You might not think that there’s much common ground between professional football players and youngsters that make a living playing Call of Duty. But in a year where winning the World Series of Call of Duty battle royale Warzone could make you £220,000 richer, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to more mainstream sports.
Content creators from the world of video games are becoming household names. Professional athletes themselves spend their time watching streamers play games – and some (like England cricket legend Ben Stokes) have even set up their own companies in an effort to muscle in on the booming esports industry. At the forefront of Britain’s push into this brave new world of online competition is Liam ‘Jukeyz’ James.
James, now 24, began his illustrious career by streaming quick and dirty £3.50 wager ($5 USD) games to a smattering of Twitch followers. Within a year, the young Scouse lad was entertaining over 130,000 viewers, winning tournaments and dominating more established players. He’d go on to be only the second video games athlete signed by Red Bull UK, appearing on the same personnel roster as local hero Trent Alexander-Arnold.
From an enthusiast that spent his last few quid travelling to London to watch London Royal Ravens play Call of Duty professionally to being an athlete that has won well over £70,000 in competition prizes alone, the last two years have been explosive for the humble Liverpudlian – and he has his eyes set on bigger things in the future. But how does a CoD enthusiast that once worked on an oil refinery in the Netherlands break out of the humdrum and make a career living the dream? It turns out he’s stubborn.
It all began in the little leagues, the gaming equivalent of having a kickabout with your mates: James mooched around public lobbies, played randoms, and started to realise he had some real talent. “Any time I had some free time, I was just playing the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered playlist called Shipment 24/7,” James tells us. “It’s all I’d do. I got really high up on the leaderboards and managed to get to 23rd in the world in terms of score. I wasn’t a bad player, getting the most kills in most games on this map, and I picked up the game quite quickly.”
Very quickly, James would become known for his precision and his ferocity in the arena. Sharp reflexes, an instinct for outgunning players, and unrivalled speed would – very quickly – establish a reputation for the young player. “That’s where my gunning started. You don’t really need a brain to play that mode; you can just run around with a [rifle] and kill everyone, have fun, you know?”
James played Shipment 24/7 in Modern Warfare Remastered for months with one goal in mind: top the leaderboards. Whilst other FPS enthusiasts might see this as simply a goal to work towards whilst winding down after a day of work, for James, it was establishing the base of a career in esports. He started to make a name for himself, and a proper career as a gaming athlete was starting to materialise. Until he got banned.
“My account got suspended,” said James. “I was playing in lobbies where Activision accused us of boosting, so my account was suspended for a while. I managed to get it back – eventually – but I’d lost my momentum and my place on the scoreboard at that point.”
After being “grounded for months and months and months” and feeling despondent about seeing his name plummet down the leaderboards, a chance meeting with another player convinced James to start playing on GameBattles – a cross-platform service where players can set up their own competitions and play for small amounts of money per game (wagers), and where leaderboards are tracked independently of Activision itself. In sporting terms, it’s like a semi-official underground league.
“All the best players were on PlayStation, and I was in the top ten of the Xbox players, but I just never had enough money to put together to get on PlayStation and join that side of things,” James explains. That didn’t stop him and two Welsh teammates from winning 60 games in a row, though, as they hunted down the elusive GameBattles 100-0 clean sheet. “And if I hadn’t gotten banned, I wouldn’t have gotten into this as quickly,” he continues. “It opened up a new grind for me.”
James, back then, just wanted to be the best on Xbox. That was his raison d’etre, his fuel. But moving from public playlists to these more serious private games came with a huge learning curve. “Suddenly, I had to know my callouts, and they had to be on point. The tactics change, the intensity changes, the rules change, and you have to learn really quickly if you want to be the best.
“It’s like going from playing in a Sunday League, to playing semi-pro, to playing professionally. That’s essentially what I’ve done, right? There’s a big community for Call of Duty, and you have to start from the bottom, and if you’re not known, it’s hard to get known. You have to grind, you have to get to face the best players, then you have to beat the best players, and suddenly people start recognising you. If you play well against people that are already established, you get known. It’s exactly like football.”
But it wouldn’t be until Warzone launched, in March 2020, that James’s career would really kick-off. In February 2020, he was playing for £3.50 ($5 USD), £7 ($10 USD), and £14 ($20 USD) wagers – making money back in dribs and drabs – and by May 2020, he’d won a tournament worth £18,000. Months of playing older Call of Duty games had galvanized James’ spirit, and Warzone had come along to seal his fate. He was going pro. And it was another Red Bull athlete that would pave the way for James’s success.
“Trent Alexander-Arnold was watching me a lot,” he tells us. “And my manager [TomO] sent him a Whisper on Twitch, and it went from there!” Trent Alexander-Arnold himself is a Red Bull athlete, and James’ latent talent – alongside a recommendation from one of the biggest names in the Red Bull UK roster – got the Liverpudlian esports star through the door.
