Esports

Why are pro athletes obsessed with ‘Call of Duty’? — we asked them

Karl-Anthony Towns, Golden Tate, Alejandro Villanueva and others explain why ‘there’s a soldier’ in all of them

Before stepping onto the line of scrimmage as a starting offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Alejandro Villanueva was on the front lines as a member of the U.S. Army. During his first tour in Afghanistan as a second lieutenant rifle platoon leader, he earned a Bronze Star Medal for Valor after moving forward, under enemy fire, to pull wounded fellow soldiers from an isolated position.

On his next two tours, Villanueva served in the Army’s premier direct-action raid force, known as the 75th Ranger Regiment, and in 2014 he was promoted to captain. When Villanueva and his fellow Rangers weren’t conducting complex special operations, their escape from combat wasn’t really an escape at all. In the lulls of deployment, they fired up a game console and played Call of Duty.

“Some like to work out,” said Villanueva, who was commissioned in 2010 after graduating from West Point and going undrafted by the NFL. “Some say, ‘I’m going to read all these books.’ The majority say, ‘I’m going to go to Afghanistan and have a good time whenever I can have a good time.’ Playing video games played a huge role in that — and Call of Duty obviously is king.”

Once his unit landed, after real-life operations, which consisted of “actually doing Call of Duty things with the same weapons they use in the video game,” the debriefing process would begin, as Villanueva and his fellow soldiers awaited their commander to mark a mission complete. Then they’d sprint into their hut and enter the world of virtual warfare. “It’s funny we were playing Call of Duty, because it was the same thing we’d done five minutes ago in real life.”

The goal of the game is simple: kill or be killed. This while executing objectives in a single-player campaign or the more addictive multiplayer modes such as Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, and Capture the Flag. Diehard fans have made Call of Duty a worldwide phenomenon, with over 250 million copies of the game sold, equaling more than $15 billion in revenue for Activision since 2003, when the epic warfare franchise was created.

Nowadays, the first-person shooter game is still a getaway for Villanueva. And with the release of Call of Duty: World War II, the fourteenth and latest installment in the game’s main series, Villanueva and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell are immortalized in the game. Their characters are part of a new off-the-front-lines gaming mode called Headquarters.

Alejandro Villanueva in Call of Duty: WWII

The two Pittsburgh teammates aren’t the first professional athletes to make appearances as avatars in Call of Duty. They also aren’t the only athletes to put on for the top-selling console franchise in seven of the past eight years. Some of Call of Duty’s biggest fans come from the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. Through Call of Duty, Activision has engaged with hundreds of athletes in different capacities, ranging from studio tours to appearances in ad campaigns to being in the actual game. Why so much authentic cross-pollination? The connection between athleticism and warfare is undeniable.

Call of Duty is visceral … fast-paced … competitive … gets your adrenaline pumping. It’s a game that requires teamwork, communication, skill, engagement and attention,” said Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg. “Those are all words that could be used to describe playing sports.” In the opening weekend of its release, the new game raked in $500 million in sales, while yielding the franchise’s highest total of connected users on current-generation consoles and PC. On PlayStation 4 alone, no game has ever produced more digital sales on the first day of availability than Call of Duty: World War II. Before it dropped, we caught up with nine athletes — longtime superfans and unofficial ambassadors — who talked about the Call of Duty culture in pro sports. On the eve of the game’s Nov. 3 debut, LeBron James took to InstaStories with a photo of him on PlayStation, under which he wrote, “Call of Duty WWII!! Thank you Eric H for the gift!” Apparently there’s a soldier in the best hooper in the world.

THE GAMER IN THE ATHLETE

When did you first start playing Call of Duty, and what attracted you to the game?

Justin Bour, first baseman, Miami Marlins: I’ve always been a big gamer. From coming up playing Super Nintendo, N64, Xbox, PlayStation. I hopped on Call of Duty early and always liked it.

Karl-Anthony Towns, center, Minnesota Timberwolves: I had some moments when I played the first one, but don’t have fond memories of it because I was young and trying to get used to the game. Call of Duty 3 is when I became an avid player.

Karl-Anthony Towns plays “Call of Duty: WWII” beta on August 27, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jules Ameel/Getty Images for Activision

Eric Ebron, tight end, Detroit Lions: My freshman year of high school. It piqued my interest. The game forces you to be aware at all costs, meaning you can’t come half-stepping. You need full attention, and alertness, to be good.

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers: As soon as I got to college … Call of Duty became a huge hit. Modern Warfare 2 came out, and that was a huge hit. When I graduated, knowing I was finally able to leave the prison that is West Point, I purchased a game system, purchased Call of Duty and started playing.

Hassan Whiteside, center, Miami Heat: When I got out of college, I finally had enough money to get a PlayStation. I like war games, so I said, ‘Why not CoD?’ Black Ops 3 is when I fell in love with the game.

