All Tournament Formats in Esports – Complete Guide

Esports tournaments can be very confusing or simplistic due to the esports tournament format or tournament bracket options present. But for both a tournament organizer and esports enthusiasts, it’s very valuable to be aware of all the formats and how they coincide with each other.

What are all the tournament formats in esports? There are 4 main tournament formats in esports, they are single-elimination, double-elimination, round-robin and swiss. There are additional custom tournament formats that can only be used for specific games and genres, such as battle-arena point systems and clan-based tournaments.

This article will be your one-stop-shop on literally everything you need to know about esports tournament formats. We will discuss all of the 4 tournament formats, some of the custom formats, how group stages work, how formats are combined to enhance the tournament experience and various additional rulings some tournament organizers apply.

Tournament Format Options

Before we can dive into what tournament formats are, I think it would be appropriate to provide a definition or a bit more clarity on what a tournament format is generally and what it specifically means in esports.

What is a tournament format? A tournament format, also known as a tournament bracket, is a conjunction of established rules of who competitors in a tournament will play against and how they would proceed upon winning and losing a match. There are 9 total types of tournament formats.

The 9 tournament formats are single elimination, double elimination, multilevel, straight round-robin, round-robin double split, round-robin triple split, round-robin quadruple split, semi-round robins and extended brackets.

Since we are exclusively focusing on esports, we will only be focusing on the way in esports we look at and define tournament brackets. Outside of the realm of esports, you do see various additional formats with various names.

Now let’s talk about what esports tournament formats are prior to going into how those 9 differentiate from esports’ formats.

What are tournament formats in esports? Esports tournament formats, also known as tournament brackets, are a conjunction of established rules of who competitors in a tournament will play against and how they would proceed upon winning and losing a match. There are 4 total tournament formats used in esports.

As you can tell, the definitions are the same with the caveat at the end stating that esports only has 4 primary formats.

Although of the previously stated 9 formats, as I will go through later in this article, we still basically use all of them, we don’t end up using that exact terminology.

Instead of a round-robin double split, for example, we just call it a group stage round-robin.

When understood in that light, we do use the 9 formats stated above (arguably we do even more than 9 with all our variations), but the vocabulary is very different.

We just focus on the 4 as building blocks and leverage those to make as many variations as we desire.

Now, let’s get into the tournament formats.

The 4 Tournament Formats

What are the 4 tournament formats? The 4 tournament formats are single elimination, double elimination, round-robin and swiss.

Below I have a breakdown of the pros and cons of the 4 tournament formats to better aid you in quickly understanding the value and cons of each:

Formats Pros Cons
Single Elimination (SE) ● The quickest format to play
● Easiest format to run
● Simplest format to follow
● Works best with a group stage prior
● 50% of the players will participate in 1 match
● 25% of participants will participate in 2 matches
Double Elimination (DE) ● The 2nd quickest format to play
● This format is less punishing for losses than SE due to the loser’s bracket
● Works best as a standalone format or followed by a group stage prior
● 25% of participants will only participate in 2 matches (significantly better than SE but still harsh)
● Tournament takes longer than a SE
● Requires more effort to manage than SE
Round-Robin (RR) ● Provides the players with the most games guaranteed out of all the formats
● All players play the same number of games
● Losing multiple games doesn’t exclude a player from continuing to play, unlike SE or DE
● Works best as a group stage format
● The longest format to run
● Typically require a 2nd and 3rd win condition to resolve tiebreakers in case multiple players have the same wins/losses
Swiss ● Players compete with other players at a similar skill level as losers face losers and winners face winners
● Provides the players with the 2nd most guaranteed games out of the formats
● Can be concluded prematurely with a follow-up bracket to save time
● Will easily identity a winner without tiebreakers
● The 2nd longest format to run
● Requires more maintenance from tournament organizer’s part, especially if run manually
● Typically is never turned into or followed by a group stage format

With this laid out, you may be wondering the following…

What is the best tournament format? Each tournament format has different values depending on the situation. Single elimination formats are the quickest, double elimination is a less punishing slower alternative to single elimination and round-robin are the longest with the most player engagement.

Below I broke down each format further to provide you with a clear understanding.

Feel free to skip any format or read in the order that you like. Although the order I put them in will provide you with the best understanding, you could really read anyone in any order you desire.

Single Elimination

What is a single elimination in esports? A single elimination format is a linear bracket where the victorious team within a match will proceed to face the closest non-eliminated team to them in the bracket. The losing team of any match will be eliminated upon their first loss.

