Defining Competitive Tiers in CS:GO

With the absence of a universal league where teams can be ranked by record, Counter-Strike can sometimes struggle to define who’s among the best and the worst, the good and the bad. You’ll often hear both analysts and members of the community talk about the “tier” a team belongs to in order to give an idea of how strong the team is and what sort of results we can expect of that team. People will often bandy about phrases like “top tier,” “tier 2,” “tier 2 NA,” and more hyperbolic terms like “god tier” and “bottom tier” and “tier 1,000.”

Jacob's Ladder

It’s a long ladder into heaven, and it’s a long way to the top of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive–or any competitive discipline. The higher the tier, the higher you’ve climbed. Image courtesy the Catholic Notebook.

But these putative competitive tiers of CS:GO are not well-defined, despite how well-used the terminology is. Calling a squad “top tier” is more of a compliment than a definitive statement of strength; calling a squad “tier 3” is an insult to their chances rather than a meaningful description of who they can be expected to beat. Observers of all levels don’t seem to have a common understanding of what defines a tier, let alone who belongs in what tier.

I would humbly like to propose a definition of the competitive tiers in CS:GO, one that analysts could use consistently to classify teams and help viewers understand who is on top and who is the underdog, who will compete for championships and who will struggle to win maps. Much like how scientists categorize tornadoes and hurricanes by the destruction they cause as much as by their wind speed, we can categorize CS:GO teams by the damage they do in the server at tournaments. Each tier higher will indicate a greater likelihood of winning against the best teams and of winning top-level tournaments.

I’ll also give my own 4-level tier list for CS:GO right now as an example. Among the many variables, drawing neat lines between each tier can be hard. But by taking stock of the results and using consistent rules, I hope to provide a basis for better understanding of what we should mean when we talk about “tiers” in eSports–and how we should rank teams on the ladder of Counter-Strike dominance.

RESULTS DEFINE TIERS, BUT TIERS PREDICT PERFORMANCE (THINGS MAY GET TECHNICAL)

At the core of any ranking system are the past results teams achieve in competitive play. We have no way of telling how good a team is except to look at how the team and its individuals have performed previous; the past is our only indication of the future.

That being said, there are different ways to rank teams, and therefore different ways to categorize competitive tiers. There are traditional league rankings (global rankings, “pure” ratings, etc.), which are objective and based off of a team’s record, and power rankings, which are more speculative and based off a team’s apparent strength in the most recent results.

Lurppis, a longtime in-game leader, writer, and analyst of the scene, released a power ranking back in May. Photo courtesy Game Inside.

Lurppis, a longtime in-game leader, writer, and analyst of the scene, released a power ranking back in May. Photo courtesy Game Inside.

Power rankings have long been connected to sports gambling and Vegas spreads. The advantage of power ranking is their predictive quality, telling the reader who is more likely to win in a matchup played the next day. A team performing badly who just recently made a roster move and vastly improved their play will shoot up a power ranking, even though their league ranking will stay behind because of their bad record. For a recent example, the French team G2 would do well in a power ranking because they’ve been on fire these last weeks, even though the only results to their name are reaching the finals of ESL Pro League 3 and ELEAGUE Group B.

But for their usefulness, power rankings have a specious quality to them. Because they can speculate so much, taking even fleeting showings into account and judgments of the naked eye, they don’t properly credit a sustained period of tangible results that any team must build their reputation by. 

League rankings are, by their very name, impossible to do in CS:GO. There is no central, dominant league all teams participate in and judge their results by. Instead, there is an ever-shifting tournament circuit, with the esteem of each tournament judged as much by the quality of teams participating as by the amount of money at stake. Because of this, results can be much harder to gauge, and some amount of analyst judgment (read: power ranking) will creep into any top 10 list. 

In addition to offhand "tier" discussions, top 10 rankings by trusted observers play a big role in helping the community identify the best and the worst. Both HLTV and Duncan "Thorin" Shields list Luminosity (seen here) as best in the world. Photo courtesy hltv.org.

