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Blurred lines: a look at Counter-Strike's flawed major system

Photo Credit: (Nathan Wentworth)

Both traditional sports and esports hold prestigious competitions that are a tier above all others. Whether its American football's Super Bowl, NCAA's March Madness, or Riot Games' League of Legends World Championship, these events are far and beyond in scale compared to their regular season counterparts. In Counter-Strike, there are two Majors a year which have become surrounded by a vast amount of premier events that vary in size, length, prize pool and level of competition that have slowly diminished the scale and spectacle of the Major. 

The Major system comprises many online qualifiers into Minors for the American, Asian, European, and CIS Minors which feed into the major's first stage. The three stages of the modern major are the: Challengers, Legends and the playoff Champions Stage. Franchising is absent in the Counter-Strike scene and tournament organisers are given relatively free rein over the calendar resulting in a high amount of premiere level events with large prize pools and top teams. 

An overly common occurrence

The Olympics is the greatest sporting event on Earth because it only happens once every four years making it something you look forward to and cherish when it leaves. For CS:GO, we have majors twice a year which means the major season is always a few months away taking away from the rarity of the event. 

In the current schedule, Majors are hosted at the beginning of the season, something unheard of in traditional sports. Teams should have breaks, then the season to hone their game, before finishing with a big, long, prestigious Major tournament. Counter-Strike Majors need to occur annually at the conclusion of each "season" to celebrate the yearly accomplishments and provide for the highest level of competition. 

Run the online qualifiers throughout the year, and then the Minors and the main event in November and into early December, then give a lengthy player break until the beginning of February. The break allows organisations to make roster moves and plan what tournaments to attend, as well as giving players rest. Then, from February until early November, run the open circuit that the esports community recognises Counter-Strike for. This way, there is a clear, defined season for tournament organisers to adhere to, and a simple regularity we need in the Counter-Strike scene. 

An all-too-quick group stage

As Counter-Strike as an esport has aged, many tournaments have moved away from flawed group stages such as the GSL which would create infamous "groups of death." One of the key criteria for a good group stage is best-of-threes all the way through, especially desired in a Major. This way, teams have to prove themselves on either their preferred map or their opponent’s, and then in a deciding map they had a hand in choosing should it reach that far. They are logistically difficult because of their length, but far superior to best-of-ones as indicators of skill and quality.

Tournament organiser StarLadder, the next Major hosts in 2019, have been the recent proponents of a solid best-of-three Swiss system. At StarSeries i-League S7, they used a Swiss system best-of-three group stage with sixteen teams, which is the same number as both the Challengers and Legends Stages. At StarSeries i-League S7, the group stage took six days. Running two of these consecutively in the form of the Challengers and Legends stages for a Major would be more time consuming compared to the current best of one Swiss, but not any more arduous than the group stage for Valve's The International group stage for DOTA2. 

Issues with time breaks would happen, but is that not unavoidable? In the Major, the ‘highlight’ of the year, an arduous format is the best way to filter the best teams from the worst. It allows the best to shine based on proven merit. That is what Valve should intend a Counter-Strike Major to be; where teams can show up to the server, prove themselves and succeed. We have seen teams such as ENCE able to do this as they did at Katowice 2019. Their miracle run included best-of-three wins against BIG and G2, en route to a playoff performance that featured victories against Team Liquid and Natus Vincere. They proved themselves as a top-five team, and have maintained that position since. 

Flukes are always an issue as Quantum Bellator Fire proved at the ELEAGUE Major 2018, who after best-of-one victories against, Gambit and mousesports ventured into the playoffs and were humbled by NaVi in an extremely one sided best of three. Swapping to best-of-threes helps prevent the anomalies of QBF while still allowing quality teams like ENCE into the playoffs. Lineups would prove themselves as legitimately good teams by winning series’ against stronger opposition, improving the Major by a large margin to hopefully provide higher quality playoff series. 

