Call Of Duty League Commissioner Johanna Faries Isn’t Playing Games While Trying To Build A Culture

MINNEAPOLIS – Starting a new sports league is a daunting experience, just ask the AAF or the first version of the XFL. There are an infinite number of variables to consider, all folding in on each other operating in block universe theory, existing at the same time and not at all. Locations, logos, rules, players, payouts, and more spiral outward in a Fibonacci sequence, compounding and threatening the delicate balance struck between league and fan at all times.

It’s Johanna Faries’ job to worry about all of that. The Call of Duty League commissioner took her learnings from the Call of Duty World League into her role in creating the 12-team league that is operating in four countries and is utilizing her previous experience in business and fan development with the NFL to set a foundation that will not only allow the league to survive past that first-year mark, but stand alone as gaming continues to eat into the viewership of some of the major sports. At Launch Weekend in Minnesota at the Minnesota Armory, YouTube was announced as the official streaming partner (a move that was also made by Overwatch League), and it’s clear Faries has a firm direction about where she wants the league to go in its debut season and beyond.

Uproxx had the chance to speak with Faries about her background, her approach to building CDL, what’s next for the league, and more.

How have you seen the direction of where Call of Duty is in the landscape and how you guys were approaching it? What has your ownership of that been?

Yeah. I think one of the main stories is a franchise-wide level approach to success. You just see, you know this past October with the launch of the release amount of Modern Warfare, how big that was, how successful Call of Duty continues to be as an entertainment property and breaking its own records there. But then virtually in the same few weeks, the release of Call of Duty Mobile and expanding the franchise and the engagement that players can have around this IP worldwide with another groundbreaking and record-breaking launch. For us to launch in tandem with that is what I see as you know, a huge part of the experience where walking in we didn’t just want to create an awesome esports league based on amazing entertainment IP, but also how do we engage anyone who has a relationship with Call of Duty and now they have all these different ways and new extensions in addition to the main line release that they can go deeper or we can appeal to new audiences?

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The new audience aspect of it from the city-centric point of view is one that’s really intriguing to me, but obviously there’s a balance there and making sure that this is the same thing WWE is running into too with the Fox deal. I mean, even the NBA has run into in their core products and trying to attract worldwide viewers, but stay true to their fan base. How do those conversations evolve and then is it a constant beta-testing mindset? That if something we try doesn’t necessarily work with our fans, we could change it, but we don’t want to knee-jerk react because we are still trying to draw on these, these new fans too? I mean, someone like me, I’d never been to a live event. Now it’s something that becomes probably a part of your DNA.

Exactly. Yeah, but it’s 100 percent accurate the way you described it. It’s sort of the balance between how do you preserve what’s special and beloved among your core community and make sure that you’re bringing them along for the ride, right? Them validating the Call of Duty League is as important as anything we do to engage new fans. At the same time, you want to figure out these new creative ways to infuse maybe things that were either under-leveraged or under-emphasized in past iterations of Call of Duty esport.

I think of Hype Battles [Ed. note: the league’s two on two celebrity competitions] just as one very tactical example to that point of getting celebrities on their own stage now duking it out. And you see the banter that can emerge from that. But you have stars from film, the NBA, music, all on one stage because they share a passion, Call of Duty. To me, that’s so important.

And yet we wanted to make sure that our events and our esport culture could spotlight that element of what it means to be a part of the competitive Call of Duty community in addition to what you might see as the elite, most pro play level. So that’s a cool example of how do we broaden entertainment appeal while also preserving the cream of the crop as they deserve to be highlighted in our infrastructure. And original content. So many of our, I’d argue virtually every single one of our pro players has so much personality. They flex differently but they’re all so ready for prime-time in a very special way. That I think creates additional appeal where it’s not just about how good they are competitively when they’re in match play, but who are they when they’re not on the main stage? What are their stories that we can uncover and amplify to create more casual fandom or deepen existing fans relationship to the brand and to the experience?

There are people who are obsessively following individual performers are going to know a lot of that stuff. Like you need a really in-depth, long-term relationship to maybe gather their passions, their anxieties, what drives them. But this gives you a vehicle to do that. But then you have that level in both aspects of well this is within the team and then this is the team that we begin. So you created that bridge and that connective tissue that then allows for a more complete picture, and you know Year One’s establishing, and in Years Two to Five we’ve seen that a lot with kind of what the Big3 has done in creating this entire new league this amongst players that are established, personalities matter.

Exactly. And we’ve talked about it with our player community and what’s awesome is they embrace it. I think they understand that we’re here to entertain at the end of the day. And so the more that they can level up their persona and just give fans what they want in that way and we’re ready to catch it, we’re ready to spotlight it. That’s how we create broader appeal and create household names. Right?

I saw that at the NFL a lot where different fans come into an attachment with a sports league for different reasons. Maybe it’s because you play, maybe it’s because it’s the way that your family or your friends get together culturally any given day of the week. And sometimes it might just be the mainstream and pop star appeal of a Super Bowl halftime show. Not dissimilar here, but now it’s an opportunity to start it from scratch and really design a global vision for what a sports league of the future could look like. While in also understanding we’re going to have to lift up different strategies simultaneously to appeal as broadly as possible.

