Seattle Surge finds a devoted and savvy fanbase as it rides the waves of a first Call of Duty League season

The Seattle Surge had an easy time moving from in-person to online play in the Call of Duty League. Photo by Robert Paul

Call of Duty League 2020 Season 2020-02-09 / Photo: Robert Paul for Activision Blizzard

To anyone who’s had their life altered this spring, it’ll come as no shock that the inaugural Call of Duty League season hasn’t exactly played out the way stakeholders and fans might have imagined a few months back.

That reality wasn’t lost on the Seattle Surge as it prepared for its first home series ever this past weekend. The team is owned by the Aquilini Group, which also has the Vancouver Canucks and the Overwatch League’s Vancouver Titans under its umbrella.

In an interview, Canucks Sports and Entertainment head of ESports team operations Alfred de Vera talked about how the season started, and the way things changed radically after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a world-wide lockdown.

At the beginning of the year, teams played in packed arenas before amped-up fans thrilled to be seeing Call of Duty League action in the flesh. The atmosphere and energy was palpable in Minneapolis when all 12 teams travelled there for the league launch in January.

“Opening weekend was fantastic, and it really set the stage for what this league could be and can be,” de Vera said. “It was a great introduction to what this new ESports culture and league could be. Then our team went to London, and to see how ESports did over there—it was on a different level and a different stage than I’ve ever seen personally. There was no dead space when you were in the crowd­—everyone was chanting as if you were at a soccer game.”

If travelling to different cities at the beginning of the season showed de Vera anything, it was that every locale had its own Call of Duty culture. That had the Seattle Surge excited about what the Emerald City would be bringing to the party. Instead, like the rest of league and its fans, it’s had to adapt to an online model for all games and series.

Praising the competitiveness of the 2020 season, de Vera said: “It’s a little disappointing compared to what we initially thought, to where we are today, but just like the league, our team is pretty resilient and adaptable.”

The Surge is realistic about where it stands in the Seattle sporting landscape. And that meant keeping expectations in check for last weekend’s home series, which was the city’s first for the Call of Duty League.

“We’re not the Seahawks’ opening camp, and we’re not the Mariners opening spring training,” de Vera noted. “It’s far from that.”

That said, he and the Surge have been amazed at the out-of-the-gate response. To help build street-level buzz after the team joined the Call of Duty League, Seattle did grassroots meet-and-greets featuring players like Sam “Octane” Larew and Ian “Enable” Wyatt. Fans showed up in the hundreds to line up for autographs.

“We have a very veteran and, I guess, star-studded roster that has years and years of championship pedigree from years of playing in various iterations of Call of Duty championships,” de Vera said. “So there is a following, and it’s very die-hard.”

That’s doesn’t surprise him.

“Seattle has a very good and a very mature ESports audience, just by virtue of Microsoft and Nintendo and a lot of those big gaming and technology companies established there,” de Vera said. “It’s definitely an
advanced one.”

Interestingly, the Surge was well-positioned to pivot to the Call of Duty League’s online format. The roster features players who are spread out across the country. Many of them are vets, and some have families—which made hauling up stakes and moving to Seattle unfeasible, even before COVID-19. As such, the Surge was used to working by remote.

“From an online setting, they were already accustomed to that, so when COVID hit and the league switched to an online format, there wasn’t a huge learning curve or a massive adaptability issue for us,” de Vera said.

Figuring out how to make the most out of a home series initially scheduled to take place in Seattle’s 7,000-capacity WaMu Theatre required a bit of learning on the fly. The key was to appeal to both the curious and the die-hards who’d hoped to be in the stands. That led to digital watch parties with celebrity guests and prizes. All games were viewable on the Call of Duty League’s YouTube channel. There was also the release of a special-edition Seattle Surge T-Shirt, which took its inspiration from the NBA’s fabled Seattle SuperSonics. The fact that it sold out immediately was a pretty good barometer of fan interest.

“It’s a little bit different to see something live and in-person­—to be able to touch it and to be intimate with it,” de Vera said. “When it comes to an online setting, the question became ‘How do we engage local fans, but also not ostracize fans that might not be specific to the Seattle area?’ ”

As for the local fans, Seattle was there for the Surge before COVID-19, and de Vera has no doubt they’ll be there big-time once the world returns to normal. Things haven’t played out as imagined—Seattle had a rocky home series, losing to the New York Subliners and the Los Angeles Guerrillas. But that’s no reason to get down on the future.

“We want to thank the Seattle market in general for their support,” de Vera says. “When COVID hit, they were one of the first markets hit, and they were hit hard. They’re from a really resilient city, and we’re proud to represent them.” g

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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