How Call of Duty Elite evolved

Stressing for success with pro gamer Mike "Hastr0" Rufail and Activision's Call of Duty Elite.

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Not a Call of Duty guy, myself.

Never have been. There's just something about the aesthetics and fun-ification of the American military-industrial complex that's always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, this is an oversimplification — and ultimately, like any other game, it merely presents a possibility space for Exciting Moments With Buddies — but damned if I'm going to invest hundreds of hours engaged in the multi-billion dollar, metaphorical war-gasm that is Call of Duty multiplayer.

Or, at least, that's what I'd tell myself on the occasions when I did enter the Call of Duty fray online — usually at a friend's request — and repeatedly had my ass handed to me.

To face my fears, I was asked recently to take a trip to Activision headquarters in Santa Monica to get a hands-on demonstration of Activision's social network-meets-statistical analysis software Call of Duty Elite — along with my own personalized lesson in virtual warfare from international Call of Duty eSports broadcast announcer and former pro player Mike Rufail.

As I discovered, spending time tracking your progress, watching tutorial videos and studying other players' techniques actually is a means to an end — namely, a more accommodating difficulty curve (and hence a significantly more enjoyable experience) playing the world's most popular online shooter.

Call of Duty Elite

Adventures in Babysitting

While the Call of Duty games have always gone to great lengths to avoid engaging in social commentary of the socio/political/"but what does this mean?" variety, today the term is used in another form. "Elite is about facilitating the discussion," says Michael Gesner, the former executive producer of Linden Lab's Second Life, who Activision hired to help steer the Elite ship. "Right now, we're looking at our analytics; we're looking at what people are doing on the site; we're talking to different people in the community — and we're making different decisions about what we're going to do next. We can then go back and change things based on that feedback." This is the new social commentary.

"I have people asking me all the time about what class and loadout I'm using in certain matches. Now, they can just see for themselves."

As Activision representatives will reiterate for you until they're blue in the face, Elite is broken into three major pillars: Connect, Compete and Improve. It's the latter that I'm most interested in today, as it provides access to a massive amount of persistent statistical analysis — "the Nike Fuel Band of sitting on the sofa playing video games," if you will. Kill/death ratios, weapon stats, encounter distances, headshots, assists — all these and more are accessible from the in-game interface, website or specialized apps for iOS and Android. Perhaps most useful are the heat map reenactments of recent matches: You can clearly see where you went wrong, either individually or as a team ("It retells the story of your match," says Rufail). You can study your rivals and track their progress, and compare your respective strategies and techniques.

Call of Duty Elite
Call of Duty Black Ops 2
Mike Rufail
Mike Rufail

A new feature in this year's Elite update is the ability to look at what other weapon loadouts players are using, and then copy and paste them directly into your own profile. Rufail, who has some 39,000 Twitter followers, says that, among other things, this feature has made his life just a little bit easier. "I have people asking me all the time about what class and loadout I'm using in certain matches," he says. "Now, they can just see for themselves."

The game's LiveStreaming feature is as simple as pushing the "on" button before a match, which will then broadcast your game to whomever wants to watch, on virtually whatever platform they want to watch it (an optional USB camera gives gamers a picture-in-picture window of your mug as you play). Every weapon and every map in the game has its own "educational" movie, which provides valuable information on how to go about handling the subtle variations of hostile circumstances.

There are many football analogies made today, but perhaps the most accurate one is that of NFL players watching tapes the Monday after a game. The practice has become a given — as necessary a part of any player's training regimen as lifting weights or maintaining a proper diet. So if you expect to be able to compete in one of the world's most competitive video games (where, conveniently, everyone's data is digitally recorded over the course of their careers), it only makes sense that putting a little bit of energy into research and development is doing yourself a favor on the battlefield.

Call of Duty Elite

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Mike Rufail

Fans know Mike Rufail by his stage name, "Hastr0." A former Call of Duty: Black Ops pro gamer, he's been busy since his recent retirement from competitive eSports. He's the owner and coach of the Black Ops team EnVyUs, and has served as co-host of Call of Duty Elite's "Friday Night Fights" TV show. Over the past year or so, Rufail has been working closely with Treyarch in its effort to integrate eSports as a major focus of Black Ops 2.

