It felt wrong to complain about the heat in Miami this past weekend. Sure, it was probably the only time of the year when Miami offered a cool, refreshing alternative to the punishing temperatures that consumed the rest of America—somehow it was a good ten degrees cooler than Boston or New York or Detroit—but 88 degrees will still make you burn and sweat. It was a good weekend for frozen drinks, and an even better weekend for taking Lyft to the beach front bars that sold them.
Fortunately it stayed frosty in the Miami Beach Convention Center, where industrial air conditioning worked overtime to keep the Call of Duty World League Finals from burning up like a victim of Firebreak’s Purifier flamethrower. Normally home to trade shows, the Convention Center felt like South Beach’s weirdest night club this weekend, with bright lights, pulsing beats, and constant bursts of videogame machine guns breaking through the darkened space. (Apparently brostep didn’t die—it just retired to esports tournaments.) The last major CWL event before August’s World Championships, Finals brought Call of Duty fans and players together to celebrate headshots, kill streaks, and the joy and sorrow of competition, with a prize pool of over $1 million in the balance.
The bulk of that money will be going to eUnited, who netted $500,000 after beating Gen.G in the finals. eUnited’s fans were out in force, with only Optic’s notorious Green Wall making more noise. Throughout the tournament, eUnited’s followers made themselves heard, slapping their thundersticks together and wearing their team’s flag like capes, cheering on one member of their favorite squad in particular. James “Clayster” Eubanks, a grizzled vet who saw massive success in the Call of Duty scene in 2014 and 2015, hadn’t won a major in over 1400 days. Three years and change might not sound anything like the droughts that the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox faced, but in the youthful and hyper condensed world of esports, three years might as well be 80. Clayster’s 1400 days of futility was a constant storyline throughout the weekend, regularly hammered home by the announcers and referenced by the fans. Competitive Call of Duty is a team sport—no one player can dominate the way you occasionally see in basketball or hockey—so for one of its top players to go so long without a major win is unheard of.
Esports might look and feel fundamentally different from traditional sports, but you can find the same stories and angles in CWL as you can any other form of competition. You’ll find struggling players trying to redeem themselves, and rivalries between teams and players as heated and fluid as those in football or baseball. Matthew “Formal” Piper, a former Optic star who was named MVP of the team’s 2017 World Championship run, bolted to Luminosity in 2018 after falling out with his teammates; they faced off in the second round at Miami, with Luminosity and Piper sweeping Optic out of the winners’ bracket.
The favorites heading into the weekend, 100 Thieves (who are co-owned by Drake and Scooter Braun, among others), had won the previous two CWL events in London and Anaheim. During their current roll of dominance they swept Faze Clan at the MLG Arena in Week 11 of regular CWL play. The two teams met up in the second round of Finals in Miami, with Faze Clan enacting revenge—not only did they eliminate Thieves to the losers’ bracket, but they made up for that earlier loss by sweeping 100 Thieves in return. As Faze Clan star Tommy “ZooMaa” Paparatto told Paste after the round, “we practiced a lot. We put in a lot of time, our team work’s really hard, and we’ve got to get the credit we deserve. We put in a lot of work for that match. We went in confident, we went in prepared, and we came out on top.”
CWL might have all the drama and interpersonal politics that enterprising sports writers look for, but walking around the event this weekend was a far cry from catching a game in any of the major sports leagues. Although league action is the main focus of any CWL event, there’s so much else to do that you could easily kill a whole weekend without actually watching the main stage. It’s no surprise that you can strap into Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 yourself while you’re there, with numerous opportunities to play at booths advertising high-end 4K TVs or Scuf Gaming’s line of controllers and accessories. A store sold hats, shirts and all kinds of other gear with different team logos emblazoned on them. A large area was devoted to open bracket play, where teams who didn’t make the cut for CWL’s pro league this year faced off against each other for a chance at prizes and a main stage appearance.
Surrounding all of this was a small complex of Mountain Dew Amp Game Fuel signs, some the size of posters, others ominously looming large above the show floor. A Game Fuel ad featuring Optic’s captain Seth “Scump” Abner ran regularly during breaks in the action, definitively proving that Scump does not have a Jordan-like career of endorsements and Looney Toons movies in his future. On the final morning vendors walked down the aisles of seats in front of the main stage giving out free cans of Game Fuel. “Specially crafted with theanine and caffeine” “to improve accuracy and alertness,” Game Fuel’s strong presence wasn’t just proof that CWL needs to pay the bills as much as any organized sports company, but also an almost charming bit of confidence and self-awareness—some people will look down on esports no matter how mainstream and popular they become, so CWL might as well take the money from Mountain Dew’s goofy “gamer” brand without worrying about stereotypes or hurting its reputation.
Compared to most major sporting events, CWL is surprisingly pure. Despite focusing on a game where you slaughter your opponents’ on-screen characters en masse, CWL feels almost innocent in a way. Its young fan base looks exactly like its players, to the point where it was impossible to tell who in the audience was a fan or a player from another team checking out the competition. There was only one place to buy alcohol in the whole building, and it rarely ever had a line. The Nathan’s Hot Dog stand was far more popular than the bar, selling out of hot dogs quickly on the event’s first day. One fan who talked to Paste had driven two days to Miami from North Augusta, South Carolina, just to watch the finals live. When asked why Optic was his team, he said it was simply because he’d been watching them for about as long as he could remember; they were his first favorite team, and they’d be his last.
Optic might have crashed out early, but eUnited gave the fans something to celebrate. Clayster and his team wrote the right ending to his amazing story, and with his playing days gradually winding down (he’s already 27, which makes him like the Nolan Ryan of CWL, or something) it could be the last great highlight of his career. CWL will continue on, though, as long as Activision Blizzard and Mountain Dew can justify the expense. Hopefully the Game Fuel will keep it running for years to come.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.