I got approached by a coach at a major tournament last year who asked me if I really thought his team was “only tier-two” in North America. This struck me as a weird question, and I believe it exposes a large lack of understanding in the tier system that permeates the viewerbase as well.
After explaining my method of categorising teams into tiers and why that placed them in the second tier in NA, he understood and realised it was not an insult. Interestingly, his team is now tier-three in North America despite having largely stayed at the same level, a beautiful quirk of the tier system that makes it so descriptive.
First of all, it’s in no way my system. It's used by a range of other esports analysts because it details who is expected to perform and how well, comparatively to their competition, and can change easily based on form.
The tier system of rankings teams is a highly useful one but is often misunderstood or incorrectly applied. It’s a fluid and insightful way of categorising teams into groups that can all compete at a similar level. There are no rules on how many teams may be in a tier, nor how many tiers there must be, and the tier that a team resides in may change depending on the context (regional, global, tournament-specific, etc.)
There is also no other way of communicating this concept using classic rankings, as the fourth best team in a given list could be far ahead of the fifth best, but very close to the third. A classic linear rank of teams gives you only a sorted list; it does not tell you about the size of the gaps between the teams.
Tiers are not about winning tournaments or being the X highest team in a region. Using tiers as a synonym for ranks or the depth of a particular tournament run makes the distinction pointless. As usual though, being tier-two in Korea for example is not the same as being tier-two in Europe - the two are not equivalent in any sense, but comparing the two would represent a comparison of the secondary level of competition in each region.
It fulfils no extra purpose if used as a throwaway dismissal either. Labelling a team tier-two to indicate they are the underdog in a fixture or should not be able to compete is pointless, and muddies the waters for those attempting to apply clear and useful tiers to teams. In most situations a tier-two team is still near the top of the scene and these tiers can be applied all the way down.
So now that we've discussed what the tier system is not, what is it and how should it be used?
Generally speaking, tiers define which teams are competitive with each other by identifying gaps in the competition. Wherever a large gap exists between two groups of teams, it indicates that a new tier should probably begin. Competitive in this sense means that the teams are contesting each other. Each team within a tier could potentially beat the other or at least hotly contest the other teams. They do not have to be exact equals, one may be the slight favourite, but they must be on the same level. This aspect injects a level of subjectivity into the tiers but usually the gaps are large enough to be relatively clear.
Tier one teams are, as one might guess, the best in whatever context the tier system is applied. For regional tiers, these teams are generally the favourites to win stacked regional tournaments; for global tiers, these are the best teams in the world; for tournament-specific tiers these are the favourites for that competition.
Clearly there could be situations in which there is only one tier-one team in a tournament, region, or indeed the world; there could equally be times at which there are five or six depending on how competitive the very top of a scene is.
As an example, there are currently many top North American teams who, even within their region, are tier-two due to the overwhelming success recently of EnVyUs and nV’s ability to destroy the domestic competition. They are the sole tier-one team within NA at the moment and will remain so until they slip in form or another side proves they could win series against them.
Further down from tier-one, the same logic can be applied to define the point at which tier-two turns into tier-three. Fnatic, FaZe, Cloud9, and Immortals have shown themselves above the rest of the North American competition in large events and make the NA tier-two a four team group. None of these teams deserve to be put on the same level as EnVyUs at the moment and no lower level team has shown themselves to be deserving of being included in tier-two either. Separating teams into tiers is all about finding natural divisions within team skill and extracting valuable information from that.
This same logic can be applied to any group of teams and provides a great insight into which teams, with the variance of individual play and performance on the day, are likely to take series from one another.
While the exact lines drawn between the tiers are obviously subjective and therefore debatable, this system avoids the need to precisely rank every team at a number. Deciding whether two unrelated teams like Meta Athena or Fnatic should be 7th or 8th is an almost impossible task in a global ranking; it is far clearer in most situations to draw lines between groups of teams.
As a final note for people using this system, the tier label is useless without context. A team may be globally tier-three but tier-one within their region and tier-two within an international tournament. It’s all comparative, which is why the context - as always - is key.
One of the most interesting applications of tiers is that it makes comparing across regions easier when combined with traditional ranking. How many European teams are in the global tier-one? How many tiers do you need in Korea before you hit the equivalent of tier-three in North America, and how deep in terms of actual teams have you gone? There are many uses for this concept and it's an easy one to use and understand - but it does require a thoughtful and realistic process of labelling teams based on their competition. Not every upcoming team is 'tier-two', no matter how promising they look.