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The mood on the broadcast was tense.

Toronto was coming off a spicy losers bracket run, during which they won three straight after falling to Atlanta, 3-1. Now they had to play them again in the grand finals and there wouldn’t be a second chance this time.

Four Europeans lingered outside their practice facility in Hogtown after their coaches forced them to go take a break. It felt like the room before the boss in The Legend of Zelda, except there were no health items to help Cameron “Cammy” McKilligan and company recover from a long weekend of Call of Duty.

The Ultra weren’t fazed by the task ahead of them; quite the opposite in fact. They were relaxed, as they’d all been in similar situations in their careers before. They didn’t even discuss strategy in order to keep the mojo that helped them get this far intact. Cammy knew just what to say to get the team pumped up.

“Alright guys,” he said while laughing. “Let’s go get 5-0’d.”

Tobias “CleanX” Juul Jønsson, rookie Jamie “Insight” Craven and Ben “Bance” Bance chuckled as they walked back to their computers. They were ready to take on the Atlanta FaZe — the top dogs in the league — in a best-of-nine grand finals of the Stage 2 Major — a format change introduced by league officials last year.

Taking on Atlanta in a best-of-nine grand finals

“I’m a bit of mixed opinions about it,” CleanX told me. “It depends on what team you are on. If you’re coming from losers you have the upper hand. You just played two games that day while the other team is coming in cold.”

The Ultra had just finished a wild losers bracket run, complete with a double bomb reversal against OpTic Chicago and clean wins over Los Angeles, Minnesota and Dallas. They were coming into the match against FaZe steamier than a Krig 6 unloading across Raid.

The Ultra had some jitters in the opening round of Hardpoint, but they got their groove back with Search and Destroy on Miami. The match went back and forth until Round 6 when Toronto took control of the series.

CleanX from Denmark
CleanX playing at the Stage 4 Major in Arlington. | Provided by Call of Duty League

“Toronto having such momentum coming off such a losers bracket, it helped them going into the grand finals,” Tyler “aBeZy” Pharris, FaZe SMG star, said. “I’m not going to downplay that, though. They played better Call of Duty that day.”

ABeZy knew that they had lost once they entered Round 8, Hardpoint on Checkmate. He thought that Toronto’s teamwork was too much to overcome.

Losers bracket winner has an advantage

The Ultra are the only team to have beaten the FaZe in a grand final this season. That’s an impressive feat, but it’s nothing compared to the fact that Atlanta has played in every single grand final in 2021. They are the final boss of the Call of Duty League. Anyone who has wanted a shot at a trophy needed to go through them during a best-of-nine series.

“Honestly it’s not as draining now that I’ve got used to it,” aBeZy said. The majority of players in the league agree that the format is flawed as it stands now. There is no advantage — and possibly a disadvantage — for plowing through all games in the winners bracket.

“Personally I think the one game advantage would be fine, even a bracket reset would work,” aBeZy said. “A one up advantage would be great.”

aBeZy at the Stage 4 Major
aBeZy and squad have played at every grand final in the 2021 season. | Provided by Call of Duty League

He said that even adding one more game to the Sunday lineup would be a reasonable solution, giving both teams headed to the grand finals a chance to warm up. The best-of-nine is a beast of it’s own. It can be exhausting, even with the five-minute breaks in between every two rounds.

“The best-of-nine was different,” Obaid “Asim” Asim, New York Subliners’ SMG, said after losing to Atlanta in the grand finals of the Stage 3 Major. “It took us off guard, but we definitely think we can hang with [Atlanta].”

Control is the most important

Competitive Call of Duty has featured a best-of-five grand finals set for over a decade, so this change has been a lot to grapple with for veterans like Asim. It was his first time experiencing the format in 2021 when he took on FaZe after a losers bracket run at the Stage 3 Major.

“You don’t get in the same rhythm,” he said. “Nine maps in a row with nothing but little breaks is a lot on your mental.”

New York started off strong with a Hardpoint win but then lost three rounds straight. The James “Eubanks” Clayster-led squad only managed to get one more point during the grand final. They knew they had to take every mode outside Control, and that didn’t happen after Round 1.

