“I actually think the format is awful,” Shahzeb "ShahZaM" Khan said after winning his third straight North American stage title in the Valorant Champions Tour, commonly called the VCT. “It gets really tedious. And there's a huge gap between when teams play.”

The Sentinels captain was far from the first player or coach to express discontentment with the VCT's format, nor was he the last. But if there are any players that would be expected to like the current system, it's the players on the team dominating that very system.

But the first part of his complaint is more noticeable for his team than anyone else in North America. Despite the team's success — with Sentinels booking a spot in Champions before Stage 3 even began — Sentinels have had to grind through every qualifier, overcoming the competition in the same format every time.

That competitive repetition “is so not needed,” Austin "crashies" Roberts said, noting how his regional rivals "deserve to at least just skip an open qualifier or something.”

As for the gap in tournaments? Well, ShahZaM's complaints weren't fully universal. His teammate, Hunter "SicK" Mims, said he liked the gaps because they made sure players “don't get burnt out as easily as if it was like some crazy format.”

But SicK's perspective is partially shaped by Sentinels' success; his team has qualified for every regional playoff and every LAN so far. Other teams don't have that luxury, meaning they're facing the exact opposite of competitive burnout.

“As players and probably as viewers too, honestly, I think there's a big lull in between tournaments right now,” Ethan "Ethan" Arnold said at Masters Berlin. “And as players, if we didn't make this tournament, and then we didn't make LCQ or anything like that, we wouldn't have any tournament to play in until early next year. And so that'd be like three or four months off.”

Masters Berlin stage Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

These apparent contradictions in player opinion is the result of an awkward schedule. “You go through these dry spells, and then it's just flooded,” Jaccob "yay" Whiteaker noted. Teams play constantly one month between open qualifiers and main events, and then do nothing the next as they wait for the next tier of tournament — or even do nothing for two months because they have to wait for the next stage.

In fact, that contributed to yay's decision to leave Andbox. Once Andbox was eliminated from Stage 3: Challengers 2 — and VCT contention as a whole — he said he would've had to sit for almost six months because “there's nothing for the rest of the year.”

“Six months is a long, long time for an esports player,” yay told VLR.gg in early August. “In six months, the world's best player can change instantly, or the world's best team. And the meta can completely shift.”

Players even complained about how the points system is awarded.

“We have been a very consistent team this year, right?” crashies asked regarding his team, Envy, before the team had qualified for and played in Masters Berlin. “We were qualifying for all these [tournaments]. But it doesn't matter because we didn't qualify for Iceland.”

He pointed out that Version1's good run in Stage 2 propelled them ahead of Envy in Champions' circuit points, netting them 200 points. But Envy, at that point, had only gotten 30-40 points per stage despite qualifying for and finishing well in every Challengers — and even finishing in the top four of every regional final.

Of course, while his team surged ahead of Version1 and qualified directly to Champions through their finish in Masters Berlin, had they placed fourth in the North American Stage 3 Playoffs, that would have left Envy finishing the year behind V1, even in spite of their overall results.

“It's weird,” he said. “It doesn't reward consistency in a way.”

And all of that is just the complaints from North American players about the North American format. Teams competing in VCT Europe have had to repeatedly overcome single-elimination brackets, not even getting double-elimination in the main events of Challengers tournaments until Stage 3. The format in VCT Korea is just a single Challengers event made up of a number of group stages.

Oceanic teams won't even get an opportunity to qualify for Champions. The region's only path to the end-of-year tourney was through an awkward, convoluted bracket in the North American Last Chance Qualifier that was met with severe friction upon its reveal. That bracket didn't have a chance to be played however, as the Oceanic teams were deprived of even that limited opportunity by logistical issues created by COVID-19 regulations.

The solution to all of this?

“More tournaments throughout the year,” Ethan said.

Well okay, it's not quite that simple. If Riot were to simply copy their current tournament formats and paste them on the calendar more regularly, that wouldn't work.

“I would like to see it a little more spread out,” yay suggested.

