YouTube Gaming’s Ryan Wyatt Previews Call Of Duty League’s Championship Weekend

Call of Duty League’s inaugural season has been one to remember in some very unexpected ways. The shooter’s foray into big time eSports was abruptly cut off by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending major touring and taking the competition back online. The season rolled on remotely, though, and this weekend will see the league crown a champion with a final four matchup featuring the biggest names in Call of Duty.

The league is going big for its finale, from a custom throne constructed for the champions to a $1.5 million prize for the team that comes out on top. The Chicago Huntsmen, Dallas Empire, Atlanta FaZe and London Royal Ravens have plenty to play for this weekend, but a championship ring and pair of custom Jordans certainly helps sweeten the pot, too.

For Ryan Wyatt, it’s the culmination of a career in gaming that has seen him playing, broadcasting and now bringing Call of Duty to the masses through YouTube, which partnered with Call of Duty League in its first season and will stream the Finals this weekend. Much has changed in the COD world since he first became involved, first as a player and then a caster and now with his work as head of YouTube Gaming. The eSport has come a long way since he was commentating matches via Skype in his bedroom while in college, and he has big things in store for the league and YouTube Gaming.

Wyatt talked to Uproxx about YouTube’s place in the gaming world, gave a preview of what to expect from championship weekend and when we can expect a Fall Guys eSports league.

This weekend I would say is a long time coming in a lot of ways. But this year, especially with the stoppage due to the pandemic, what’s the feeling now that we’re finally at the finish line for Call of Duty League’s first season?

Yeah, it was a pretty poetic storyline to see the old OpTic versus the new OpTic, right? In the Chicago Huntsmen, that came down to the wire.

With YouTube in its first year of licensing the Call of Duty League, it’s been spectacular to say the least. I’ve been a longtime Call of Duty fan, I commentated Call of Duty eSports for about seven years, starting with Call of Duty 4. Was a part of OpTic as a member. So just to see the evolution of the league, to see the evolution of OpTic gaming and Hector, to see the Huntsmen. A lot of animosity between those two organizations and to see the teams duke it out with that kind of match. You just can’t write that stuff. It was pretty incredible.

You’ve been involved with COD for a long time and seem this evolution happen. From an outsider’s perspective these sort of battles seem inevitable. As more people get involved, as the sport grows and bigger organizations invest in it and the platform gets bigger. But seeing those play out and impact the league itself, how fascinating was that for you?

Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts and emotions about it to be honest with you. Because when I started playing competitively and commentating, I was commentating matches out of my bedroom in college online. That’s where it started. So everyone was participating in these online tournaments, playing from home.

We got really lucky when MLG started supporting it with Modern Warfare 2. Picked up PlayStation as a sponsor. You see that, that’s the starting point: commentating off Skype in your bedroom, to franchising the league. People paying and writing big checks to be a part of it, these big sponsors. These big moments.

And I also have to give credit to all of the players, the league, Activision, for just rocking through COVID, right? Being able to say we have this new league, we’re going to go through these new challenges that were unforeseen and still come out on the other end with millions of people were watching over the weekend. So it’s just, to me, I’m in absolute awe. And in a lot of ways I feel we’re just getting started. I can’t give out too much info but we have a lot of exciting plans to expand it from a product perspective going into next year. Where I think fans will continue to lean into the platform more. These storylines have a way of writing themselves with these teams, so I’m very excited for this weekend. Sunday’s going to be wild.

The teams that are still here in the final were very good right away. And then when things shut down a lot of these players were quarantining together and played together a lot. It seemed to me the tenor of the league changed a bit and some teams caught up. How much do you think that impacted what we saw in the second half of the season when things went online?

I think some of the teams that have had more player changes will benefit and did benefit from playing together more online. But I think it’s kinda like a double edged sword because the downtime gives optionality to play other games or you’re playing Warzone and not necessarily focused on actual comp matches. So I think it goes both ways.

I think playing on the internet creates its own challenges, with the idea that the highest level integrity being on LAN. It’s just not something that can happen and should happen right now. So I think there’s pros and cons to it. The most established teams like this Chicago Huntsmen and Dallas Empire, I think, to your point, they’re going to be fine no matter what. They’re always ready to go. But I do think some of the other teams benefited from the time.

If you can stay focused, though, and I think that if is a big thing. And when I say stay focused I mean continue to play Call of Duty at a high level. Not stray away or play other games. And I think some teams were able to do that.