This bracket is also known as a single elim or a SE for an abbreviation.

7 total matches are being played in this 8 player example under SE.

Formula to determine the number of matches (where x is # of players): f(x) = x-1 

A single elimination bracket is a very linear bracket, very similar to a double elimination, where players will face off who they are closest to on the bracket. For the example above, I (Kelfish4) am closest to ThunderClan Awe, therefore I will play against him.

Assuming I win the match (like I always do), ThunderClan Awe would have lost the match (as only 1 person can win and the other must lose). The winner proceeds on that white line and the loser is now completely eliminated from the tournament.

In that sense, I would proceed and will fight the winner of the pair of players above me. Let’s say for the sake of example DarkendSpirit12 wins, therefore I (Kelfish4, winner of the match vs ThunderClan Awe) will play against DarkendSpirit12. The winner of that will proceed to the finals, in this example, and the winner of the finals will be crowned the winner of the tournament.

What this tournament does is very swiftly determines a winner by systematically eliminating a team/player from their first loss.

This method can be ruthless and will result in 50% of the players being eliminated after just their first match and an additional 25% in their 2nd match (regardless of how many teams/players you have signed up).

This is why single elimination is usually a playoffs bracket (something I will define later) and comes after a round robin or a swiss (2 other formats I will explain below).

What this tournament does exceptionally well is save time, being the quickest format to run in esports. If you as a tournament organizer (TO), this is the way to go! Just know that it does hurt player experience due to how cutthroat it gets and the minimal number of games in exchange for less time spent.

Double Elimination

What is a double elimination in esports? A double elimination format consists of two linear brackets. All teams begin on the first bracket, but as a team loses they shift over to the 2nd bracket. Teams that lose in the 2nd bracket are eliminated and the final winners of both brackets compete in the grand finals.

This format is also called double elim or DE for an abbreviation. The two brackets have very distant names as well.

The two brackets also have unique names. The first bracket where everyone starts off on is known as the main bracket (also known as the winner’s bracket) and the 2nd bracket that the losing teams from the main bracket shift to is called a loser’s bracket.

14 to 15 total matches played in our 8 player example under DE.

Formula to determine the number of matches (where x is # of players): f(x) = (x-1)*2 (+1 if grand finals reset)

The image above shows what a double elimination bracket would look like for the same 8 players from the SE example (and we will use these 8 as examples throughout).

In this example, I labelled exactly which game is being performed in the bracket above and in the loser’s bracket I showcased from which game’s losing team will enter into what slot of the bracket.

These exact slots don’t have to always be as I showed above, but the one I showed above is best practice. This is because it reduces the ability for teams to replay each other until the semi-finals and finals of the loser’s bracket and grand-finals.

Other slotting formats wouldn’t provide that experience, therefore this is the optimal method and most commonly used slotting format.

The winner of both the main bracket and the loser’s bracket face off against each other in what is called a grand final.

In the grand finals match, if the winner of the loser’s bracket wins the match, the match enters what is called a bracket reset, where the match is replayed as if it was never played before.

After that occurs, the winner of the match wins (regardless of which bracket they came from). This luxury is only provided if the loser of the initial grand finals match is the winner of the main bracket, as the main bracket winner never lost before.

This creates fairness for the main bracket winner and leaves the winner of the loser bracket at a slight disadvantage as he also was afforded a 2nd chance via going to the loser’s bracket.

Therefore if the winner of the first grand finals was the winner of the main bracket, no bracket reset occurs and the tournament is concluded.

As I mentioned in the table above, this format eliminates 25% of the teams after 2 matches, which is significantly better than a SE but still is pretty harsh.

That’s why this format works as a more mild, more supported format for a standalone highly competitive tournament that wants to avoid being overly long.

DE is an amazingly quick pace format, slower than SE, but significantly less punishing.

This format, however, is better when followed by a group stage bracket prior, but is more accepted and supported as a standalone bracket over all other brackets.

Round Robin

What is a round robin in esports? A round-robin format instructs all competitors to face off against all other competitors, regardless of accumulated wins and losses. The victor of this format is determined by the most wins accumulated.

This format is almost exclusively referred to as a round robin (or round-robin) but is also sometimes referred to as RR as an abbreviation (but less used than the SE and DE).

Similar to a swiss, this bracket format is separated into rounds, unlike SE or DE.

28 total matches played in our 8 player example under RR.

