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.
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.
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.