I have always believed that I am the kind of person who doesn't like sports. I don't like playing them, and I don't like watching them. Despite growing up in a sports-friendly household, I don't think I have ever watched a complete game of professional basketball. I enjoy the over-the-top production values of the Super Bowl, but not football itself. I appreciate baseball as an exercise in the generation of discrete statistical outcomes, but I can't bring myself to feel any passion about the game. All I know about hockey is that there's something called the icing rule, which sounds delicious.
Only about 7 percent of American adults don't watch sports at all. That means that non-sports-watchers are, by some counts, even rarer than libertarians. What I'm trying to say is, I'm fun at parties.
But over the past several years, I have come to realize that there is, in fact, a sport I like. That sport is murdering people in Call of Duty, a video game about virtually shooting the avatars of other players, ideally in the face. Which is strange, because in addition to not liking sports, I also don't like violence.
And yet I have played Call of Duty most years since 2009. There's a new release annually, usually in the fall, each of which updates the game's rules and play. This year's installment, Black Ops IV, arrived last week, and I have already put about 20 hours in. To non-gamers, that may seem like a lot, but it's not unusual to encounter players who play for 40 or 50 hours a week, sometimes more, especially just after release. As with many traditional sports, excelling at the game requires a serious commitment. You have to put in the time to unlock abilities, build up your character, and hone your skills.
Strictly speaking, Call of Duty is not a sport, but an esport, the catchall term for competitive online video games. One of the odd things about esports is that they are still frequently lumped into the undifferentiated mega-category of "video games," and thus segregated from traditional sports coverage. The working assumption seems to be that Call of Duty and other competitive online games have more in common with, say, The Witcher 3 or Super Mario Bros. or Tetris than with professional football, because they are all played on computers or consoles with keyboards or controllers.
This assumption is understandable given the ways in which the Call of Duty games have historically combined competitive online play with narrative-driven, single-player experiences. But this way of categorizing the game (and competitors like Battlefield) has become less useful over time as the focus of the game has drifted from the story to online play.
That is especially true of Black Ops IV, which has dropped the single-player campaign entirely. In previous years, you could choose to play online, against other players, or you could play a solo "campaign," in which you progress through a series of shooting galleries interspersed with cutscenes that tell a story. Inevitably, you would be cast as some sort of soldier (possibly several of them) fighting some sort cruel and well-armed enemy in the past or the present or the future. Some of the story bits were well written and acted, relatively speaking, and in one of the early games, a character you played died—not because of how you played the game, but because that was how the story went. Generally, though, the story was beside the point. It's hard to imagine large numbers of people watching the cutscenes by themselves, like a TV show. The stories were only there to contextualize the shooting galleries, to give meaning to your pretend killing.
This year, the game has no solo campaign at all. It has been replaced with a new competitive mode, Blackout, that borrows heavily from Battle Royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite. The Battle Royale genre draws its name from a 2000 Japanese film of the same name, which is set in a world where a group of schoolchildren are dropped on an island and forced to kill each other until there's only one left. The point of the movie is that this is horrific. The point of the games is that this is fun. (Another secondary mode—the popular online co-op shooter Zombies, in which you, yes, shoot zombies—also returns.)
Although the game designers have included a number of references to series lore, there is no longer any story to speak of. The focus is exclusively on online play. Indeed, today's Call of Duty exhibits many of the characteristics of a major popular sport:
- The play is seasonal, kicking off with the fall release of the new installment.
- There is a split between professional and amatuer play, with a handful of world class players earning large paychecks while most players engage in the equivalent of pickup games.
- There's a consistent field of play: Although each year brings a host of new maps — the playing space on which the game takes place — those maps are quite regular in structure, with three primary "lanes" and various connecting passageways, including some upper and lower routes. If you understand the layout scheme of one map, it's fairly easy to transfer that knowledge to any other map.
- The game requires a mix of technical skills, fast reflexes, tactical understanding, and knowledge of particular rules: You can do pretty well in Call of Duty by learning to twitch your target reticule faster than other players; like a lot of sports, it's a game of reflexes and spacial awareness. But you'll play even better if you understand how the different weapons and attachments work in various situations, and what sort of advantages and disadvantages they provide. It's also a game of strategy that rewards quick thinking and coordination. A smart player or team can often outwit more technically adept opponents.
One difference between Call of Duty and professional sports is that Call of Duty's gameplay is built around killing. You shoot people, preferably in the head (it kills them faster). You can also kill them with various grenades, explosives, aerial bombardments, electrical shocks, razor wire, and, on occasion, your fists. But mostly you shoot them with guns.