In addition to “tiers,” top 10 rankings by trusted observers play a big role in helping the community identify the best and the worst. Both HLTV and Duncan “Thorin” Shields list Luminosity (seen here) as best in the world. Photo courtesy hltv.org.

In the absence of a league, the relative strengths of a competitive tier ranking shine. This general classification allows some imprecision while still giving an idea of how strong the results of a team have been—and thus, how future results can generally be expected to be. Going into any match or tournament, a glance a a tier chart can quickly inform you who the contenders, the dark horses, and the unlikely’s are, while still leaving room for discussion about who to favor within a tier. Tier rankings tell you which matches should receive the most excitement, and which upsets would be the most surprising and landscape-changing. 

To boil it down, competitive tier ranking tell us what sort of performance to expect from a team. They are future-looking. A sudden burst in form will quickly elevate a team from the bottom tier (in my definitions, tier 4 and 5) to a better tier, much like a power ranking. But achieving a top-tier ranking (in my definitions, tier 1 or 2) requires more and more sustained success, a better and better track record over longer and longer periods of time, the sort of thing we look for in a traditional league ranking. And ultimately, victories are the only thing that will elevate a team in a tier ranking, not an impressive roster or raw, unproven “potential.”

TIER 1: THE ELITE TEAMS

Even despite star AWPer GuardiaN's wrist injury, Na'Vi make final after final--a hallmark of a great Tier 1 team. Photo courtesy Team Liquid.

Na’Vi make final after final, month after month–a hallmark of a great Tier 1 team. Photo courtesy Liquid.

A team is Tier 1 if they are contenders to win any tournament they enter. A Tier 1 squad is expected to reach at least the semifinals; only other tier 1 lineups should eliminate them from a competition. They should rarely lose to teams from lower tiers. Tier 1 teams have created these expectations from an impressive and sustained period of such results. They are the standard of competitive achievement. They are the elite of their sport or eSport.

The number of teams who achieve this ranking is usually fairly small. In fallow times of competition, there are perhaps two or three Tier 1 teams; in very competitive eras, there may be as many as six, with any more being a dream come true for fans of the eSport.

Here are the CS:GO teams I would list, based off of the last few months of results, as unquestionably tier 1:

  • Luminosity
  • Natus Vincere
  • Ninjas in Pajamas

A short list, isn’t it? Too many question marks hang over two other teams I might include, fnatic and Astralis. Astralis is coming off of two events where they were eliminated in the group stage, hardly befitting of a tier 1 team. They also just recently made a roster change. I expect them to rejoin this list, but I want to see results first.

fnatic fall a little farther from the mark. They haven’t played much offline recently, and haven’t posted any good results since olofmiester’s wrist started troubling him right before the major. If olofmiester returned soon, maybe they’ll become tier 1 again, but I certainly can’t list them as such right now.

TIER 2: THE CHALLENGERS

Do shoxie (pictured here) and G2 deserve to be tier 2 based off the incredible run at the ESL finals? Under my definition, yes: they showed us the ability to reach the finals of a quality international tournament. Photo courtesy Liquid.

Do shoxie (pictured here) and G2 deserve to be Tier 2 based off the incredible run at the ESL finals? Under my definition, yes: they showed us the ability to reach the finals of a quality international tournament. However, if they don’t show us the ability to make semifinals at least once again, we will have to derank them to Tier 3. Photo courtesy Liquid.

A team is Tier 2 if they can make runs in a tournament with tier 1 teams in attendance, but are not expected to do so regularly. These teams would be happy to make the semifinals and would celebrate to make the finals; a victory at a big international tournament would be a truly impressive and unlikely run. Tier 2 teams are underdogs versus Tier 1 teams, but have potential to upset them in a Best of 3 if they bring their “A” game. To prove this potential, they’ve had either repeated Bo1 victories or very close Bo3 series versus Tier 1 teams, and play well against the rest of the field.