Paco "HyDra" Rusiewiez
New York has been trying to bounce back since falling short at the Stage 3 Major. | Provided by Call of Duty League

“Our biggest problem is where there are two rounds of Control in the middle of best-of-nine,” Asim said. “If we don’t improve our Control then we are in trouble. We’re the best Hardpoint team in the game.”

“Control is a huge swing map,” he added in a sentiment echoed by CleanX and aBeZy.

Control is a mode that gives each team 30 lives and tasks one group with defending two points while the other tries to capture them. A team can win by completing the objective or simply killing the other team 30 times within the time limit.

Atlanta has the most Control

Whether a team is up 2-0, down 2-0 or somewhere in the middle, Control sets the pace for the next stage of the best-of-nine. Start off strong against FaZe? Control gives them a chance to use their best mode against you to get back on track. Start off slow against Atlanta? You best hope they’re having an off day at their best mode in the game.

“Our concept of knowing how to play Control, even stemming back to Black Ops 4, is very good,” aBeZy said. “We are the best in the game. It helps us turn some series around.”

Hardpoint is more forgiving than Control, since there is no limitation on respawns. Search and Destroy is broken down into numerous individual rounds, giving players time to strategize again and regroup between each one. Those short five-minute breaks before each round of Control also give teams a chance to regroup.

Control gives the best SMG duo in the game, aBeZy and Chris “Simp” Lehr, the opportunity to prove why they are the best over and over again. ABeZy can come back with a clutch three-piece if he falls to a great play by Asim and Clayster.

Atlanta has a 10 game lead over the Dallas Fuel with their 32-4 record. | Provided by Call of Duty League

“Your mindset going into a game against FaZe is all about teamwork. Everyone shoots straight in the league,” Asim said. “Against teams like FaZe and Toronto the level of teamwork needs to be escalated.”

The pressure and nuances of the best-of-nine format have been amplified by the league’s return to the LAN. The Call of Duty League held the Stage 4 Major at the Esports Arena in Arlington. The Stage 5 Major and CDL Champs will also be played in-person, including fans for the first time in more than a year.

LAN only improved Atlanta’s grand finals record

The only speed bump aBeZy faced to another chip on his mantle was a hungry Dallas Empire that had been going through a roster carousel since losing Cuyler “Huke” Garland in April. The new squad, including former Los Angeles Guerrilla player Reece “Vivid” Drost went on a commanding losers bracket run

Dallas held a 3-2 lead after winning Search and Destroy on Moscow and aBeZy knew that they needed to win the second round of Control if they wanted to keep up.

“We were down and we needed to not mess up the little things,” aBeZy said. “We were still small-talking about getting this dub in Control. We emphasized teamwork and communication. We were down so it hadn’t been good.”

The grand final came down to one Round 11, with both teams tied at four. McArthur “Cellium” Jovel and Alec “Arcitys” Sanderson each had a chance to clutch up 2v1 but failed. Eventually, FaZe pushed an empty bombsite B on Raid, planted the bomb and dug in for Dallas’s counter attack. The Ian “Porter” Crimsix-led squad couldn’t match up.

The losers bracket helped Dallas get a leg up over Atlanta. It wouldn’t last, though. | Provided by Call of Duty League

Being able to see your opponent and get into their heads during a long series made the best-of-nine more exhausting than it normally had been in 2021. That, plus the lack of an advantage for plowing through the winners bracket, gave Dallas a little bit of an advantage.

Only two grand finals left for Atlanta this season

“I feel like the advantage is bigger on LAN,” CleanX said. “You’ve been sitting on the same side of the stage on that chair. Everything feels normal. It feels like home.”

Despite doing everything right, the Empire couldn’t finish the job during the grand finals of the Stage 4 Major. Atlanta FaZe proved that they own the grand final, best-of-nine-format by winning their third of the season. They celebrated with players from all around the league in Arlington after the match.

“It’s equally as exciting to make the grand finals. I get super down on myself if I lose,” aBeZy said. “I expect to make every grand final with how we’ve been playing. It feels amazing every time we make it.”

Atlanta will try to add to their Major trophy collection at the Stage 5 Major from July 22-25 and again at the CDL Champs between August 19-22. Fans can watch both on the Call of Duty League YouTube channel.