League Play in Black Ops 4 is flawed, but I’m still enjoying it

The far-too-long-awaited competitive aspect of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, League Play, is now available on all platforms, and it seems to be getting a relatively mixed reaction from players. Despite its obvious flaws, I’m still enjoying my time with League Play.

Before I get into my feelings on the mode, let me explain how the mode works to those of you who are unaware. League Play in Black Ops 4 uses the official ruleset used by the Call of Duty World League (CWL), which essentially means that players are competing using the same sets of rules used by the pros. Because of this, the only game modes used in League Play are Control, Hardpoint, and Search & Destroy, and certain Specialist’s are completely prohibited from use too, namely Nomad, Torque, Ajax, and Outrider. Of the Specialist’s that are available, a number of them have their Specialist Equipment restricted, such as Seraph’s Tac-Deploy and Firebreak’s Reactor Core.

Similarly, weapons are also restricted, with LMG’s and Shotguns in particular being kicked to the curb, and a shed-load of attachments and perks are restricted from use too. To differentiate things even further from your standard multiplayer match, the vast majority of Scorestreaks are also restricted, with UAV, Care Package, Counter-UAV, Sentry, Mantis, Dart, RC-XD, Drone Squad, Sniper’s Nest, and Strike Team all being removed from play, leaving only Lightning Strike, Hellstorm, Thresher, Attack Chopper, and Gunship available for use. Of those five that are still available, Lightning Strike is the lowest costing at 850 (or 600 if you’re using Cosmec Device).

The result of these restrictions to numerous powerful weapons, attachments, perks, specialists, and scorestreaks is that matches feel a lot less…well…annoying. A lot of the overpowered stuff that leaves you screaming at your TV or wanting to throw your controller at the wall when you’re killed by it is removed, reducing the game to a more tactical, more shooting-based affair. It feels like a much more enjoyable game to play, and it has left me longing for the days when scorestreaks didn’t play such a huge role in Call of Duty. As I’ve said, some scorestreaks are available, but they are relatively high-costing, and the competitive nature of the matches makes them much rarer, and the fact that Zero is still available as a playable Specialist means that you can counter them. Where scorestreaks are earned, the timing of when you use them ends up being surprisingly tactical – using them at the right moment in a tight match can swing the game in your favour, and the same can be said for Specialist Equipment.

Speaking of the competitive nature of the matches, that’s another simple thing about League Play that makes it more enjoyable to play than standard multiplayer – people actually want to win. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s undeniable that in standard multiplayer the vast majority of people only play for kills, with their kill/death ratio taking priority over capturing objectives and winning the match. It’s something I’ve found very frustrating in Call of Duty for a long time, but League Play is a place where people actually want to win to advance their ranking, so players place a much stronger emphasis on capturing the objective and winning the match over their stats.

Sadly, the ranking system is where the flaws start to creep in. When you first start League Play, you’ll play five placement matches that put you in a Division of up to 50 players around your skill level. As you win games, you will earn Ladder Points that progress you further up this Division Ladder, but you’ll also lose points if you lose games and therefore drop down the Ladder. Your aim is to finish as high up the Division Ladder as you can by the end of each Event, which usually last for 2-3 days. Your final position in your Division Ladder will earn you a set number of Gems which are required to advance your rank, which starts at Rank 1 (obviously). If you finish in the top 25 of a League Play Event you earn 2 Gems, if you finish in the Top 10 you’ll earn 3 Gems, and winning a League Play Event will earn you 4 Gems. It’s kind of like earning stars to advance your rank in Hearthstone, except instead of earning stars for each win, you’re earning a set number of Gems depending on your performance over a few days.

You also earn a Permant Rank which shows how high you’ve placed in any League Play Event, acting as a sort-of public showing of your best performance in League Play:

  • Finish Top 10: Rank permanently upgraded to Silver.
  • Finish 1st Place: Rank permanently upgraded to Gold.
  • Finish 1st Place in 7 League Play Events: Rank permanently upgraded to Diamond.

You’re also given a Victory Flame for winning a League Play Event that appears during the next League Play Event, essentially just showing off that you’ve won your previous event. Winning two consecutive events will earn you a different emblem to show your achievement, and winning a third rewards its own emblem too:

It’s a bit convoluted, but once you get your head around it it all makes sense, and it seems like a system that could work. However, the Ladder system is flawed for one main reason – it rewards play time over skill. You gain more points for a win than you lose for a loss, and putting together a streak of wins gains you bonus points; this, combined with the fact that you have to be as high as possible at the end of the event means that you need to keep playing to have any chance of climbing ranks, so those that commit a lot of hours into League Play are likely to climb higher than those that just don’t have the time, purely because they’re playing more matches. Last night was the start of a new event and I had a pretty decent run, winning six out of the seven matches that I had time to play. That streak lifted me to first place in the Division Ladder before I had to call it a night and go to bed – on booting my Xbox up today to check out the Division Ladder, I was (just about) sitting in second place just 12 hours later, not because I started losing games, but purely because I had to sleep. A few hours of play later and a semi-decent run of around 7 wins and 4 losses and I’m back at the top of the Ladder, all while the player who was above me is clearly offline as his score hasn’t fluctuated. I have no doubt that if the player who I have now relegated to second puts in some time while I’m offline he’ll jump back above me.

It’s a system that just doesn’t seem right for a competitive setting. Take the ranking system of Overwatch for example, which allows you to increase your SR and climb ranks regardless of other players play time as long as you’re playing five matches of competitive play per week; that just seems like a much better way to implement a competitive mode that is enjoyable and can have a sense of progress for all players, regardless of how much time they have free to commit to it.  Black Ops 4’s ranking system currently rewards those who pour in the most time, as you’ll have to be consistently playing the game to have any chance of staying competitive and finishing high in your Division Ladder.

The other main flaw that League Play has is with people quitting games. Quite often now I’ve been in games where my team is winning relatively comfortably and players on the other team start to leave. There is currently no punishment for leaving a game of League Play, you just lose the standard amount of points for a loss, so if you’re already losing and the outcome looks inevitable then there is absolutely no discouragement to do so. It ruins the fun for those on the losing team who stick around to try and turn things around, turning a difficult match into an almost impossible one, and for those on the team that is winning, as the match becomes mind-numbingly easy and more time consuming. There needs to be harsher punishments for players that quit part way through a game, with a harsher points penalty (and maybe a temporary ban from League Play) being the obvious solutions. There should also be a way to join back, just in case you get disconnected from a game through no fault of your own.

The limit to game modes is also slightly annoying. I’m not a fan of Search & Destroy, and although I am getting used to it and accepting it as part of League Play I would much rather have the inclusion of another faster-paced game mode. I think including Domination in the game mode rotation would have dramatically improved things, as a game mode rotation of Hardpoint, Domination, Control, and Search & Destroy just seems a lot more varied and offers something for everybody, with a good mix of faster-paced game modes and slower ones. I get that Treyarch want to use the CWL ruleset, but let’s be honest, the vast majority of us that are sitting at home playing our consoles aren’t pro gamers, so the odd tweak to the ruleset is perfectly acceptable.

It’s early days (or late days, depending on your perspective) for League Play, so Treyarch does have time to tweak the system and improve things, but whether they will remains to be seen. Although the ranking system is flawed and the limited game modes aren’t perfect, the core gameplay experience of League Play has been very enjoyable and a bit of a breath of fresh air for me, as it’s stripped back a lot of the over-the-top overpowered nonsense and brought Call of Duty back to being a fluid, polished, competitive, team-based shooter.

What do you think of League Play so far? Let me know in the comments below.

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