Last week’s biggest sports story was an old one.
Thanks to the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, all eyes were seemingly glued to a 25-year-old NBA playoff series between Michael Jordan’s high-flying Bulls and Patrick Ewing’s Knicks.
Lost amid the ’90s nostalgia was a fierce new Chicago–New York rivalry playing out in real time. Tens of thousands of fans tuned in to YouTube on Saturday afternoon to watch X Games gold medal winner Seth “Scump” Abner and his top-ranked Chicago squad outslay the New York Subliners in a five-on-five Call of Duty match from the comfort of their own homes.
Meet the Huntsmen, Chicago’s only pandemic-proof sports franchise.
The age of mass quarantine has been bad news for the NBA, NHL, and MLB, all on hiatus since early March. But it’s been an unexpected boon for the last game standing: e-sports. What’s currently a $1.1 billion industry is expected to level up to $1.6 billion by 2021, according to e-sports analytics firm NewZoo. Ratings are up for professional video game leagues since the coronavirus hit the states in early March, reports The Verge, and they’re expected to stay strong due to the sheer number of people stuck at home looking for new content to watch.
“We're very lucky to have the ability to be immune to situations like these and have the competitions still go on,” says Huntsmen CEO Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez. “We’ve been preparing for something like this all of our lives, essentially.”
The “preparation” Rodriguez is referring to is years of staying home to play online multiplayer shooters like the military-themed franchise Call of Duty on PlayStation or Xbox. For most of us, that much gaming is dumb fun at best and at worst a major waste of time. But for the Huntsmen, it’s the equivalent of an extended spring training.
In some ways, the timing of nationwide shelter-in-place orders couldn’t be more serendipitous. Software giant Activision Blizzard formally established the Call of Duty League just this year, structuring it after pro sports leagues: The league consists of 12 teams anchored in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Seattle, and Toronto. They even hired veteran NFL executive Johanna Faries as the league’s first commissioner.
Faries says the Call of Duty League intentionally bypasses the boundaryless model of past e-sports leagues. “We see city-based models as an opportunity to not only position ourselves as a global phenomenon but also really start to develop fan bases at a city and regional specific level,” she says. “We want to think hyperlocal but also hyperglobal.”
Most of the franchises, which reportedly cost $25 million apiece, also have plenty of major league sports money behind them. The Huntsmen are owned by Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller’s e-sports organization NRG, whose financial backers include Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez, and Jennifer Lopez.
All five Huntsmen starters played last weekend’s match from their respective homes all over the country to abide by social distancing rules. The Call of Duty League took four weeks off and returned April 10 in a stripped-down format that recalled the salad days of e-sports from five to ten years ago — more LAN party than NFL stadium show. Judging by the shots streamed from their webcams, each Huntsman and New York Subliner was slouched over a desk in a bedroom or basement while virtually gunning one another down. Likewise for the announcing team.
Starting with the league’s January kickoff in the 8,400 seat-capacity Minneapolis Armory, each regular season match was designed with both online and offline fans in mind. YouTube viewers would get a studio show with high production values and polished play-by-play announcers. Those willing to spend up to $100 on a ticket would be invited to a weekend-long party in the host city, complete with celebrities, amateur tournaments, and thumping music.
“We were on pace to create a Cirque du Soleil kind of experience. Elephants and tigers? Maybe not. But fun,” Rodriguez says.
The Huntsmen had sold out Wintrust Arena for last weekend’s Chicago home series but were forced to press the pause button on the live event due to COVID-19. The cancellation came as a disappointment to Rodriguez: The Chicago native owned the Hoffman Estates–based OpTic Gaming e-sports team from 2007 to 2017, when he moved to Texas and sold his stake in the team to a Texas Rangers owner. (He left the organization entirely to run the Huntsmen in 2019.)
“It was going to be a homecoming for me,” he says.
But fans are still watching from a distance, now at record numbers. The Call of Duty League’s peak viewership spiked to 85,000 from 66,000 in March for the Chicago home series, and fans consumed almost 1 million total hours of competition, according to e-sports charts.
However, former OpTic gaming star and Palos Hills native Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag doesn’t think Activision Blizzard’s math adds up. During a November livestream, Haag, who retired as Call of Duty’s most famous player in 2015 at age 22, said: “If OpTic is not playing in the finals, there’s like 40,000 people watching the tournament. They have this thesis that if they create this league, they’re going to have 500,000 or a million people watching Call of Duty tournaments, which is fucking insane.”
But regardless of this year’s ratings, e-sports may eventually win the long game due to demographics. According to a 2018 survey by sports media brand Whistle, 75 percent of Gen Z (age 13 to 21) males claim to regularly watch e-sports online. In April alone, 50 million gamers played Call of Duty: Warzone.
Arguably, the most famous Chicago athlete to those not old enough to drink isn’t Kris Bryant or Zach Levine — it’s Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the professional Fortnite player who makes millions of dollars by broadcasting himself playing video games from his suburban Chicago home. In August, when Ninja kicked off his first stream since he signed a contract with Microsoft rumored to be worth $50 million, it was from a two-story gaming outpost in Grant Park at Gen Z–friendly music festival Lollapalooza.
That’s why Faries believes someone in a Huntsmen jersey could be Chicago’s newest paradigm-shifting athlete, even once the pandemic ends.
“These guys are the best in the world,” Faries says. “The player base around Call of Duty is so big and continues to break records year after year. I absolutely believe that the next [Jordan] could be a Call of Duty player.”