Golden Tate, wide receiver, Detroit Lions: In college I was at a baseball tournament, hanging with a host family in Texas. … They had kids a couple of years younger than me. I was a Halo guy, but … they introduced me to Call of Duty. It was more realistic than Halo. And I was awful. I couldn’t get any kills, but thought it was so much fun. Once I got back to college, my roommates and I ended up getting the game … When I got into the league is when I became an outright addict.

“I haven’t played Andrew Wiggins yet, but I hear he’s nice. We’ll see.” — Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

What is it about this game that’s so appealing to athletes?

Alejandro Villanueva: In the world of sports, if you call yourself a true competitor, you have to be a good gamer. There’s no way you cannot be good at Call of Duty and call yourself a competitor, because it’s gonna come up.

Christian McCaffrey, running back, Carolina Panthers: You have to individually perform on a team, which is very similar to athletics. They measure who wins as a team, and then they measure individual skills. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into it. A lot of that relates to athletics.

De’Aaron Fox, point guard, Sacramento Kings: It’s something different. A lot of athletes don’t even play sports games. They want to get away from the sport.

Golden Tate: It can be as mindless as you want it to be. After a long day of work, being clocked-in, thinking about plays and situations and preparing for a game, sometimes you just want to come home and do nothing.

Karl-Anthony Towns: Everybody wants to be the action hero, and Call of Duty gives us as athletes the ability to do that.

THE QUEST TO BE THE BEST

In 2010, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant became the first pro athlete to be featured in a live-action Call of Duty commercial, as part of the iconic “There’s A Soldier in All of Us” ad campaign.

And by 2011, Activision hosted a “Pros vs. G.I. Joes” event at the annual Call of Duty XP convention, with NBA stars Kevin Garnett (“I’ve been playing Call of Duty since it came out. … If you’re gonna play a game, this is it.”), Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love (“I just love the worlds that it creates,” he said of 2014’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare) and Chris Bosh (“It’s a fun game to play. … It just always has your attention.”) playing together against military veterans.

In 2015’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III, then-Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who had loved the game since his days at the University of California, Berkeley, became the first athlete to appear as a character in the game. In 2016, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps starred in the live-action trailer for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, in which UFC fighter Conor McGregor and Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton are characters.

In the world of sports … you have to be a good gamer. There’s no way you cannot be good at Call of Duty and call yourself a competitor.” — Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers

Which professional athlete is the best Call of Duty player you’ve ever experienced?

De’Aaron Fox: There are some guys who are hardcore … Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Towns. Those are the three guys I know, for sure, are good at the game.

Golden Tate: Joey Bosa … he’s pretty good. Andre Roberts, punt returner and specialist from the Atlanta Falcons, he was with us last year in Detroit and would come over, literally spend the night at my house … we’d sit and play for hours and hours, to the point where we’d barely even get dinner. … Richard Sherman, when I was in Seattle, I would play with him a lot. Marshawn Lynch. But Eric Ebron is probably the best CoD player I’ve played with consistently.

Christian McCaffrey: I’ve played with Marcus Mariota and DeForest Buckner one time just online. We were just over the mic, and they’re both pretty good.

Justin Bour: Jeff Locke. I sat in his room once and watched him play Zombies for hours … and was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t even play.

Alejandro Villanueva: JuJu [Smith-Schuster]. … He’s so young, but he’s light-years ahead of anybody.

Eric Hirshberg: Karl-Anthony Towns is a great player. I hear Kyrie [Irving] is an amazing player. I hear Andrew Wiggins is an amazing player.

Karl-Anthony Towns: I’m good friends with Michael Phelps, and he’s a heck of a Call of Duty player. He’s definitely on my squad already.

Hassan Whiteside: I haven’t played Wiggins yet, but I hear he’s nice. We’ll see.

“I think, on a lot of levels, baseball and Call of Duty are the same.” — Justin Bour, Miami Marlins

What type of Call of Duty player are you?

Karl-Anthony Towns: I try to be versatile off the court like I am on the court in Call of Duty. I have the ability to camp and snipe and take care of my teammates, but I’m more of a run-and-gunner. I want to be in the action. I’m not looking to have the greatest kill-death ratio; I’m looking to get stuff done.

Golden Tate: I kind of just run all over the map, especially if I have a shotgun, an SMG [submachine gun] or one of the assault rifles.

Christian McCaffrey: I’m aggressive. I like to strike first. I’m a shotgun, assault rifle, close-range player.

Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers plays “Call of Duty: WWII”

Lance King/Getty Images for Activision

Alejandro Villanueva: I am the player that’s going to be selfless, and is going to exploit the enemy, and is going to be the first one to confront. I’m not a patient player. You can picture me running wildly to engage the enemy and hope that I shoot him first and somebody’s right behind me.

Eric Ebron: I’m a hunt-and-kill guy. Never in one spot, always looking for death.

De’Aaron Fox: My speed on the court matches the way I play CoD: just a fast-paced, right-in-your-face type of game. I’m the rusher. I’m the one that grabs the SMG and becomes the crash dummy.

