Not sure how many of you follow CS, but I think the new format for ESL Pro League would be perfect to add to future Challengers group stages. It's a lot larger than Challengers (32 teams vs 16) so it makes sense that they would try something more consolidated, but I think it would still translate really well to aid some of the problems I believe NA Challengers has been facing.
This will feature examples exclusively from NA because that's where I'm from and it's the tournament I followed the most, but I would love to hear examples from people from other regions and improvements NA could make from other regions' group formats.
What is NA VCL's format like now?
Round robin pools are definitely a great way to make sure every team gets its time in the spotlight, as well as definitively say which teams are better than the rest, but what happens when competition gets close or is decided too quickly? Both groups of NA Valorant Challengers are prime examples of each of the problems with a round robin format.
Group A was an amazing group to watch, especially towards the end when a lot of the games were win or go home. However, because nearly every team had exactly the same record, it was decided by an extremely convoluted series of scenarios that would send each respective team through, seen here in a post from the TOs themselves. I would argue most, if not all, of these problems came from the round robin format, and I think that's pretty plain to see. This is an example of how indecisive round robin can be when it comes to the ideal scenario, which is tough, evenly matched, high-stakes competition.
Group B was, in terms of stakes, much less exciting. By the end of week 4, the results were already decided, leaving the entire group's final week of matches essentially determining seeding, and the game between MAD Lions and OREsports being literally meaningless besides an extra point in the circuit. I would also chalk this issue up to the round robin format, seeing as the dominance of M80 and The Guard left most teams fighting for scraps.
What Can We Learn From ESL Pro League?
What Is The Format Itself?
The format of ESL Pro League is a double elimination bracket with a last chance, single elimination gauntlet for every team knocked out. Each group has 8 teams, and each group produces 4 qualifying playoff teams, with a definitive 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place for every single group. 1st and 2nd place are the highest placing teams in the winners bracket, 3rd qualifies through the losers bracket, and 4th qualifies through the LCQ. Then, in the single-elimination playoffs, the 3rd and 4th-place teams from various groups play. The winner of this match plays the 2nd-place team from another group, then that winner plays the 1st-place team from the final group.
If you want to take an in-depth look at the bracket structure, you can do so here.
What are the benefits of this new format?
There are many different benefits to this format, the most obvious of which is its definitive nature. There is a defined 1st-4th, everything is kept extremely simple, and there's no need for anything like insane qualification scenario graphic from Knights (even though it was pretty helpful). One of the other primary benefits is that every match has at least a moderate amount of stakes. No loss is without its drawback, and no win is without an immense benefit. A third benefit is time. The ESL Pro League features 32 teams, and yet it takes almost exactly the same amount of time as the 12-team NA Challengers League. Despite some differences in broadcasting and structure, I believe these are very distinct and easily discernible benefits.
What are the drawbacks?
No tournament format is without its drawbacks, and the double-elim gauntlet format is no different. One of the most noticeable drawbacks, at least in the eyes of Riot, is multistreaming. Although most broadcasts are comparable in length to ESL Pro League (about 6 hours), and both tournaments are about a month in length (if you exclude the weeks taken off for LOCK//IN), ESL uses two broadcasts instead of one, which is something that the head of esports at Riot, Leo Faria, has expressed he wants to avoid for a number of reasons. This is understandable for a format like LOCK//IN, which is the context in which that quote was taken, where a single elimination bracket on a B-stream would mean less viewers in an event meant to spotlight all the partnered teams. However, I would argue that for a longer format like VCL, those drawbacks are much less important. Of course, there are additional issues to be considered by a lower-budget event like VCL, such as extra observers, casters, and moderation, but I believe the benefits a second stream would provide would more than make up for their drawbacks.
Another drawback is single-elimination playoffs. However, because 4 teams from 4 groups qualify in ESL Pro League, I believe this was done as a concession due to time. A smaller tournament like NA VCL, with only 2 groups and 8 teams in the playoffs, would be able to keep their effective double elimination playoff bracket.
A third drawback is an uneven amount of teams. Because NA VCL only has 12 teams, you wouldn't be able to simply cut the amount of groups in half. In order to transition to this new format, the organizers would either need to restructure the qualifiers so 16 teams play in the group stage, which would be an even split of teams, or change the format so it accommodates the current amount of teams.
Finally, an additional drawback to this format, and perhaps the most obvious, is that some teams will simply play less games. If translated exactly as is, there will be two teams that bow out after only 3 games, all of them losses. Given the footage we've seen, even the teams in NA VCL that didn't qualify showed immense promise, and taking the opportunity for them to develop in high-level official matches will objectively hurt the team's and players' growth, as well as their consistency to retain high viewership, which might drive some sponsors away. This is absolutely a concession that must be considered in this format.
How Difficult Is Restructuring VCL?
The group stage of ESL Pro League is structured much differently, but most of the qualifications are based on very similar infrastructure to Valorant Challengers NA. Granted, this is an international tournament, so it's a little different, but most of the teams are invited and automatically seeded to the top, with open qualifiers to bring different teams in and give them new, high-level opportunities. Sound familiar? I believe this is an argument for the new format's ease of implementation, due to the precedent set by ESL giving structure and examples of it working in a similar environment.
In my opinion, while there are many significant drawbacks to restructuring the format in this way, I think the benefits are more than worth it. I watched a video from Off The Dome recently, which interviewed the owner of M80 (and formerly XSET), and he said, put simply, that winning builds a brand. (You can watch the video here.) I would argue that adding more stakes to these wins will build esports brands dramatically, in a time where the scene desperately needs it.
Thank you for anyone who reads this, and I would love to hear feedback from those of you who agree or disagree, or anyone from other regions with other perspectives on different formats. Thank you.