It takes more than just talent to get a sponsorship like that, though, and James’ burgeoning Twitch follower count and his natural Scouse charm seemed to do the trick for Red Bull. “Everyone says I’ve got a personality and stuff, but I don’t see that,” he laughs. “I don’t know, at least I’m not boring!”
A cursory glance at one of James’ almost-daily Twitch streams or his Twitter account will prove that this rising esports star has a solid head on his shoulders – that he’s a down-to-earth player with good morals, good chat and a good skill set. Vocally anti-racist, occasionally outspoken, and always ready with a quip, it’s no surprise to see non-gamers warm to him as much as the Call of Duty hardcore. “I’m all about the competitive side of things, you know? People are gassed about my viewership and my content and my numbers, but I could be doing this for 10 people or 100 people and I’d still have the same passion for the game.
“My mates still can’t get their head around it, though,” he tells us. “When I was growing up playing Call of Duty, and we’d all go out to watch a Liverpool match with some pints or something, at some point I’d be like ‘OK, I’m off’, and they’d be like ‘stay out for a bit!’ But I’d always have a tournament or something, and they’d say ‘when you gonna grow up and get a job’ or something like that.
“Now though, it’s all changed. Two of my mates are both working in Hull at the moment, and they went out to watch the England game and mentioned that they know me, and all these people started going mad because they’d been watching me play and knew my name and everything. It’s so weird. Even if I’m out in a pub, people who work there ask for pictures of me and stuff. I keep asking myself, ‘how has this happened?’” says James, laughing.
James tells us that he’d idolized Alexander-Arnold for years – ever since he made the first team for Liverpool – and to be grouped under the same umbrella as the 22-year-old right back is humbling. “Me, my mates, everyone thinks it’s crazy that I’m on his level, in a way, with the sport that I do.”
But for professional football players, getting into one of the big Premier League teams is one step – and getting into the National team is another altogether. After working his way up from the virtual versions of the Sunday kickabouts, James aims for something similar… and sadly, being stuck in England (even Europe!) is a stumbling block in his career.
“There’s nothing good about me being here,” he explains. “There are no positives or advantages to me being in Europe. Playing on different servers, playing in different timezones, it’s bad for my image. The best US players will be on at midday, their time, or 2pm or 3pm, and then it gets late here. I know, deep down, that I’m a very good player, and if I was on the same servers as some of the US players, and in the same timezone, I’d be up there with [the international players], and I’d be even higher on the leaderboards.
“It takes a lot of knowledge for people to know that, though. If you’re a new viewer and you’re watching me, and you don’t know about timezones, about what lobbies are sweaty, and you see me get smoked the first time you login… you’re going to click over to a US streamer who’s doing better, right? Suddenly, you’re watching Biffle – and he’s smoking kids left, right and centre! You’d think, ‘well, he’s 50x better than Jukeyz’ and you’d stick with him.”
For James, being stuck in England – competing in a scene that is largely dominated by US talent – is ‘the biggest L’ he could take in his career right now. “It’s demoralizing,” he says, glumly. “All I need, right now – my goal – is to be over in America, competing properly. I can’t believe I’m still looked at as one of the best whilst I’m still over here, in Europe.”
Some sick Call of Duty was watched last night can’t wait to get in the European World Series. 3/4 August. 😈
— Li (@Jukeyz) June 24, 2021
There is one upside to James’ predicament, though: it means he qualifies to be in the European portion of the Call of Duty Warzone World Series. “And I have a good chance of winning that,” he tells us. “But I’d give that up to be in the US World Series and playing against the best players in the world, instead.”
It’s another example of that charming stubbornness shining through; for James, pitting himself against the best players is more important than sticking with what he knows. His goal is always set higher – he’s never satisfied with being the best in one place and staying there. There’s always something else to achieve, and now he’s dominated European leaderboards, attracted massive sponsorships and made a name for himself as one of the most important UK esports players out there, it’s time to move on again. This time, it’s just the Atlantic ocean in the way.
“If I win the EU World Series, that’s £36,000 ($50,000 USD)… so I guess it’s worth staying over here for a bit. But I want to get out there and represent the Liverpool kids, represent the UK, you know? I want to be the world champion, the best in the world at Warzone. I want to be that guy, y’know?”
James will be taking part in the Call of Duty World Series (EU) in early August. It could very well be the last major tournament he participates in as a native UK player, and he wants to go out with a bang. Liam ‘Jukeyz’ James has risen through the minor leagues, the major leagues and the professional circuit – and now it’s time to go international.
Liam “Jukeyz” James will be streaming on Twitch until the Call of Duty World Series. You can see his schedule here.