The Call of Duty franchise is so successful that one could imagine Activision execs hunkered down in their lair, Dr. Evil-style, counting their billions and billions in revenue. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was the fastest entertainment property to surpass $1 billion in sales, and Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg estimates there are 7 million people playing COD at any given time each day and 20 million players each month.
Still, Activison is intent on further galvanizing its rabid fans around the title and is doing so with content on Call of Duty Elite, a subscription platform with a host of free and paid services to enhance the player experience.
“If all these people are playing Call of Duty, and they’re doing it on average of 50 minutes a day, we thought, could we create an ecosystem of content around the game that’s not the game itself,” says Hirshberg, equating it to how the sports industry has created an always-on stream of content beyond actual game play. “Before Elite, the only way to connect with the game was to sit down and play the console. We wondered if there was more of an appetite to connect with that passion outside of the console experience.”
With content including game-enhancing features such as tournaments, clan play, and tools to study your game, the platform revolves around Elite TV, a content channel dedicated to game-related programming available to paid subscribers. “Elite TV was an experiment to see if we could create linear, episodic media entertainment built around COD,” say Hirshberg.
The first expression of that is the game-style show Friday Night Fights, which is produced by Ridley Scott Associates (RSA) and directed by RJ Cutler. Set in a vast stadium setting that seems to be requisite for competition-style shows, two teams face off for a chance to win a bullet-studded championship belt. The addition of a host, some pro gaming coaches, sweeping camera moves, and more than a little bit smack-talk creates a narrative around what is basically eight people playing a videogame. “In a weird way it taps into that ‘videogame as spectator sport’ as much as an interactive platform,” says Hirshberg of FNF.
Now in its second 8-episode season (the first season went largely unnoticed as the Elite platform had a notoriously rocky start, so little attention was drawn to its services), the show has evolved from being focused on face-offs between real-life rivals (think Boston vs. New York, Army vs. Navy, rappers vs. rockers) to well-chosen pairings of teams from within the Elite network that still allow for some verbal trashing, but focus much more on high-level skill.
“When we went into Friday Night Fights we thought it was more about iconic rivals outside of the game coming into the game. But what we’re finding is some of the best episodes are with people who are famous for just being great at the game,” says Hirshberg. “We wanted to focus on making our own community the heroes.”
Carlos Ortiz, who’s been working with RSA executive producer Tom Dunlap as the showrunner for FNF, says that after the first season, one of the biggest comments from the community was, "Rivals are nice, but show us the pros." “We went through the painstaking process of going through the server and pairing people based on their statistics so that we’d have really high-end gamer matches. We spent three months in casting until we found the most perfect matches we could because, you throw someone on a TV show and take them out of their very comfortable chair at home with their perfect headphones and controllers, and it’s going to be different game.”
The decision to focus on the core gamers still yielded some pretty wicked rivalries. Episode one, which aired on May 11, saw a Marines team give a solid ass-kicking to an Air Force team, and a later episode will feature the teams of filmmaker Joe Carnahan going toe-to-toe with that of MMA superstar Rampage Jackson.
“One of the best things about COD is that you never know who’s playing,” says Ortiz. “Rampage has actually been playing with these three kids from North Carolina online and had never met them. He flew them out here to be on his team. The weirdest and coolest thing for me, is that 90% of the people we had on this season had never met face-to-face, yet had been friends online for years,” he adds, demonstrating the social connections possible through content. To further focus on the extreme skill of its players, season 3 of FNF will feature a bracket-style tournament with the promise of a cash prize.
Another key change from season one to two was bringing in Internet icon and avid gamer Justine Ezarik (iJustine) as opposed to the original host, Stacey Keibler, who brought the eye candy, but not the game insight.
With the constructive criticism, Activision and RSA were able to create a more compelling show for its fans, and found validation that there was enthusiasm for such episodic game-related content. After all, people don’t complain if they don’t care.
Hirshberg says that ultimately, content like Friday Night Fights, as well as an upcoming program from Jason Bateman and Will Arnett through their production company DumbDumb, is a value add for its fans. But one that’s serving a social purpose.
“Our players are always going to be interested in playable content, whether it’s maps or spec-ops missions or new game modes, or clan play; they’re going to be most interested in the things that make the game play better. What [Elite TV and Friday Night Fights] does is create that social community around the game. It makes being a subscriber more fun.”