The current rigidity of the VCT forces the schedule into what it has looked like this year. Open qualifiers are good, they give everyone a fair shot at winning it all and make sure no one can ride on reputation alone, but when every tournament is an open qualifier?

Hunter Mims
Won the 1st match of the qualifier to qualify for the qualifier for the qualifier. So basically we are going to Berlin!!!

Well, you get long tedious tournaments that have to be balanced with large breaks. They also don't allow for any scheduling overlap because every team, even the teams who wound up qualifying for LAN, have to re-enter them.

Future iterations of the VCT should thus still have open qualifiers, just less frequently. Depending on the exact format, there could be a single open qualifier per stage or perhaps a few events throughout the year with open qualifiers. The exact details aren't as important as the act of divorcing the VCT from being a constant marathon of open qualifiers.

This will, in turn, open up the VCT to more flexibility in tournament format and scheduling. Some tournaments can have smaller pools of closed qualifiers and some tournaments can skip qualifiers at all, opting to base the invite criteria on prior events. This means there can be shorter tournaments, and thus more tournaments, that are spread out more evenly throughout the year.

And these tournaments shouldn't be formatted exactly as they are now, where a certain finish guarantees a place at the next tier of VCT event and the team just sits out until then. This incredibly rigid funnel structure should be done away with entirely. Teams should always have the option to play in something without feeling forced to always be in competition.

Instead of making Challengers, Challengers Finals, and Masters the next rungs on the ladder for teams in the VCT ecosystem, which gives almost every tournament the feeling of a qualifier and leaving many competitions ending in “seeding matches,” Riot should look to make these different tiers or classes of tournaments in a points-based ecosystem.

For example, Challengers can be a tier of online, in-region tournaments that earn points toward Masters or a Challengers Finals-esque tier or both. Challengers Finals can be replaced with a new tier fit for in-region LANs that earn points toward Champions.

Masters can be international LANs, which can look a lot like the worldwide Masters events of this year in some events, but can also look like competitions between just two or three regions in other events. Just like this year, these tournaments would earn points toward Champions.

Of course that format relies on regular LANs becoming possible again next year, something Riot has no control over. Riot can adapt the tiers to establish more prestigious online tournaments, if need be. What matters is that tournament tiers take the place of rigid tournament rungs, and teams can play more tournaments at a more steady interval.

More tournaments providing opportunities for points also better rewards consistency, and Riot can still offer more points for tournaments closer to the year's end to reward the hottest teams entering Champions in a way that doesn't make it feel like the end of the year is all that matters.

Whether Riot runs the tournaments themselves or lets third-party organizers run it within their license doesn't particularly matter. But regardless if the new ecosystem is run by just one organizer per region or several, that ecosystem should provide a variety of tournament formats. It keeps tournaments from feeling monotonous for fans and gives them more opportunities to see their favorite teams if some of the formats feature more chances to watch teams that don't advance.

Masters Reykjavik stage Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

But even with format variety, it's important to players that tournaments avoid single-elimination.

“Do double-elimination for everything,” yay said.

Whether it's double-elimination all the way through or double-elimination that follows a group stage, players like the opportunity to bounce back after an off-day. It also gives them an opportunity to recover after a bad matchup early on.

A more fluid version of the VCT that is built around more tournaments also allows every region to continue to build a system that works best for its local Valorant ecosystem. Regions that are built off the backs of subregions like EMEA, SEA, and Latin America can develop a tournament circuit that gives each subregion ample opportunities to qualify for higher tier tournaments without depriving better teams in another subregion of opportunities.

Regions with fewer teams can focus on smaller tournaments or run fewer tournaments than the bigger regions. Regions with a larger pool of competitive teams can run enough tournaments to give each team a chance while also distributing points in such a way that the most successful teams don't feel obligated to play in every single tournament.

Consider this ideal version of the VCT like the skeleton of a circuit format — it provides a basic structure to the system. However, the meat within that skeleton can take whatever shape players, teams, fans, tournament organizers, broadcasters, and Riot itself need.