To Build its Future, Call of Duty Esports Is Killing its Biggest Rivalry

One of the most infamous feuds in all of competitive gaming comes to a close.

It was midway through championship winners finals, and Matthew “FormaL” Piper couldn’t get anything going. His team was down 60 points and desperately needed a boost of energy to survive. Yet every moment they could have captured the lead fell by the wayside. Chants of “Let’s go, OpTic!” started ringing through Orlando’s Amway Center, even as Piper and his squad fell to Team Envy over and over again.

After a few minutes of struggle, Team Envy sealed a decisive win against OpTic Gaming, knocking them down to the losers bracket.

Yet only a few hours later, OpTic Gaming was back in the driver’s seat. They took the beating they’d received from Team Envy and decided they weren’t finished. They defeated Team Luminosity in a motivated showing in the losers final, earning the chance to go face to face with Team Envy again in the grand finals. Even still, Everyone thought that Envy had the win in the bag. OpTic Gaming had to win a best of five just to reset the bracket and earn the chance to even fight for a first-place finish.

They did much more than that. Piper and crew cleaned house, reset the bracket 3-1, and won two more games unanswered—meaning only one match stood between them and the coveted championship trophy. Then, with 40 seconds left on the clock in Call of Duty’s capture the flag-like mode Uplink, Piper made a run for the enemy base, flag in hand, to cement their lead. Dunking it into the goal like a basketball, FormaL sealed the victory and made a place for himself in the Call of Duty hall of fame.

“OpTic had to battle through every single one of their demons at that event,” Call of Duty commentator and analyst Sean “Spaceman” Rogers told me. “They had to have gotten knocked down, they had to come from the losers bracket. They had to show that they could beat a team twice and it had to be against Envy. It’s only as sweet as it was because it was against Envy.”

That was the electric scene at the 2017 Call of Duty Championships in Orlando, Florida, where the rivalry between OpTic Gaming and Team Envy reached its peak. The two organizations that had helped build the Call of Duty esports scene had an epic face off on its greatest stage. It was a testament to how much the feud between the two teams raised the profile of their league.

OpTic Gaming’s Scump takes in the crowd at CWL Champs 2019.
Credit: Activision Publishing

“Both of these brands came out swinging when they first met in 2011,” Rogers said. “Since then the boys in blue and OpTic Gaming have always met somewhere in the winners bracket.” Heated rivalries have long helped traditional sports grow in popularity—think Lakers-Celtics in the NBA, McEnroe-Borg in tennis. For Call of Duty, Rogers said, “this rivalry did the same.”

Two years later, the scene at the 2019 Call of Duty Championship tournament, held at the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, couldn’t have felt more different. “It feels like the end of an era. It’s a big deal for a lot of people because this has been our livelihood for years and now it’s all about to change,” said eUnited coach Brice Faccento, whose team finished first at what could be the final COD Champs event ever. “It’s kind of like a last hurrah for how things started.”

Next year, Activision Blizzard is sunsetting the Call of Duty World League, the official competitive vehicle for its hallmark shooter since 2016, and replacing it with something new. Judging by recent statements from Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, the organization will rebrand as the Call of Duty Global League. Whatever it’s called, this new incarnation will follow Overwatch League’s lead by shifting to a city-based franchise model. Team Envy has secured the rights to a Dallas team. Immortals Gaming Club, which acquired OpTic Gaming earlier this year, will set up a franchise in Los Angeles, reportedly affiliated with OpTic. But barring a major and unexpected shift away from OWL’s more standardized, mascot-friendly team names, the two brands themselves will fade into the background. We won’t see Envy vs. OpTic on stream again. Competitive Call of Duty won’t be the same.

Team Envy and OpTic Gaming official team portraits for the CWL’s inaugural season.
Credit: Activision Publishing

The relationship between the two prolific brands was the lifeblood of the nascent Call of Duty esports scene, back in the days before the World League when the competitive community was nowhere near the size it is now. Intense and regular showdowns between the two juggernaut organizations created lifelong fans of both teams, brought in eyes and money, and provided some of the games greatest storylines. Fans started calling the matchup “the eClásico” as a nod to El Clásico, the heated football rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Every match between the two organizations created moments destined for the highlight reel.

“It’s always been like the big rivalry, OpTic-Envy,” said Damon “Karma” Barlow, who’s played for both teams, when they practiced together in April. Barlow framed the rivalry, in part, as a competition between the two owners, Team Envy’s Mike “Hastr0” Rufail and former OpTic Gaming head Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez. “They always just want to be the best. They’re like the godfathers of Call of Duty. It’s a big thing. They were the two brands coming up that were Call of Duty. It’s always a battle, always the eClásico when we play and everyone wants to see it.”

