CS: GO tournaments that every fan should know about
April 5 2022
Counter-Strike is arguably the world's most popular esport. It has been a mainstage game for more than 20 years and set the standard for all other competitive shooters. Thanks to tournaments year-round, it offers some of the most lucrative opportunities in esports.
There are hundreds of events worldwide that give an abundance of teams chances to shine. However, only a few events pay out the big bucks, attracting the best competition. These tournaments are often called Majors or Premier events, and prize pools can reach seven figures. Let's break down the four S-tier circuits every CS:GO fan should know about.
Intel Extreme Masters
Image source: ESL
Inaugural Year: 2007
Most Successful Orgs: Fnatic, Natus Vincere, Astralis, mousesports
Celebrating its 15-year anniversary in 2022, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) is the world's longest-running pro gaming tour. With origins in Counter-Strike 1.6, it even predates Global Offensive. Premier esports company ESL had just built its name up in Europe and wanted to expand into North America and other regions to create a global competition. Today IEM is widely considered to be the most prestigious tournament series in CS:GO.
IEM introduced the common practice of hosting significant qualifying events leading up to a final championship. Qualifiers are held in major cities across various regions, including Europe, North America, Asia, and Oceania. Some of these are still major events, with prize pools reaching upwards of $100,000. The number of qualifiers varies, but the past two seasons have seen an increased number of events in new regions like CIS and South America. The World Championship is held every year near the start of spring in Katowice, Poland. Three of the last four World Championship events featured $1 million prize pools.
Many organizations have been crowned IEM World Champions, but a few have achieved enough to become storied members of the circuit's history. Fnatic and Natus Vincere lead the way with three World Championship trophies apiece, including back-to-back for Na'Vi in 2010 and 2011. Astralis is the only other team to win multiple world titles with two. The most recent champions are FaZe Clan, crowned just over a month ago at IEM XVI Katowice.
ESL Pro League
Inaugural Year: 2015
Most Successful Orgs: Fnatic, Astralis, mousesports, Cloud9
IEM isn't the only major tournament circuit put together by ESL. The ESL Pro League operates more like a traditional sports competition. It features permanent member teams and formerly kept separate divisions for Europe and the Americas before holding a Finals event. Since 2021, all teams are pooled together from start to finish. Teams that are not permanent members join via qualifier events or their ESL world ranking. The permanent member teams are:
Ninjas in Pyjamas
Each ESL Pro League season lasts around one month. The 24 teams first play group stage matches that make up about half of the tournament. Only three of the six teams in each group advance, with the four group winners earning byes for the playoffs. From there on, the tournament is single-elimination until the winner is decided. Because of their long duration, just two ESL Pro League seasons happen each year. Prize pools average around $750,000 and are rising to above $800,000 in 2022.
European teams have enjoyed more success in the ESL Pro League than their North and South American counterparts. Fnatic and Astralis are the only teams to win multiple season Finals, both going back-to-back in their respective runs. MOUZ (formerly mousesports) have won three European championships, and one Finals win. Team Liquid has won three Americas championships and played in three straight season Finals from 2018 to 2019, winning one. The most recent champions are Natus Vincere, adding another new piece of hardware to their trophy case.
Image source: PGL
Inaugural Year: 2017
Major Winners: Gambit Esports (Krakow), Natus Vincere (Stockholm)
With foundations dating back to 2002, PGL has evolved from a modest esports company into an industry juggernaut. They were known for hosting the Minor Championships and partnering with HTC for 1v1 and 2v2 events. PGL took a giant leap in 2017 with PGL Major Krakow. The tournament was officially sponsored by Valve and featured a $1 million prize pool far surpassing that of any other tournament they had organized. All following PGL Majors would retain Valve sponsorship as "CS:GO Major Championship" events.
It would be four years before another PGL Major would arrive. The wait would be well worth it, as Stockholm 2021 featured a $2 million prize pool, the largest in CS:GO history. Natus Vincere cemented their legendary status and took home a whopping $1 million for first place. Fortunately for fans, PGL Majors are no longer running on four-year schedules. In fact, PGL Major Antwerp 2022 will have four Regional Major Ranking tournaments leading up to the main event.
PGL Majors implement a unique tournament format. Teams must battle through two Swiss group stages before reaching the knockout stage. Winning three matches is required to advance while losing three eliminates teams in the Swiss system. Out of 24 total teams, only 8 qualify for the single-elimination playoff bracket. Teams qualify through their Regional Major Ranking, which compiles results from every major CS:GO tournament series.
Inaugural Year: 2020
Most Successful Orgs: Natus Vincere, Gambit Esports, Team Vitality
Although it's rather new, BLAST Premier is making waves in the CS:GO world. Founded in 2020, it replaced the BLAST Pro Series and features multiple events every year. Regional competitions are held in Europe and the Americas leading up to the World Final. Prize pools for most tournaments range from $150,000-$500,000. However, the World Finals for 2020 and 2021 saw $1 million prize pools. Similar to permanent member teams in the ESL Pro League, BLAST Premier features 12 partner teams:
Ninjas in Pyjamas
The yearly BLAST Premier schedule is separated by the Spring and Fall seasons. Each season has three tournaments with increasing stakes and prize pools: Groups, Showdown, and Finals. The 12 teams are split into three different double-elimination brackets in Groups. The top two from each group advance to the Finals. Meanwhile, the other six teams compete in the Showdown, where ten other teams join them via invitation, qualifier, or some other means. The final two also qualify for the Finals. Both the Showdown and Finals are single-elimination knockout formats.
The winners of the Spring and Fall Finals automatically qualify for the World Final. BLAST Premier uses a point system along with various other criteria to determine the other six teams. For example, 2022's team lineup will look like this:
Spring Finals winner
Fall Finals winner
PGL Major Antwerp 2022 winner
Valve Fall Major 2022 winner
ESL Pro League Season 15 winner
ESL Pro League Season 16 winner
BLAST Premier points leader
BLAST Premier points leader
This unique method for choosing teams incorporates the entire calendar year of CS:GO events. Along with the seasonal Showdowns, it also ensures that teams outside the 12 partners can succeed in tournaments. BLAST Premier has reached a monumental status in just a short time and continues to grow entering year three of operations. Two-time defending World Final champions Natus Vincere are aiming for a three-peat while the other squads look to finally take down the kings of the circuit.
While these are the four major circuits in the current CS:GO landscape, many mid-tier tournaments also feature high-level competition. Several organizers are on the rise and could reach Major status in the near future. Chief among these is Relog Media, founder of three tournaments: Pinnacle, the Sweet series, and Funspark. Elisa is another company with rapidly growing prize pools for their invitational tournaments. Certain circuits like DreamHack and StarLadder were formerly considered Majors but have yet to return to hosting events in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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