When it came down to what the league’s going to look like, how we approach this, how we accomplish the objectives that we had, what were the conversations you had with people in other sports, outside esports, but also within sports? Just to kind of try to find that middle ground that this is a gaming property but it also is sports, and it’s going to stand up to these other leagues whether it’s the NFL, whether it’s the NBA or you know, another esports property.

Yeah. So much of our ambition from the start just when we were vision setting, like who do we want to be now and into the future. A lot of it was around creating a new way to engage fans of competitive entertainment. What does a sports league of the future look like, right, through the lens of Call of Duty? And I think one of the special aspects of our ownership group is the balance that you have where you have expertise coming in through traditional sports ownership. They own NFL teams, they own NBA teams, they own MLS teams, they own MLB teams, and they’re going to bring a litany of insights and perspectives that only help the conversation and create a sort of reference point for us around what’s work that we like about traditional sports models that we can apply here, but also make way for the esports experts we have in other parts of our ownership group who say, “That’s great. Here’s what’s great about esports, here’s what’s uniquely important to esports communities,” right?

And the combination of those minds all coming around that vision of creating the sports league, the esports league of the future to go mainstream. To think differently about competitive entertainment affords us a tremendous amount of impact right out the gates because we have some of the best minds in the business across multiple sectors to do it right.

And lastly, when it comes to the Hype Battles themselves, how important is it to have brand ambassadors, essentially, who this is a true passion for them? This is something that they do on a tour bus or after they leave the locker room to decompress or a way to connect with their friends. Even if their friends happen to also be highly successful NBA players, but it’s a chance for them to do exactly what everyone else who games does, which is leave their world and enter a new one and leave the stresses of the world behind, but also connect with other people and have the chance to play against someone who, you know, a 13-year-old who’s just getting into this who might be a huge Timberwolves fan or somehow just randomly scrim against Scump and then have that chance to look up to those players. Even if you’re a highly successful movie star, you still want to beat the best or play against the best.

I think going back to one of the things that I felt was so special about the opportunity is the power of Call of Duty, right? Specifically around what it affords us because there are so many different people, whether they’re famous, whether they’re an elite pro player, whether they’re just a casual player, whether they just casually get together with their friends to watch their other friends compete. It’s got such appeal. It’s got 15-plus years of this sort of mega brand entertainment property cache that it almost felt like an unwritten rule that we’d have to find a home for these stars who do spend so much time when they’re not acting, when they’re not playing on the football field, when they’re not playing basketball and they’re spending so much time on Call of Duty, how do they become a Call of Duty league family? How do they tap in and also still feel like they’re not being forced into a competitive experience that really doesn’t reflect how they spend their time with the game.


But at the same time preserves the understanding that when we talk about our pro players, how good these guys are, our full franchises compared to even the most active and avid Call of Duty players on a celebrity level or a casual level, a level like the height battle stage being its own stage with more of an entertainment-driven lens preserves again, sort of the respect for the skills that are happening on the main stage but also the fun that happens more broadly in that community.

Who have you seen maybe show out the best skills out of that group? Because I know KAT obviously really impressed me at the ProAm, but I didn’t know if there’s anyone else that I’m missing out on.

The only thing I would say I can never predict what happens on a Call of Duty competitive stage. So many conversations we have with the guys who are going to take the stage. You’ve got Nicky Romero taking the stage in London, Wale and others. They’re serious about it, right? So they surprise I think a lot of people about how good they really are. And you often see that coming through in their own channels where they defend their own honor and they know that you know if they’re going to raise their hand, they’re so psyched about being able to take the stage because I think they have a really good level of confidence that they can show the world that they’re not so bad after all, right?

So I think it’s going to be pretty good and I think you will see celebrities and stars who surprise us throughout the course of the season for sure.

The Kicksdradomis partnership, we’ve seen what he can do over time, especially in the NBA space, how exciting is that that came together and again to see his fan base now maybe be entered into the conversation of esports, the Call of Duty world?

Yeah. It’s to your point it reflects, you know the role that Call of Duty has and now Call of Duty league has in fashion and street-wear and lifestyle as a culture, and it reinforces how we believe this brand is more than a game and it’s even more than just a live event experience. This is something we want to create a real sense of, I want to rep in my day to day life. And so having one of the best if not the best shoe customizers out there, rallying for the launch of the league is really special. And I think it drove another type of conversation with broader audiences in mainstream fashion and mainstream lifestyle culture to again affirm and validate the vision that this should be more than just your traditional esport.

You may have certain expectations about if you want to be a part of this community, there are ways you can do it through the lens of lifestyle and our uniforms reflect that as well. Just you know, having a hoodie option for players in addition to the traditional kit silhouette. These are all strategic points of view for us around broadening what it means to be a league and developing different attachments, no matter where you’re coming from, to showcase how many people just love this brand.

Uproxx was hosted by Call of Duty for the reporting on this piece. However, Call of Duty did not review or approve this story in any way. You can find out more about our policy on press trips/hostings here