In our 8 player example, there would be 7 rounds required for all players to have played a match against every other player once.

This format provides the most number of games and also provides everyone with exactly the same number of games, being the only format to do that.

This format, however, comes at the cost of time, being the longest-running format due to its number of games. Just look at this bracket compared to the other 2. In SE, there was only 7 matches. In DE, there were only 14 to 15 matches. In RR, there is a whopping 28 total matches.

That’s 4x SE and 2x DE (excluding grand finals reset).

For that reason, the RR is typically used as a group stage format, something we will talk about below.

This format is most commonly used in bracket combinations (which will be discussed further below) where the top-performing players of the RR will move on to typically a SE or DE.

Swiss

What is a swiss bracket? A swiss bracket has teams face off against other teams with the same wins and losses. When a team has different wins and losses than all other teams, they are either eliminated or crowned a victor depending on if they have more wins or losses.

For this one, I don’t have an image because there is no ideal way to that this can take place, as it is purely due to the wins and losses of each team.

However, I did include a graphic below of what a randomized 32 player swiss bracket may look like.

One thing you may notice is that all non-eliminated players after round 6 were qualified instead of proceeding to play out the swiss bracket.

This is known as an altered swiss bracket. In a pure swiss bracket, the teams would continue to play it out, but player 1 would be crowned the winner of the swiss bracket.

Instead, for this specific situation, the tournament organizers followed up the swiss bracket with either a SE or a DE, so once 1 player won the swiss, they qualified all non-eliminated players into the SE or DE.

This could have occurred earlier or later in the swiss bracket, based on how many rounds the TOs wanted and how many players they wanted to move to the SE or DE.

As you can notice, they have exactly 16 players, which is precisely why they ended after the 5th round (16 is a very clean and even number to use in a SE and DE).

How does a swiss bracket work? A swiss bracket requires teams to face off against other teams with the same wins and losses. When a team has different wins and losses than all other teams, they are either eliminated or crowned a victor depending on if they have more wins or losses. These rules can be slightly altered based on the preferences of the tournament organizers.

Swiss are almost never used in a group stage (although they can) and are almost never a follow-up bracket for another bracket (although they could be).

They are almost exclusively used as a standalone or a starting bracket leading into a SE or DE.

If they think about it, it makes no sense to use Swiss as a playoff bracket anyway, as the teams who end up losing once will automatically be incapable of winning the tournament, rendering their matches useless.

Instead, the focus would be all the winning teams, which is exactly what a SE is used for.

Custom Game-Specific Formats

I won’t spend too much time on this, but it’s important to note that although there are 4 universal tournament formats, certain games have very niche formats of their own due to the nature of their games.

Point-Based Format

The first evidently being a battle royale. Since battle royale matches must be done with many people in a room at once, most battle royale-based tournaments follow a point-system format.

In these formats, each team is rewarded points based on how long they survive (so how high they played on the leaderboard, not based on minutes alive) and how many kills they received. Occasionally, assists are also incorporated in the score, but not exclusively.

Above is an image from a PUBG Mobile tournament I hosted where I manually inputted the scores. I used formulas to calculate their points based on how much we reward per kill and their placement.

This format is either a standalone format (which is typically what happens) or is followed up by a SE format where players are moving to 1v1s (or 2v2s/4v4 based on the size of teams).

Sometimes, but not exclusively, when this format is used as a standalone, it may also eliminate low-ranking players at certain rounds to increase the tension of the tournament as a whole.

They may also start this format as a group stage and follow it up by this same format but with all the top players of each group coming together.

Clan-Based Format

This format is exceptionally niche, only being used in pro-play for clash royale.

This format came to be when Supercell, the creators of Clash Royale (CR), wanted to create an esports league for CR while still being appealing to esports teams with multiple players.

As once they started this league with the standard formats, they were struggling to make teams willing to invest in the league.

To do this in their 1v1 and 2v2 game, they set up the tournament where teams will play as clans and for a clan to win, they need multiple players to win back-to-back from the same clan.

In essence, super niche format only for pro-play to help Supercell appease team owners and make them more money.

Even since 2021, Supercell has decided to discard this system and only use the normal formats in their 1v1 and 2v2 game modes within CR.

This actually got some teams angry and resulted in teams being less willing to invest as much as they have in the league, including world champions Team Liquid.

Tournament Group Stages

What is a group stage? A group stage is where a tournament splits up the competitors into groups where each group will play a mini-tournament. The best-performing members of each group will regroup into a playoff bracket.

