Swiss Tournament System – What Is It? How Does It Work?

by Fabio

The Swiss Tournament System is a critical part of esports. Dota 2, Hearthstone, FIFA and Overwatch have all made use of this tournament format in recent years. In CSGO, it is used during the first two stages of every Major tournament since 2017. It is a great method for holding group stages, as it automatically seeds the participants in every round and assures that no teams meet each other twice. However, the system also has its downsides. 

How Does The Swiss Tournament System Work?

Initially, the convoluted bracket might scare people off. The Swiss System is difficult to understand, but it follows one general design principle. Win three games to advance and lose three to drop out of the event. 

Visual representation of the Swiss Tournament System (via pinnacle.com)

The participants are put into starting matches. All teams advance to Round 2, but will now have a different track record, as half have lost and the other half have won their matches. Now, the teams with a positive track record are pitted against each other, while the teams with 0-1 standings will also fight amongst each other. 

This creates three different seed groups for Round 3. The teams that have won both of their engagements so far are put into the highest group. The teams that have lost both matches continue into the lowest group. The middle group consists of all the teams that have either won and lost, or lost and won their first two matches (1-1 track record). At this stage, the first few teams will start to leave the bracket. The winners in the highest seed advance, having won three matches straight. The losers, having lost three matches in a row, are eliminated from the event. 

Teams with 3-0 and 0-3 track records won’t be taking part in Round 4 of the Swiss Tournament System. So there are only two groups left, with either a 2-1 or 1-2 record. Once again, teams will advance or drop out. For Round 5, only the teams with a 2-2 standing remain. All of them will have one last chance at making the next stage of the tournament.

While this certainly isn’t rocket science, the system isn’t as easily explained as GSL or Round-Robin either. And while it might appear as though the system is already better than most competing formats, there are a few caveats and issues to consider.

Esports feature a wide range of tournament formats and every game has a different approach.
Esports feature a wide range of tournament formats and every game has a different approach.

Why the Swiss Tournament System Can Sometimes Be Worse

As so often, the quality of this format comes down to proper seeding. While this system automatically employs a degree of reseeding (with the 1-2, 2-1,… groups), it can still be heavily impacted by setting up unbalanced initial matches.

In tournament balancing, you want to try to keep the best teams out of each others’ sight until late in the tournament. In a Single-Elimination bracket, this becomes clear. If the two most promising teams meet in the quarterfinals already, there won’t be a chance for them to meet in the Grand Finals. Likely, the winner of that match will dominate the rest of the event. This is simply not great to watch and doesn’t make for interesting story lines. 

Back to the Swiss System. If Round 1 is badly seeded, the better teams meet each other and knock some of the stronger ones into the 0-1 group. With a bit of bad luck, two of the teams meet again. This already puts promising teams into a 0-2 position, which is difficult to recover from. Most importantly, this creates an unfair environment on the lower end of the bracket. “Average” teams will now have to deal with overpowering competitions, while others may get into the higher groups against easier competition.

The Swiss System Needs Seeding

Here’s an example from the ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018 tournament. The CSGO Major was the first to introduce a 24-team main event. In three different stages, the teams competed against each other to determine the Major winner. The first two stages used the Swiss Tournament System. Taking a look at the New Challengers Stage of this competition reveals the biggest issue. Because ELEAGUE messed up the intial seeding, FaZe Clan and Team Liquid met in the first round already, while G2 Esports got a freebie against Flash Gaming. Additionally, teams such as Renegades and Space Soldiers lost their first engagements. This put additional pressure on the lower end of the bracket. 

ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018 featured the Swiss Tournament System
ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018 featured the Swiss Tournament System (via ELEAGUE)

Since the organizers drew the new match-ups without any reseeding, Round 5 ended up completely scrambling the playing field. Liquid to go up against Natus Vincere for a spot in the New Legends Stage. At the same time, Quantum Bellator Fire and AVANGAR had the chance to see one of themselves through to the next stage as well. In an ideal world, Team Liquid and Na’Vi would have had the chance to compete against one of these lesser teams. 

This tournament actually exposes another issue, which isn’t directly related to the Swiss Tournament System. In CSGO, Best-of-One matches are simply not enough to really measure two teams up against each other. StarLadder have responded to this issue by implementing Best-of-Three Swiss Stages. But of course this comes with a price. 

Reasons to Consider Other Formats

A GSL Tournaments Group requires 5 matches to decide the tournament fates of 4 teams. For 16 (in 4 groups) teams, this extends to 20 matches. Swiss will take 33 matches to achieve that same feat. While these are still fewer matches than in a Round-Robin format, it is still a considerable step-up. Especially if your broadcasting days are limited, this becomes quite the issue.

Reasons to Consider the Swiss Tournament System

Still, with all these (potential) issues, Swiss is a great format. In contrast to Round-Robin, each match has a set context and storyline that can be dissected in the analysis segments. Unlike GSL and Single-Elimination, it will likely still provide a relatively balanced bracket without any previous seeding applied. Most importantly, though, it gives each team three lifelines. No team will have to depart the competition for making one small mistake.

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