GSL Tournaments – How to Host and What to Consider

by Fabio

The GSL bracket is a classic and popular tournament format, especially in the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and StarCraft II space. The name actually comes from the ‘Global StarCraft II League’, since this tournament was one of the first and is one of the most popular to employ the format – and still does to this day.

GSL tournaments feature four teams per group and start off with two Opening Matches, after which there will be two winners and two losers. The two winning sides fight in the Winners’ Match, which determines the winner of the overall group. The losers duke it out in the Elimination Match and whoever fails to perform there is out of the tournament. The winning team of this match now has to face the loser of the Winners’ Match to determine the last team that makes it out of the group. Fairly simple, isn’t it?

The first three groups of the 2020 Global StarCraft II League Season 1 (from liquipedia.net)
The first three groups of the 2020 Global StarCraft II League Season 1 (liquipedia.net)

When it comes to structuring group stages, GSL is highly efficient and easy to understand on the side of the viewers. But not everybody loves it and there are some pretty important reasons to consider other formats.

Why GSL is Still Seeing So Much Use

The GSL format is easy to use and understanding it requires virtually no cognitive effort on the viewer’s part. The format is scalable to any number of teams (provided you can divide them into groups of four). You have a fixed number of matches and, most importantly, not too many of them!

A Best-of-One Round Robin stage with 16 teams will require 120 maps or rounds. That is a massive amount of games to hold and also broadcast. A 16-team Best-of-One GSL tournament only takes 20 maps to complete. Smaller tournaments in particular benefit massively from these contained group games. If you want to broadcast more matches, you can always extend the games into Best-of-Three series. The comparatively smaller number of individual games also helps in a different aspect.

GSL Makes for Compact Storylines

Depending on the tournament format, the individual journeys of teams are sometimes lost in a sea of 50+ matches, where too much is taking place all at once and single matches become almost insignificant in the grand picture. 

GSL tournaments help clean this up. With only four teams in one group, each match takes on a whole new level of importance. Most importantly, you’ll always know exactly what a match means for the teams and the overall tournament.

With GSL, The Fate of Your Team is in Your Hands

In those gigantic Round-Robin leagues, where all teams play each other multiple times, it is actually quite difficult to know what’s happening and what’s coming next. Consider the recently concluded European Rainbow Six Pro League season, which was held in a Round-Robin style. Natus Vincere were sitting on second place before the last Play-Day. G2 Esports, forZe and Team Empire were close behind, all sitting in a tie-breaker. Unfortunately, Na’Vi lost their last match. G2 and forZe were slated to play against each other and the victorious team would have been tied up with Natus Vincere. But overall, Na’Vi would still have succeeded in any of the tie-breaker scenarios. Unfortunately, because Team Empire were able to win their last match, they were in a three-way tie with G2 and Na’Vi. In this scenario, Na’Vi suddenly weren’t on top anymore. 

In the end, because Team Empire won a match in which Natus Vincere had taken no part at all, the latter fell from second to fourth place. Round-Robin leagues regularly feature these kinds of scenarios in which your fate in the tournament depends entirely on another team not screwing up. 

Here, GSL tournaments make things a lot easier. If you come out on top in the Winners’ Match, you’re victorious. That’s it, no other team could possibly take that away from you. Consequently, if you drop out in the Losers’ Match, then you’re out of the event. As a broadcaster, it is much easier to tell your story when you actually know what each and every match means to your tournament. So far it sounds as if GSL is an incredibly great and useful format, but it has some blind spots as well.

GSL is Not the Fairest Format of All

Unfortunately, GSL doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the losers. DreamHack Open events, for instance, tend to only feature Best-of-One games as the Opening Matches. So if you’re not feeling it, even if just for one single map, you’re instantly thrown into the lower part of the bracket. 

Then, one Best-of-Three determines whether you stay in the tournament or not. Here, Swiss Stages and Round-Robin leagues offer a lot more margin for error. Plus, there are still more issues with GSL tournaments.

Without Proper Seeding, GSL Can Be a Mess

We want to throw you back to June 2016. G2 Esports had just finished CS:GO’s ECS Season 1 with a convincing Grand Finals victory over Luminosity (who would sign with SK Gaming shortly after). In the semis, they had beaten fnatic, who had also been riding on a wave of victories before the event. These teams were now heading into ESL One Cologne. The competition- as a Valve-sponsored Major tournament – promised to be the biggest event of the year. 

Now if you were to organize an event, how would you distribute these teams into the bracket? Surely you would put them on separate sides, so that they won’t meet early on and throw each other out of the tournament. However, ESL didn’t do that.

Group draw for ESL One Cologne 2016 (from liquipedia.net)
Group draw for ESL One Cologne 2016 (liquipedia.net)

They used the GSL format for the Group Stage, separating the 16 teams into four groups. Unfortunately, they didn’t pay a lot of attention to seeding. This ended up producing what may perhaps be the worst group draw in professional CS:GO ever. G2, SK and fnatic (the Top 3 in June’s HLTV ranking) were all put into the same group with poor FaZe Clan. In terms of ranking, the groups were ridiculously unbalanced. The average HLTV rankings of the groups were 16.75, 12, 9.5 and 5.75. You can probably image which one was the super group. 

ESL were unilaterally slammed for their decision to put three legitimate title contenders into one group. After the event, ESL changed their seeding methods and, for the following Majors, Valve opted to use the Swiss System. 

So what gives?

GSL tournaments still remain  widely popular for a variety of reasons. The GSL bracket is easy to use, easy to understand and can be a helpful asset in telling your tournament’s story. But without the right preparation, it can end up producing a wildly unbalanced playing field. In the end, everything depends on the size and type of your tournament. If you’re expecting a wide pool of teams with huge skill differences, you won’t really have to worry about seeding anyways. 

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