The Rise and Fall of Competitive ‘Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’
As 'Modern Warfare Remastered' approaches, we look back on how the game's original release both benefitted eSports but failed to capitalise on its boom.
I was so excited about the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – and this trailer in particular – that I took an hour-long bus ride from my tiny village to pick the game up from a street-date-breaking "secret shop". The owner was happy to sell me a copy the day before its official UK release of November the 9th, 2007.
It's tricky to understand the hype for Call of Duty these days – and all too easy to be cynical about the franchise's annual releases – but back then there was a lot more to be excited about. Modern Warfare marked a huge leap forward for the series: it ditched the World War II theatre of the previous two games for a reimagined modern setting, and it also saw PC gamers able to re-enlist – the previous, third game in the franchise had been a console exclusive.
Modern Warfare was an explosive title packed with bluster about the sheer scale of 21st century warfare, but its gameplay felt tight and its action tense – more like a close-contested paintball match than a roaring open battlefield. This feeling, combined with strong UK representation in the ranks of professional Call of Duty 1 and 2 players, lead to a competitive scene springing to life almost immediately.
"COD4 wasn't really that competitive out of the box, so we had to hack a mod together in about 12 hours." – Rob Black
Modern Warfare wasn't quite ready for competitive play on release, but it had someone to help the process along, to embed it in the eSports consciousness of the UK and beyond. Rob Black, now working with ESL, played COD1 and COD2 professionally, before organising several competitions – including the running of the first COD4 tournament in the world.
"COD4 wasn't really that competitive out of the box," Black tells me. "We had to hack a mod together in about 12 hours, after the game was released. I took it out of the box and then, 12 hours later, we were having to run the tournament." The tournament in question took place at Insomnia 32, held in November 2007 at Newbury Racecourse, with a $6,000 prize pool stumped up by publishers Activision.
Black ended up with a mod that enabled just a small selection of maps – Crash, Backlot, District, Strike, and Vacant – and limited the perks to three preselected options. He couldn't limit any of the weapons, though, and that was a problem. "You could choose any weapon, and we quickly noticed a few were quite broken at launch."
The Insomnia 32 tournament was a big success, but it highlighted the need for a competitive Modern Warfare mod, something that would allow the administrators and organisers of these events to impose their own, distinct and balancing rules over the top of the base game. Originally, this took the form of a program called PAM, aka the Project Ares Mod, which fiddled with some of the more contentious aspects of COD4 for competitive players. It improved sniper "hitreg" (hit registration), spawn protection, got rid of a lot of weapon sway and ditched hit markers so players couldn't just blast at the walls (a process known as "wallbanging"), fishing for markers with wild abandon.
Mark Pinney, the professional player known as Phantasy, started playing the game at launch, and within a month was playing on PAM instead. "PAM wasn't too far off stock," he says. "I think the only differences that PAM actually created was that it removed all kill streaks and the perks – well, most of the perks. It kept the red dot sight and the game still looked relatively similar to the stock game."
PAM was great, but as a tournament admin, Black was one of the people that came up with the idea for Promod, the modification that became synonymous with competitive Call of Duty 4. "The develop for PAM had gone kind of AWOL," says Black, "so I got talking with another person that used to admin tournaments with me, known by his online handle of Kleineman, about how PAM wasn't doing what it needed to do anymore. We just started writing down ideas, found a coder and started to work on it."
"When Promod came along it basically removed everything. It was just a few guns and essentially a map of walls, that was it." – Mark "Phantasy" Pinney
Black was in contact with a lot of the top teams, and got quite a lot of feedback from them as to what they thought should changed about the balance on the game. Soon enough, Promod was used for many of the tournaments worldwide – there's a good chance that if you ever participated in competitive Call of Duty, you were playing Promod.
"When Promod came along it basically removed everything," says Pinney, "It kind of stripped away all the visual stuff, so the game looked really clean. It didn't have red dots, it didn't have anything – it was just a few guns and essentially a map of walls, that was it."
The Promod era heralded something of a golden period for competitive Call of Duty, as tournaments spread across the world, the game finding a place on the schedule of several renowned events. Promod tournaments proved to be as successful as those for Valve's Counter-Strike Source, with both games attracting similar prize pots – although, naturally, there was a lot of rivalry between the two crowds. The games might have looked different, but where Counter-Strike rewarded careful positioning and clinical kills, Call of Duty was a little more rewarding, letting you charge around twitch-aiming, trying to find and exploit flanking routes on the enemy.
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As Promod became ubiquitous, Pinney was playing Call of Duty at the highest level – with a £5 mouse. "I was only 16," he says, laughing. "I was still living at home with my parents, I was just starting college. I was just used to a mouse that I'd used for years, since getting my first PC from, like, PC World. Then, when we went to Insomnia, everyone else was baffled how I was winning tournaments with this ridiculous mouse. Eventually I switched to a Zowie mouse, but it didn't really change anything for me."
While Pinney was taking on all comers, Lauren Scott, now an ESL commentator, was just getting into the competitive arena. "I started out in an 'all-female' line-up, Good Infused, in 2009," she remembers. "It was horrifically bad, but eventually I left and bounced around a few teams before ending up back at Good Infused, this time as a support SMG (a multifaceted player role, packing a submachine gun)."
