NEW YORK — Staircase rails, draped in mistletoe, spiraled upward to Arlo SoHo’s second floor in downtown Manhattan. Nestled in a corner, Johanna Faries switched to her game face and leaned forward in a lounge seat, periodically screening an iPhone for incoming messages and calls.
Did the former 12-year NFL executive ever think she would ever sit in the Call of Duty League’s commissioner chair less than two months before its inaugural season? There’s no time to ask in the first few moments. Faries sat knee-deep in planning for the city-based esports league that will feature 12 professional teams in 11 markets. Teams will host 5-versus-5 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer matches on PlayStation4 for seed positioning in an eight-team championship round.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early December, only a few minutes into the interview, time winded down for the league’s anticipated launch on Jan. 24. Buzzing iPhone alerts offered a clear signal.
“Launch Weekend in Minneapolis is quickly approaching, and we’re so excited to show the world what we’ve created with the Call of Duty League,” Faries started. "This is just the beginning. We want to come out huge and in a way that people have never experienced Call of Duty before as an esport."
A Harvard graduate and former athlete, Faries lived out her dream at the NFL offices across multiple departments before departing for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” at Activation Blizzard, which oversees the Call of Duty League and finished a second season with the Overwatch League in late September. Faries’ crossover into gaming has been seamless for a league that aims to own the biggest stake in the esports world behind an infusion of pop culture, fan-first viewing experiences and innovative technology. The league plans to invite fans on stage for live battles as one of the groundbreaking ideas locked in a vault to popularize the league in its first season.
No one could have predicted that participating in Call of Duty tournaments with college friends inside the Cambridge dorm rooms would come full circle in the Maryland native's current appointment. But Faries can’t say she’s surprised by how the Call of Duty franchise has grown into the highest-grossing video game since its 2003 release.
“I would argue there was a lot of streaming before streaming was a thing where we would get together in dorm rooms and watch the best of the best duke it out,” Faries said. “[Call of Duty] was very much a part of just how to hang out with friends and how to socialize which to me is a trend that continues to carry on in the gaming experience now.”
Faries maintains the support from her old friends at the NFL, even a dozen years later, and new ones, including New York Mets COO Scott Wilpon. The Wilf Family (owners of the Vikings) will host Launch Weekend over three days at the Minneapolis Armory, exclusively telling Sports Illustrated, “We have been craving an esports event of this caliber in Minneapolis-St. Paul.”
Added Wilpon, who owns the New York Subliners, one of 12 teams set to compete: "Fans should get ready for the unexpected."
But what can Call of Duty League fans expect? Participating teams will travel from as far away as Paris and Los Angeles to compete for a chance to return home with more than a $6 million-dollar purse for pro players. Amateurs have their own purse of over $1 million set aside. The worldwide tour will travel to London in Week 2 and finish the season in July, with stops in Paris and New York along the way. The championship round will be announced at a later date.
“With the start of this league a ton of new, talented and unexpected rosters were formed, and it should make for some insanely exciting matches all season long,” Subliners player Lamar “Accuracy” Abedi said. “Call of Duty embodies all the elements of any great esport: fierce competition, skill, communication and teamwork which is what drives all competitive leagues.”
Fast forward to the eve of Christmas Eve, and upgrades to the Call of Duty League structure continued to roll in before the break. Commissioner Faries and her team worked day and night to deliver holiday cheer to fans by announcing the league will incorporate tournament-based play during the regular season to feed fans' excitement and increase intrigue behind every weekend match.
The esport league news comes less than a week after NBA commissioner Adam Silver proposed an in-season tournament for the 2021-22 season, as fan-viewing trends in professional sports point toward the demand of heightened competition during the regular season. And one month before the season is scheduled to begin, Faries converted her first slam dunk.
“We could sense that tournaments were on a lot of people’s wish lists within our community," Faries said. "So we and our teams worked hard to create a fresh new take on a beloved format that we all feel will make the competition even more exciting going into the 2020 season. It took some effort, but it’s been nice to be able to ‘gift’ the news to our fans around the holidays. We can’t wait to get started in January.”