OpTic Gaming fans at CWL Champs 2019.
Credit: Activision Publishing

The rivalry began at the 2011 National Championship for Call of Duty: Black Ops, when Team Envy knocked OpTic Gaming out in the losers final, and several trades and events solidified the feud. Players like Karma, Jordan “JKap” Kaplan, and even OpTic’s star player Seth “Scump” Abner had played for both teams, driving a friendly wedge between their respective fans. You need only look at the countless Reddit posts or Twitter replies to any trash talk between OpTic and EnVy players to see how much this matchup meant to the people watching at home.

OpTic and Envy’s rivalry spread as each organization formed teams in other games like Halo, Gears of War, and Overwatch. The two organizations even started the two Overwatch League franchises based in Texas: the Houston Outlaws and Dallas Fuel.

“I don’t know if there are a lot of other games that build a community as passionate as Call of Duty,” said Houston Outlaws general manager Matt Rodriguez. “That history between Envy and OpTic gets dug up here in Overwatch. It’s intensifying. It only adds to the stress of game days against Dallas.”

But the Call of Duty rivalry hasn’t been the same in the past two seasons, as neither OpTic Gaming or Team Envy dominate the game as they once did. At this years COD Champs event in Los Angeles, Team Envy finished in 16th place, and 100 Thieves pushed OpTic Gaming down to third place. While OpTic Gaming did win the season opener in Las Vegas, neither team made any serious waves over the course of the year.

“It was the two huge organizations going head to head, and they always had the two best teams,” said Call of Duty commentator and analyst Philip “Momo” Whitfield. “But that hasn’t been the case for the last 18 months or so. OpTic had a very strong start to the year but have been mostly lackluster. Envy had a very poor year. How can you call something the eClásico when one of the teams has been knocked out on Friday or Saturday?”

Team Envy at the CWL Championship 2019, ahead of their eventual elimination in the first knockout round.
Credit: Activision Publishing

Still, even as the rivalry has fallen short of expectations, matchups between both squads always produce fantastic moments for fans. Earlier this year during CWL Fort Worth, Envy and OpTic looked like their old selves in an intense series.

Team Envy took a strong lead early on and only needed to take a final round of Hardpoint, Call of Duty’s version of king of the hill, in order to win the match. But OpTic fought back, leading to a back and forth that saw both teams only seconds away from victory on the map. For Envy, it would be a win. For OpTic, it was a chance to tie things up.

With only a few seconds left, Team Envy only needed four points to win. A bloody standoff ensued, with members of each team dying left and right trying to gain control of the last hardpoint. After a long back-and-forth, Envy’s Patrick “ACHES” Price managed to kill three of OpTic Gaming’s four-player squad to clear the point and seal the deal. It was a thrilling moment in Texas, one that perfectly encapsulated the kind of excitement OpTic-Envy matchups were known to create.

It’s not just OpTic Gaming and Team Envy facing the brunt of this new structure for competitive Call of Duty. 100 Thieves officially exited the scene after finishing second in this year’s COD Championship. The cost of a slot in the new league—rumored to be more than $25 million—is too high for many organizations to even consider. Other teams, like eUnited, who dominated throughout 2019 and finished first at the championship, have been rumored to not be continuing into next year.

Team Envy is completely revamping their roster ahead next season, with three current players having already left the squad. OpTic Gaming underwent a major acquisition this year when Immortals Gaming purchased their parent company, Infinite Esports, pushing the Call of Duty team into disarray. OpTic Gaming’s Ian “Crimsix” Porter, the winningest player in Call of Duty history, has already announced his free agency. Even H3CZ, who owned the team for a decade, has said the Immortals LA team “ain’t us.”

But even if the legacy of these teams lives on in some new form, whether or not the contentious relationship between them will persist is uncertain. Just as the fans originally willed the rivalry into existence, it’s the fans who’ll have to keep it alive after both teams create new identities and fill their rosters with new faces.

“It really comes down to the fans,” Rogers said. “The rivalry itself will always exist.… Old fans may remember the history and think this new setup isn’t the same, while new fans will get introduced to the new OpTic and Envy. They may not understand the historical significance, but it’ll still be there.

“Rivalries will always continue to mold and change, but the way fans view it will depend on where they come from. It’s too big of a story to just disappear.”

Header image: Activision, OpTic Gaming, Team Envy

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