The evolution of the Majors
As the start of the 15th CS:GO Major tournament edges closer, it is time to look back at where it all started and examine how the Valve-sponsored events have grown and changed over the years.
Six years ago, almost exactly on this date (August 14, 2013), a CS:GO update crucial in making the game what it is today was released. At the time, thoughts were split on the Arms Deal, but the introduction of skins and special eSports Cases allowed Valve to get more involved in the competitive scene with the help of crowdfunding. Soon, the company announced they would be supporting the CS:GO tournament at the upcoming DreamHack Winter 2013 by boosting its prize pool up to $250,000. At the time, the tournament dwarfed other events in the circuit, which gave away between $10,000 and $40,000.
DreamHack Winter 2013 was far away from what Majors are today. Even the term "Major" had not yet seen widespread use; instead, the first Majors were just referred to as Valve or community-supported events.
DreamHack Winter 2013: Setting the foundations
As it was the first CS:GO Major, no Legends status was established for DreamHack Winter 2013 and all 16 competing teams had to, somehow, be decided. Six spots were allocated to tournaments leading up to the Major, something many would like to see return today in some form. Ninjas in Pyjamas were the first team to qualify on the basis of winning DreamHack Summer, while Universal Soldiers and Copenhagen Wolves secured their slots by placing 3-4th at EMS One Fall, behind NiP and VeryGames. VeryGames were one of the six teams to be invited directly, on the discretion of the tournament organizer, with two North American sides also being handed a slot, compLexity and iBUYPOWER. Had they not been invited, the attendance of the North Americans would have been unlikely, as no qualifiers for the tournament were held outside of Europe. Out of the remaining four slots, two slots were reserved for a European online qualifier, and two for the bring-your-own-PC tournament preceding the main event in Jönköping, Sweden.
In the end, the 16 slots for the first Major were distributed in the following way:
EMS One Fall
EMS One Fall
Techlabs Cup Finals
Perhaps most shocking from today's perspective is the length of the tournament. DreamHack Winter 2013 lasted merely three days, with two GSL groups (BO1) and two quarter-finals (BO3) played on each of the first two days. To fit all of it in such a small time frame, matches were played two-at-a-time, with two streams broadcasting the games. The third day saw the two semi-finals played one after another, with the grand final — the only match of the tournament played on a stage, in front of a small audience — following on the same day.
The way the scheduling worked is also something that would be heavily criticized today. For example, Recursive, who advanced to the playoffs from the group B decider match, had to play their BO3 quarter-final shortly after playing three BO1's back-to-back, while their opponent, fnatic, had an eight-hour break from their previous game. Similarly, teams from groups A and B had a day off before the semis, unlike teams from groups C and D, and the first semi-final winner had a break before the grand final, while the second semi winner went straight into it. But those were compromises that, at the time, were regularly made at LAN events due to a limited number of PCs, among other things.
Lastly, the first Major had only five maps in the pool: Dust2, Inferno, Mirage, Nuke, and Train. Inferno was by far the most played map of the event (19 out of the total 40 maps played), with many teams avoiding Mirage, Nuke and Train after Valve forced the usage of the official versions of the maps instead of the competitively adopted mirage_ce, nuke_se, and train_se, which were significantly different.
In spite of all this, DreamHack Winter 2013 was a massive success. With the help of in-game integration and the ability to watch games via GOTV, as well as get case drops on both GOTV and Twitch, the game broke both viewership and player base records during the Major: 145,000 concurrent viewers watched fnatic take down NiP, while 93,000 concurrent were recorded playing on the same day.
EMS One Katowice 2014: Team stickers added
A month passed before Valve confirmed that they would continue to support events, as EMS One Katowice was granted Major status. At the time, CS:GO was still in its growing phase, which as a result meant that the Major wasn't the main attraction in Katowice that year. The main stage and the IEM circuit was reserved for games such as StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Hearthstone.
