In a lonely computer room in the back of his parents’ house in the grim suburb of Marlton, New Jersey, Jordan “JKap” Kaplan is gearing up for another season. At 22, he’s one of the greatest Call of Duty players alive, a veteran champion who’s earned nearly $450,000 across 60 different tournaments. At the moment, he’s reclining in a springy black office chair. He’s tall and lanky, dressed indifferently in an old Nike shirt and black sweatpants. On his wall is a framed, novelty-sized check emblazoned with the Activision logo made out to Denial Esports, the team JKap won the World Championship with in 2015. Kaplan made $100,000 from that tournament – more money than he earned in his previous five years of professional play combined.
This past September, he was in Los Angeles playing in the 2016 World Championship with his new teammates in EnVyUs. They comfortably beat their opponents, Optic Gaming and Splyce, three games to one, and suddenly JKap had become a two-time defending World Champion with a financial adviser and all the momentum in the world. But right now, none of that matters. He’s scrolling through Twitter and keeping an eye on the clock. Infinite Warfare, the 13th Call of Duty game, unlocks at midnight. There’s a wealth of new guns, new maps, and new mechanics to learn, and his first tournament is only a few weeks away.
“The first tournament just comes down to whoever learns the best strategies and the best way to play,” says Kaplan, who sounds perpetually boyish. “The way it’s been traditionally is that a few teams have it down, but then eventually more and more teams pick it up. In Black Ops 3 right now, it pretty much feels like everyone has it down and it just comes down to whoever is better that day.”
Call of Duty esports are cyclical. Activision essentially uses its professional community as advertising, which means every year players have to adapt to a new game. That’s not universally the case: there’s still a competitive scene centered around 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, for instance – Nintendo has released new Smash Bros. titles in the years since, but they’ve never put any money behind tournaments, so players are happy to stick with the old game. That couldn’t be any more different for JKap and Call of Duty.