SPORTS BY DAY, CoD BY NIGHT

“All your fingers and your thoughts have to be moving together. Even on the field, you always have to be aware. If you hesitate for a second, you’ll probably get knocked out,” said New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram earlier this year on the Achievement Oriented gaming podcast. He was comparing playing football to playing video games, and particularly Call of Duty. More recently, Timberwolves big man Towns told New York magazine that his development in the game of basketball could be partially attributed to his affinity for Call of Duty.

“The hand-eye coordination needed to play a game like Call of Duty, you need to have that same kind of reaction speed on the court,” Towns said. “Video games have helped me in my life, especially as a basketball player, because my hand-eye coordination is sharper and better due to the fact that I have to recognize so many things in the game and react to it accordingly. Just like in basketball, it’s the same way: I have to recognize whatever the opponent is doing and react accordingly.”

“It’s something different. A lot of athletes don’t even play sports games. They want to get away from the sport.” — De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Has Call of Duty made you a better player? If so, how?

Eric Ebron: Call of Duty helps a lot of people with their alertness, attention to detail and just gut feeling, which are all factors in sports.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers: Video games do help with playing in the NFL … because we’re using our senses … sound, sight and communication. I use all of these on the field.

Golden Tate: It’s so important for us to catch the ball and have quick reflexes, so playing Call of Duty helps on the field, even if we don’t realize it helps. If we’re not playing Call of Duty, or video games, our hands are probably sitting there doing nothing. With us holding the controller, gripping it and trying to shoot before the other guy shoots, or aim before the other guy aims, it definitely helps. I don’t know how much, but it does.

What similarities are there between your sport and Call of Duty?

Justin Bour: You have to have patience, and that’s the same as baseball. … You’re going to have to put in a lot of time if you want to be good, and if you want to have good guns. You’re going to have to deal with some sort of failure, because you’re not going to win every single game. I think, on a lot of levels, baseball and Call of Duty are the same.

Hassan Whiteside: The more you play, the better you get. If I went two months without playing basketball, I wouldn’t be very good. CoD is one of those games that you’ve gotta keep playing.

Golden Tate: You have to communicate just like you’re on the field playing football. Everyone has to be on the same page, or else you’ll die.

Christian McCaffrey: They’re similar in the sense that … you have strategy that you have to commit to … in order to win. It’s you against someone else, but also it’s your team against another team, and that’s a lot like football.

JuJu Smith-Schuster: The excitement you feel when you’re playing in a huge game — every game of Call of Duty I play is like game day.

“I’m not looking to have the greatest kill-death ratio, I’m looking to get stuff done.” — Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

How much time do you get to play Call of Duty during your respective season?

Karl-Anthony Towns: I always seem to have my game console with me everywhere I go, just in case I get some time.

Justin Bour: I have a portable gaming unit with a TV built into the briefcase. So I take that with me on the road pretty often and just plug it in at the hotel and play after games.

Golden Tate: I actually play a ton. Your body’s aching, so you can’t go out. You don’t want to be on your feet. So, for me, it’s how I unwind. … Up until this year, the game would always come out at midnight on Monday. Tuesdays are a league day off, so I’d get to play Monday at 12 all the way till 3 in the morning. I’d go to sleep for a few hours, wake up at 10 or 11 and play literally all day. I just loved it.

CALL OF DUTY: WWII PREGAME

James wasn’t the only athlete to get a sneak peek at Call of Duty: World War II. Two days before its worldwide debut, Ebron also hopped on InstaStories and posted a picture of the game, still wrapped in plastic, with the caption “WHY NOT?” But long before receiving the advances, athlete influencers such as James and Ebron are entrusted by Activision to track Call of Duty’s development process through exclusive studio tours and opportunities to be among the first gamers to beta test the franchise’s latest creation. For athletes, being Call of Duty superfans has its perks.

What was it like beta-testing Call of Duty: World War II?

Justin Bour: It’s an incredible game, especially when you see all the behind-the-scenes stuff … the people who are in charge of doing the guns, and how precise and how detailed all that is. … I had no idea all that went into the making of the game. It feels real, and historically correct. It feels accurate.

De’Aaron Fox: I like that it kind of went back to how it originally was. All that jumping on walls and jetpacking didn’t fit me too much. When you’re shooting at somebody, they shouldn’t be able to jump 10 feet in the air.

Christian McCaffrey: World War II … I think it’s my favorite because it’s back to the old boots-on-the-ground game play, but upgraded. The maps are great, the guns are great, and there’s a War Mode on it that’s … very objective-based, where the Allied forces and Nazi forces square off against each other. Probably the funnest multiplayer I’ve ever played.

Alejandro Villanueva: It’s very much about … working with your teammates, and the areas of engagement are very clearly defined. Once the video game comes available to all the Steelers, no doubt we’re going to try to find out who the best player is. A lot of people claim to be the best. JuJu obviously makes a great case. Le’Veon claims to be the best one. … I think it’s going to be a matter of how many times do I have to play to prove I’m the best in the locker room.

Aaron Dodson is an assistant editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson of the Arizona Cardinals, he is one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.