Esports Tournament Tiers – A Endemic Explaination

When I started off in the esports industry, the one thing I really didn’t understand was esports tournament tiers. Upon googling it, you see articles that are from organizations ranking the esports game titles by tiers, rather than understanding the proper usage of esports tiers from an endemic standpoint.

I want to clear that up and help properly define the various esports tiers in hopes of creating a resource that can trump others and give you a proper explanation of “what are esports tournament tiers” or “what are esports tiers”.

Esports tiers are rankings provided to tournaments based on where they take place, the prize pool and the level of competition present at the event relative to the community. Tier 1 tournaments are professional tournaments, tier 2 are semi-pro tournaments, tier 3 are more-open yet competitive tournaments and tier 4 are less competitive grassroots open-tournaments.

I wish someone broke it down for me like that years ago. I want you, the reader, to be advised that the other resources are mostly ranking esports games by tiers, but when people are actually referring to tournaments as tiers, this is what they mean. But this explanation only scratches the surface and this alone may mislead you (therefore I’d recommend reading at least all the bold text bodies below).

In this article, I will breakdown each of these tiers, provide examples and help you qualify other tournaments into these categories.

Esports Tiers

Esports tiering is when you qualify an esports tournament based on where it takes place, the prize pool and the level of competition present at the event. The primary determining factor is the level of competition, but it’s not limited to that.

Also, be advised some unique communities will tier tournaments in different ways as well. For example, a colleague of mine informed me about a few years ago that Super Smash Bros Ultimate events were tiered by the size of the player base. I believe that is true for all FGC games. This is unique to FGC since FGC games don’t have true tier 1 or tier 2 tournaments as they remained primarily grassroots (tier 4, we will explain it more below) due to their lack of big publisher support.

With that stated, now let’s start qualifying each esports tiers with examples to leave you best set to distinguish each as you continue your venture into the esports industry.

Tier 1 Tournament

Tier 1 tournaments are professional esports tournaments exclusive to the best players across the world. These tournaments are almost always played offline and have massive prize pools, usually funded by or partnered with the actual game publishers. Tier 1 tournaments are highly prestigious and there is usually only one annual tournament that is tier 1 per game.

TournamentPrize Pool (2019)Online or Offline
League of Legends Worlds Championship$2,225,000 (min)Offline
The Fortnite World Cup$30,000,000Offline
Fifa eWorld Cup$500,000Offline
The International$34,300,000Offline
Pokemon World Championship$500,000Offline
Clash Royale League World$400,000Offline
PUBG Mobile World League$850,000Offline

It’s very important to understand how tier 1 esports tournaments have an overall impact on the community. These tournaments are usually the pinnacle for all pro teams within that esports title to compete on the global stage in hopes of winning a massive prize pool, typically exceeding at least $100,000.

The International, Valve’s Dota 2 annual worlds championship has the largest prize pool of all esports tournaments, totalling a little over a whopping $40 million in 2020.

Teams that participate in these tournaments are usually really well-known by that game’s community and they almost always needed to qualify by playing in a qualifier (explained below).

Riot Games’ League of Legends Worlds Championship (known as the LCS), for example, runs a unique franchising model where teams not only need to pay a significant amount of money for a seat within their local regional pro-league (such as the NA LCS, LEC, LCK, etc) but to enter the worlds championship those teams must compete and gain one of the top ranks in their region (known as a qualifier, something we talk about below).

With that said, the NA LCS (and all other regional LCS tournaments) wouldn’t be considered tier 2, just because of its overall prestige and the fact that the entire tournament is composed of the best possible players. If the NA LCS was an open tournament to anyone, then it would lose that prestige and be tiered lower.

To determine if a tournament is a tier 1, a major indicator is if there are the best players around the world coming to participate and it’s only limited to the best (usually though a qualifier).

If there is a massive prize pool and major support from the game publisher from a marketing and financial standpoint, chances are it’s a tier 1 tournament. Usually, any tournament with more than $1 million in prizing is almost always a tier 1 tournament.

Another indicator is if there are any more prestigious tournaments for the game; if there is, unless this league is directly connected to that series, that tournament is probably the tier 1 and the former tournament would likely a tier 2 tournament.

Tier 2

Tier 2 tournaments are semi-professional tournaments that bring together the best non-professional talent for a game. Tier 2 tournaments are typically scouting grounds for professional teams and occasionally provides the opportunity for semi-pro players to enter tier 1 tournaments. These tournaments feature a decent prize pool and they usually are open to anyone to participate in.

TournamentPrize Pool (2019)Online or Offline
League of Legends Academy$2,225,000 (min)Online
Overwatch Contendors$30,000,000Online

Tier 2 tournaments are widely looked at as “my opportunity to go pro” amongst non-professional esports players. Especially when these tier 2 tournaments act as a qualifier to position your current team into a tier 1 esports tournament, but also from a scouting standpoint. If a team that already qualified for a tier 1 league (or paid to get in), will be looking at the tier 2 tournaments to see which players they may want to recruit if roster changes are needed/desired.