Improvements were still seen in many areas, starting with an expansion to four days, which made the schedule more manageable. While the whole group stage was played on the first day (BO1 GSL), the playoffs were spread out through the following three, with all of the playoff games taking place on stage, albeit not the main stage in Spodek. Only one game was played there, the grand final, in which Virtus.pro dismantled NiP to the jubilation of the Polish crowd. Thanks to the great reception of the live audience, as well as the growing online viewership, CS:GO built a serious case for it to become an arena esport after Katowice.
Ahead of tournament, the "Legends status" was defined, an important term that is in use and unchanged to this day. The eight teams that made the playoffs of DreamHack Winter 2013 were defined as Legends and invited to EMS One Katowice directly, with the other eight teams decided through qualifiers (six spots) and invites (two spots). This time, however, invites were limited to teams outside of Europe and given to iBUYPOWER and Vox Eminor, the latter becoming the first team outside of Europe and North America to attend a Major (read more about their story in our Australian CS feature).
The second Major also changed the crowd-funding approach, as eSports Cases were chucked aside in favor of team stickers, with the profits being divided between Valve and organizations, with the tournament organizer also receiving a small cut.
ESL One Cologne 2014: Expanding to seven maps
While the format and schedule remained consistent for ESL's second Major of the year, a big change was introduced in another area. Valve expanded the Major map pool to seven maps, adding Overpass and Cobblestone shortly ahead of Cologne. Furthermore, Cache had only recently replaced Train (ahead of EMS One Katowice), and other maps such as Season were also played competitively at the time, in competitions like ESEA. The time to adapt was minimal and the maps needed more work so the transition was messy and players were unhappy. Eventually, it was accepted that the competitive map pool was going to be dictated by Valve, and, despite some issues, that proves to be a positive change, bringing stability and consistency in competition.
However, ahead of Cologne, there was a big pushback against the new maps, so to make sure they were not just vetoed out at the Major and actually see play, a randomizer was added into the veto phase (ban-ban-ban-ban-random for BO1, ban-ban-pick-pick-random for BO3). In the end, one of the new maps and the randomizer provided the backdrop for NiP's exciting title run, during which they played Cobblestone in four out of six games.
In terms of allocating slots for the Major, the tournament became a little more global, as qualifiers were added for three new regions: North America, Oceania, and India (after LGB disbanded, forfeiting their Legends slot). Unlike Cologne events that came after it, ESL One Cologne 2014 wasn't a big arena event, instead taking place at the Gamescom Expo, on a small stage in front of which all the interested viewers couldn't fit. The tournament, however, broke records once again with 409,000 concurrent viewers and 277,192 concurrent players, and in its aftermath, the first Major graffiti was added to a map, olofmeister's Guardian Angel on Overpass.
The second Major of 2014 was also the first to feature the Pick'Em Challenge, which became a traditional competition for everyone to enjoy for the next several tournaments.
DreamHack Winter 2014: The last expo Major
Not much changed in terms of slot allocation for the last Major of 2014. An invite was handed to Bravado, the South African squad, with another international qualifier planned but falling through in the end. That left Oceania without a chance to compete after taking part in the preceding two Majors.
DreamHack worked together with Inferno Online, a LAN center in Stockholm, to provide a five-day bootcamp to all 16 competing teams ahead of the tournament, the first sign of something similar to today's ever-present practice rooms. Inferno Online also hosted the Last Call qualifier, a four-team event which decided the two teams that would replace Titan and Epsilon at the Major after the French squads had been disqualified due to their VAC-banned members.
DreamHack Winter 2014 was scaled down from four days to three, but featured a crowd for all of the matches of the tournament as DreamHack used a double setup with small stands surrounding the playing area. The tournament most known for the infamous "olofboost incident" and the forfeit of fnatic was also the last one to take place within an expo and without a dedicated arena for the grand final.
ESL One Katowice 2015: Introducing the Main Qualifier
High-level players being VAC banned resulted in the scene become rife with cheating allegations, especially in online play where every upset was suspicious and every upcoming player doubted. Since this was happening at a time when most of the Major slots were awarded through online qualifiers, something had to be done.
