Opinion: Why the Call of Duty League Needed 100 Thieves

Fun fact: a brand new team that has yet to play an official in-season match is already the second most popular team in the Call of Duty League. Fun opinion: this team will be the reason the CDL sees viewership growth this season that it may not have had without it.

Based on Twitter follower count, the 100 Thieves CDL brand LA Thieves (107.3K) has already exceeded the 2020 champion Dallas Empire (93.8K). The only team above the Thieves in follower count is OpTic Chicago, leveraging one of the most popular brands in all of esports and harnessing the narrative of a return to form this year, with 217.6K.

What makes the Thieves’ follower count particularly noteworthy is that unlike OpTic, which essentially does not exist outside of the CDL, the LA Thieves is a direct extension of the 100 Thieves brand. While fans of OpTic have no other channel to follow, 100 Thieves fans have plenty of engaging content to consume on the main account. However, the same holds true for the Atlanta FaZe, which is an extension of another extremely popular esports brand in FaZe Clan. Despite that, and a second-place finish in the first CDL season, the Atlanta FaZe account has just 78.6K followers.

While Twitter followers should not be the only metric used to judge popularity, this figure combined with the peak viewership for the preseason tournament highlights a key mistake made by Activision Blizzard’s franchised leagues, and how the LA Thieves may help solve the issue.

According to data from Stream Hatchet,  the most-watched match of last weekend’s Kickoff Classic, a preseason tournament, peaked at 107K viewers, while the most-watched match of the 2020 launch weekend between OpTic Gaming LA and Chicago Huntsmen peaked at 105K.

Why would a preseason match outperform the debut of the entire league, much less one with such a compelling narrative of the OpTic brand versus its face and most popular players? Because of the brands and history involved in each match.

When the Overwatch League began, Activision Blizzard required teams to create entirely distinct brands for their OWL franchises. Overwatch was still in its infancy as an esport, so while likely misguided, there was little damage done to established brands.

However, Activision Blizzard would again require teams to follow this same path for the CDL, but Call of Duty already had years of history and established teams with their own rivalries and narratives. This new league and its high franchise fee combined with the inability to leverage your established brand with sponsors caused the majority of popular names to step away from Call of Duty entirely – names like Evil Geniuses, eUnited, and 100 Thieves. While the Huntsmen vs OpTic “rivalry” did have a narrative behind it, it was one of disappointment for the fans, who had now become torn between the brand they loved and the players and names that made that brand fun to support. There was no actual history of competitive rivalry because these two teams hadn’t existed before that weekend in January 2020.

However, with 100 Thieves returning to Call of Duty and able to leverage its brand, one of the best rivalries in esports was suddenly back on the menu. The rapid growth of the LA Thieves Twitter combined with this improved viewership for a real rivalry with historic weight shows a hunger in CDL fans to honor their history and to support brands they already love.

100 Thieves’ return is the best thing that could have happened to the Call of Duty League. If the league can harness whatever good will it earned by bringing back the Thieves (and other teams can learn from 100 Thieves’ approach to branding and content) the CDL is set for a much stronger year two.

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