RPS Asks: What’s The Best Game Tournament Format?

This is a prototype of one of the earliest MOBAs

I write a lot about esports/professional gaming and, as such, I’ve witnessed a lot of discussion of the years of various tournament formats – their strengths, weaknesses and, obv, what the company should be doing instead according to that particular commenter at that particular moment in time.

So I thought I’d ask you, as people who might watch professional gaming or play in your own tournaments: Which tournament formats do you prefer and why?

I’m asking this today because I was reminded of the subject by discussion of The International 2016‘s format. The International’s format is something of a weird one before you get to the actual matches because the exact qualification requirements for a direct invite to the event are opaque to everyone but Valve. You can make educated guesses about the criteria but there’s a certain lack of transparency about who goes through to the main event from the start so you’re starting from a point where some qualified and some were just invited because reasons.

But, leaving that aside, once the final cut of sixteen teams was set you had a round-robin group stage which sorted them for the main event; a double elimination bracket.

Image taken from the official tournament site

Double elimination generally means you need to lose twice to be out of the tournament. The idea is that everyone starts out in the upper bracket, then drops to the lower bracket if they lose a game/set. If they lose again they’re out of the tournament. The International main event is slightly different in that the group stage already sorted teams into an upper and lower bracket so some of them will only need to lose once to be out of the main event. The majority will need to mess up twice to be out, though. It’s also possible to fight your way through the lower bracket and get into the final even if your group stage performance was a total nightmare.

I know that some people hate this format and others love it so I’m interested in your own preferences, both when watching and playing. For my own viewing experience, I like the drama you get from elimination formats and double elimination is preferable to single elimination. In terms of when I’m competing in something myself I actually rather like Swiss systems. Those are non-elimination-based but not everyone plays everyone else so it’s less of a time sink than a round-robin. I like them because when I’m competing I like that people get more games in, plus I feel like I have a better sense of my relative skill by the end of the event.

OH, and if you’re looking for our primer for The International you’ll find it here!


  1. drewski says:

    Swiss is the best IMO.

    • Secatus says:

      I compete a lot in Swiss-format tournaments and I do agree that it’s the best format I’ve encountered to date. The big drawback though is very definitely tie-breaking.

      • Zankman says:

        Why is tie-breaking the issue?

        • Secatus says:

          The usual first tie-break for Swiss format standings is “Opponent’s Win %” which means competitors can miss out on making a top-cut by virtue of matters over which they have zero control. As a counter to this, some tournaments operate a top cut procedure of x-2 (all competitors with 2 or fewer losses make top-cut).

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            Philippa Warr says:

            In the X-Wing Miniatures tournaments I’ve watched they use margin of victory to deal with tie-breakers in Swiss. If there’s still a tie it goes to strength of schedule, so the player whose opponents had the highest total points because that’s an indicator that their final score was achieved against harder opponents.

          • Zankman says:

            Thanks for the input, but, as you implied, there are some decent ways around it!

            There is no “perfect” format but Swiss seems to be the most optimal.

            But I must ask you: What do you think of a) using Swiss on a smaller scale and B) for the Group (Seeding) Stage of 2-part Tournaments (followed by a Knockout Stage)?

            For example: 16-team Tournament; Stage 1 is Two Groups of 8, played in a 5-round Swiss System.

            Stage 2 is Single Elimination (I’d use all 16 teams here too but 8 is the more common option).

            Listen, I know – Swiss is used for large tournaments with many, many competitors, but, from what I understand of the mechanics and purpose of the format, I don’t see why it wouldn’t function and accomplish the same goals here.

  2. wilynumber13 says:

    For me, nothing beats the open-registration, double-elimination format of fighting game tournaments. You can’t top that moment when a “nobody” suddenly breaks into the scene out of nowhere by beating a “god” in an open bracket.

    • Zankman says:

      Well the TI had open registration, as do most DotA tournaments.

      As do most other non-Riot tournaments.

  3. Zankman says:

    I like to theorycraft tournament formats, too much for my own good, since it just makes me annoyed when I see the sub-optimal formats in actual tournaments.

    Nothing will ever top the most recent SMITE World Championship, ugh…

    Anyway: Yeah, the DotA 2 International (VI) format is THE best one in E-Sports right now.

    Nice, long and thorough Group Stage (aka a Seeding Stage) that takes little time because there are multiple streams for multiple matches going on at once; there could be a crowd, tho, if each set-up was a mini-arena, but, hey, w/e.