To counter the issue, the ESL One Katowice 2015 Main Qualifier was created, a precursor to today's New Challengers Stage. At the event, 16 teams competed for eight Major spots using a double-elimination BO1 format, with the competitors decided through a mixture of invites and qualifiers. One of the invited teams was KaBuM (later Keyd), the Brazilian squad that crowdfunded their trip to Poland and qualified for the Major, becoming the first South American squad to do so.
While the format aspects of the Major were consistent to the previous events, CS:GO became a more important part of the overall event in Katowice and featured more viewers, both in the arena (~10,000), and online, where the record was broken once again (~1,100,000 concurrent).
ESL One Cologne 2015: Filling up an arena
Ahead of the sixth CS:GO Major, Valve made steps to truly make the game global, holding LAN qualifiers in three regions: North America (eight teams, two spots), Asia (eight teams, two spots), and EU+CIS (16 teams, four spots). The regional LAN qualifiers were a mixture of today's Minors and Main Qualifier, as they were held in separate regions but gave spots directly at the Major. ESL One Cologne 2015 was also the first Major that offered a path for Asian teams to qualify; however, both Asian slots were scooped by Oceanic teams.
ESL One Cologne 2015 was a historic Major in a few ways. Putting all of the playoff matches into the ~19,000 seater LANXESS arena was a big risk at the time, but it ended up paying off for ESL and setting the bar for following Majors. Valve also introduced player stickers for this Major, which racked up $4,2 million and gave a big financial boost to players. Ahead of the event, Valve rejected the idea that they are thinking about a "CS:GO International" similar to its highly-popular DOTA 2 competition, adding they were "taking different approaches" for their two main games.
DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca 2015: Expanding to five days
The first tournament outside of Sweden, Germany, and Poland, the countries that had hosted the first six Majors, was DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca. The tournament was expanded to a whopping five days, with BO3s added for group stage decider matches and ESL's group re-draw experiment from Cologne discarded, reverting back to the tried-and-tested GSL. Extending the tournament allowed DreamHack to cut the secondary stream, playing the group stage over the first three days and the arena playoffs taking place on the last two.
During DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, Valve made it possible to play the in-client fantasy game using player stickers and featured the first player profile videos, which were done by Valve at following Majors as well.
The Main Qualifier was also established ahead of this Major, with DreamHack Open Stockholm featuring eight teams that were eliminated in the group stage in Cologne as well as eight teams from online qualifiers (five from Europe, two from North America and one from Asia). Skyred ended up being the first Asian team to participate in a Main Qualifier, replacing Chinese side QeeYou, who had visa issues.
MLG Columbus 2016: Minors and prize pool increase
The eighth Major was the first one to happen outside the "Old Continent", as MLG was given the opportunity to host one in Columbus at the start of 2016. The length of the tournament was further extended, up to six days now, and was initially set to not feature a live audience for the quarter-finals. The decision was later changed, with three days of action taking place in the Nationwide Arena.
For MLG Columbus, Valve addressed the critique from fans and community members regarding the Major prize pool. As other tournaments started catching up to the $250,000 mark, the total purse was increased to $1,000,000. The big prize was scooped by Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo's Luminosity, the first non-European Major winner. In addition to the increased prize pool, the first version of the Major-qualifying system featuring regionals Minors and the Main qualifier was finally established.
One the other hand, the tournament marked the rise in the number of teams having roster issues. TheMongolz were unable to attend the Main Qualifier due to visa issues, while Liquid were forced to play with a stand-in as Kenneth "koosta" Suen was roster locked out due to attending a Minor with NME. Even Liquid's first-pick replacement, Mohamad "mOE" Assad, declined to stand in at the Main Qualifier after realizing that making the Major would lock him out of participating at the next Minor with Echo Fox, his team at the time.
When announced, Minors were described as events which will "spotlight players who have not recently gained exposure by participating in a CS:GO Major Championship", but with the rising numbers of professional teams, their function has changed, with the rule blocking Major players from playing at Minors soon adjusted. Compounding the roster lock issue was the larger time frame between Majors, as of 2016, only two have been held per year, bringing up the average time between Majors from four to six months.
