Is the Challengers Stage buff real?

Free entry into the top 16 of a Major might seem like a sweet deal, but is it actually better to start from the Challengers Stage?

Ever since the Major was extended to 24 teams at ELEAGUE Major 2018 there has been debate about whether participating in the Challengers Stage — the first of two Swiss group stages at a Major — could be an advantage going into the later stages of the event.

Previously, the Challengers Stage was just known as the Major's main qualifier and was held a few weeks before the Major proper. It was usually held in the tournament organizer's hub: Krakow's qualifier was at PGL's base in Bucharest, Cologne 2016's at ESL's studio in Katowice, etc. For all intents and purposes, it was a separate event — like today's RMRs.

Now, the play-in stage is held in the same venue as the Legends Stage, with a gap of just one day between the two stages. Teams that survive the grueling Challengers Stage go into the Legends Stage with their feet under the table. They know the setups, have their SSDs ready, Dmitry "⁠sh1ro⁠" Sokolov has his chair facing the right way, and with three victories under their belts they have an undeniable sense of momentum.

Meanwhile, the Legends come into the event cold, with no officials and forced to practice against teams that are not at the Major. There is an advantage to that too, of course. They can hide which maps they're working on and have time to anti-strat the successful Challengers teams. But there is still this conception of a 'Challengers buff' in the community, the idea that should a team catch fire in the first group stage, they can have an easier time in the second.

By the numbers, since Boston 2018, it's fairly even: 3 of the last 8 Major champions, 3 of the 8 runners-up, 9 of the 16 semi-finalists, and 14 of the 32 quarter-finalists came from the Challengers Stage. Considering that being a Legend comes with a higher seed and an implied advantage, it might be a little worrying that this advantage barely plays out in reality.

The binary of whether a team is a Legend or a Challenger is just one factor when it comes to untangling the web of Major formats, but it is an important one. We also must acknowledge that not all of these Majors should really be compared; Legends spots are handed out under completely different (and less representative) parameters these days.

Read more
Valve’s Swiss System under the microscope

Before, Legend spots were decided by their placement at the last Major, with playoff teams receiving an invite to the Legends Stage of the next event. Considering the two-year gap between Berlin and Stockholm, that system was scrapped for the first post-COVID Major and has not returned since.

Even for Stockholm, it was a better system; the RMRs were actual ranking systems over multiple tournaments, so giving Legends spots to the highest-ranked teams was more likely to result in teams deserving the higher seed.

Now, they are decided on a team's record in the Swiss system at a single RMR, meaning the opening best-of-ones are suddenly extremely important. To secure a Legends spot, teams need to go either 3-0 or 3-1, leaving no room for error in a system that promotes variance. Naturally, that variance does occur, and results in wonky seeding that have had a tangible impact on the last few Majors.

When Legends Stage participants are ranked from 1-16 by their HLTV Rank, meaning the highest-ranked team at the event is given a value of '1' and the lowest '16', we can see the rough strength of Legends cohorts over the last few months of tier one play before the Major. An average rank of 4 would mean the Legends were the eight-highest-ranked teams at the stage, while 8 would mean that they are equally matched with the Challengers.

The brighter blue here represents the Majors that have used the single RMR system for Legends spots, and we can see how, in Rio and Paris especially, the average has crept towards parity with Challengers. These two Majors have been upset-heavy, so there is an element of chicken-or-the-egg here, but we can clearly see that the RMR system is handing out Legends spots to slightly lower-ranked teams than in the past. This is part of the reason more Challengers are higher-ranked than in Stockholm and before COVID, and more Legends are unproven underdogs.

This trend does not extend to Antwerp, where the favorites largely came through the RMRs unscathed, but after three Major cycles this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Take the example of Into the Breach in Paris. The Brits earned a Legend spot on a technicality after BLAST (as ESL did in Rio's RMRs) opted to hand out Legends spots before round five of Swiss had been conducted. They then arrived to the Major in red-hot form, stunning FaZe, ENCE, and fnatic to qualify for playoffs.

