Intro to Tournaments & Basic Terminology

Intro to Tournaments & Basic Terminology
Written by Kelly “Kupo” G.

1.Introduction – What are Tournaments?

Tournaments, as defined by Merriam-Webster, are “a series of games or contests that make up a single unit of competition”. In layman’s terms, they’re a gathering of individuals or teams that compete against one other in order to determine who among them is the best. The concept of a gaming tournament is essentially the same as any other sport – everyone there is competing to see who will make it out on top.

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of tournaments, brackets, and other frequently used terminology.  If you’re brand new to competitive gaming, this is a great place to start!

Disclaimer: While this article covers a variety of games and formats, the author’s experience is primarily with that of the fighting game community.  Some terminology may not match-up exactly with other esports (especially PC LAN type gaming).

1.1.Tournaments by Size

Tournaments come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest tend to be locals, or weeklies. These are smaller events that often start out as groups of friends getting together to bring structure to friendly competitions. They tend to be held in card shops, bars, community centers, and occasionally at universities. Because of their smaller scale, frequent schedule, and typically low cost to enter, they’re the place most new players go to check out the competitive scene and hone their skills.

A step above the
locals are monthlies. Like the name suggests, these events happen on a monthly basis and tend to be a bit larger in size. Because there’s more time between events, organizers have more time to plan and organize around it. Since the scale of these tournaments are a bit larger, there’s more of an incentive for players from neighboring areas to attend. For players, monthlies can provide exciting opportunities to compete against players outside of their core community. This usually means bigger venues, more people, and more value. However, these tend to be a bit more expensive than a local to make up for the larger space.

Regionals tend to be similar to monthlies, but with larger crowds and venues, and an emphasis on bringing in players from neighboring communities.  Regionals are generally more organized and prestigious, often taking the form of traditional conventions rather than local community events. Tournament Organizers (TO’s) of these events will try to incentivize attendance for these events by flying in talent from other regions.  Similar to monthlies, the diversity in players attending gives them the opportunity to play different kinds of characters and play-styles.  Placing well at these larger events is a source of pride and important step for many players as they progress in skill.

Photo by Robert Paul from Evo 2016

Then there are the very large tournaments – I’m sure most are familiar with them. When you first think of “esports” tournaments, these are probably the events you picture in your mind.  Crowds of people from around the world will file into large ballrooms and convention centers lined with competitive setups. There are booths for artists and vendors, and maybe even a demo for the next iteration of a game coming out next year. These events are huge and grand, essentially a convention for competitive gamers. These nationals tend to have larger prize pools and attract the best players for each game. The prize pools are bigger here, but the competition is also much tougher. Winning events of this caliber are huge accomplishments for a player’s career and reputation among the community. Some notable tournaments that would be considered a national are EVO, Combo Breaker, CEO, Genesis, and The Big House. 

1.2.Formats – How to find out who is the best

Every tournament has to have a format. There are a few different bracket types that each have their pros and cons, but in the end they all serve the same purpose: to eliminate everyone until there is only one winner.  

Single Elimination (SE): A bracket type in which teams or players are eliminated from the competition after a single loss. Losing a single set means a player is then out of the tournament. This is extremely efficient (fewer overall sets to complete) but can be stressful on players. There’s even more pressure to win because a single loss means their run at the tournament has ended. Single elimination bracket types tend to favor games that have very long sets, such as MOBAS (League of Legends) or RTS (Starcraft) games. 

An example of a single elimination bracket.

Double Elimination (DE): An elimination style format similar to SE, however there is a lower/losers bracket. This means after losing your 1st set you still have a chance to play in the losers side of the bracket. Instead of only losing 1 set and being eliminated, this means that players are not eliminated until they lose 2 full sets. It is standard for most tournaments to use this format because it remains efficient like SE, but removes the pressure from players to perform at their absolute peak as well as adding value by guaranteeing at least one more set in the competition.


DE is structured the same as SE, except losers fall into the “losers” side of the bracket.