I would say that shooting is to Call of Duty what blocking and tackling is to football, but that's not quite right, because shooting people not only stops them from controlling objectives, it also gives you points. Although many of the game modes are constructed around capturing and controlling "physical" objectives on the map, you do this by shooting people, and by positioning yourself to be able to shoot people. It is a fast-paced, highly precise game of virtual movement. And (virtual) murder.
Frankly, it's a lot of fun.
Which even I find a bit odd, because, as I said, I don't like violence. I am dispositionally anti-war and anti-physical conflict in life. I have a difficult time with even mild real-world gore, even in the clinical confines of medicine. I have shot real guns on occasion, but I am not what anyone would describe as a firearms enthusiast.
So you may be wondering, how does someone who does not particularly like violence, or guns, or sports end up a fan of a (e)sport that is entirely about shooting guns and killing people? As I have been playing this last week, I have found myself wondering the same thing.
To start with, even with so much killing, it's not a particularly gory game, and the violence is held at enough of a remove that it feels very much like a cartoon. The guns behave in vaguely gun-like ways, with recoil patterns and reduced damage over distance, but they also feel weightless enough that they come across more like toys. The game no longer gives players the equivalent of jetpacks (or rocket boots or power armor or whatever sci-fi nonsense was used in several installments to justify letting players jump over buildings and run on walls), which for several years made matches feel like competitions between gun-toting superheroes. Even still, you move in ways that don't feel particularly realistic, sliding effortlessly behind cover, hopping over walls with the sort of ease one normally associates with, say, stirring coffee. All of this reinforces that this war simulator is, first and foremost, just a game, with game rules rather than real-world consequences.
This is not always the case with competitive shooters. Battlefield 1, an online shooter set during World War I, for example, was in some ways a superior tactical experience, with more complex gunplay and truly stunning environments. But the graphical fidelity gave it a discomfiting sense of realism that put it on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. It was too real.
The trick with a war game is that it shouldn't feel too much like actual war, because actual war—the kind where people really kill each other, because some government told them to—is utterly horrifying. Call of Duty's single-player experiences have occasionally veered a little too close to that horror, but the multiplayer game offers just enough distance from the real thing.
The main appeal of Call of Duty, though, is that it is pleasantly overwhelming. In surround sound, on a big screen, it's a loud and immersive experience that, for a moment, takes over or shuts down all the parts of my brain that might be tempted to think (or worry) about anything else. The game is designed in a way that, like all great sports, offers an exquisite balance of action and tension, thought and instinct. The more conventional modes are fast-paced free-for-alls, while Blackout is a slower-paced experience that builds more and more suspense the longer it goes. It is a game that enforces physical and mental focus, even while bombarding you with jittery distractions. You might check your email or Twitter between rounds, but when you're playing the game, you're not doing anything else. It's yet another way in which the game resembles a sport; it takes over your time.
This, however, raises another question: Is it good for so many people to spend so much time playing a sport that revolves around simulated murder? As far as I can tell, the answer is yes.
Although games like Call of Duty are not substitutes for physical activity, they do appear to provide release valves for violent impulses, particularly for the sort of young men who are most likely to play these games. Causation is difficult to prove, but violent crime has dropped more or less steadily since the early 1990s, almost exactly when violent video games first began to appear. Some research has found declines in violent crime corresponding with the release of popular violent games. No credible research has established a link between video games and criminal violence; if anything, the research suggests the link might go the other way.
The weekend after Black Ops IV was released, New York City had no shootings for the first time in at least 25 years. I am not saying these things are related. But it's hard to avoid noticing that they are happening at the same time.
One of the reasons I have often given for my lack of interest in sports is that they serve as a stand-in for nationalistic martial conflict. This is particularly true of football. I suspect that, for some, Call of Duty may perform a similar function, but on a more individual basis, channeling aggression rather than amplifying it, transferring certain impulses into something that is, if not necessarily socially beneficial, then at least not terribly destructive.
Even that may undersell the game's virtues: The game is fun—and though it is often overlooked, the reliable provision of fun is, itself, a social benefit. Call of Duty offers an accessible, inexpensive way for millions of people around the world to harmlessly enjoy themselves, often in the company (if not physical presence) of friends. It provides a friendly, engaging, social, and ultimately harmless competitive challenge.
Indeed, for all the ways the game resembles a conventional sport, the physical harmlessness is a notable difference. This may help explain why someone with a strong aversion to real-world violence enjoys it. Yes, the game involves guns and violence, but what's important is that it's only simulated: Unlike football, no one playing Call of Duty gets hurt.