A Discussion on Top Heavy Tournaments
Over the years we've see a few debates on how prize pools should be distributed at competitive gaming tournaments. From those who prefer the appeal of a winner-take-all event, like the 2014 IEM World Championship, to the more even spread like we see at many foreigner events there is a spectrum on the topic. Before we can dive into the pros and cons of each side of the spectrum we should take a look first at how Starcraft 2's tournaments are generally structured as well as examining a number of other games. Once we have a sense of how the current system works we can next delve into the more subjective nature of this discussion: what is the best distribution of prize money?
To look at this I wanted to examine the tournament circuits that were consistent in both size and number of events. For this reason I won't be looking at IEM's, ROCCAT events, HomeStory Cups, MSI and other tournaments that held events each year but their occurance and prize pool varied too wildly. We also have to exclude DreamHacks because for the past two years WCS events have been DreamHacks.
That still leaves us with the World Championship Series, the Global StarCraft League and the StarCraft StarLeague. Now to explain each chart, a column represents a single event. In each column there is a color to represent a finishing position. So for these charts we have five colors:
- Dark blue: 1st place
- Orange: 2nd place
- Grey: 3rd and 4th place
- Yellow: 5th through 8th place
- Light blue: 9th through 16th place
- Green: 17th through 32nd place
Let us look at an example from WCS: The column is titled 2013 S(eason) 1. The 1st place finisher earned 20.0% of the prize money, 2nd place earned 12.0%, 3rd and 4th each earn 7.0% and so on. I do want to make the key point this intentially does not add up to 100% because this is what each player earns at that spot. So a player who finishes in the round of 8 in 2013 S1 they, individually, earn 3.5% rather than all players who finish in the round of 8 earning a combined 3.5% of the prize money.
For this study I excluded the 2012 season due to the chaos and inconsistency that season in the tournament formats and payouts. But having said that we still have a lot to look at. Of the tournament series we experience WCS changes almost yearly but rarely a great deal. No year-to-year change for the winner ever exceeded 10% in the percentage earned with the largest being the difference between 2015 and 2016 which was also when we saw a big change to the WCS circuit format and the introduction of region lock.
I do want to note a unique event that took place the first event of 2016 where the players who finished in the round of 32 earned zero dollars. This is the first, and only, time this happened and as you imagine making an event where half of the players in the bracket stage earn nothing got changed for the next event. The 1% given out to each Ro32 player was not taken from the finalists, instead it was taken from players who finished in the round of 4 or round of 8. I found this interesting that they felt the need to keep the finalist prizes the same and while not a lot to draw from it might say something about how important those top two spots are for organizers and players.
WCS should also be noted as the only tournament circuit to regularly reward players who finish their run outside the top 16.
The GSL system has always been a bit more focused on rewarding the top players moreso than lower tier players due to mechanisms like Code A and a different mentality but even with GSL we've see a great deal of change. If we look at 2010, 2014 and 2015 and we see a tournament focused on the finalists but 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and it is quite the opposite with huge boosts to the players who finish outside the top 2. Actually the GSL awarded the highest percentage of money the 3rd and 4th place finishers in 2013 at 7.0% which ties WCS 2013.
While the WCS circuit went through changes during its lifespan it was nothing on the scale of GSL. The peak 1st place prize percentage was 52.65% and the lowest was 20.0%, a difference of 32.65% compared to the largest change in WCS of 11.18%.
While the SSL didn't last as long as GSL or WCS it provides an interesting contrast to the WCS and GSL systems of prize distribution. The SSL was the most top heavy tournament format among the big three circuits with the first year saw the winner take home 53.3% of the prize money compared to the highest point WCS ever saw for the winner at 25.0% and GSL at 52.6% back in 2010. This combined with the fact the 9th through 16th ranked players never got more than 2% of the prize pool while in WCS 2% was the floor for those finishers.
The SSL provides a unique look at a more top heavy tournament format, while in the 2016 season they made it less top heavy and more in-line with GSL and WCS. So we have the tale of two years to examine which method they preferred.
I should also note that in 2017 they ran a different format which awarded prize money based on wins and record so it wasn't practical for this study but will be an interesting study for another day.
What Breakdown Do Players Prefer?
On this topic I wanted to hear from the one and only CatZ. This is a man who is a player, team owner, caster and organizer so I figured he was the man for the job when it came to getting some feedback on tournament prize pool distribution:
I've never had strong opinions on prize pool distribution. If I were in charge it'd be somewhat dynamic especially outside of standardized WCS events for WCS events I like the current distribution encourages up and comers for qualifying, isn't too top heavy. The reason i'd make things dynamic is I think a spread out distribution is good for players especially up and comers, top heavy is good for less players but it can be perceived as more hype and puts more on the line as the tournament advances which helps build stronger suspense and urgency to the games as a tournament progresses. I was a fan of the event that had $100,000 for first ONLY, Katowice I think it was but that doesn't mean that I think every tournament should follow that structure.
Overall looking at the two big current circuits in WCS and GSL we see that tournaments have been getting less top heavy in recent years, especially as Legacy of the Void has gone on. There still remain a few top heavy tournaments like the IEM Championship (60.32% to 1st place), the WCS Finals (56.0%) and WESG (50%) but for the most part tournaments appear to be trying to give a greater percentage of money to players outside of the top 2.
With WCS 2019 still unannounced it will be interesting to see what prize breakdown they use for the main events.