If you’re like me, then Twitter just loves showing you the same article four or five times over the course of a couple of days. Coupled with big firms like Forbes and Bloomberg regularly reposting the same piece on multiple occasions, stories can get imprinted on your mind and retina like in Clockwork Orange.
One such type of article goes something like “If Sony/Microsoft can remove Cyberpunk from their shops, they can remove Call of Duty”, and basically acts as an attempt to argue that the two largest makers of consoles should consider getting rid of Activision products as a reaction to the scandals swirling around that company. Their logic, as you can probably tell, is that other games have been taken down, so the same can happen to Call of Duty (CoD), but that somewhat ignores the stunning reality of CoD’s popularity.
Just how popular is Call of Duty
When it comes to pure sales, Call of Duty is a rare phenomenon in the video game industry. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling FPS game of all time, the CoD series has shifted more than 300M copies since its inception, making billions of dollars every year, and bringing millions of users to the platform of their choosing, which until very recently was either a Playstation or an XBox.
In 2021, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War is listed as the best-selling game across all platforms, beating the likes of Resident Evil, Super Mario, and Assassin’s Creed, with around 15M units sold. Now, BO:CW is by no means among the more beloved CoD titles and sits roughly 15th in the list of all-time best-selling titles in the series. To put things in perspective, its sales amount to about half of what Modern Warfare 3 or Black Ops 2 managed.
Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, sold around 15M copies, with more than half of those on PC. It’s a standalone game, with no massive sequel planned anytime soon. CD Projekt Red’s previous success came with the Witcher series, which again is probably not going to spawn a long line of titles in the way CoD did.
As you can see from even this surface-level comparison, Cyberpunk 2077 sold about as well as the 15th most popular CoD title, and its console sales amount to approximately 45% of the total sales on Xbox and Playstation combined. With that in mind, it seems a little disingenuous to claim the impact of removing CoD from the Xbox or Playstation store is in any way analogous to that of taking down Cyberpunk for being unplayably buggy.
Call of Duty is not just any game
Now technically, any one of the companies involved in making consoles could stop selling any game they want, provided there are no legal boundaries. The lawsuit between Apple and Epic earlier this year made headlines for weeks and showed the kind of impact being taken off an app store had on Fortnite. There is no doubt that Activision would be the bigger losers in any battle that ends with any of their games taken down from console stores.
However, if there were ever a third-party title that Microsoft and Sony were counting on for sales and user retention, it is Call of Duty, and that really matters. A game title that brings millions of users back to your console day after day, month after month, is incredibly valuable. Given that companies are increasingly skillful at surfacing other things you can purchase in the user interface, the value of those users goes up even more and that’s before you get to the “extras” that bring in so much revenue.
Somewhere between 10% and 30% of the money made by games like Call of Duty post-sale goes to the companies that own the consoles they are sold for. With 100M monthly active users, and a title that is approaching $30B in revenue since its inception, you can imagine the insane amount of cash Activision are making from microtransactions in-game. The cut that Xbox or Playstation then enjoy will be a considerable one. In 2020 alone, the CoD series made nearly $2B, compared to Cyberpunk's $560M in total revenue since its release — almost four times as much.
So, to cut a long story short, while it is technically true that Xbox or Playstation could remove Call of Duty from their platforms, it would be a monumental decision and one that is not comparable to Cyberpunk or any other title for that matter. CoD is a freakish phenomenon that continues to break records and create new customers for companies that have come to rely on its revenue, and it will take far more than the maelstrom of misogyny and madness that currently envelopes Activision for Microsoft or Sony to feel happy about cutting ties.