Competitive Call of Duty: Warzone is the wild west of esports
Cheating and bugs plague a community that's tough to get into
SMG_Loski hunkered down in the brush near the edge of Verdansk. Bullets flew all around him, shredding his teammates and everyone who was left alive in the final circle of this match in Call of Duty: Warzone.
He thought he might have the game in the bag, until Rasim “Blazt” Ogresevic picked up a juggernaut suit and went on a tear. Little did SMG_Loski, a random player in a public lobby, know that he was in the middle of the London Royal Ravens Operation MayDay tournament.
“It was absolutely ridiculous, but that’s Warzone.” Blazt, who plays Warzone for the Minnesota RØKKR said. He had lucked out when a juggernaut, an overpowered suit of armor that comes with a Gatling gun, randomly dropped in Port. He killed the last four people in the lobby to win the entire tournament.
Operation MayDay was a Kill Race; one of the main event formats in competitive Warzone where teams jump into public lobbies and try to kill as many random players as possible. SMG_Loski had no idea he’d end up as the last elimination in Blazt’s 24-kill rampage.
That’s Call of Duty: Warzone esports
The exciting end that earned Blazt $3500 is the perfect microcosm of competitive Call of Duty: Warzone. An exclusive scene, chock-full of public lobby stomping, cheating and Hollywood action movie-like moments; a feature that elevated Warzone to the most popular battle royale in the world, with more than 100 million active players.
“Warzone is a huge game,” Blazt said. “It has endless possibilities.”
Like other battle royale scenes, the competitive Warzone community is a patchwork of tournaments. They are held by various organizations like the New York Subliners and individuals like Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag. The majority of tournaments are invitationals, which makes it difficult for anyone besides established names to get involved.
“There are so many underrated players that can’t get in,” Blazt said. “I don’t always get invited to tournaments, so I have to rely on getting in through one of my friends that gets a captain spot.”
Outside the World Series of Warzone — the first Activision-run series the game has seen since its launch in March of 2020 — few tournaments have had open qualifiers for up-and-coming players looking to prove themselves.
The World Series of Warzone
Smixie, a player who recently signed with the Minnesota RØKKR, was playing Warzone for up to 12 hours a day — all while grinding through whatever tournaments she could get into. In October of 2020, she was invited to the RØKKR and eFuse’s Women of the eRena Warzone. Smixie got the spotlight after winning and has been invited to a number of tournaments since.
“That put me on top,” she said. “I didn’t win everything, but I did well and that got me noticed.”
Many of the top competitors in Warzone have a similar story to Smixie. Many competed in Challengers, Call of Duty’s amateur scene, and then moved over to Warzone after realizing it had just as much potential as regular Call of Duty. Now, Smixie is fielding a team in the World Series of Warzone.
Activision joining the scene in a greater capacity with the World Series of Warzone is a positive sign for the future of the game. The publisher hadn’t done much with Blackout, the battle royale mode from Black Ops 4, and Warzone had taken a back seat to the Call of Duty League. Outside celebrity pro-am tournaments (that other battle royales have done with people like DJ Khaled), there wasn’t much of a scene.
“It’s huge that Activision is coming in,” Smixie said. “The money, the marketing. Hopefully it attracts more casual people to the competitive scene.”
Who can rack up kills faster?
At first, third-party organizers filled the gap left by Activision. They did this by running Kill Races, the only possible format for tournaments. Teams of two would either jump into the same lobby on the same four-person team or join separate lobbies and compete to see who could get more kills. Private lobbies weren’t added to the game until November of 2020, so events consisted of seeing who could dominate a public lobby full of random gunmen faster.
“Kill races are more exciting from a viewership level,” MavriqGG, Warzone Content Creator for the New York Subliners, said. “But, as a player, I think custom lobbies are the future.”
Private lobbies let organizers fit 150 skilled players into one lobby, and this slows the pace of most games significantly. There are almost no hot drops at the start of a match and few teams pick fights until absolutely necessary. Warzone also doesn’t have a spectating mode. Therefore, angles are limited to the perspective of each player with no free-floating cameras. Neither are good for the viewing experience.
Players aren’t going to see Rambo use a satellite dish as a half pipe to launch himself into the air, jump off his motorcycle and shoot someone with a crossbow in a private lobby. Everyone’s on equal footing. The entire mindset of a high level player changes once they’re up against their peers.
“There’s nothing you can do when a good player holds you in Warzone. The game comes down to luck with where the circle lands,” Blazt said. “But, in Kill Races, it’s about whoever finds the bottier lobby.”
Kill Races, even with the release of private lobbies, will always have a place in Warzone esports. This is due to how over-the-top these public lobby rampages can become. Edy “Newbz” Juan and Jordan “HusKerrs” Thomas landed 85 kills in a single 150-person match during the Dallas Empire 100K Warzone Heist on June 17.
There are thousands of players like Newbz and Blazt that don’t have the same following; toiling away in Kill Races while streaming to a few people on Twitch. They have one huge obstacle in their way: Warzone itself.
Warzone’s cheating problem
“You don’t know who could be cheating,” Nowh3re, a Twitch streamer who has competed in a handful of Warzone tournaments, said. “It’s crazy that people can stream and still be cheating. It’s getting out of hand.”
Nowh3re started competing in Warzone three months after it came out. He played in small-time Kill Races and wagered against other players. Like Smixie, he earned his big shot with the chance to play for a tournament run by Nick “NICKMERCS” Kolcheff and BarStool.
“That’s where my competitive mindset kicked in,” he said. “It showed me there are actual opportunities to make money in this game and play at a different level.”
Nowh3re didn’t place in the tournament, but it pushed him to look for more competitions whenever possible. He streamed to a handful of Twitch viewers whenever he got home from his job as an HVAC worker in Toronto. Eventually, the cheating problem became too much and Nowh3re stepped away from Warzone to focus on content creation.
“Last year, you didn’t think anyone was cheating unless someone was blatant about it,” Nowh3re said. “Nowadays it is so much different.”
Cheating has become an arms race within Call of Duty: Warzone. Activision and Raven Software have been implementing anti-cheat measures as hackers have come up with new and improved ways to beat them.
“I would say cheating is a fairly large obstacle to someone coming up,” MavriqGG said. “There isn’t much faith in the system to prevent or catch cheating, so it creates misinformation.”
Even though Raven Software regularly bans tens of thousands of cheaters, more always seem to pop up in their place. This creates two problems for competitive Warzone, as competitors have been caught cheating in tournaments and Kill Race lobbies have been ruined by random cheaters.
“It wouldn’t be a Warzone tournament without someone hacking in a public lobby,” MavriqGG said. Most organizers have implemented a restart rule that resets the lobby if a cheater interrupts the action with wall-hacks, an aimbot or similar tool.
Cheating is only one problem that players have to deal with regularly. Bugs, a well known scourge in the battle royale genre, regularly plague games. The latest one includes a door that automatically kills any player who touches it. Bugs, on top of an evolving meta that often includes incredibly overpowered weapons, make Warzone anything but fair.
Warzone is the most popular game in the world, though. People continually come back to it despite these issues. Nowh3re’s love for the battle royale is already pushing him to get back into the fold.
“There’s a reason people love this game,” he said. “You can’t find those crazy action movie moments anywhere else.”
Some names were not included in this story due to harassment concerns.