Today Rufail is my personal trainer — to adversaries' craniums what Richard Simmons is to thunder thighs. His goal is to help me be all I can be — that is to say, kill more and die less in Black Ops 2. The 29 year-old's tall, slender frame is not uncommon for pro gamers. "When you play this way, it's demanding. 12 hours a day of intense competition for three days in a row — it takes a lot out of you," he says, sporting a baseball cap pulled down low above his eyes. "It's physically and mentally exhausting, so most of the guys you see at these events are in decent shape." When I tell him I'm skeptical of his ability to change my game up without some sort of long-term outpatient release program, he seems unfazed. "No, don't worry. I promise you; you'll see a big improvement after we're done."

While it's not my first time at the FPS rodeo, jumping into my first Black Ops 2 multiplayer match with a half-dozen franchise brass and a pro gamer watching over my shoulder doesn't particularly help matters. My first several games are spent mostly providing a warm new home for spent rounds, with flurries of dramatic and unforeseen deaths often spaced mere seconds apart from one another. Several times, I watch myself erratically spray bullets into the air like so many disposable bad action movie grunts. I blow myself up with explosive charges, mistakenly shoot at teammates, and generally just suck eggs.

Be, Aggressive; Be, Be, Aggressive

And then, with the help of my trainer, something starts to click. I'm playing my third or fourth round of Free-For-All when Rufail points at the screen. "When you go for somebody like that, you've gotta commit," he says, after watching me chase yet another player down a corridor, before eventually putting on the brakes as the enemy rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. "When you go for a guy like that, you can't give up halfway through. You won't get the kill, and someone will usually get you from behind. At very least, it's better to die in a shootout than get stabbed in the back." These, ladies and gentlemen, are words to live by.

So, like so many thirty-somethings, I learn to commit. Many of these foot races do indeed end in a pool of my own blood and misdirected fury, but it feels better than getting a knife in the back (existentially, anyway). I even get a few kills, and almost always learn something in the process — how players tend to react to an intense chase, where they try to hide, and the like. I'm growing more confident by the match.

"When you go for a guy like that, you can't give up halfway through."

When we move on to team-based matches, the prescribed strategy changes: While it's still smart to keep moving at all times, foot races are often not the best way to engage. Instead, while it's generally a good idea to sprint out of open areas, Rufail tells me to make sure I get my iron sights up when pushing in against choke points. What are choke points? Important doorways or zones surrounding flags are always hazardous, but they're not always that obvious. Fire up Elite and check your heat map after a match, and recognize where most of the deaths tend to pile up. Approach them with extreme caution.

Mike Rufail
Mike Rufail
Call of Duty Elite

Somewhere along the line, Rufail drops another gem on me. Noticing that I haven't been using my melee attacks (in part because of my inexperience with the maps), he suggests ever-so-slightly switching up my controls. His advice is to swap the R3 (clicking in the right analog stick) and B button functions, placing my crouch control on the former and melee attack on the latter. This enables me to crouch and perform "drop shots" without taking my fingers off of the triggers or analog sticks; I noticed an improvement almost immediately. "I use my crouch button all the time, and my melee attack only rarely," he says. "For me it's a no-brainer." After having played this way for a spell, I don't think I'll ever go back.

Lots of clever tweaks to my style crop up throughout our session. I'm not paying close enough attention to my mini map; I don't have my iron sights up enough; I often linger too long after kills. I am introduced to the "Pick Ten" system, whereby players can choose 10 elements to make up their loadout, with each element costing one Allocation Point. Because these can be anything — from primary weapon to secondary weapon to attachments, grenades, gadgets and perks — I'm able to swap out my still-cold pistol for a far more beneficial perk.

Perhaps the most enlightening moments are when I watch Rufail himself play the game.

Later, I watch some informative movies on the iPad placed conveniently beside me on the sofa, which are narrated by various members of the Call of Duty community. One of these in particular (narrated rather marvelously by hardcore player and now Activision contractor Stuart Brown) effectively demonstrates the different types of cover in Black Ops 2, and their relative impenetrability.

Perhaps the most enlightening moments, however, are when I watch Rufail himself play the game. Paying close attention to the way he manages the space around him, keeps his reticle consistently tight and never, ever engages in the kinds of "spray and pray" tactics I employ is instructive. Yes, you can watch hundreds of thousands of Call of Duty pros doing their thing on YouTube (in fact, you can publish to YouTube directly from the game), but having all of these pieces under the Elite umbrella simply makes them more accessible and, ultimately, more useful.