For them, skipping straight to the Legends Stage was a clear advantage, as they avoided the non-partner teams that know their style and map pool well. Their best map, Vertigo, was allowed to be the deciding map in the BO1 against ENCE and in the BO3 against fnatic. Cai "⁠CYPHER⁠" Watson was still surprising Vitality with his plays up the A Ramp in playoffs; in a format where the only real time to prepare for an opponent is the night before, an underdog that can skip straight to the Legends Stage has a real advantage.

Into the Breach made the most out of their Legends spot

That's not to take anything away from Into the Breach, who thoroughly deserved all three of their upsets, it's just to say that the separation of the Challengers and Legends stages can lead to advantages for both sides in different contexts.

On the opposite side of the same coin we have GamerLegion, who went from 0-2 down in the Challengers Stage all the way to the Major final. This is a team that turned up fairly cold on day one before catching fire in the best of threes — had they turned up that cold in the Legends Stage, who knows if they could have achieved the same feat?

GamerLegion's story is the traditional one when thinking of the 'Challengers buff,' a non-partner team at tier one events that had time to get their Major nerves out of their system before taking some heavy swings at the BLAST and ESL partner teams that lay in their path in the Legends Stage. It's the story of Copenhagen Flames in Stockholm, Spirit in Antwerp, and of Apeks, Monte, and GamerLegion in Paris.

These teams fly the flag for the open circuit and do so with aplomb. Paris and Rio have been two of the most upset-heavy Majors in history, and whatever you think is the driving factor of this trend — the seeding, the partner leagues breeding complacency, a 'Challengers buff,' — you have to tip your hat off to these teams.

Regardless of that, though, ten of the last sixteen playoff teams at Majors came from the Challengers Stage — a clear sign that the system that assigns Legends spots is failing. Whether that is because skipping to Legends does not give enough of an advantage or Legends spots are not handed out to the 'best' teams (or both) is irrelevant. Either case proves that the system needs changing.

The Major format right now is the perfect breeding ground for upsets. It has a fairly weak format, best-of-ones, poor seeding, and pits teams from the closed circuit against the hungry upstarts of tier two. The Challengers Stage being separate from the Legends Stage is just another factor adding to the ever-growing pile.

That eight teams simply skip the first third of the Major is something we have gotten used to, but it is strange even if the spots were awarded using less of a scatter-gun approach. There are solutions: A 32-team Major, with either one big Swiss group or two 16-team ones like in Europe's RMRs; reverting to GSL, round robin, or a new system that can work with 24 teams; even returning to a 16-team Major with a separate main qualifier.

It is hard to deliver a format that satisfies everybody and changes to the number of teams will undoubtedly bring with it some disputes, for instance about the very lucrative sticker capsules. But this is the Major, the most important event on the calendar, and it should be about more than just the money. It's time for it to return to being one tournament with all teams starting from the same point. Separating the stages and creating different conditions just brings with it asterisks we do not need.

