When Minnesota Vikings owner WISE Ventures announced that it was investing in a professional Call of Duty team back in July, it was about the sixth team to join the inaugural Call of Duty: Modern Warfare league by Activision Blizzard. (Activision, a video game holding company, announced the Los Angeles OpTic Gaming franchise at the same time.) For people not into esports and gaming, it raised some eyebrows (keep in mind that in 2018, the Minnesota Timberwolves started its own affiliated NBA 2K team and won the championship in 2019). For others, it was exciting news.
Six months later, the team Minnesota RØKKR (pronounced “rocker”) is hosting the league launch in a weekend-long event at the Armory, January 24-26. All 12 teams will be there, some hailing as far away as Paris and London. They’ll each play in two games (5v5 on PS4), and the results will become their seeding points going into the first official tournament. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the season has $6 million of prize money.
The TLDR for Launch Weekend is you get to watch some of the best players in the world play a first-person shooter game. (Venue passes are already sold out for Saturday and Sunday, so there’s a $20 discount on general admission floor seats. About 3,000 people are expected each day.) When you’re not watching games, you can check out the video game lounge, arcade room, and other fan activities, and there will be appearances by Karl-Anthony Towns and the Shredders, four rappers from Doomtree.
For more information about the Call of Duty (CoD) League and our own Minnesota team, read on for five things I learned when going down the rabbit hole. Gamers, you won’t learn anything new. Non-gamers, here are the basics:
1. Our team is made up of pros, not locals.
Actually, there’s one local: Devin Robinson (gamer tag: Ttinyy). He was raised in Blaine and went to Spring Lake High School, although now he’s living in an Eagan apartment complex with the rest of the seven-person team. According to Brett Diamond, the COO of WISE Venture Esports and Minnesota RØKKR, only about half of the teams require their players to live in the state. For the RØKKRs, though, it was a deal-breaker. “I don’t think fans in this community would accept a team and players if the players were living all year round in LA and only came to town once in a while. For us building a fanbase, we thought it was important, and it had a competitive advantage in the game itself,” Diamond says.
Our new pro team also features Kaden Stockdale (Exceed) from Fresno, California, and our five main players: Obaid Asim (Asim) coming from Toronto; Alex Carpenter (Alexx) from Kenley in the United Kingdom; Adam Brown (GodRX) from Germantown, Maryland; and the duo Adam Garcia (Assault) and Justin Fargo Palmer (Silly) from Chicago and Las Vegas, respectively. While everyone on the team has at least a few years of pro experience (with plenty of accolades, including a fourth-place 2019 worlds finish for GodRX), Assault and Silly have been mostly on the same teams (Evil Geniuses, Team Envy) since April 2018 and took home the 2018 CoD world championship.
“The more time I spend with it, on the game itself or on the players, the parallels to traditional sports are just everywhere,” Diamond says, describing the six-hour in-game practice days followed by a daily workout. “They’re basically training their minds and their bodies the same way any professional athlete—or any professional in anything—would do to take their craft seriously.”
Leading the team is Brian Baroska (Saintt), who is acting as both coach and general manager. Saintt has been a retired player since 2018 and saw success as the coach for eUnited and Midnight Esports before coming to Minnesota.
2. This isn’t the first CoD league.
Activision has held CoD championships since 2013, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it developed a 32-team league tournament. Whispers of a possible franchising league by Activision happened with a statement in the 2017 annual report, released April 30, which were then confirmed in June 2018. The first five CoD franchise teams were also part of Activision’s Overwatch franchise league, which the CoD League is at least partially modeled after.
The new franchised CoD League requires a $25 million entry fee according to ESPN. (Overwatch League is reportedly selling its new season 2 franchise slots between $30-60 million.) This price tag is one of the reasons why some well-known teams like 100 Thieves (who took second place at the 2019 CoD World League championship) ended up letting all of their CoD players go as free agents. Other requirements that chaffed included the prohibition of using existing team names/branding and the need to be affiliated with a city.
Each prior CoD tournament that Activision held used the newest version of the video game, and Annie Scott Riley, the RØKKR vice president of marketing and creative, expects that the franchise league will follow the same pattern.
3. While the team is affiliated with the Vikings, it’s definitely its own entity.
Besides paying the franchise fee, WISE Ventures is also setting up the RØKKRs with a $2 million headquarters on the Minnesota Vikings’ campus in Eagan. Diamond himself switched over from the Vikings after being there for three years, most recently as the director of partnership strategy. As time goes on, though, Diamond says that the esports team will be by and large separate, with the largest carryover being the Vikings’ philosophy of passion and tenacity.
4. RØKKR had hoped to launch the league in Minneapolis from the get-go.
Apparently the Twin Cities managed to rank Nos. 26 and 55 in WalletHub’s list of gamer-friendly cities. However, with the exception of the speed-running charity event Games Done Quick (which is coming back to the state for its fifth time in June 2020), we have historically dealt in smaller events, such as the semiannual Player Up at Mystic Lake or Mall of America’s Madden NFL and EA Sports NHL tournaments.
The RØKKRs had always wanted to be in contention to host the league’s Launch Weekend, Diamond says. With the help of community and venue partners, plus Minneapolis’ track record of hosting major athletic events (Super Bowl LII, NCAA finals, the summer X Games, and more!), our new franchise was able to put together a very competitive deal.
“I think one of the huge opportunities for us as a team with this event is that there has never been a major esports event in this market,” Diamond says. “It’s historic for us. People do make the comparisons to the NFL celebrating their 100th season; there was a first NFL game. … That’s what we honestly think this has the potential to be. Years from now, we’ll look back fondly on this.”
5. For all you hopefuls (or parents of hopefuls), there’s a direct path to going pro now with the Challengers competitions.
The league’s Challengers competition is calling itself “the official path to pro amateur system for the Call of Duty League.” Featuring both online and live games (Launch Weekend includes a challengers bracket with purportedly 250-plus teams signed up), teams will rack up points and (hopefully) catch the eyes of the scouts. For the rest of us, though, we can enjoy franchise skins and weapons coming to CoD in time for Launch Weekend.