    Then it leads into a cool Double Elimination format – my only potential issue would be the first round of the Loser’s Bracket being Bo1, but, hey.

  4. Baines says:

    What issues do people have with Double Elimination, other than a perception that it is “unfair” for giving people a second chance?

    Actually, that *might* be an issue, or at least border on an issue. It is fine when the two teams in the final never faced each other. The problem is when the finals consist of two teams that had previously fought. Then you end up with a repeat match where every other winner’s bracket match was a one-and-done. It is like the previous match is rendered meaningless.

    That happened in the SF5 tournament at EVO this year. In the Winner’s Finals, Fuudo beat Infiltration. Infiltration immediately won Loser’s Finals, then beat Fuudo in Grand Finals. Even though arguably the best player won (as Infiltration had already been considered the best), and Infiltration won Grand Finals 3-1 (best of five), it just feels off that Fuudo had to fight again a guy that he had just beaten. That the Winner’s Finals didn’t really “matter”, at least not if you assume that either player could have won Loser’s Finals. It is like “You’ve beaten the best player in the tournament. Your reward is…You have to beat the best player in the tournament *again*, and now he knows how better to fight you!”

    • Junkmail says:

      Part of the problem with double elimination isn’t fairness, it’s getting to play. If you’re shit at a game, in a double elimination bracket you’re only getting to play twice. In a swiss format, you play as many games as there are rounds.

      • Secatus says:

        At an elite level of competition, there is no reason why that should be considered a drawback. For a more grassroots level, though, that absolutely is a problem because less experienced players don’t then get the opportunity to gain more experience.

      • Zankman says:

        Meanwhile, in League of Legends…

        Teams from isolated Wildcard Regions gather twice a year to play a whole 7 Bo1s (wow!) and the World Championship (one of the two tournaments per year) eliminates HALF of the competition based on the back off… 6 Bo1s, with each team having a whole 3 opponents to make up that “huge” sample size.

    • Steven Hutton says:

      Biggest problem with DE is that it takes a million games to decide on a winner.

    • Ferno says:

      I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. In FG Tournaments the player coming from the loser’s bracket must win two sets against the player from winner’s bracket. In the situation you described from EVO, Infiltration lost his first encounter with Fuudo which meant that when they faced again in GF, he had to beat Fuudo twice. That way, both players lost one set against the other before the final set. Infiltration had simply learned Fuudo’s style well enough to reset the bracket and beat him again.

      • Ferno says:

        Just to clarify on what I said, this meant infiltration won TWO best of five matches against Fuudo where Fuudo only won one best of three (I think) against Infiltration when they met.

        • Assirra says:

          Almost right. Fuudo beat Infiltration in the winner finals since both of them had no lost a single match in the rest of the tournament. This was a best of 5 which Fuudo won pretty hard. Then Infiltration worked his way through the loser finals and proceeded to stomp Fuudo in the grand finals and did multiple perfects.

  5. melerski says:

    mortal kombat

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    johannsebastianbach says:

    I think the best format is that of the CSO Majors*: Groups of four (Double Elimination) which lead to a Singe Elimination Play-Off Bracket. You’ll never leave the tournament with only one loss, but in the second half of the tournament every bloody game bloody counts, and if you lose: tough luck.
    In my opinion it’s the best of both worlds: not overpowering lucky upsets in the early stages, but rewarding teams who are up to their game when it really matters, no second chances in important games. Yeah, CSGO for the win!

    * Only (important) reservation regarding CSGO Majors: All group stag matches should be BO3s to further reduce the randomness of the outcome combined with the ludicrous pick/ban system of CSGO Majors. Alternative: Use a rational map veto as any other tournament does.

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      johannsebastianbach says:

      CSO being CSGO, of course. Darn you, missing edit button!

    • Ferno says:

      Yeah I actually really enjoy CS:GO’s Major format, though the BO1 group stage can lead to some unexpected qualifications. That can often be all the more exciting though.

    • Zankman says:

      Hell no, the Major’s Group Stages are awful…

      First, the seeding system to determine them is dumb and illogical – what, you got to the Playoff in the previous Major and thus you not only get a free invite to the next one how many months later but you ALSO get treated as as seed, equal to the team that won the tournament?