Russia Dmitry 'sh1ro' Sokolov
Dmitry 'sh1ro' Sokolov
Rating 1.0:
Maps played:
United Kingdom Cai 'CYPHER' Watson
Cai 'CYPHER' Watson
Rating 1.0:
Maps played:
2023-06-02 17:47
1 reply
Bring back the good old GSL system for CS2! Only 1 upset in 5 years (flipsid3 vs nip), shouldnt have fixed what wasnt broken
2023-06-02 23:20
Lebanon Dogman69
2023-06-02 17:47
2023-06-02 17:48
2023-06-02 17:48
h4rn | 
China pix3w
not reading allat
2023-06-02 17:49
India shoom123
2023-06-02 17:49
hades copenhagen major winner
2023-06-02 17:51
2023-06-02 17:51
start in legend stage = be weak one map per week partnered team = have bad time against chad play 10 qualifier games a day teams
2023-06-02 17:51
W hltv using valorant lingo
2023-06-02 17:52
1 reply
watchu on about?
2023-06-02 19:46
United States Primrose
Fun article
2023-06-02 17:53
Just getting rid of the BO1's alone would probably make a huge difference. I understand that it would either make the tournament days longer, or would increase the number of days required, but BO1's are trash especially when they have such a huge impact on the seeding for later stages of the tournament.
2023-06-02 17:54
5 replies
i feel like csgo needs a big system change as a whole
2023-06-02 18:02
Use dota bo2 point system.
2023-06-02 18:21
1 reply
+1 would be interesting
2023-06-02 19:46
Finland KarPPa
bo1 should be totally gone from majors
2023-06-02 18:55
1 reply
Big +1
2023-06-02 21:13
Brazil dio_scuro
2023-06-02 17:57
This entire analysis needs an asterisk. Why? The sample size of the format being criticized is 3 MAJORs, one of which, Antwerp, doesn't really follow the trends and criticisms outlined. Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with upsets or tier-2 teams getting a chance to warm-up before facing tougher tier-1 opponents in Legends, it's very strange that NER0 considers that a "problem" with the format. I consider it an exciting aspect, and it is arguably what draws more viewers in! This analysis also discounts the often heavy impact of roster changes (vs. stable rosters), that will help or hinder any team, regardless of placement, rank, or stage they play in. Top teams simply have to deal with the pressure and win, no excuses about format or being "cold". These are the top professionals in the world, they have to figure out solutions to any challenge, otherwise they deserve to get beat by the likes of ITB or GL. Ironically, in other pro sports like football, you hear the opposite argument from the top clubs, that they have to play too many games close together, and want a break before their most important matches like UCL playoffs, so players can rest up and recover from injuries. Either way, CS2 will be a new era, and we will see what happens.
2023-06-02 18:07
6 replies
The problem is not with "upsets or tier-2 teams getting a chance to warm-up before facing tougher tier-1 opponents," it's that the Legend spots aren't going to the "tougher" opponents — it's going to teams that got a good start in the BO1s of the RMR
2023-06-02 18:31
1 reply
Flair + flag
2023-06-02 19:38
"Top teams simply have to deal with the pressure" Why though? You're giving a huge advantage to weaker teams by playing these heavily favored games so late into the tournament instead of eliminating the weaker teams when the pressure is not yet that high on anyone. Upsets are great entertainment, but why would you want them so bad that you purposefully have a format that creates them? One or two deserving upset teams per tournament should be enough. Watching top teams losing to themselves is fun for a while, but long term it's not the best CS could be having in the best CS tournament of the year/season.
2023-06-02 18:38
3 replies
Are you implying that the pressure is significantly higher on the tier-1 favourites, and they have a tougher game objectively against weaker teams who warmed up? I call bullshit on that, because arguably, there is less pressure on them and much more on a tier-2 team - a team that might be in debt just to travel to the major venue and could also have 3 or 4 players who have never played on a tier-1 LAN event before! Meanwhile, the tier-1 team can go home to a fat paycheck, even if they lose, not to mention already know they are invited to other big tournaments in the calendar year by default as partners! Such a weird upside down world people live in sometimes. Again, a pro football example to make it clear -- imagine Manchester City going out in the group stage of UCL, and the fans complaining that the weaker teams that had to qualify to even get into the UCL groups had a "huge advantage". LOL!
2023-06-02 20:38
2 replies
Are you implying that it isn't? It's a competitive sport and people get paid for results. A tier2 underdog team has zero pressure on the server against the top teams in the world. No one can reasonably expect them to beat these teams and no one will blame them if they don't. Like, the players themselves and the analyst on the desk bring up this point basically every time in matchups between a top team and a clear underdog, that all the pressure is on the favorite and the underdog has nothing to lose. Somehow you still have missed all this and developed some weird opposite take where, contrary to what everyone else is saying, it's actually the underdogs with all the pressure.