I talked to some players through the season and when they were streaming, Warzone is what people want to see them play. But as you said, it’s not a mode where you build the same skills you’d need in competitions. As a former pro player it must be interesting to see the balance between a player trying to build an audience and staying sharp.

Yeah, arguably Warzone is definitely the game where if you’re a streamer day to day, Warzone is going to pull the numbers for these creators. People want to watch these players play at the highest level, which is why you see these numbers when it comes to actual tournaments themselves. But to your point, as a player, Warzone when you’re playing you’re using sometimes different guns and you’re definitely using them in a different setup and style than you’d be competitively. You’re dealing with constant changes, nerfs and buffs to guns. So it’s different. It at least helps you mechanically stay within the game and it’s not like you’re playing a different kind of shooter or genre of game. So I don’t think you lose that much of it but undoubtedly behaviorally Warzone is just so, so different from competition and I think it can throw you off a little bit.

And also just not playing with your teammates in competition. You’re squadding up with other people and you lose a little bit of that step where you come together and your callouts are there and you’re really on point. At the same time, a lot of these pro players who have a lot of experience in the league for a while or have been playing professionally for a while: it’s like riding a bike. So give them enough reps back in that environment and they can quickly transition.

As far as what we’re going to see this weekend, you have ties with Chicago. We’ve seen a lot written about them and have gotten a lot of attention. Would you say they’re the favorites or is a bit more uncertain where we’re not sure what we will see until they start playing?

It’s a really good question. Look, as a fan of the game I have my eyes on Dallas and Chicago. Chicago is such a polished team and they seem to be really hitting a rhythm. These final four teams, anything can truly happen. Even though that’s cliche, and you’re online and it does change the environment. And it can change it in a good and bad way.

Some people can be truly fueled by playing on a LAN where you have that crowd and you have that support. And organization like the Chicago Huntsmen, you have fans that really show up and you can feed off that. You don’t get that same kind of dynamic when you’re playing in an online environment at all. You can get hyped up on big plays but you lose the energy of the crowd. In a lot of ways it’s fair to compare how NBA players are dealing with playing in the bubble right now where you’re losing all of that and there really is no home court advantage. It does change the dynamic of the game but some of these more tenured players will be able to deal with that.

And you look at Scump, just pulling an example. This is someone who has been playing online since he started competing in Modern Warfare 2 online. You have players that are so used to playing at a high level in an online environment that it’s actually going to benefit them. And some of these younger players, where they came in when Call of Duty eSports is so well established. They’ve played so many hours of Call of Duty online, but it’s just a different dynamic when you play at a high level. So you give an edge to Dallas and Chicago because they have some of the more established players and the tenure on that team.

I feel like London’s kind of been an underdog of sorts. Maybe it’s a geographic thing, but is that a team people are maybe sleeping on this weekend? What would people need to look for from them to make it to the Finals and win it all?

It’s a good question. From a brand perspective and that team there’s probably some truth to that as far as they’re not as recognized. And it’s fair to say in some capacity they’re playing as a bit of an underdog. But they’re a really talented team as well. You can’t dismiss them. I just think of kind of they might have the edge in playing with a chip on your shoulder, it can have some kind of benefit. If someone like a (Empire players) C6 or a Clayster sleep on them when they face them if they get past Faze. Or if Huntsmen come in and they start playing slow. These guys can get an early jump on them. So I think anytime you’re in the final four they have to take these teams seriously.

So yes, they may be an underdog, particularly from a brand recognition and overall talent. but that team can throw off the final four with Huntsmen being the favorite and them flipping all that upside down. And you have to imagine they’re going to go into that match with a chip on their shoulder as well. They understand the prestige and the team Huntsmen is playing but they can look at that very easily as an opportunity to kind of throw them off. and that makes the final four very wild if something like that happens.

For you at YouTube Gaming, this must have been a very interesting year in how things have gone but I wanted to get to know your role better and where the platform is going and what will happen over the next few months.

Yeah, I’m responsible for our global gaming platform on YouTube. Gaming on YouTube is one of the biggest verticals that we have and there are 200 million people logged in and watching gaming content on YouTube every single day. So it makes YouTube with that size the largest gaming platform in the world. And that comes with a lot of responsibility to the publishers, to the eSports leagues, to the players and content creators. So my job is to make sure that we kind of deliver on that and continue to push forward.

