The evolution of Call of Duty Elite

In the time it's taken me to write this sentence, more than 900 hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has been cumulatively played around the world by its millions of fans.

Last year, Call of Duty publisher Activision created a website to track that stat and other similar, almost alarming numbers live.

Scrolling down the lengthy page exposes tickers of numbers that move so fast it's hard to keep up with the single digits. Instead, a curious reader has to rely on the hundreds, or the thousands, or the hundred thousands to settle on a single number long enough to think about what it might mean.

These live global stats are the heartbeat of one of the most played video games in the world.

They can be found on the official website for Call of Duty Elite, the series spanning service that tracks stats, improves gameplay and builds communities and competitions for the first-person shooter.

Launched in the fall of 2011, Elite was conceived by Activision as a service that would support fans of the Call of Duty franchise as they transition from one game to the next. Its initial goal, developers told me at the time, was to help Call of Duty become a sort of national pastime and extend the experience into a player's daily life.

Now, 14 months since its launch, Elite's goals seem unchanged, but the way it's working to attain them has shifted dramatically.

Where once Elite was both a free and paid service, now it is free only. Elite TV, once aiming to become a sort of Call of Duty-themed mainstream television channel, has dropped its Hollywood aspirations to become something more akin to a Khan Academy for gamers. Where last year viewers found original video content created by Hollywood talent like Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Tony and Ridley Scott, now Elite TV offers strategy videos, replay from matches and Call of Duty news.

Elite2

That shift was driven by a year of watching how Elite was being used. It became clear that there were three really big patterns, said Activision producer Jason Ades.

Stats, support of persistent teams, called clans, and competition.

Responding to gamers' thirst for stats, Elite's Beachhead Studio developers created a page dedicated to both global and personal stats, a place where a player could see what Ades refers to as "back of baseball card" information. It's here where you can watch those global numbers whirl by or you can see how many times you've killed or been killed, how many shots you've fired and hours played. A player can also use more detailed statistics to analyze their play in hopes of upping their performance. That means tracking which weapons you're best with, which areas in a map you die most often or take down most opponents.

"It's what people do at the end of a long play session," Ades said. "That was the number one thing, the stat service that we provide."

Looking at the popularity of clans, the developers dropped their use of "groups" and pushed more clan support which fed into an increased interest in competition.

It's that thirst for competition that will see the biggest effort this year.

League play allows gamers to drop into formal 30-day "seasons" designed to be played on a level playing field. Before playing your first league match, gamers have to compete in a number of placement matches. Elite then automatically determines which of the six divisions, and numerous subdivisions to place a player in. Each subdivision can host up to 200 players.

"It lets me tell the story about the game I just played. It lets me show off my custom class. It lets me go and converse with my friends in an interesting way."

The idea is that a player will be more invested in a smaller competition when they know they have a better chance of doing well, rather than competing against the millions of Call of Duty players in the world for the same top spot.

"We're really behind it," Ades said. "It's a key pillar of Elite and we're going to support League as much as possible."

Elite's evolution is nudged along not just by what players are doing, but also by what the latest developer of a Call of Duty game is hoping to push in their title.

Black Ops 2 developer Treyarch, for instance, met regularly with Beachhead to discuss league play, they also pushed for livestreaming of video. And that conversation goes both ways.

The game's popular Zombies mode was built on top of Call of Duty's multiplayer mode this time, rather than its single player mode, specifically so Elite would be able to track stats and share them with players, said Jay Purear, director of brand development for Treyarch.

"Every single one of the Activision's internal studios are always bringing their own sort of unique flavor to the Call of Duty franchise," he said. "I think our role is to make sure that we keep some of our key Elite features, wherever possible, evolving and moving forward."

While some of Elite's strategy for building upon Call of Duty's successes may have shifted, the core tenant for the service remains unchanged: the concept that Call of Duty isn't just a video game, it's a social experience.

"I absolutely believe at the center of Elite and the Call of Duty experience is that social aspect," said Michael Gesner, executive producer at Beachhead Studios. "We tried to design a lot of our features around the idea that we're facilitating the conversation around Call of Duty."

While players may see the mobile app for Elite as a way to pull stats, Gesner and his team see it as a "conversation piece."

"It lets me tell the story about the game I just played," he said. "It lets me show off my custom class. It lets me go and converse with my friends in an interesting way."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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