Call of Duty Elite

To Serve and Protect

Call of Duty Elite

The seeds of Elite began as a concept at the end of development on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The year was 2008, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were growing exponentially, replacing the role traditionally played by forums. Stats had started to become more meaningful to players, and there was a growing interest at Activision in figuring out how to enable more competition within the framework of the Call of Duty games.

In 2008, developer Treyarch brought in Jay Puryear as senior manager, and it was Puryear who helped catalyze the various ideas that were swirling around Activision at the time, in anticipation of the forthcoming Black Ops. Work began on a socially connected website and mobile phone app, and "weekend warrior" Modern Warfare competitions started to spring up. The game's community had ballooned to somewhere between 25 and 30 million, and Activision was eager to keep it growing.

The seeds of Elite began as a concept at the end of development on Call of Duty 4.

The company put together a small group of people to do just that. The developers realized that there was a constant, steady flow of new players into the game, and they were all faced with what had become a steep difficulty ramp that could easily dissuade them from returning. Some were naturally very good at the game, but most had a tough time overcoming the barrier to entry: For every veteran who'd regularly achieve a 40/7 kill/death ratio, there was some poor n00b chalking up the opposite score.

For this reason (among others), Activision made the decision to build what was to become Call of Duty Elite, in large part by assembling its own dedicated, on-site studio, Beachhead. Veteran developer Raven Software was brought in to build the console app, and a host of other independent contractors were hired to help build out the website and mobile apps. The ball began to roll.

When it eventually launched in 2011, however, Elite became a victim of its own success. Servers were overwhelmed for several months after the launch of Modern Warfare 3, and intermittent service became the norm. Activision originally offered some free Elite functionality for all users (the service was in fact down entirely for non-premium users for about a month straight), but the main thrust was a premium subscription package.

This structure had the unintended consequence of further splintering the user base. According to Activision, the fragmentation of the content into different pricing tiers turned the service into a "very complex offering," making it difficult to manage and even more difficult to message.

"If you stand it up and you do nothing with it for a year, it's not a service; it's a product."

Where it was initially conceived as a directly profitable entity, Activision eventually made the decision to take Elite to the masses. It realized that it would be "a better engagement tool for everybody if [it] made it free for everybody," and decided early this year to do just that. One of the many luxuries, it seems, of having a per-title user base larger than the population of Canada.

And so the past year has been something of a reconstruction phase for Elite. Beachhead was essentially rebuilt, and new teams were brought in to redesign the sites and apps. Front- and back-end features have been slowly rolled out over the past several months, and Activision has pooled its resources help ensure the service would be ready for its unofficial relaunch this month. I couldn't get into a team deathmatch game during our play session at the Beachhead offices, but chalk it up to first-week deluge. Using the Internet's outrage as a barometer, things appear to be going far more smoothly this time around.

Call of Duty Elite
Call of Duty Elite

Activision thinks of the service as an "engagement engine" — something it's better enabled to be after being freed from its additional role as revenue generator. "If you stand it up and you do nothing with it for a year, it's not a service; it's a product," says Gesner. "But by being able to create a process and a foundation that changes, by being able to launch clan operations and challenges, plan a program guide, get more content and watch how people react to it — and making our new decisions moving forward — is necessary to make something like this successful. And it's fundamentally different than what a lot of game companies are doing right now."

Two years ago, Call of Duty clans didn't exist; now, they're perhaps the most popular feature in Elite. "What we realized was that with clans, we've given players another reason to go back and play the game — we're now engaging them in this theoretical competition that's this theoretical metagame," says Gesner. "[We realized that] there was something here we could capitalize on, and it's really up to us to do more of that kind of stuff."

One of the bounty of features in this latest iteration that seems to be getting near-universal praise is something called the Challenge Tracker. This menu keeps a running tally of all your achievements, showing you which ones you're closing in on and what perks their completion will provide (rather than requiring you to track all of these manually).

In many ways, Elite is emblematic of a larger trend in our culture. The dynamic data visualization has become a growing and increasingly critical way of presenting information in recent years, a means often more effective at communicating ideas and trends than mere language or vanilla pie charts. Elite is Call of Duty data visualized in a thousand different ways, dynamically over time. It can do a lot of good for players, but perhaps none more significant than exacting revenge on foes. Babykayak