ESL One Cologne 2016: Swiss system tested at Main Qualifier
Ahead of ESL One Cologne 2016, which ended up being the last Major in Cologne after the city hosted three in a row, Minors were fully established, with each offering two spots at the Main Qualifier, and online qualifiers for the Main Qualifier fully abolished. However, Minors still had different formats and rules as they were hosted in different countries and run by different companies. The issue was exemplified in the case of the Asia Minor held by KeSPA (Korea e-Sports Association), who reserved two spots at the Minor for Korean teams (both finished last in their group), and initially didn't allocate a slot for Oceania.
At the Main Qualifier, ESL tested out the Swiss system, with the positive feedback seeing it introduced into the Major itself the next year. The push for the Swiss system was most likely much easier after the ESL One Cologne 2016 groups were drawn, as the three best teams at the time (SK #1, G2 #2, and fnatic #3) were in the same group, alongside dark horse FaZe (#17).
Following the Major, Valve decided to address coaching in CS:GO, limiting the communication between the players and the sixth man to four 30-second timeouts per game. At the time, IGL-coaches were starting to rise in popularity, with Luis "peacemaker" Tadeu's role in Liquid being an example of it, a formula Natus Vincere tried to emulate by replacing Zeus with s1mple.
ELEAGUE Major Atlanta 2017 & PGL Krakow 2017: Swiss accepted, randomizer removed
Adjustments to the Majors slowed down in 2017. ELEAGUE Atlanta used the Swiss system both for the Main Qualifier and the Major itself, extending the tournament up to seven days to do so. A more significant change was made to the veto process, as the randomizer between the last three maps in a BO3 was finally removed, after being used at seven Majors. A randomizer was still used in BO1s, between the last two maps (instead of the usual three), but that was changed for the PGL Krakow Major, where any kind of randomness in the veto process was abolished, never to return to Majors.
Astralis' Major spot situation ahead of the ELEAGUE major, in a way, foreshadowed the issues that would prop up two years later. Teams such as Cloud9 and HellRaisers swapped in a coach-substitute to retain their Major invite, which had been an option for the Danes in 2017. They, instead, opted to sign Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, who had stood in for them at ESL One Cologne 2016 as Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye was not allowed to play.
Minors, PGL's specialty, were adjusted to all have the same format ahead of the PGL Krakow Major, which surprisingly hadn't been the case before that. Other than adjusting the Minors, the Krakow Major was marked with the infamous jump-crouch bug, which was eventually ruled as legal, but an agreement was made between the teams to not use it.
ELEAGUE Boston Major 2018: Merging the Major and Main Qualifier
One of the biggest reforms to the Majors was merging the Main Qualifier and the Major into a three-stage tournament comprising the Challengers, Legends, and Champions stages. Teams playing in what used to be the Main Qualifier received stickers, effectively expanding the Major to 24 teams, which was met by some pushback. While the integration of the Main Qualifier into the Major brought more interest and viewers to the qualifier games, some within the community believe that it devalued the achievement of making a Major, as well as flooded the team sticker market, which was already significantly less profitable than it had been at the start, in 2015.
Despite Valve's change, on HLTV.org we continue to refer to the first stage as the Main Qualifier, for historic and statistical reasons, with the Major being just the Legends and Champions stage. For example, when deciding the tournament MVP, the Main Qualifier games are not taken into account.
As the first three-stage one, the ELEAGUE Boston Major was the longest Major to date, spanning over 10 days (17 including the Main Qualifier). The first two stages took place in ELEAGUE's studios in Atlanta, with the playoffs being held in Boston after a two-day break. At the Agganis Arena, Cloud9 made history by becoming the first North American side to win a Major.
FACEIT London Major 2018: Tinkering with Swiss, "QBF rule"
After the Swiss system had been used for three Majors and four Main Qualifiers in a row, its flaws had been exposed and players had grown unhappy with it. Drawing the initial round from pools based solely on placings at previous Majors, followed by random draws within same-score pools, and the Swiss stage being completely BO1, were issues the Swiss format faced, with some even asking for a return to the GSL format.
