A Stellar Guide to eSports Tournament Formats

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Swiss seeding, round robin, and elimination brackets are the most common terms in eSports Leagues. However, a good part of the audience can’t tell the exact meaning behind those terms. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will introduce you to the entire competitive eSports ecosystem

. For the beginning, we’ll start with the basic form and some of the most common terms. This will be enough for you to follow (and understand) every match or event format out there. 

eSports Tournament Formats Explained

Note: If you’re already familiar with how traditional sporting events and competitions are organized, this will be reasonably easy to understand. That’s because mostly all of these rules originate from evergreen sports. 

Additionally, specific circumstances and formats are connected with particular tournaments, games, and events like in regular sports. Therefore, we’ll make a detailed breakdown, so you’ll understand any given situation. 

Primary Match Type – Best of Series

Perhaps you’re already familiar with these, as this is the fundamental form of organizing matches. It found use in many sports, competitions, and such. Also, they are pretty self-explanatory. 

Best-of format refers to head-to-head competition between two teams or players. The team that wins most of the matches is the winner of the best-of format. 

Best of 1 (BO1)

Teams play only one game here. This format is very rare in the knockouts, yet organizations often use this during the group stages. That’s because the goal in the group stage is to proceed to the next step as soon as possible.

Best of 2 (BO2)

The clash will consist of two matches here. This one is also frequent during the group stages. Also, as the total number of matches is even, the draw score (tie) is possible. 

Best of 3 (BO3)

Bo3 is perhaps the most common format for the knockout stage in competitions. The maximum number of matches in BO3 is three, yet you could have the winner even after two matches. In case that one team wins the first two, the third map (game) is not played. 

Best of 5 (BO5)

BO5 is among the longest series, where you can see up to 5 games in total. This mostly works during the competition finals, showdown events, etc. 

The team that gets three wins first – wins. Therefore, the minimum number of games in BO5 is three, ending with a 3-0 score. Furthermore, the cap is five matches, and in that case, the final score would be 3-2. 

Best of 7 (BO7) 

Best of 7 series is not a frequent scenario in traditional sporting events. However, as there are some eSports titles with short match length, this format is also useful. There can be a winner in a minimum of four rounds, and if the score is 4-0, the series ends. 

Games that use the BO7 format are Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege, and similar titles. 

The First Phase: Group Stages 

The initial phase of all big eSports tournaments starts with a group stage. This segment is an adequate way to sort out teams before the brackets format or playoffs. From here, only the top one or two from the group will proceed onto the next stage, depending on the size of the entire event. 

Also, depending on the number of teams, there are usually four to eight groups. On the contrary, there are cases when teams don’t divide into separate groups at all. 

After the group phase, teams with the worst performance are ending their competition. Also, the best ones are proceeding onto the further stage. 

This is sometimes a tricky format since it happens for one group to have a few of the biggest names of the entire tournament. If that is the case, teams with the average performance won’t have much opportunity to place in the playoffs. 

On the other hand, even mediocre teams will secure their spots in the following stage if the group is weak. 

There are three of the most common formats for the group phase: 

  • Round Robin 
  • GSL format
  • Swiss System (Swiss Seeding) 
eSports Tournament Formats Explained

Round Robin

Many are familiar with Round Robin from UEFA Champions League. In this format, each player or team will play with every other team at least once. 

As they progress with clashes, they earn points for winning (3 points) and draws (1 point). If a team loses, they earn no points. 

Speaking of eSports, event organizations often use a Round Robin format. 

On the positive side, teams play several matches each, so there will be enough material for organizations to stream and fans to watch.

The downside is also in the number of unnecessary matches. For example, if one team secured their spots for the next stage, they will still play with the ones from the bottom of the list.  As a result, you get a match without any influence for the rest of the competition. 

Other words for the Round Robin system are all-play-all.

During this stage, the winner can be determined with any best-of format. The lowest number of matches is one, or best of 1.  And there can be up to 7 or even 9 games in total. 

As an example, Single Round Robin is present on the FIFA eWorld Cup.

Double Round Robin

In regular Round Robin, each pair plays only once per stage. However, there is “an extended version” where instead of one, two matches take place. 

In eSports, double Round Robin is an even more common format. It is perfect for smaller groups and competitions with fewer teams, yet it becomes less effective when the event scales up. 

ESL One Katowice 2019 is using the Double Round Robin format. 

GSL system

Funny enough, this system originates from the famous eSports title, StarCraft. To be exact, the name of the format comes from the Global StarCraft League. 

This method is suitable for groups of four. However, this is not a limiting factor, and even additional teams can join if needed. 

Initially, teams separate into pairs. If there are four total teams, those two pairs are playing against one another. Winners of each pair proceed further and meet among each other, usually in best of three or best of five series. 

After that match, the team that won takes first place on the stage. Furthermore, two of the teams that lost the first round play among each other. As a result, the losing team goes to the last spot. 

And in the end, the remaining two teams “from the middle” play for the second and third spot (out of four). 