2023-06-02 21:05
Bro jesus christ be for real its 2023 not 2016, teams aren't paying out of pocket to go to these tournaments except maybe BNE. Even then they make so much from sticker money I'm sure they can afford to travel and bootcamp for a week or two.
2023-06-03 04:30
Statistical analysises are shallow and completely void of in depth abstract thinking. Very American tbh.
2023-06-02 18:11
10 replies
Statistical analysis can support every narrative you try to come up with on those not-obvious cases of whether the system sucks, the underdogs got better, the tier 1 teams are shit...
2023-06-02 18:17
9 replies
No. A lot of vital information doesn't show up as numbers in any shape or form.
2023-06-02 19:40
8 replies
you can make up any number to represent this information.
2023-06-02 21:05
7 replies
Why aren't people describing the world through numbers alone then? I tell you will take literally a lifetime to describe a single day of your life with numbers only.
2023-06-02 23:08
6 replies
Nobody is describing the word with numbers alone in detail, but for everything that exists in the world, there is a number that attempts to get some information about it, some of them are poor, some of them are good. Numbers exist everywhere, its quantities, and quantities exist everywhere. GDP is one of those numbers, if you aren't aware. Even if its a number that gets an amalgamation of billions of variables. Work on your reading comprehension. I am saying you can MAKE UP (which means its not something necesarily correct) numbers to support narratives. And you're discussing with me something completely unrelated.
2023-06-02 23:12
5 replies
I read "make up", but even this wont work, and take literally forever. Your rude end paragraph was completely uncalled for. and to me it seems to only serve to distract from the fact that you can not describe the world through numbers alone, factual or made up, it's simply practically impossible.
2023-06-02 23:20
4 replies
"you can not describe the world through numbers alone" nobody ever said you could. You're arguing with yourself.
2023-06-02 23:22
3 replies
"you can make up any number to represent this information." Just ignore your own post.
2023-06-02 23:23
2 replies
Do you understand that MAKE UP, is INVENTING stuff? For fucks sake, dude. You can make up NONSENSICAL numbers to represent this information to support any narrative you want. "Statistical analysis can support every narrative you try to come up with on those not-obvious cases of whether the system sucks, the underdogs got better, the tier 1 teams are shit..." Do you know what NARRATIVE and MAKE UP means? They're not facts. Garbage reading comprehension, i'm out, seriously.
2023-06-02 23:26
1 reply
Yes I understand that, I already wrote that. You need to work on your reading comprehension :p But you still talk about making up numbers for EVERYTHING, which will still take literally forever, which was the initial discussion of my post.
2023-06-02 23:29
Yet another reminder that so many shit teams made it to playoffs of one of the last 3 majors. And G2 did not...
2023-06-02 18:21
that sh1ro pic made me lol
2023-06-02 18:23
Round robin is the best way to start a tournament as long as you don't eliminate too many of the teams yet at this point. The only problem with it is if you're eliminating too many teams from the groups so that there might be some less important games towards the end if a team is already eliminated or qualified. Regardless, you want to seed the playoffs according to some meaningful results between teams that actually played against each other. The Swiss format with bo1's and Buchholz is too random to actually work as intended (match results aren't accurate enough proxies for which of the two is the better team, especially in the context of the later bo3 games). Also worth considering is a 16 team playoff bracket instead of just the 8. Or you could at least have 12 teams and have the bottom 5th-12th play an extra round to decide who will be in the 8 team bracket.
2023-06-02 18:30
United States burNout_
Yes of course it is
2023-06-02 18:30
United States Scoobster
ner0 casually trying to introduce his 32-team Major idea. ngl tho it would be be more fair, + give sticker money to more orgs
2023-06-02 18:53
Why this post is after major is over ?
2023-06-02 19:21
United States Apocasy
Very nice read
2023-06-02 19:38
1 reply
Thank you, much appreciated!
2023-06-02 20:09
i want the return of the RMR system for initial major seeding, and ideally the major should be 16 team round robin in two groups. Get rid of challengers stage and don’t be afraid to have stickers for teams that didn’t make it to major (maybe this can be done by some sort of regional finals events?) BO3s only. a long major would be probably intriguing for the viewers too, and then you can do the event only once a year
2023-06-02 19:44
United States GiantDays
ITB didnt get a buff from the stage They're British, they did well out of spite for France.
2023-06-02 19:51