Take for example the Overwatch Contenders, Blizzard’s semi-pro Overwatch league. Since tier 2 qualifications aren’t affected by the location, these tournaments are tournaments facilitated online. Even Blizzard acknowledge its function:

Overwatch Contenders is a high-level tournament series for pro players who dream of ascending to the Overwatch League. […] Follow your favorite Contenders on their journey to fame!

Written on the official Overwatch Contenders webpage

With that said, these tournaments are more often than not open to most people to participate, but the less skilled teams tend to get quickly outranked or outright eliminated (depending on the format).

These tournaments also have decent prize pools and are very competitive, as every team is working diligently to win (just like in the tier 1 tournaments).

Tier 3

Tier 3 tournaments are less known and less prestigious than tier 2 tournaments, while still being widely known and housing a fairly decent prize pool. Semi-pro and amateur teams participate in tier 2 tournaments, and these tournaments usually aren’t connected with the game publisher.

Tier 3 tournaments are where you start to really leave from the prestigious tournaments from a competitive standpoint, but these tournaments are still well known, just not specifically for their level of competition.

These tournaments are usually positioned in a region or local area by the tournament organizers, almost always being physical events or part of a slew of other tournaments. This is how they earn their prestige, it’s by being associated with an organization, location or event that brings value through its name (which all increases the overall size of the tournament).

Take for example ESL, their initial tournaments are almost always tier 3 tournaments (unless it’s specifically working with the publisher or no other main tournaments are hosted for the game). This is usually just because the ESL brand (or a specific event name) is associated with it and the number of participants that brings overall.

These tournaments are almost open and intended to garner a significantly large number of players rather than have a smaller number of quality players (from a competitive standpoint). This provides more value for tournaments from a sponsorship, entry fee and event fee standpoint with the additional hands-on engagement.

Tier 4

Tier 4 tournaments are unknown amateur tournaments typically hosted by unaccredited tournament organizers and consist of extremely small prize pools. These tournaments are almost exclusively open and garner a small player base. Tier 4 tournaments are also known as grassroots tournaments.

Tier 4 tournaments are the lowest of the low, not from a player enjoyment or quality standpoint, but from a comparison with all other tiers on competition and size. This tier would include many of the tournaments you’d see hosted on sites like Battlefy or Toornament with $10 to $500 in prizing.

These tournaments can also be both online or offline. The offline events are usually in a small shop/arcade, a school building or someone’s basement.

An example would be Soliac Association’s League of Legends Chinguacousy 1v1. Have you heard of it before? Probably not. Are you aware of Soliac Association? Probably not (unless you know me personally). The prize pool was about $50 and we had about 12 participants.

These are your tier 4 tournaments. I don’t have any specific studies to back my next statement, but I would believe the majority of esports tournaments are these tier 4 tournaments, just from the sheer low barrier of entry, passionate esports community hosting 2nd-rate tournaments and the less overall work required to create these tournaments.

To determine if a tournament is a tier 4 or tier 3 tournament, look at the organizers, who are they. Also look at the prize pool, tier 3 tournaments still house a decent prize pool of several thousand dollars. The biggest factor to determine the different is the number of participants.

Other Qualifications

Although these extra qualifications aren’t specifically tiers, they are still very useful to understand as you look to further understand the esports ecosystem and start seeing how tournaments may relate to each other.

Qualifier Tournaments

Qualifiers are typically esports leagues that don’t have a substantial prize pool, but rather grant entry into another tournament with a significant prize pool and high-level competition. Qualifiers usually lead to a tier 2 or tier 1 tournament, although it’s not exclusive to that.

Qualifiers can take many different forms, but it’s usually a league consisting of a massive number of players. From there, the players qualify to participate in a formal single/double elimination tournament bracket for a substantial prize pool.

Invitational Tournaments

Invitationals are tournaments that are restricted to teams and players that were specifically invited by the hosting party. These teams and players could be selected for a number of reasons, including credibility, popularity, geographic representation (for a school, city or state), skill, etc.

Invitationals are typically spectator sports, intended to make revenue (or ROI from whatever metric they are focusing on, such as a possible marketing endeavour for their new line product/service, to learn more about this in-depth click here) completely come from having an entertaining tournament to watch.

Open Tournaments

Open tournaments, as the name suggests, are tournaments open to anyone to participate. This includes anyone from a semi-pro all the way to someone playing the game for the first time. Despite its name, most open tournaments ban professional players from participating as to not make the other players feel like they don’t have a chance to win.

Monthlies Tournaments

Monthlies are tournaments that reoccur every month. Popular in the FGC (fighting-game community), monthlies are typically very grassroots (tier 4) and create a loyal community while offsetting it with a small prize pool.

Weeklies Tournaments

Weeklies are tournaments that reoccur every week. Popular in the FGC (fighting-game community), weeklies are typically very grassroots (tier 4) and create an even more loyal community than weeklies while offsetting it with an even smaller prize pool.

Some TOs host both a weekly and a monthly, with the monthly having a better prize pool and larger turnout.