Two of the three issues with Swiss were addressed for the FACEIT Major. The Buchholz system seeding was set to fix the randomness of the draw and BO3s were also added, in the final match, extending the Swiss stage to five days. However, without proper initial seeding, the improvements made were only marginal, as the initial matchups are crucial in determining how the rest of the Swiss stage plays out. The prime example was Astralis and Natus Vincere, the two highest-ranked teams at the tournament, facing off in the first round of the Swiss system. A significant improvement, however, was that Buchholz was used to determine the playoff matchups, making certain that egregious draws such as the SK - Astralis (PGL Krakow) or LDLC - fnatic (DHW 2014) quarter-finals would not repeat.
An important addition to the Major format was the "QBF rule", as it was dubbed by the public. The purpose of the rule was to increase the turnover of teams in the Major cycle, as previously, making playoffs of one Major would ensure you a spot at the subsequent two, even if you lost all of your games. Quantum Bellator Fire's underdog run brought to attention an issue that had existed since 2016, with the rule change making space for the creation of the Minor Play-in, which was added before IEM Katowice 2019.
Minors were also upgraded ahead of the FACEIT Major, as all four were held at the same location and run by the same company, warranting that each region is treated equally. Having all Minors in the same place as the Major also ensured that any visa issues were dealt with well ahead of the Major itself. While that worked out for the teams coming in from the Minors, the tournament still wasn't perfect in terms of attendance as Space Soldiers' Engin "ngiN" Kor was unable to get his visa in time. The team was forced to use their coach, Canpolat "hardstyle" Yıldıran, and due to the rules disallowing a team from reverting the substitution, ngiN would be locked out of the team even if he arrived on the second day of the event. This rule remains unchanged.
IEM Katowice 2019: Seeding, more BO3s and the return of double streams
The Minors leading up to ESL's first Major since 2016 received additional touch-ups, as direct invites to Minors were completely abolished, something that had been criticized by European teams in 2016 and pushed out over the years. The Minor Play-in was also announced, allowing the growingly competitive Europe Minor to field up to three teams at the Main Qualifier - a step in the right direction according to many who had been asking for a balancing act in the Minors, but judging by how stacked the most recent StarLadder Europe Minor was, perhaps not enough. However, a good part of the blame is also on North and fnatic, who suffered upsets to Asian and CIS sides in the Katowice Major cycle.
ESL also built on FACEIT's ideas of improving the Swiss system but had a more holistic approach. Firstly, "Player-Selected Seeding" was introduced at the Major, improving the initial matchup draw, with an ELO system replacing Buchholz to handle draws in subsequent rounds and the playoffs. More series were also introduced, with now all of the elimination and advancement matches being best-of-three clashes. This addressed a big issue in the Swiss system: "upset" teams preparing on just three or four maps, hoping to secure Legends status, while teams aiming to take the title had spread themselves thinly to cover six to seven maps.
While there were some critics who claimed the format was too harsh for underdogs, the majority of the community agreed that the IEM Katowice Major format was the best the Majors have ever had. The only compromise made was that to fit in all of the games, a part of the group stage matches had to be played two-at-a-time, reintroducing double streams to a Major for the first time since ESL One Cologne 2015.
StarLadder Berlin Major 2019: Emergency substitute and roster issues
The StarLadder Major itself hasn't started, but the Major cycle is well underway and we have seen the Minors play out and Major-related issues prop up. The biggest talking point is the coach-substitute swap that allowed teams to keep their Major spot while only playing with two of their five players - which goes against the 3/5 rule that has been used in CS for years. StarLadder tried to put an end to the abuse by adding a rule that allows such changes only if an emergency can be proven (health, visa issues), but reverted it shortly ahead of the Minors, claiming it "created a lot of chaos" and was "unnecessary and unhealthy".
