Zeta Division are taking Japanese Call of Duty to the next level
After so long at the top, Zeta Division are bringing their success outside of Japan
Takahiro “Sitimentyo” Koshikawa felt confident heading into the Copper Box Arena in London. He had come a long way from his home in Tokyo, but once he saw dozens of steel chairs lined up on the floor of the 2012 Olympic venue, it was like he was back in his bedroom.
“We always feel good about our chances heading into an international tournament,” Sitimentyo, whose name means turkey in Japanese, told me through a translator. “Even when there are some scary good teams.”
Call of Duty, like many esports, is all about mental fortitude. Sure, hitting shots is important, but staying focused when you’re almost 6,000 miles from home, jet lagged in a tournament environment that’s wildly different from anything in Japan, is paramount. Sitimentyo said he wanted to get comfortable as he walked up to the setup for his team’s first match of the day.
He sat down on the wobbly chair, checked the PS4 controller and carefully untied his shoes. He slipped them off before kicking his socks off as well. He stretched his toes over the temporary padding on the floor.
“It’s what I like to do when I play at home,” he said. “It makes me comfortable.”
Sitimentyo didn’t realize that everyone in the immediate vicinity had eyes on him until a referee walked up to his chair.
“No,” the Call of Duty World League official said. “You can’t do that here.”
With no other options, he put his socks back on and tried to focus on the game.
Sitimentyo and his three teammates were in the United Kingdom for the CWL London open bracket in 2019. They came a long way from Tokyo, where the Call of Duty scene has developed independently from other communities in America and Europe. Zeta Division, formerly known as Libalent Vertex, is one of the best squads in Japan since forming in December of 2018 while playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
A double-edged sword
The four man team, all based out of Tokyo, have won eight domestic championships during their tenure. But while their record is impressive at home, they’ve struggled to keep up with the competition at major events in London, Las Vegas, Miami and elsewhere.
“When we first went overseas, we were hungry to win,” Sitimentyo said of their first trip to Las Vegas. “We were confident, but we didn’t do so well.”
Japanese teams are known to take a methodical approach to Call of Duty. They drill down specific plans that send players to ideal spots on the map. The plans then develop based on how gunfights play out.
“One of the things that’s unique about the Japanese playstyle, we’re not great at being flexible,” Sitimentyo said. “We’re not good at responding instantaneously.”
Split-second reactions are a huge part of Call of Duty, though, leaving Japanese and other Asian teams at a big disadvantage when they come to major events in the United States and Europe. They often have to come in with some unconventional tactics, and while they can succeed, some of those attempts have been cemented in Call of Duty history infamy.
InFiDream, a notable South Korean team that made waves at international tournaments during their lifespan, felt they were ready to hold the Hardpoint as long as they needed at the 2013 Call of Duty Championship. They were holding riot shields — something no other team would even try — alongside their standard assault rifles. The match started and two members of the Korean team ran straight for the point.
“I can understand the tactic,” a young Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez said on the mic as the South Korean squad got torn up. “But only if you get hill control. If you don’t get hill control the shield will hold you down.”
Ian “Crimsix” Porter was waiting for the Korean squad, taking two of them out almost immediately. InFiDream soon found that successfully defending a hardpoint with riot shields was a pipe dream. They could barely even get on the point, let alone the scoreboard.
Things didn’t get any better for inFiDream as Crimsix and squad surrounded the riot shield-wielding warriors time and time again. The War Machine, a scorestreak reward that deals heavy explosive damage, that Crimsix earned from his performance didn’t help the Ji “Doloshi” Young-jun-d led squad get back in the action at all.
“I’m feeling bad for these guys,” Goldenboy said. “They just don’t seem to have a good bearing on what they want to do.”
The game ended 250-16, with Complexity, complete with stars like Crimsix and Patrick ‘ACHES” Price, finishing fourth at the Call of Duty Championship in 2013. inFiDream landed within the Top 32. Few teams from Korea or Japanese compete at events like these. The competition has always been steeper for them.
Finding any advantage
Most of Zeta Division were too young to remember this riot shield-filled fiasco, but it’s an infamous enough moment that Aoshi “GenGar” Tomitsuka remembers his friends telling him about it as soon as it happened all those years ago. It’s one example of how Asian teams have had to try weird, off-meta approaches to the game when they face stiff international competition.
“We don’t want to start off on our back foot, so we need to think of interesting ways to offset them,” Zeta Division Ryotaro “EVA” Iwata said via a translator. “If we play the same way they do, we won’t be able to handle that. We’ll lose.”