A distant developer with a lack of control

Valve’s lack of involvement in Counter-Strike Majors needs addressing. At every DOTA International, co-founder of Valve Gabe Newell is present, but the developers do not attend Counter-Strike Majors. Valve give DOTA many updates, host The Internationals with a massive prize pool and communicate more with their community directly, all of which is a stark difference to Counter-Strike. Nobody in the Counter-Strike scene would want Valve to maintain its distance from Majors. They would want checks and balances on Valve, who would become more involved, but having the creators of the game act like they cared would always be a positive. Tournament organisers who pitch Majors can ruin them, and this needs to change along with Valve’s distance from their own Majors.

Take the 2018 FACEIT Major. The organiser has run successful events, such as seven seasons of ECS, with its popular LAN finals held in arenas from the UK to Mexico. Valve recognised their efforts by giving them the second Counter-Strike Major of 2018. Partially by poor fortune but largely a result of their own failure, FACEIT’s Major was lacklustre. Shunning established analysts of the game in favour of retired players with no desk experience, and a chicken who “predicted” match results on the broadcast, is one example of their shortcomings. Technical issues in the form of PCs with poor FPS performance and crashes in the early stages of the event also plagued FACEIT. Outside of the organiser’s control was the quality of the matches. The one-sided playoff bracket was dull, with best-of-ones in the group stage proving more entertaining.

With the fate of Majors in their organiser’s hands, there is a higher margin of error than if Valve were to have increased involvement. Other esports have suffered from such a change including League of Legends, where Riot Games’ involvement has included negative effects on international events. Valve must ensure they limit their interference, as an interventionist developer with a lack of real understanding of Counter-Strike esports would be an unmitigated disaster. At the same time, Valve stepping up their involvement in Counter-Strike would be valued as they care about the game and want to ensure it is heading in a positive direction. 

One thing Valve should intervene on is the location of Majors. Teams from certain regions such as CIS and Asia struggle to get P-1 sporting visas to compete in North America. Players such as Renegades’ Sean “Gratisfaction” Kaiwai have struggled with this in recent times. He could not attend the early stages of ESL Pro League’s Season 9 LAN group stage because of an alleged lack of international recognition. Location is important, as decent teams and players should not be forced to drop out due to factors outside of health. Valve should also aid professionals in attaining visas by helping prove their international status, instead of the responsibility resting solely on tournament organisers and esports organizations. Valve’s only involvement in Majors is allocating them, and they need to increase their leverage over their own tournaments. 

In the CSPPA the CS:GO major system is an ongoing discussion. Going forward we will continue our dialogue with our membership, Valve and tournament organizers to make sure that we find the best solutions for all stakeholders. - Michael Doi, COO of the Counter-Strike Professional Players' Association (CSPPA)

Inherent bias to bigger teams

Seeding's introduction in the group stages for IEM Katowice 2019 was a welcome change. The system prevents flukes such as QBF at the ELEAGUE Major 2018, and so teams must prove themselves against better competition to advance. While as a concept it is strong, in practice at the recent Katowice Major it was harsh. Smaller teams face a much harsher playing field and established teams face weaker teams, giving them an advantage. Seeding is something that has many good elements to enjoy such as preventing the most scintillating matchups such as Astralis vs Team Liquid occurring in the group stage, but its negatives need ironing out. Take FaZe and AVANGAR at Katowice as examples. 

FaZe were on a poor vein of form after making roster changes and role changes, but by reputation alone, teams seeded them high. AVANGAR were in good form, with AWPer Ali “Jame” Djami playing well. They were dark horses for the Legends’ Stage yet because of a lack of reputation other teams seeded them low, putting them in a fight for their life. 

FaZe, enjoying seeding, got HellRaisers in the first round who they decimated 16-4 to go 1-0. Next, the in-form Renegades and then AVANGAR who after close games each, sent FaZe into the 1-2 pool. Relying on seeding alone, the Europeans played compLexity and Cloud9, two shaky North American teams and so advanced 3-2 to keep their Legends Status. FaZe's did their job, as their spot in the next Major was secure.