"Back then, you'd have more aggressive SMGs, and your more passive ones to support them in all the other angles," Scott continues. "Then you'd have the two rifles, and then the scope. That was your generic line-up at that time. My skill was never in natural aim or in aggression or in anything along those lines. Mine came from sitting there for hours, watching other players' demos, learning their nuances: how do they play, what was their route, how was their timing on their dealing push on strike? All these nerdy ways of doing it, and then you're going on a server, drilling for hours."
"Getting into (shout)casting came off the back of that," says Scott. "That came about when I didn't have time to do all that stuff to stay (competitively) relevant anymore because, you know, 'You have to get a real job and stop being an absolute shit, Lauren' was basically what I got told, constantly. Because an eSports career wasn't viable at the time. It's not like you could go: 'Hey mom, I am earning hundreds of thousands, and look, there are millions of us watching this stream.' No."
Streaming was in its infancy when Modern Warfare launched, and YouTube was still finding its feet, having not long before been bought by Google. As a result, despite the Call of Duty scene being at a new peak, there were just hundreds concurrently watching streamed matches. The occasional frag video – a clip with a bunch of video game murders stitched together to show off player skills – was gobbled up, but there wasn't really a strong platform for professionals to showcase themselves at the time.
"There were so many people that were interested," says Scott. "There was just no platform to show a consistent amount of content. Frag movies would come up every couple of months and people would dive in, because they wanted to see what [players like] Paradox was doing, or what Diablo was doing."
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General competitive play, eSports as we know it today, was equally in a nascent state so far as the mainstream that recognises it now was concerned. Gaming tournaments had been around for a long time – personally, I've fond memories of playing a 56k Counter-Strike 1.5 tournament around the 2000 mark, but there wasn't the content or the fanbases to support the prize pots we see today.
"Back in 2007 and 2008 we were still using IRC to talk to each other," says Black. "You couldn't really watch somebody's game unless it was at a tournament and CoD TV were there, broadcasting. It was a lot harder for everybody to really know how good everyone else was, and to get involved in watching the games."
"The Twitch effect is basically the biggest thing there is," Black continues. "The fact that people can put out so much content gives players a much better platform to constantly have exposure."
"There were so many big personalities on COD4 that never had the platform to be really promoted on," says Scott. "You'd see these guys at an event, or you might see a clip or a demo if you were really keen. These days, everything is a lot more accessible, and that's why eSports is just so much bigger. You can watch players stream on Twitch. You can see what they are up to. They even have their own branded mice these days. Everything is just so much more accessible."
"Activision haven't been particularly supportive of the PC community, flat out, let's be very real about it." – Lauren Scott
Activision itself didn't exactly do right by COD4 in terms of establishing it amongst the eSports mainstays. The company is well known for turning any successful franchise they can get into a yearly iteration until they grind it into the ground – Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was amongst the first, and the corpse of Guitar Hero was still twitching when Modern Warfare made its big splash. But it didn't fit Activision's business model to support a single game, an iteration within a bigger series, for several years in the manner of eSports giants like Valve and Blizzard. For Pinney, this led directly to competitive COD4's "downfall", because "the publishers were releasing more games on PC, and they weren't actually supporting [COD4] at all." Soon, tournaments would only be organised when the community itself made them happen, with players funding the prize pot with their entry fees.
While Modern Warfare was available on PC – and this is the platform on which so many pros developed their prowess – Activision wasn't too supportive of players choosing not to take the console route. A distinct lack of dedicated servers and modding tools alienated those attempting to make do and arrange matches on PC.
"Activision haven't been particularly supportive of the PC community flat out, let's be very real about it," Scott says. "There is a very big disparity between the console and the PC player base. The console scene does have a competitive community, in which Activision is very much involved. They have these grand finals. There's prize money there."
Despite small clusters of players using Promod in India, Croatia and a handful of other countries, most of the scene has now disappeared, focussing on the newer games like Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and various MOBAs.
There's a sense, talking to the various gaming professionals that started out in and around Call of Duty 4, that their scene came along a little too early – that the talented players and support staff that poured their life into making Modern Warfare a competitive success missed the eSports boat ever so slightly. Not that it hasn't had a knock-on effect, as Scott, Black and Pinney now have careers in gaming: the first two at ESL, and Phantasy as a professional Overwatch player who recently represented England at the game's own World Cup.
But what of the new Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Remastered? There was initially hope that the revised version of the old classic might bring about a Promod resurgence, but this tweet from (Remastered developers) Raven Software's David Pellas would appear to confirm there's no mod support coming at launch – which essentially kills the chance of a Promod comeback.
For Black, it's profoundly disappointing: "Basically, this ends the dream for the PC competitive community for the game, of having any kind of relevance in the eSports scene." Activision is promising dedicated servers for Remastered, but the old pros that honed their skills on the original game, on PC, are unlikely to be visiting them with anything more than personal pride at stake.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Remastered is available as part of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's "Legacy", "Legacy Pro" and "Digital Deluxe" editions, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and not separately. Because that's how video games work in 2016. Anyone who pre-ordered one of these editions on PS4 gets to play Remastered a month ahead of IW's November release, on October the 5th. Again, Because Video Games.