While the emergency rule itself was probably not good enough to stop teams that were set on finding a loophole (such as HellRaisers, who submitted Žygimantas "nukkye" Chmieliauskas as their coach well ahead of the rule change), a large part of the "chaos" created was due to other roster lock rules, not the substitute one.
For example, unlike for the FACEIT London Major and IEM Katowice Major, players that attended a StarLadder Minor and failed to qualify for the Main Qualifier were unable to switch to a team invited to the Major or Main Qualifier. Instead, just qualifying for the Minor meant your team was completely locked. This saw Lazarus lose their Minor spot due to no fault of their own, as Pujan "FNS" Mehta and Tyson "TenZ" Ngo didn't want to or could not attend the tournament with them. Similarly, NiP picked up Nicolas "Plopski" Gonzalez Zamora, whom they can't use at the Major.
The roster lock was placed significantly earlier for the StarLadder Major than it normally had been at preceding Majors, making it impossible for MIBR to replace Marcelo "coldzera" David with any player other than their coach, Wilton "zews" Prado, despite his benching taking place a month and a half before the first phase of the tournament starts. With more lenient roster lock rules, such as the ones used for the London and Katowice Majors, the majority of these issues would've been avoided.
A monumental act, yet one that was publicly not received as such, was made by Valve earlier this year when they put forward the dates for the upcoming four Majors. Firstly, it brings an end to Majors happening shortly after the player break (FACEIT, StarLadder), which caused teams to roll up to the most important tournament out of form, and also impeded transfers between teams, as rosters were locked in the time period during which it made the most sense to make changes. Secondly, it allows tournament organizers to plan around the Major accordingly and avoid overlap, setting up the calendar longer ahead and creating more stability. Thirdly, it opens up possibilities to set up the qualifiers, roster locks, and the whole Major cycle in a way that is more consistent and easier to comprehend both for teams and fans. However, Valve has also enforced a cutback on the total length of the Major, which will now have to take place within two weeks to reduce its impact on the schedule.
What is left to be improved? It seems like we have landed on a satisfactory format of the Major and Main qualifier, with scheduling not being an issue itself. The Majors are filling up big arenas across the world, with even the Legends and the Challengers stages now featuring crowds and being played in venues similar to the one that hosted the grand final of the first Major. We have come a long way over the 15 Majors, and we are now left with smaller problems, but ones complex to solve.
Judging by how many issues rose up regarding them, roster locks are certainly something to be revised ahead of the May 2020 Major. The slot allocation is still a hot topic, with joining the CIS and Europe Minors an idea often mentioned. Cutting down the number of teams being re-invited to the Major is often put forward, with the thinking behind it being that the time frame between Majors is too long for so many teams to be re-invited, leading to mediocre teams clinging on to spots for too long. The small number of new teams entering the Major system every cycle (maximum of 3 from the two dominant regions, NA and EU), makes dropping a spot and rebuilding a team a risky move, as felt by Cloud9 this year. That, again, promotes teams sticking to average rosters that perhaps need a complete overhaul in order to reach their full potential.
The Major prize pool has been stagnant since 2016, and while Majors still overshadow the vast majority of other individual tournaments, the sheer number of $200,000+ events has made players prioritize the rest of the circuit over the Majors in certain situations, with claims about Majors losing their prestige growing ever louder. While that perhaps is not true — as proven by the viewership and the importance Majors still hold among players —, boosting the prize pool, adding a new form of crowdfunding, or refreshing some of the ways fans interact with the Major (stickers and Pick'Em), is something that should be considered by Valve.
While some changes are straightforward ones and one could expect them to be implemented for the next Major, shifting the whole slot allocation is a much larger task, and would most likely require a system that gives out invites based on performances in other, non-Valve sponsored tournaments, going back to how it was done for the DreamHack Winter 2013. It is unlikely that such a system would be devised for the next Major, as it requires a set calendar and the cooperation of all the big tournament organizers, the players' associations, as well as Valve. However, with the next four Major dates already known and more stability in the calendar set to come, maybe a big change to the Major cycle is exactly what will be happening down the line.