In AVANGAR’s case with their low seeding, they first faced top-two team Liquid who had recently won the iBP Masters. After a hard-fought match, they fell 12-16. Then came NRG, another top-ten team and AVANGAR battled to make it to 1-1, before the FaZe match that put them 2-1. They played against CIS rivals NaVi who would end up as semi-finalists, and after defeat, they bowed out of Katowice to eventual finalists ENCE. Had they been able to rue their draw based upon misfortune that is understandable. ENCE bested BIG, G2 and then AVANGAR to secure their spot. Teams seeded AVANGAR lower than the Finns, and so played better teams that gave them an immediate disadvantage from the outset. The only thing AVANGAR could blame for their unequal draw is their immovable seed.

FaZe’s merit-riding earned them Legends status as they played teams such as compLexity, who had two stand-ins. AVANGAR faced four of the eight quarter-finalists, including the semi-finalist NaVi and finalist ENCE. AVANGAR’s and FaZe’s result had little impact on their seedings, as both stayed close to their respective low and high positions. Valve should ensure that performance against other teams in the Major should have a bigger impact on seeding. For instance, in beating NRG and FaZe, AVANGAR should have moved up the seeding list by a larger amount. The reverse should apply for FaZe with their poor performance too. This gives smaller teams a chance at glory and means that on the whole larger teams cannot rely on prior merit or name value to advance, further levelling the playing field. Upsets can happen in the current seeding system, but for smaller teams like AVANGAR to play well and not be given a chance for success is wrong.

Broken Minors

Valve and different tournament organisers’ concept of regional Minors with a Play-In is poor. Yes, it gives regions a chance to breathe, and with its place in the calendar builds hype for the Major a month before it starts. It is a weak system though, as it gives small teams inherent advantages. Prior to the main event, Counter-Strike Majors should see a huge pool of teams compete in one massive Minor, to better ensure the best of the best make the Challengers’ Stage.

Teams should not receive a free pass to the Major based on their country of origin. Here is another case of blurred lines; is the Counter-Strike Major one of international representation, or is it the best of the best? The latter. As Counter-Strike fans we want an engaging tournament that features the best teams in the world. This is what the Major should resemble. Not like in the Asia Minor for Katowice. It featured teams such as GOSU, Beyond and Aequus, who will never play in other large-scale international competition. Even teams who qualify from regional Minors often crash out 0-3 or 1-3, early in the competition, and only help the big teams in their easier route to the playoffs.

Even though it damages regional scenes, this is a necessary sacrifice. Valve always intended the Counter-Strike Major to be the best of the best. Sticking to that mantra by sifting out teams that should not be there but only attend due to their region is a good thing. Good teams should not receive advantages, and the same logic applies to smaller teams who compete in Majors because of their location. For teams to attend the Major from any region, they ought to earn the right via their performances. 

If an overseas team can advance through the proposed singular Minor, then they deserve that Major status. Teams can work their way to the top and help build their scene from the top down and eventually make the Major. Look at the blossoming Australian scene, with teams such as Grayhound, ORDER and Tainted Minds showing progress year over year. The way to improve regional scenes is not to give them free passes to Majors, but give them enough space to improve on their own. This way they earn Major status instead of receiving it on a silver platter.

What Next?

What is most saddening about all the issues in Counter-Strike Majors detailed above is that they will probably never be addressed. While we have already seen improvement, with the introduction of seeding and the increased number of best-of-threes, we need further change. Tackle the Minors. Face up to the heavy bias towards larger teams in seeding. Give teams an incentive to come to the Major and neglect ignoring the ⅗ rule. Make the Major a yearly spectacle where the best teams in the world compete under a legitimate and entertaining format. 

That is the direction that Counter-Strike Majors need to steer towards. It comes at the cost of damaging regional scenes in the short-term and increasing the cost of running a Major but these are necessary sacrifices. We need to take them to make the Major the glorious spectacle we all want them to be.


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