“I’ve been consistently impressed with the caliber of the Activision Blizzard esports team.”

Before joining the CDL in March 2021, Daniel Tsay worked at the NBA, first as Senior Manager for Global Strategy and then as Associate Vice President of League Operations for the NBA 2K League, marking his entry into the esports arena. As a lifelong gamer with a competitive spirit, Tsay slipped easily into the world of professional gaming.

In college, he remembers fondly the hours he spent playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Zombies with his friends, and he has been a fan and player of the series ever since. When the offer to join the CDL first presented itself, he jumped at the opportunity. “It’s a role I find really interesting” he says. “There are so many new video games that emerge and then disappear. The Call of Duty franchise stands the test of time because its products are so consistently entertaining, and it has such a rabid fan base. I love that.”

Photo of players preparing for Major V

Players preparing for Major V.

 

Designing the League, Year 2

 

Joining on for the CDL’s second year of programming, Tsay and his team saw a lot of opportunity for laying the groundwork for massive growth in the esport. “We’re really in the very early innings of what Call of Duty esports and the CDL are going to look like,” he says. “The attitude of innovation and trying new things is prevalent throughout and that really excites me.”

That included a total restructuring of the competitive year, away from the city-based circuit used in the league’s inaugural season toward a system based on fewer though more significant tentpole events. Thus, it was established that the season would be split into five stages, each ending in a Major with $500,000 on the line, leading up to the season-ending $2.5 million Call of Duty League Championship.

“That was one of the items we reflected on at the end of the 2021 season,” he says. “Concentrating the excitement and gameplay into these big tournaments was really successful. We want to feel like our tournaments are moments in time, and we plan to double down on that tentpole event strategy.”

He describes it as a quality over quantity approach, with implications for greater  viewer engagement as the new system solidifies for players and fans.

A photo of a packed stadium awaiting the finale of the Call of Duty League Championship

A packed stadium awaits the finale of the Call of Duty League Championship.

 

Competing in a Pandemic

 

“We have the most resilient and determined team in esports,” he says in response to the difficulties in running a competitive league during the pandemic. “There’s so much we had to tackle in order to pivot: switching to online, making sure the servers are right, changing up the look of the broadcast. There is deep effort and emphasis to continue innovation, and the team rises up to that challenge every day.”

In esports, the switch to online competition was a major undertaking, as LAN (Local Area Network) play is traditionally the favored format. Tsay hands the kudos for successfully making that switch to his team long before he arrived. “The team here since season one has delivered on pivoting. I have high confidence in their ability to deliver a world class online experience.”

He sees hope for the future that competition will return to LAN, as it did for this year’s CDL Championship. “We need to be thinking about the health and safety of our staff, our players, and fans, but I do think that we’re getting to the point of having more flexibility. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.” 

A photo of fans celebrating as the Atlanta FaZe take the title at Champs and clinch the $1.2M prize

Atlanta FaZe takes the title at Champs and clinches the $1.2M prize.

 

Managing Expectations

 

“I admit, it can be a challenge,” he says in regards to balancing expectations between players, owners, and fans. “As with any major business decision, the stakeholders’ perspectives don’t always align perfectly. At the end of the day, we’re all focused on delivering world class Call of Duty entertainment to our fans. That’s the north star that everyone aligns and rallies behind.”

It comes down to communication and collaboration. Though different groups want different things, maintaining strong relationships helps to keep everyone focused on the goal of making Call of Duty esports the best experience possible.

In describing a day in the life, he stresses these lines of dialogue. “We recently had player calls,” he says, “updating them where we are in the offseason and for the 2022 season. It’s about establishing that line of communication with them and explaining the rationale behind decisions they may disagree with. Before that, we were having owners’ meetings to define not just 2022 but our three-year strategy. We’re also doing a ton of final touches on the 2022 plans, so a lot of time is with myself, product, and other internal teams discussing how we can deliver a more successful season. Every day is a little bit different.”

 

Advice to Newcomers

 

When asked what advice he would give to people who are interested in Call of Duty esports but may not know where to begin, he dives right into the reasons why esports is a worthy hobby for anyone. “Esports is awesome,” he says. “Though I’m obviously biased in my position, it’s incredibly entertaining. We have the most infectious personalities. Our players are awesome. The spectacle is incredibly exciting.”

And where might one begin their esports journey? “We have a Call of Duty League YouTube channel where you can see a ton of content that showcases the personality of the players, season format explainers, and matches. And of course, we have our Call of Duty League website.”

With passionate personalities like Daniel on the team, we’re confident that the upcoming third season will be greater than ever. Check out the resources above and get acquainted with esports in the offseason, so you’re ready to go when the competition revs up again soon.

What will the 2022 season look like? Check it out here.

Thanks for reading.

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