Round Robin (RR): A small group of players where they all play each other once. This bracket type adds the most value to an attendee by guaranteeing they will play multiple sets. Other bracket types like Single Elimination or Double Elimination only guarantee that you play 1 or 2 sets before elimination. RR guarantees that you will play the same amount of sets as there are opponents in your group. However, it is possible to have ties with an unclear winner. This format is best used in the group/pool stage that progresses into a final bracket stage. This format only gets more difficult to run the more attendees there are, so these are typically suited best for events with 100 or less attendees.

What a RR group looks like when reporting.


A visual of the two phases. RR pools progressing into a final bracket.

Swiss: Unlike DE and SE, swiss is not an elimination based format. It’s more similar to RR, where you play many people in your group. However, who you play is determined based on your performance in the event. This means as a player, I will only play others who have the same win/loss record as I do. Most events using this format will have a set number of rounds based on the number of attendees. Typically organizers will determine that the top “x” players at the end of the rounds will progress into the final “elimination” bracket type to determine the overall winner.

2.Bracket Terminology

Groups/Pools: In order to finish large events in a timely manner, most organizers will split up the attendees into Groups (more commonly referred to as Pools in the FGC). By having a smaller player group, you can eliminate players faster than if it were all just a single bracket. The most common way to use pools is to have DE bracket pools that all progress into more rounds of elimination pools. Pools will always progress into another elimination phase

An example of multiple “pools” of people split up to compete against each other from EVO 2018.

Seeding: The art of deciding who plays who in the bracket. Seeding is typically a list of players ranked from most likely to win to least likely, and determines their placements in the bracket. This creates a fair and balanced tournament based on perceived skill. It’s a method to prevent players of similar skill levels from playing each other in early rounds. Seeding is typically determined by trusted community members who have knowledge of players performances at other events. Typically rankings are used at this stage as a reference of people’s overall skill as well.

The list of players ranked from most likely to win to least likely. May or may not be accurate in this example.

This shows how players are placed into pools based on their seed. The numbers next to the name represent their seed number.

An example of a “ranking” where players are ranked based on their performance. This is decided upon by community members and can be used at the national or the local level.

Other bracket terms

  • Round: a group of sets in a bracket
    • Ex: “I lost in the first round of winners, so now I’m in the first round of losers”.
  • Match/Set: The act of two players sitting down to determine a winner during an event. Sets are decided by winning a predetermined number of games.
  • Game: Players interacting within the video game until the game (or tournament rules) decides a victor. The end of a game is usually denoted by KO! or GAME!, or a bunch of people loudly reacting.
  • Best of or First to:  Number of games required to determine a winner of a set.
    • Ex: “We will play best of 3 games until finals, and then we will play a best of 5”. 
  • Double Jeopardy: When a player is eliminated from a tournament by the same player they lost to in winners. Good seeding helps prevent this, but upsets can cause double jeopardy. Commonly seen for events that use RR groups into a DE bracket. has built-in rematch avoidance features to help prevent double jeopardy between phases.
  • Death Pool: Some tournaments decide to take on-site registration after overall registration has closed. If they were placed into pools normally it can cause scheduling and seeding issues. To help alleviate this some organizers hold a Death Pool – which is a single pool of only the players that have registered on-site. Usually the winner of this pool is placed as the last seed in the phase that all groups progress into. For very large events, taking on-site registration in any way is not recommended as having a death pool like this can cause seeding issues (the best player in the world can play in the death pool and then become the last seed in the tournament – throwing off the overall seeding). 
  • Open Bracket: A bracket/event that anyone can register and enter to compete in.
  • Arcadian: ranked players (defined by the TO) cannot enter this event.
  • Invitational: Inverse of Arcadian – only specific players (usually determined by rank) can enter these events. Usually invited by the TO. 
  • Qualifier: Sometimes invitationals will require prospective entrants to win or place well in qualifier tournaments. Other qualifiers are not tournaments, like public voting.

3.Any Questions?

Are you looking to start organizing tournaments? Here are a few relevant articles:

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