Open Season: Examining the Changes and Challenges of the EPL and ECS Leagues
The two main top tier leagues in Counter-Strike are ESL’s Pro League and FACEIT’s Esports Championship Series. Both had been very similar for many years: online leagues divided by region (EU and NA primarily), with the top portion of teams playing a LAN final.
Criticism had been levelled against both EPL and ECS for many reasons, including days where a team could play the same opponent four times across the two leagues, teams forced to forfeit games due to being at tournaments beyond their ‘home’ region and online games generally being less prestigious or significant than their LAN counterparts that concluded the leagues.
This year, for EPL Season 9 and ECS Season 7, both leagues have revamped their format. EPL has become a four group LAN tournament, with European games held in Leicester at the ESL UK Studio and North American games at the Intel Esports Arena in Burbank. ECS is now a collection of five online Series, with three weeks seeing direct qualification for the Final and the subsequent weeks allowing the highest-earning team to earn their spot that way.
As both leagues draw to a close, it is worth looking back over the new formats, seeing whether the changes have resulted in improvements or not and how players and the community have responded to the respective seasons.
ESL Pro League Season 9
Seeing as EPL includes competition in Oceania and Asia which remains online, only the EU and NA portions will be compared since ECS only covers those two regions.
2018 marked the start of ESL’s infamous (and short) Facebook deal which saw Season 8’s, as well as all ESL One tournaments, English streams broadcasted exclusively on the social network. The start of this year resulted in the expected removal of that exclusivity, and many were excited to see the league on Twitch after almost two years of absence from the streaming service. In addition to this, a move to LAN for the European and North American teams saw initial anticipation for EPL Season 9 from across the community.
Splitting the participating teams into four balanced groups in the first round, going on to play best-of-threes against each other. EU had neat groups, with mousesports, FaZe Clan, G2 Esports and Astralis going 3-0 respectively. But NA had two groups with multiple teams winning two matches and losing one, resulting in several ties. ESL decided to use maps won as the basis for qualification in the event of a tie, which made eUnited’s win over INTZ in Group A allow NRG to qualify despite losing 1-2 to RNG earlier in their final game in the group - despite eU having the higher round difference and RNG finishing third with more rounds won overall, compared to eU.
As the third group was set to start, ESL released details about the relegation system that would be brought in alongside the new format. Half of the teams competing in EU and NA played before the release of this information.
EPL sees previous seasons’ top teams and the winners of relegation, teams at the bottom of the league versus the top MDL teams. This season, three teams in EU lost their organizations, so competed under ex-X names, including ex-Space Soldiers whose roster had all but disintegrated between Season 8 and Season 9.
NA saw Renegades face visa issues, as Gratisfaction was denied entrance into the United States. INTZ also had stand-ins, with Gustavo 'SHOOWTiME' Gonçalves and João 'horvy' Horvath replacing Vito 'kng' Giuseppe and Lucas 'destiny' Bullo. While it would be easy to blame the LAN format for these issues, an online game with Gratisfaction still in New Zealand and the rest of the team in the US would still be a problem. The debate about visas and NA events goes beyond EPL and ESL’s control.
ECS Season 7
The scene currently has a healthy mixture of tournament organisers and events throughout the year, from ESL Ones to DreamHack Opens, but the crucial factor for these events is that they are offline tournaments. While ECS has a concluding LAN final, this comes after five separate weeks of online competition in an unpopular, and unclear format. Teams competing at tournaments during active ECS weeks are at a bigger disadvantage than teams who are not attending LANs but can grind out decent results online in their absence.
After Week 4 of ECS, NiP believed they had qualified due to winning that week and AVANGAR being absent from the team list for Week five. However, they were then informed that forZe had withdrawn due to being unable to qualify, with AVANGAR taking their place. In NA, MIBR only competed in Week four due to attending tournaments the previous three weeks. Despite winning, they still need to fight for their spot since Team Liquid, who had $750 from Week 1, could steal the spot with a win in the final week.
Other than Tweeted graphics of the money standings, the information about who was in the lead or even still in the running for a spot was not easily accessible for fans keeping up from afar. Many believed a simpler four week format with direct qualification like the initial three weeks worked better. Others saw the top earners of weeks one to three being invited for the final spot as the best middle ground between the two ideas introduced for qualification this series.
The overall confusion of ECS, whether it was who was competing, why teams were there each week, who was actually qualifying, as well as the community and rivals ESL stepping away from online formats, left ECS looking like the far weaker league. While the Finals for EPL have always had more teams and more prestige, ECS’ own changes have only widened the gap.
In addition, talent announcements have yet to be made two weeks before the final. This, parallel to FACEIT's talent issues during the Major last year, has not gone unnoticed. The ECS Finals in June at Wembley are an annual tradition, marking the best opportunity for world-class Counter Strike to visit the UK, in the heart of England. With the scheduling criticised for being in British exam season and teams remaining unknown so close to the event, the excitement for the online league games has waned considerably.
While EPL is currently held in Europe and North America in closed studios, FACEIT will have competition in their reliable UK foothold, as well as across the pond which could see their own league and LAN finals challenged too.
It would be hard to make any argument that puts ECS above EPL. EPL has the LAN format, the ‘superior’ teams competing, cleaner format and generally holds more weight and value to viewers. Concluding with an epic clash of teams in Montpellier, with Oceania and Asia also getting a chance to send teams, ESL Pro League Season 9 feels more exciting and interesting compared to the usual eight team clash in London but teams are still not even sure if they will be competing there as of yet.
Despite this, it is early days for the development of the new formats. ECS could find a better system for qualification to reward participation and also allow top tier teams to earn a spot between LANs, or even move to LAN to match their ESL counterpart. With saturation as a hot topic within the scene, one online/LAN league and a DreamHack type invite tournament could be a more popular route for FACEIT to go down instead of leagues running twice a year in direct competition with EPL.
Written by: Phoebe "Dualism" Dua