Here are the CS:GO teams I would list as Tier 2 right now:

  • Astralis
  • fnatic
  • Immortals (ex-Tempo Storm)
  • Virtus.pro
  • G2

Once again, a short list, but slightly longer than the Tier 1 list, and one that could get longer soon. Several teams are threatening to join this next-to-best level of CS glory, but for now, I would list them as…

TIER 3: THE SINGLE-MAP UPSETS

mixwell and OpTic impressed us with single map upsets over Tier 1 team NiP and two Bo3 upsets over a Tier 2 team, Tempo Storm. This is a textbook strong tier 3 team. Photo courtesy MARCA.

mixwell and OpTic impressed us with single map upsets over Tier 1 team, NiP, and two Bo3 upsets over a Tier 2 team, Tempo Storm, last month. This is textbook Tier 3. Photo courtesy MARCA.

A team is Tier 3 if they have shown us a burst of form in a recent tournament or two, but haven’t posted enough of a body of results to qualify as Tier 2. These teams do not go deep in  big international tournaments; if they do, its either a Cinderella story or the beginning of a further climb up the ladder of success. These teams have a habit of occasionally upsetting a Tier 1 team in a Bo1 every once in a while, and maybe a Tier 2 team in a Bo3, but not showing much besides that “potential.” We generally expect Tier 2 teams to beat them and Tier 1 teams to beat them handily.

CS:GO squads that, in my opinion, qualify as Tier 3:

  • OpTic
  • dignitas
  • Cloud9
  • CLG
  • GODSENT
  • Liquid
  • Dobry&Gaming
  • EnVyUs
  • Hellraisers
  • TyLoo
  • FaZe
  • SK

Notice the preponderance of North American rosters on this list. Of these teams, OpTic, dignitas, TyLoo, and Cloud9 are perhaps the closest to Tier 2; Dobry&Gaming, SK, and FaZe perhaps the farthest from contention. Teams that don’t continue to produce upsets can easily slide back into Tier 4.

 

TIER 4: THE HANGING-ON PROS 

Seangares has fallen a long way since leaving C9, which at one point was a Tier 1 team under his guidance. Now he plies his trade with Echo Fox, a lineup that has yet to prove any real results. Photo courtesy Daily Dot.

Seangares has fallen a long way since leaving C9, which at one point was a Tier 1 team under his guidance. Now he plies his trade with Echo Fox, a lineup that has yet to prove any real results. Photo courtesy Daily Dot.

A Tier 4 team has shown the ability to sometimes compete with a Tier 3 team, maybe even a Tier 2 team on the best day, but never a Tier 1 team. In stacked international tournaments, they are the punching bags, but they have shown some ability to play in smaller tournaments without top tier teams attending.

CS:GO rosters that have eked out a tier 4 rating:

  • ENCE
  • Renegades
  • Orbit
  • TSM
  • Epsilon
  • EchoFox
  • Splyce
  • and so on…

There are probably a few more teams that could qualify a Tier 4, but at the moment, I’m not made of the time nor interest to dive into the underworld of pro CS and produce names for you. Honesty 101, folks. Tier 4 is the starting point for a pro team able to play the circuit

TIER 5: AMATEURS (PUT YOUR NAME HERE)

These teams are the ones who lose to Tier 4 teams. They are ESEA Premier material. They are, at their essence, farm teams from which good players get picked. This is the primordial murk all the names you know emerged from at the inception of their careers. For a team like this to defeat a tournament-attending pro team is a feat that is as much shameful for their victims as it is a source of bragging rights for the victors. “Hey, Joe, guess who me and the buds beat in our online match last Saturday?” “No way!–wait, who? Oh yeah, those guys…”

To end this article, let’s quickly rephrase a shorthand for my competitive tier listing.

Tier 1: Go deep in almost every tournament; rarely lose to teams from lower tiers and regularly compete with the best in the world.

Tier 2: Occasionally go deep in tournaments; can upset a T1 team in a Bo3; solid against teams from lower tiers.

Tier 3: Can get out of groups in tournaments; occasionally upset a T1 team in a Bo1 or a T2 team in a Bo3; mixed record against mid-tier teams.

Tier 4: Should exit in groups every time; struggle to beat teams above their tier, defeating against a T3 squad offline every once in a blue moon.

Tier 5: Everyone else who hasn’t a chance in this world.

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