Written by Olli
This article is part of a cooperation between ESL and TeamLiquid.net for the IEM World Championship event coming up in Katowice. ESL has provided images, information and financial support for us to produce this article and others.
Most tournaments in StarCraft II that include a group stage in their format have relied almost exclusively on one single system: the GSL-style format of two opening matches, a winners' and losers' match, and a deciding fifth series between the two players left standing. But that has not always been the case. IEM tournaments regularly featured Round Robin groups until 2013. Dreamhack employed them as well—the last time they did so was at their LotV Championship in 2015, but have since also made the switch to the GSL format for all their tournaments.
Round Robin groups were always a rather romantic concept. Every player in the group has to face all the others, and then the best advance. But what sounds fair and exciting for viewers on paper often didn’t quite play out that way as fundamental flaws in the system appeared. With no clear bracket structure for players to advance through, odd ties occurred. Ironically, it was the GSL that witnessed the most tiebreakers, in its Up/Down tournament and wildcard groups to decide last-minute spots.
An unexpectedly long day at the office for Wolf.
But arguably the most memorable and eye-opening moment happened when LucifroN, in a three-way tie with YugiOh and Strelok, drew the short straw—literally. With two rounds of tiebreakers unsuccessfully played and with the entire tournament on hold, admins decided to solve the issue with a draw, and LucifroN lost.
I wasn't joking.
Needless to say, the decision to largely abandon Round Robin came after much dissent from players who bemoaned the volatile nature of the format, as well as the different and often confusing ways tournament organizers called upon to circumvent the glaring flaws in the format. Head-to-head, map score, tiebreakers. Add to that the possibility of some players having to play meaningless series while others’ tournament lives depended on the result. I very much understand why players would prefer the very straight-forward GSL format. There’s only one series to worry about at a time, you either win or lose, and then you’re either eliminated or get another chance. No need to bite your nails over the outcome of any other match in your group. Cut and dry. And yet, IEM made the decision to bring back Round Robin groups for their World Championship in Katowice in last year. And it was received positively by both spectators and players. What did they change?
I think the biggest issue with the format was always players having to play games that didn’t matter to them. If someone was already eliminated, they have little incentive to perform to the best of their abilities, even though their opponent’s fate could still be clear. IEM have counteracted that possibility by spreading their prize pool very intelligently. Not only is there a difference in prize money earned between all the different group finishers, IEM also award 200$ for each map win in the group stage. Even after being eliminated early in the groups, I doubt any player would frown at the opportunity to squeeze additional money out of their remaining matches. By putting additional emphasis on every single map, IEM have quite elegantly turned one of the system’s weaknesses into a strength—every game now matters.
It certainly helps that last year’s Katowice group stage featured a number of extremely exciting games—from Serral’s narrow victory over Zest to aLive playing one of the best tournaments of his life, and uThermal beating INnoVation.
But therein lies the beauty of Round Robin. Where the GSL format sometimes leaves us with the most exciting potential match-up not happening, Round Robin ensures they all happen. So when the Open Bracket of this year’s IEM Katowice finishes on February the 27th and its survivors are seeded into these four groups, you need not worry that any potentially awesome match could elude you. You will see them all. And that is only fitting for a tournament as stacked as IEM Katowice.
While the advantages of GSL’s system are easily pointed out and it is deservedly the most popular group stage format, Round Robin is often overlooked. The International, one of esports' biggest tournaments has for years used it successfully, and I for one am glad that it has seemingly also found its place in StarCraft II tournaments again.