There were numerous CS:GO tournaments in the last couple of months featuring some welcome twists. Multiple outlandish formats were tried in attempt to shake-up the monotony of the week-in, week-out rotations of GSL and swiss. The most unusual formats of late belonged to EPICENTER, BLAST Pro Series, and to a lesser extent, IEM Oakland. With all three events in the books, a comparison between the three formats and the pros and cons they bring is now possible.
EPICENTER strayed from the norm and gifted fans of high-octane CS with best-of-3 series right from the very start, a format usually reserved for either the decider matches in groups or the playoffs.
EPICENTER elected to make use of their small but elite pool of teams (essentially lacking “dead-weight” sides) by playing series games from the start, resulting in celebrations of high-level CS:GO all along the way. Gambit almost toppling FaZe in a group stage series still sticks in my mind, a fixture that wouldn't have been out of place in an arena. This was the primary difference in event structure that EPICENTER opted for, and was also what made it one of the best events this year, even if it stretched the length of an eight-team tournament farther than usual.
Playing all matches as best-of-3’s is thrilling and ensures the worthiest finalists, but it’s not a quick process. Not including the wildcard qualifiers, the event lasted from a Tuesday to Sunday, with a rest day on the Friday. Almost week-long tournaments are taxing for all but the hardcore viewers to follow, and to suggest that this could be an option for all organizers to adopt at each event is a crazy notion — it’s just too much CS:GO for fans and teams to manage. And if that’s the case with just eight teams, what are tournaments with bigger pools to do?
IEM Oakland presented another interesting format where point allocation was more nuanced than a simple win/loss dynamic, depending on whether it’s regulation time win (3 pts.), OT win (2 pts.), OT loss (1 pt.), or regulation time loss (0 pts.). A 19-17 score therefore meant 2 points for the winner and 1 point for the loser, contrasting to what would be an all-or-nothing situation in regular formats.
Seeing tournament organizers attempt to spice up the circuit is promising and very much needed.
This format certainly feels fairer to teams able to put up 15 rounds, but fail to close the game. Not only is that not completely demoralizing, but it also results in a more competitive group stage which, in turn, feeds into more balanced playoffs. This came into effect as Gambit made the playoffs over Renegades, with the CIS side having an OT loss to Renegades’ regulation time loss. Not only had Gambit defeated the Renegades in the group stages, but they were also widely considered a tougher opponent than the primarily-Australian side and the stronger team of the two.
IEM Oakland lasted as long as EPICENTER while boasting a more complete sheet with 12 teams to St. Petersburg’s eight. To accommodate, group matches were best-of-1 and streamed two at a time, which by itself is a divisive topic. The pros of overlapping streams, especially in an event with 12 teams where not all of them will be tier 1 talent, is that viewers have a choice and flock to the more interesting match. An obvious issue, though, is fans who are not fond of re-watching VODs won’t catch the full action of each game, but the concurrent streaming of the group games does seem necessary to not extend an already protracted event.
BLAST Pro Series
The most recent tournament and one that sought to revitalize a stagnant event structure in CS:GO was the ambitious and innovative BLAST Pro Series. While technical server issues reduced a planned two-day event into a single day affair, the boons of BLAST’s structure were plentiful. There was to be non-stop entertainment with constant battles between a small pool of the world’s champions. Each fan that came to the arena was guaranteed to see their idols live and in the flesh, and would not need to commit whole weekend away from work or school to attend.
A very unique element BLAST threw in was having teams veto the map weeks ahead, allowing sides to prepare especially for their match ups. In theory, this should only increase the standard of play we see, as no teams will be blindsided by an opponent picking a map they didn't expect.
While the above sounds nice, there are drawbacks to such a packed structure. The usual bonus of running games simultaneously is viewers always having an enjoyable game to watch, even if one of them might be a sub-par or one-sided game. BLAST running three matches at once while packed with elite teams seems to defeat the purpose: each match is likely to be a must-watch.
Another small criticism of the simultaneous matches was the on-site crowd. If you chose to watch a stream while the majority of the live audience were enjoying the main stream, your viewing experience would be impeded by out-of-sync cheers and delighted roars from the crowd. What’s more, the rushed nature of the event meant only one game was to be a best-of-3, the final, so fans only got to watch a single series despite the overflow of top calibre talent in Copenhagen.
The argument for EPICENTER being the greatest tournament structure
There are strengths and weaknesses to all of these events, but seeing tournament organizers attempt to spice up the circuit is promising and very much needed. Flaws in formats are but lessons to be learned as the scene moves forward. Yet, I keep coming back to EPICENTER having the best structure of these recent attempts: it was the one tournament that truly made use of its team pool to provide a truly entertaining spectacle.
Firstly, best-of-3s from the opening match onwards was a godsend. When your weakest team is Virtus.pro, you know that every series is going to be a banger. It almost feels wasteful to put titans like FaZe and SK Gaming together to only play one map, and this is where I feel EPICENTER used their small pool of teams more wisely than BLAST. Both had just a handful of squads, all of whom could be considered tier 1 — with the exception of a slumping Virtus.pro in St. Petersburg — yet BLAST’s best-of-1 insistence paled in comparison to the plethora EPICENTER gifted us.
To reiterate, the purpose of best-of-3s is to assure that the teams making it through are worthy of a spot in the playoffs and are not there by a fluke. Both IEM Oakland and BLAST revolved around best-of-1 gtroups — match types that can be hugely altered by pistol rounds, poor map vetoes, and crushed economies to a far greater extent than a best-of-3 can. All a team needs do to reach the playoffs of a very prestigious event, such as Oakland, is score some best-of-1 wins.
EPICENTER, on the other hand, required two bo3’s in stacked groups before the fan-filled arena opened. We’d need more events with best-of-3 group stages to see how accurate this is, but it certainly looked as though the two best teams of the event made it to the final after having passed numerous world No. 1 contenders in series wins to get there.
Playing multiple games concurrently should only be used in specific situations.
The format of EPICENTER also made it very easy to follow for the more casual viewers. With Oakland and BLAST both running more than one game during the group stages, it's harder for newer fans to remain on top of the scores and standings in the groups, let alone be able to enjoy each game to the fullest, even if that’s a non-issue for hardcore viewers.
Playing multiple games concurrently should only be used in specific situations. Oakland was an example of the right way to do it, as fans could easily skip matches from the likes of The MongolZ. This was a part of Oakland I found to be a plus, and their choice to award teams who lose in overtime a point is a good way to put context to the scores. As events that solely use best-of-1s in the group stages go, Oakland is probably my favorite in how it was set up, and comes a close second.
Before BLAST began, it looked to me that it will either be a format I love or hate, though I must admit I was leaning towards the latter. I thought BLAST had designed the structure as though they weren't inviting the greatest teams of the day: best-of-one's almost throughout, and too many games at once for most fans to keep track of. I've loved this recent period of challenging the status quo in regards of how to play an event, but the Danish event, I feel, could have taken a page off of EPICENTER’s book.