There’s a lot of competition from a platform perspective, which I think is great because I truly believe all ships rise in those situations. Between Amazon’s Twitch and Facebook Gaming and Google’s YouTube Gaming we are all pushing each other forward and making sure we’re delivering on our promises. So it’s exciting, and I think what I really look forward to is making sure we continue to grow our live gamin business.

Gaming video on demand content is substantially larger than the live gaming industry. A lot of people don’t know that because I think live is much more fun to talk about than the beastly size of video on demand and uploads. So live has a little bit more enthusiasm in there and a little bit more competitive from a platform perspective. And so we have an obligation to deliver great products and content, great products to the creators and great content to the viewers. So really if I could summarize my role it’s to deliver on that.

Can you pull some strings and get me a highly competitive Fall Guys pro eSports league up and running in the next few weeks?

Oh my god, I would love that. Fall Guys is such an incredible game. I’m already calling it to be Game of the Year to be honest with you. You can quote me on that. Really fun game. And I honestly think competition takes form in a lot of different ways and I actually think you’ll see some fun creator tournaments across the platforms with Fall Guys. And I’ll be absolutely tuning in to those. I think that game is so good. So good and so funny.

As far as Call of Duty, you’ve very much been involved in the competitive world when the sphere. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m catching up, because the evolution of the community changes when the game changes. We’re kind of on the brink of that again, but it’s never happened with COD League where it is right now and Warzone as popular as it is. Is there some uncertainty with what happens next with the league and its players or do longtime players know where things will go?

It’s a really good question and I think it’s a little bit of both. If you look at Call of Duty eSports from a stock perspective, it just continues to go up. And I look at it right now I think there’s so much more to do and there’s so much where it’s going to continue to go up. Call of Duty on YouTube, just as a user generated content perspective, is massive. There’s a ton of Call of Duty fans, and I would argue there are, outside of the game itself, there are more fans on YouTube of Call of Duty than anywhere else in the world, right?

And so there’s kind of two things that’s really interesting. One, that’s seeing Call of Duty really establishing itself as a top tier eSport. Making it a league, bringing in sponsorship, bringing in viewership. Really establishing itself on YouTube. Hitting the highs. But there’s really so much more to be able to go and os much more runway for them. I’m excited to see where it goes and see how this season ends. Treyarch, traditionally, has done a fantastic job with eSports. That studio in general really gets it. They were one of the first movers to support eSports back in Black Ops 1. So you ave to think, this is great, it’s already so big. But I have to be honest with you, my expectations are for it to continue to go bigger and I think also enter more of the mainstream.

Call of Duty is a very unique thing when you look at a lot of eSports. It’s a lot more mainstream, you look at Tiger Woods talking about playing, there’s a lot of NBA players playing it like Ben Simmons, he just signs with FaZe. So Call of Duty has this potential to just break out mainstream more than any other eSports out there so it’s kind of this perfect story right now. YouTube, the biggest platform in the world, the biggest gaming platform in the world, the franchise being established. The product continuing to be improved on YouTube, the game continuing to be improved to support eSports. So you have all these things and catalysts firing at the same point that, next year’s going to be wild. Let alone the championship.

That’s the question I always wonder: is being more recognizable the biggest part of growth? Is the next step for Call of Duty League getting people who know who Ben Simmons is but not FaZe interested in eSports?

A hundred percent. I think how I look at it, too, is the older generations of people had a big stigma on video games, let alone a big stigma on eSports. So as that point of view becomes more outdated, and the numbers are very much supporting it, you have millennial audience growing up and Get Z growing up and so forth. You will have this continue to grow where it is not this niche. And particularly with Call of Duty. You could ask anyone out there in the United States and they would have heard of Call of Duty, as a game. It has a such a brand recognition. But I think what will happen now is you’ll have this better understanding of the nuances of that genre in battle royale Warzone versus eSports and competition. I see this in the numbers of just how gaming is growing on YouTube, how eSports is growing on Youtube. You’re seeing people from the NBA, MLB move into powerful executive positions at eSports organizations. So yeah, I don’t see any indication that it would go anywhere but continue to go up as far as a cultural recognition.

All I’m really hearing here is that I’m never going to get good enough at this game because more people are coming to kill me at all times.

You and me both, man. Back in the day when nobody was playing it was really easy to be good at Call of Duty. Now there’s so many people playing. When I try to get into it and play Warzone when I have time — I’ve got a newborn now so it’s few and far in between. But when I get on I’m getting my ass beat. So don’t worry about it. We’ll work on the other side of it, supporting the growth of it.