Activision launches a Call of Duty e-sports league

Luke Graham, special to CNBC

Video game publisher Activision is creating a worldwide e-sports league for "Call of Duty," the popular first-person shooter, with a prize pot of $3 million.

The new league will begin in January 2016, a few months after the latest game in the franchise, "Call of Duty: Black Ops III", is released to fans.

Fans wait to play Call of Duty Black Ops III at the E3 conference in June
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

E-sports is fast becoming a money-spinning pastime: It generated $194 million revenue in 2014 through advertising, merchandise and media rights, according to games market research firm Newzoo. The sector is expected to keep growing and Newzoo predicts it will be worth $765 million by 2018.

"Three years ago, we held the first Call of Duty Championship to showcase the dedication and skill of 'Call of Duty' players around the world," said Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing in a press release.

"Since then, e-sports have become a global phenomenon with more than 120 million people watching online competitive gaming each year and 'Call of Duty' continues to lead as the top console e-sports franchise in the world."

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The league will consist of two divisions: a Pro division for seasoned e-sports teams, and a Challenge division allowing amateurs and aspiring teams the chance to compete. A series of regional competitions will be held, leading to the Call of Duty Championship in Autumn 2016.

Expanding into e-sports will also help to revive the 12-year-old game franchise.

"'Call of Duty' has been a persistent, high-level presence in gaming for well over a decade, and such a matured offering is at risk of stagnation," Steve Bailey, senior games analyst for IHS Technology, told CNBC via email. "Investing in a formal league structure allows 'Call of Duty' to maintain relevance in a fast-shifting landscape that also helps diversify its business."

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However, the new league will face competition from other popular e-sports franchises such as "Counter-Strike", "League of Legends" and "DOTA".

"'Call of Duty's' biggest competition will come from other team-based shooters, especially 'Counter-Strike'. Even then, you could argue that 'Call of Duty' and 'Counter-Strike' target somewhat different audiences, so I think the risk of cannibalisation is yet some way off," said Bailey.

"One factor in favor of first-person shooters is that skillful play is easier to perceive, for the average person, compared to the complex systems that make up games like 'League of Legends.'"

Activision's new league is another indication that e-sports have become mainstream entertainment.

"ESPN is now a supporter of eSports, Turner has just formed its own leagues and is about to start broadcasting on TBS, and so on; eSports has its own superstar players and teams, doping scandals, sponsorship controversies, and tournament prize pots that rival many of the world's biggest sports," said Bailey. "Activision's new 'Call Of Duty' league will certainly add yet more validation to that pile."

Follow Luke on Twitter: @LukeWGraham