Sitimentyo has implemented similar compositions to try and catch their opponents off guard, including instances of running three sniper rifles on their five man team during multiple Modern Warfare events in 2020. “We like doing weird off-meta stuff,” he said, even if they don’t work out often.
Japanese teams like Zeta Division play the majority of their games against other Japanese teams in the Sony-run Japanese Pro League. While they do try some off-meta compositions against local teams like Rush Gaming and Cyclops, the Call of Duty League meta is still prominent: Two submachine guns and two assault rifles on almost every map.
That was exactly the case when Sitimentyo & Co. took on Cyclops in the recent Spring stage of the Pro League. Cyclops were out-slaying Zeta Division round after round, going up 5-2 in Search and Destroy on Raid..
Zeta’s strategy was methodical, but it depended on them winning gunfights that were going in favor of Cyclops time and time again. The first six rounds were sloppy for both teams, but especially for Zeta Division. They lost several due to their inability to make split second decisions, like whether to push the enemy or go for the bomb defusal when there was only 20 seconds left. They chose the bomb defusal and got killed each time.
Every round felt like a crap shoot, with each team rushing the B bomb site, leaving most players in the lobby dead. Those crap shoots started to go in the Zeta’s favor until they evened out the scoreboard at 5-5.
Sitimentyo led his squad on a quick and coordinated rush of the A bomb site, planting the bomb 20 seconds after the round started. They held onto the bombsite like a vice grip, closing out the map with a win. They went on to finish the Spring split of the Pro League in first place ,and they did the same thing a few months later in the finals of the Summer split of the Pro League.
Scenes from the Japanese league can sometimes feel like the bizarro version of the Call of Duty League. Despite the spectacle, matches sometimes come down to a long range submachine gun shootout or a random grenade Hail Mary. Strategy seems to fall apart if bullets don’t land where they need to.
That’s often the case at international events as well, but Zeta Division have run into problems with almost every Call of Duty tournament they’ve been to. Each problem came long before they actually jumped in-game, though.
The international issue
“Most of the reason why I travel is because of Call of Duty,” Zeta Division player Hisashi “Inaba” Taniguchi said.
Inaba and crew have had to sit through more than 10 hour long flights while heading to tournaments in places like Fort Worth, Anaheim and Las Vegas.
“Every time I’m on a flight, the person next to me changes seats,” Inaba said. “This time there was a middle aged lady. I think she was Chinese.”
Inaba didn’t think anything of the neighbor switch and eventually dozed off. He drifted in and out of sleep as many do on transcontinental flights, but was slowly rocked awake as something kept hitting his body. He opened his eyes wider each time he felt an impact on his right side.
“She was doing calisthenics while sitting down,” he said. “Hitting me with her body.”
Almost every flight the Zeta crew have taken resulted in a bad experience. Whether it’d be GenGar arriving seconds after the plane doors have closed and pleading for the staff to open the door, kids purposefully kicking Sitimentyo’s seat for hours on end or Inaba getting an up-close and personal demonstration of an upper body workout, nothing ever went right.
Despite the poor flights and results to match, no player on Zeta Division is considering giving up on their dream of becoming Call of Duty world champions.
“I’m a sore loser,” GenGar said. “I also generally enjoy the competitive aspect of it.”
Zeta Division haven’t gotten very far in any of the open tournaments they’ve attended, but they have steadily improved since 2019. Their placements have slowly climbed from top 64 in Las Vegas to top 48 in Fort Worth to top 32 in London and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented them from competing more, but they plan to get back on the LAN grind as soon as it’s safe to do so.
“I want the world to recognize Japan as a force in the Call of Duty world,” Inaba said. “We want to be on the world stage.”
A team on the rise
Zeta Division are different in more than just cultural quirks and gameplay strategies, too. While most other players in the world dream of joining one of the 12 franchised teams in the Call of Duty League, the Zeta Division players want to stay together and win. They can’t see themselves playing with anyone but the people around them.
The synergy they’ve built with one another has only led them to domestic success and international improvement. That has materialized in a new parent organization in Zeta Division. All four players joined their new venture in August, 2021.
For all the differences between Call of Duty in Japan and elsewhere in the world, the scenes share fundamental similarities as well. The fan-filled crowds at all events — from Tokyo, to London to Las Vegas — love to scream at the top of their lungs.
English fans in the stands in London sang “CS:GO are wankers,” repeatedly while supporters of Seth “Scump” Abner would shout nothing but “OpTic! OpTic! OpTic!” in Las Vegas. Sitimentyo’s favorite chant is pretty similar.
In Japan, he said, his team gets the same treatment.
“ZETA! ZETA! ZETA!”
One day, perhaps, fans will be cheering that on the World stage.