Baseball, hockey, football... Call of Duty? If the people behind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 have their way, the next big sport people around the world will be obsessing over will involve virtual soldiers killing each other in perpetual warfare.
With more than 25 million copies of their last Call of Duty game sold, Activision has the best chance at making that leap from pop culture phenomenon to cultural phenomenon.
The first step toward potential cultural dominance lies in the obsessive nature of stat tracking that has its roots in fantasy sports.
While this year's Call of Duty returns to the Modern Warfare plot-line that first heralded the series' jump to annual mega hit, the developers behind the game are betting that Modern Warfare 3's biggest innovation will come from Elite.
"Elite is Call of Duty's new social and competitive platform," explains Chacko Sonny, studio head at Elite developer Beachhead Studios. "Call of Duty has one of the largest and most passionate communities out there — Elite is our chance to build something special for them. Our goal is to create a service that is integrated with the game and extends the experience into our daily lives. Elite enhances your Call of Duty experience and that can mean a lot of different things with such a large and diverse fan base."
That life-integrating, gameplay-enhancing service comes in both a free and $US50-a-year premium package. Both allow players to track every move they make on a map, the weapons they use and their efficiency using them. The service also allows players to find other people to game with and compete in a myriad of competitions both for fun and fame and prizes. Premium members also get access to a year's worth of new downloadable content, strategy guides and episodic video shows.
The idea, is to make people obsess over their gameplay sort of like how some sports fans obsess over their favourite teams. The difference here, though, is that the stats you'll be tracking are your own.
"Our mission at Beachhead Studio is to push beyond the boundaries of the traditional game experience.," Sonny said. "We want our friends planning tonight's match on Elite when they are supposed to be at work. We want new players to have a chance to learn a bit before they get smoked in team death match. We want our hardcore fans exhausted, reviewing that last heatmap before they go to bed. Our focus is on bringing Call of Duty into your daily life and that feels pretty innovative."
The idea is driven by a notion that mulitplayer gaming, once the bastion for hardcore gamers, is increasingly becoming the norm for all gamers.
"Multiplayer has exploded and everyone is starting to understand why: it is rewarding to compete online and fun to team up with your good friends to do it," Sonny said.
But new players walking into a match of Call of Duty, or any online game, often face opponents with a much higher degree of experience and skill. Elite is meant to help level that playing field.
"One third of our mantra is 'Improve' — and we're fond of saying that there's no manual for multiplayer," Sonny said. "We wanted to give even the most casual fans a place to get started and step up their game by looking at maps, trying suggested loadouts, or visualising their performance."
Elite also allows players to filter their view of the experience in ways that are more relevant to them. For instance leaderboards, which show how well a player is doing worldwide, can now be fine-tuned for a player.
"Our hunch is that the average guy doesn't care if he's ranked 1,000 or 100,000," said Noah Heller, product director at Beachhead Studios. "But we think he'll care about whether he's ranked first among his friends or enemies. We try to apply this principle to a lot of our features — what do our most passionate fans like and how do we make it more appealing to everyone?"
Call of Duty isn't the first game, or even shooter, to create a service that tracks a player's stats. Halo Reach and Battlefield 3, to name two, both have robust stat tracking services. But Jamie Berger, vice president of Call of Duty Digital says that Call of Duty: Elite is different.
"We had a singular focus on building something truly unique and tailored to the Call of Duty players," Berger said. "For inspiration, we actually spent more time benchmarking thought leaders in completely different markets, such as financial services, dating services, fantasy sports, and social networking than traditional gaming services."
That resulted in some odd inclusions, like Elite TV. Elite TV, only available to paying members, will deliver episodic video content created by Hollywood talent like Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Tony and Ridley Scott. Bateman and Arnett will deliver smack-talking "Noob Toob," while the Scotts will bring "Friday Night Fights" to Elite TV.
"We like to use the analogy of sports when we talk about Call of Duty Elite," Berger said. "If you love football, sometimes you want to play football with your friends, or study your Fantasy Football team, watch a game on TV, or sometimes be entertained by Sports centre talking about football. Elite TV behaves the same way, where you may just want to be entertained when you can't actually get in front of your console. It's a great experiment in expanding the idea of a gaming service."
Activision knows not everything they're trying now will survive Elite's continuing evolution. Already the team has lined up new content, like Clan competitions, and new ways for players to challenge their in-game enemies. Other changes are destined for Elite as well, once it goes live.
"Call of Duty Elite has given us the opportunity to try a lot of new things, especially ways to emphasise the competitive and social elements of online shooters," Sonny said. "Our focus is to bring new ideas to the table. Could Leagues work in Call of Duty? Is it interesting to compete with only sniper rifles or stabs to the back?"
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