i think that these upsets happen because "partner teams" don't bother to prepare for matches against tier 2 teams and also have a superiority complex against them. the gap between the tier 2 teams and the tier 1 ones is a lot smaller after COVID. I think this is the real reason...the major system is just fine...partner teams only prepare strats against 6-7 other teams, because the majority of time they play closed tournaments against other partner teams. the interesting thing about majors, is that we can see these teams perform out in the open..some people don't like what they see appartently. :)
2023-06-02 20:01
9 replies
you don't see the dominant T1 teams like you used to, like a debate that had a few weeks ago, the closed championships are decreasing the quality of the main teams, while in the open qualifiers the T2 teams evolve and acquire greater prominence
2023-06-02 20:20
1 reply
yep, its an impossible game of balancing the true competition vs. participating on partnered events for money and viewership. the constant grind on multiple tier2 tournaments, definitely makes those teams tougher opponents.
2023-06-02 20:26
Very well put sir! This is exactly why I don't even think the term tier-2 is fair sometimes, as it mostly aligns with financial support, history, and how "popular" your team is, not necessarily that you're a class below the tier-1 opponents you may end up eliminating in the major in an "upset". The circuit should be more open, not adjusted to allow tier-1 teams to face less of a challenge on their way to trophies.
2023-06-02 20:31
1 reply
agree, the article above suggests from start to finish that we seggregate even more. i find this obscene.
2023-06-02 20:45
Is it reasonable to expect the top teams to prepare in advance for a fifty different tier2+ teams that they might never even end up playing against, and for all maps, just that they could actually be prepared against them when they find out their opponent 24h before the match and the map(s) they're playing 5 minutes before the game starts?
2023-06-02 21:14
4 replies
they actually have plenty of time once the RMRs lineups are decided and the first games announced, to prepare for a very definite first opponent. the second round opponents after that can be pretty much guessed from a pool of 3-4 teams (tier 1 included). these organisations pay plenty of money to analysts, psychologists, coaches, especially to prepare matches....its a competition...if they can't manage this, they won't win..simple
2023-06-02 21:27
3 replies
So what you're saying is actually that they have all those resources but actually just didn't use them because of ego or whatever?
2023-06-02 21:37
2 replies
could be that some of the teams just got lazy, perhaps just poor form (happens to the best of us). what i'm trying to say, i don't think we should put these teams in yellow cages and allow T2 to touch them only from time to time. we need to respect the sport and competition. the seeding they get on RMRs i think is enough of an advantage...after that, they need to prove themselves. i'm amazed by ITB's road to champions stage from the open qualifiers, where they competed against a couple of hundreds of teams in BO1 matches. it's almost a romantic idea, that anyone can reach that level with hard work and dedication. whenever money gets involved, they tend to kill the sport and competition.
2023-06-02 21:51
1 reply
ITB got to the playoffs by only winning two bo3 games and these were against B8 in the RMR and fnatic in Legends. The idea that they beat hundreds of teams in open qualifier may be romantic, but in the end it's a 100% chance that a team gets through the open qualifier every time.
2023-06-02 22:13
Brazil darkfroid
Always like these kind of articles
2023-06-02 20:59
Who the fuck cares at this point? Major concluded like 2 weeks ago.
2023-06-02 21:42
Faze on antwerp came from challengers arent they?
2023-06-02 23:07
1 reply
No, they didn't
2023-06-03 00:55
I don't count it as the major until it's on stage, this format is exhausting to watch and most of the matches are meaningless. imo every match at a major should be on a stage, and the qualifiers should be done separately. The major should be an EVENT, not a regular tournament
2023-06-02 23:15
The sample size here is absolutely not enough for any adequate analysis. At the same time, I agree with conclusion that major should start for all the teams at the same spot. I don't really care if it would be 32 teams major, 16 teams major with 32 teams qualifier before that or a different system for 24 teams, but current 24 teams format with 8 teams skipping the entire first stage only because they qualify slightly better than others doesn't make any sense
2023-06-03 00:49
2023-06-03 03:34
Russia r3sp
HLTV rating and "partner" status are not that relevant anymore. Basing arguments on assumptions that they are will lead you to wrong conclusions. Getting pickems right are not that important too:]
2023-06-03 08:59
1 reply
And it never wasn't relevant. Giving points to teams from elite club, giving them mvps for invited tournaments it's like playing the championship of your disctrict. Also top 20 players of the year got most of their stats for those tournaments. What about this buff, hltv?
2023-06-03 15:30
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