The long-awaited Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War League Play launched last night, and it’s already run up against a number of issues affecting players.
League Play is the ultra competitive portion of Black Ops Cold War’s multiplayer that sorts players into a skill-based division and challenges them to move up a ranking ladder.
It strips the game down to 4v4 (standard multiplayer is at least 6v6), and puts restrictions on loadouts in a bid to recreate the ruleset used by professional players in the Call of Duty League.
Only three game modes are playable (Control, Search and Destroy, and Hardpoint), across a limited number of maps. Restricted items include all LMGs, tactical rifles, shotguns and launchers, with a rafter of attachments, scorestreaks, gear and perks also banned.
I spent four hours in League Play last night, and found it to be as brutal as experience as you’d expect from the most hardcore competitive mode in Black Ops Cold War.
However, fans have criticised Black Ops Cold War’s version of League Play, which is very similar to that seen in developer Treyarch’s previous game, Black Ops 4, for not going far enough.
One of the chief criticisms revolves around the ranking system. To move up ranks you need to earn gems by placing at least in the top 25 in your current division. This ranking system is seen by some as one that rewards playtime, as opposed to skill. You can, over a long enough time period, earn enough gems to hit the top rank simply by finishing in the top 25 out of 50 in each League Play event. It means the top 25 players in a bronze skill level, 50 person division can farm the exact same 30 ranks as players in the top two per cent purple division.
But there are a raft of other criticisms. League Play supports custom classes, including weapon blueprints, which means players are able to use scorestreaks, gear and perks some had hoped would be banned.
The inclusion of the Smoke Grenade tactical, the Jammer field upgrade, the Gearhead perk (which reduces the Field Upgrade cooldown and lets you store up to two Field Upgrade charges), and the Lawbreaker wildcard, which lets you equip any weapon class in either slot and equip multiple perks from one perk category, has come under fire for creating smoke grenade and field upgrade spam in matches.
League Play also carries over Black Ops Cold War’s controversial streak system, which does not reset scorestreak upon death. Scorestreaks allowed in League Play include the RC-XD, Armour and War Machine.
Treyarch had said League Play would include default classes made up of presets used by every team in the 2021 season, but these are not currently live in-game. Some are hoping these presets will become the only way to play League Play.
When you start League Play, the game asks you to complete five matches before it places you in an appropriate division. Some players are reporting unexpected placements, although it’s worth noting 50 per cent of players are placed in the Competitor division. Treyarch has said it uses a skill rating to determine which of the five skill divisions you are placed in, but it has not revealed what determines your skill rating (k/d perhaps?), and the game does not reveal your skill rating, either. All players currently have to go on are the colour-coded skill divisions (bronze, green, white and purple).
There’s confusion over the League skill divisions. As mentioned, the Competitor division is meant to house 50 per cent of players. The top 50 per cent of players by skill are arranged into three divisions: Advanced (top 20 per cent to 16 per cent); Expert (top 15 per cent to 11 per cent); Elite (top 10 per cent to three per cent); and Master (top two per cent).
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s a gap there from the main 50 per cent (bottom?) to the beginning of the Advanced skill division, which houses the top 20 per cent to 16 per cent. Perhaps Treyarch means of the top 50 per cent of players by skill. Either way, it’s confusing and poorly worded.
Moving on, League Play clearly has an issue with players leaving matches, or matches beginning with fewer than four players on each team. It’s not a big deal when players leave a standard multiplayer match, but it can be devastating in League Play, which has fewer players per team and ladder points on the line.
Treyarch has said it takes match integrity seriously, “and poor sportsmanship isn’t tolerated.” To this end, players who quit a League Play match receive a Ladder Point penalty and a match loss, with increased penalties applied to players who quit before anyone else on their team does. However, it seems that early days, this penalty is not enough to put off players from quitting in League Play.
There’s a horrible bug currently affecting League Play that causes a player to sometimes start a match with empty loadouts – and thus no guns. Treyarch has acknowledged this issue and said it’s working on a fix.
And, of course, there are early reports of some players running into cheaters in League Play. It’s unclear how prevalent this issue is, but I’ve already seen some console players turn off cross-play in a bid to avoid PC cheaters.
Treyarch’s David Vonderhaar has responded to some of the negative feedback on Twitter. Replying to one Twitter user who asked why the developer used the same format for Black Ops Cold War League Play as it did for Black Ops 4 League Play, rather than the kind of ELO system you see in other competitive shooters, Vonderhaar said:
“I don’t have enough characters to do it justice. Keywords: Scope. Accessibility. Deadlines. Franchise.
“We got some work to do IMO to evangelise how it works after we clean up some of the obnoxious bugs.”
Then: “Won’t lie. Been a challenging year with COVID. For example, we lost our livestreaming studio where we would normally introduce something like this, acknowledge what people are saying, tell you what we think about that (etc, all).”
It sounds like Treyarch would have loved to have launched Black Ops Cold War League Play with a video explaining its design philosophy and goals. This would have gone some way to manage expectations, I imagine.
In its introductory blog post on League Play, Treyarch said Black Ops 4’s League Play “was by far our most-played ranked competitive mode in Black Ops series history, setting new records for the number of matches played and time invested by the community”.
“Its accessible Ladder system kept players coming back for more, and its core design solved several fundamental problems with Black Ops 2’s model by introducing a progressive rank system, running more frequent Events in shorter sprints, and ensuring faster and healthier matchmaking for participants.
“We’re building on that foundation this year, implementing a total of 30 new Ranks to achieve, returning to the classic 4v4 format of the Black Ops 2 days, and providing players with more flexibility in gameplay rules, such as available Scorestreak selection, compared to the full official CDL 2021 ruleset.”
In this context, perhaps it’s no surprise to see it used as a template for Black Ops Cold War’s League Play.
What may Treyarch change? Some players have called for the introduction of “GAs”. These are “gentlemen’s agreements” between professional Call of Duty players, and would result in a more restricted ruleset. For example, the GAs for Black Ops Cold War ban the AK-47, sniper rifles, smoke grenades and jammers – all of which are currently allowed in League Play.
On Twitter, Vonderhaar suggested it’s more likely Black Ops Cold War’s League Play will focus on fixed classes than GAs.
“This will sort itself out,” Vonderhaar said. “I hate GAs. I want to do fixed classes so it’s not about restrictions/bans but picking a class that everyone can understand/learn that doesn’t have all the things that would be GAd. For League, many others think I am nuts.”
And will Treyarch reveal the numbers behind Black Ops Cold War League Play’s skill rating? That’s another thing Vonderhaar was asked about on Twitter, and he responded to say it’s a maybe.
“I will say that when we do expose the math it creates tension the other way,” Vonderhaar said.
“People get ‘mad’ the number didn’t go up as much as they wanted or went down more than expected.”
Then: “I think it’s worth exploring if we can expose some of the math. It’s clear that people are asking about it. I need to think it over and talk to some people about it.”
However Treyarch reacts, it’s clear the developer has some work to do to get those into Black Ops Cold War League Play on-side.