A group stage, in essence, is just groupings of people. These grouped players will play one of the 4 bracket types mentioned above within their groups.

The top players of these groups move forward into another bracket which will be called a playoff bracket. This bracket can be any of the 4 formats, even the format used during the group stage.

What is a playoff bracket? A playoff bracket is any tournament bracket that is the final bracket of tournament to crown a winner. These brackets are almost always following up from a group stage bracket, but not exclusively.

Group stages must always be followed by a playoffs bracket to determine a victor of the tournament. Although any format can be used during group stages, round-robins are the most popular.

What is a group stage in esports? A group stage is where a tournament splits up the competitors into subgroups. These subgroups play a mini-tournament and the top ranking players of each group will regroup into a playoffs bracket. 

For example, you would typically see a group round-robin into single elimination. What this does is significantly reduce the games in a round-robin as each player will play fewer games.

There can be groups ranging from 2 all the way to infinity (AKA there is no limit to group numbers besides the number of players and the desire of the TOs).

Tournament Bracket Combinations

As we did touch on at the end of the tournament groups section, tournament formats can be combined. When combined, they are referred to as brackets.

What is a tournament bracket? A tournament bracket is a set tournament format that will transition or proceeds to a previous varying format. Brackets can be combined an infinite amount but must have an end known as a playoff bracket.

As we mentioned above, a common combination of bracket combination is a group-stage round-robin into single elimination.

You can also have, for example, a group single-elimination into a round-robin playoff. Why’d you want to do that is beyond me, but it’s very possible if the TOs desired as such.

The first stage doesn’t have to be a group stage. It could be a round-robin into a swiss for example (very uncommon, however).

Another more common example where a group stage isn’t used is a swiss into double elimination.

You also aren’t limited to two brackets, although that is typically the number of brackets that are used.

You could, in theory, run a group stage round robin into a swiss into single elimination. Again, very uncommon practice but can be done.

A real-life example of multiple brackets being combined is some Fortnite tournaments.

They’d run a group stage point-based bracket into a (non-grouped) point-based bracket into a single elimination bracket (via box fighting).

Tournament Formatting Systems

We have covered all our bases as far as tournament brackets and formats go, but we didn’t actually touch on how tournaments themselves may be formatted.

I thought I’d quickly touch on them in this article. Below I’ll explain what leagues vs tournaments are and the difference between an open, invitational and qualifier are.

Leagues vs Tournaments

For this, I’ve already written an article on the subject so I don’t want to go in-depth here.

In essence, a league is a tournament with multiple matches not happening back to back but lasting anywhere from 2 weeks to 9 months.

Meanwhile, tournaments are matches happening back to back where the tournament may last 1 hour to typically up to max 3 days.

You can see a 4 or 5 day tournament, or sometimes even longer, but most are very circumstantial (pro play or event-based, etc).

To learn more about leagues vs tournaments, click here to read my full article on the subject.

Open vs Invitational vs Qualifier

I will quickly define these all first then give a clear comparison.

What is an open tournament? An open tournament is a tournament where any competitors can enroll, assuming they fall under eligibility rulings, without having to have been qualified or invited to participate.

What is an invitational tournament? An invitational tournament is a tournament that limits entry to only certain players. These players either are professionals, are entertainers (such as streamers) or qualified in a qualifier tournament.

What is a qualifier tournament? A qualifier tournament is a tournament where a select number of the top winners in that tournament will receive an entry into a private invitational tournament. Qualifier tournaments are typically also open tournaments.

You can see how all of them fit with each other, with a qualifier leading to an invitational tournament’s invite and an open contrasting with an invitation where anyone can participate in the tournament.

These terms are typically, but not exclusively, used in the titles of the tournaments.

FAQ

What are the two types of elimination formats? The two elimination formats are single elimination and double elimination. The differentiation factor is that the double elimination requires teams to lose twice to be eliminated, while it’s only once in a single elimination tournament.

What tournament format should I use for my tournament? The format you use in your tournament depends on the constraints of your tournament. If you are limited on time, a single elimination format would be the best. If you are looking for the best player experience, a round-robin into double elimination would be the best.

How do I learn to run tournaments? To learn how to run a tournament, there is a course that details exactly what steps you need to take. 

If you are interested in that course, created by yours truly, click here or go to the courses tab in the bar at the top of the page.

I worked pretty hard on that course so I know it will be of value to you!