      Second, 4 Groups of 4 is such a lame format that is only a thing in real sports due to logistics…

      The DotA 2 International, also by Valve, does it SO MUCH BETTER: Two groups of 8!

      That leads to each team getting tested SO much better, thus creating SO much more accurate results.

      More games = more accurate results; each team playing 7 Group Stage matches is enough for that while, IMO, not getting into “redudancy” territory.

      Third and final: Bo1s? Really?

      Hell no… If the Majors had Bo3s for all Group Stage matches it would still be a lame format but, it would be better, yes.

      TL;DR: Use the International format.

      • Petethegoat says:

        Bo1 is fine, but not for elimination matches (at least in group stages- I don’t mind the single elim playoffs).

        It’s ridiculous that a team that has qualified for the biggest event in CSGO can be out of the tournament after playing precisely two (2) maps.

        Plenty of other issues, seeding being an obvious one. But I hate the Bo1 elimination with a passion.

        • Zankman says:

          Bo1s are just generally shit in almost all E-Sports.

          But, yes, no debate – you cannot use them for elimination and especially not after, as you said, a team played just two maps…

  7. Monggerel says:

    Street Fighter, of course. Thuggery is afoot, everybody’s super sketchy, the crowd is chanting “YOU FUCKED UP! YOU FUCKED UP!”, there’s beer all over the floor, some guy is getting shanked in the corner. It’s a beautiful thing.

  8. Ferno says:

    For playing with friends Swiss is best for getting the most game time out of everyone, but it doesn’t make for the best spectator event at large tournaments where the knockout narrowing down competition really adds to the tension.

    • Zankman says:

      Why not both?

      Use Swiss to generate seeding order for the standard single elimination knockout format and there you go.

    • evilhayama says:

      I agree with this one, Swiss is more satisfying if you’re playing, but for viewing double elimination is a better show and has the potential for great comebacks (like Street Fighter V this Evo)

  9. TehK says:

    For my own viewing experience, I like the drama you get from elimination formats and double elimination is preferable to single elimination.

    Knockouts are just a great way to create stories and drama and as someone said before me: Getting a lot of play time per team shouldn’t be a factor at pro level – also that’s why you have a group phase and a lower bracket. The only (but quite big) problem I’m having with this format is that the grand final might be a repeat of the upper bracket finals.

    I also like the group phase as a kind of warm-up to determine the placements in the upper and the lower bracket. That said, this now leads, as you said, to a few games being Bo1s and I do not envy the players having to play those. In Bo3s you can get those “oh, now team A figured out team B’s tactics and reacts” kind of stories, but Bo1s are brutal.

  10. Wamybat says:

    I like the reward the teams get when they perform well in the group stage and, unfortunately, if you are in the lower bracket you deserve to be there. The only change I would like to see is that the lower bracket first round games should be a BO3 rather than BO1. The group stage is the main event and it should be treated as such, the BO3 would achieve that for me.
    It makes for more games, more entertainment and also rewarding the team for being better in a BO3, since you want to be completely sure the team that progresses, is better over the majority of games and not just one.

  11. unitled says:

    I play a lot of Netrunner (C/LCG); in fact, I’m judging at Nationals this weekend. Netrunner tournaments are several rounds of Swiss followed by a cut to top 4/8/16 for a double elimination bracket. Ties in Swiss are resolved off strength of schedule.

    While the cut is great fun to watch, there are issues with the format in that it can be grueling (10 hour+ days for big tournaments) and the current contentious issue of Intentional Draws into the cut during Swiss, something that is now explicitly allowed in the rules.

  12. christopf says:

    As far as i understood, the invited teams “qualify” through the game-specific tournaments between the “Internationals”, with an emphasis on majors + if you win one of the season cups from valve (like manila major) which all are majors (or the last international) you get an invite as well.
    This keeps the skill level up and don’t give a team with an good but outdated reputation an automated invite.

    Additional you have the open registration form for only a really small number of slots though. But considering the above-written you have this “open-registration” all year long since you can attend at other tournaments.


    Nice article btw, both the format and raising the question on a abstract matter like the tournament structure.

  13. zog 081 says:

    Eve online alliance tournament.

    The level of customization and theorycrafting that goes into the ship fittings makes it very interesting, to see what one group will bring and how another might do something that would seem completely insane yet work. Its something else to watch, especially when considering that some of the groups involved have decades plus grudge matches going on in game, theres a lot of space honor on the line. Its also the only way to get to into jovian space.