The biggest upside of the GSL system is that the pace is pretty fast. There aren’t any unnecessary matches, like in Round Robin format, and each game influences the outcome. 

When leagues and events are using GSL format, there might not be as many matches. However, as every one of these counts, they tend to be more intense and way more fun to watch. 

For example, the biggest Dota 2 tournaments – Dota 2 Majors are using this format. 

Swiss Seeding 

Opposite to the other two previously mentioned formats, Swiss Seeding is made for tournaments with lots of players and teams. 

Organizations use this method when Round Robin or GSL are too hard to handle. The reason might be in too many matches in the group phase, before the playoffs, or even finals. 

The idea comes from chess. And chess tournaments are known for a huge number of players. For instance, there could be hundreds of competitors at one event. 

Additionally, this system is often confused with GSL, as they share similar attributes and rules. 

The start of the Swiss system is the same as for GSL. First, players divide into pairs. Then pairs play matches among each other and separate into two categories – winners and losers. 

Now winners are paired up with winners, and losers are playing with losers. After this stage, we had two matches in total. Therefore, the possible scores for one team are 0-2, 1-1 or 2-0. 

Now once more, teams and players are pairing with these with identical scores. Once this phase finishes up, we are having a clear picture of the entire group’s standings. 

Events use the Swiss system with titles where a single player faces another individual. These include Hearthstone, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, other fighting games, sports games, simulators, etc. 

Furthermore, Swiss Seeding found a way in the competitive CS:GO field. To proceed onto the next stage, a team needs to score three wins. On the opposite side, if one team fails in three matches, they are leaving a tournament. 

The Second Phase: Bracket Play

Once the first phase or a group stage ends, we’re proceeding with playoffs. This is a series of high-stakes matches where only the top-performing teams from one league and event meet. 

Matches are either in BO3 or BO5 format. As the second phase progresses towards finals, the number of matches increases. Therefore, often we will see the BO3 format during quarter-finals and semi-finals. And the grand BO5 series will work the best for the grand finale. 

Bracket play is also known as the Olympic system. 

Single Elimination Bracket

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The team entered this one with all stakes in. If one performs well, he directly goes onto the next stage. 

On the other hand, after the loss, the team is free to go home. 

Double Elimination Bracket

Double elimination is also known as the second chance bracket. Here, after the first clash, teams divide into Winners and Losers. 

If one team from Losers fails once more, he is going home. And if a team from Winners loses, he is directed into Losers. 

It is possible to get to the grand finals from the Losers group, yet the team will face the rivals with a disadvantage. That disadvantage can be a map handicap, or he will need to win twice for the gold medal. 

This Double Elimination Bracket is beneficial looking from any side of the competition. It gives enough room for error for winners. Also, it provides an opportunity for losers to make it to the finals. Also, it is well balanced since the losers will need to pay the penalty when they end up in the finals. 

On the contrary, Single Eliminations Brackets are way more severe. In singles, one mistake or poor performance in a few games in a row can lead you into a direct loss without the opportunity for a comeback. 

Triple Elimination Bracket

Although this one is not that common, it still exists in some eSports titles. Here, instead of two groups, like in double eliminations, there are three levels of play.

This gives even more room for error, as players need to lose in three series to eliminate themselves from the competition. 

This method applies to high random factor games such as card games, fighting titles and sports. 

eSports Tournament Prize Pool Distribution 

eSports Tournament Formats Explained

We can’t go without speaking about the hot topic in the eSports industry, and that’s a tournament’s prize pool. 

For a few years now, this is a lucrative field not only for game developers and big names in the industry. Numerous players, teams and organizations are earning big through competitions, events and leagues.

However, many viewers and enthusiasts are surprised when they hear that the prize pool isn’t for the winners. Just the opposite – there is a specific calculation that divides the profit among all of the competitors. 

Also, every organization has its way of dividing prize money among the performers. 

Let’s take the biggest and the most lucrative tournament in eSports – Dota 2 The International. 

In 2019, the total prize pool was 34,330,068 USD, and the distribution went like this: 

  • 1st place – $15,620,181 45.5%
  • 2nd place – $4,462,908 13%
  • 3rd place – $3,089,706 9%
  • 4th place – $2,059,804 6%
  • 5th – 6th – $1,201,552 3.5% each
  • 7th – 8th – $858,252 2.5% each
  • 9th – 12th – $686,602 2% each
  • 13th – 16th – $514,951 1.5% each
  • 17th – 18th – $85,825 0.25% each


The competitive eSports field is under constant and rapid development. The rules vary from event to event and from game to game.

For this reason, newbies might have a hard time catching up with scoreboards, eliminations, cups and such. On the other hand, traditional sports fans will understand the format of the tournament with ease. 

Since the organizational idea comes from other sports, barely anything new is added into the eSports field. But to understand the method altogether, you’ll always have to watch for game-specific or tournament-specific modifications. 

On this page, we introduced you to the basics of tournament stages. Terms such as group stage, playoff, round robin, double eliminations bracket and others shouldn’t be unknown anymore. 

Now, as soon as you see which format the tournament is using, you’ll immediately know what it’s all about.

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