Sandbagging – A Problem?

TeamFortress.TV is known to many (and to some proudly) as a ripe source of drama within the competitive community. Whether it’s the newest revelations about the ESEA scandal, players getting VAC banned, or a top player leaving a team, TF.TV will gulp it all up.

This week has brought renewed attention upon a certain phenomenon – sandbagging.

This match is the ESEA Open grand final that is getting ready to take place. This preview has been edited to show the starters for each team in bold and indicate the highest previous level of experience with a highlight (none - N/A, green - Open, yellow - Intermediate, red - Invite). Anything wrong with this picture?
This match is the ESEA Open grand final that is getting ready to take place. This preview has been edited to show the starters for each team in bold and indicate the highest previous level of experience with a highlight (none – N/A, green – Open, yellow – Intermediate, red – Invite). Anything wrong with this picture?

To recap, the ESEA Main grand finals took place on Wednesday night between Street Hoops eSports and AG Rinkuing with Rinku. AG Rinkuing with Rinku, which had been a roster moved down from Invite that had recently picked up several Invite players to secure their spot in playoffs, was at a decided advantage against the team directly moved up from Open, and it showed clearly in the second match on Viaduct in which AG’s strategy completely dominated – which was mostly chalked up to experience. In an after-the-fact celebratory forum post by the team’s sponsor, Nahanni, complaints erupted over how AG had reformed itself so late in the season and snatched the Main title.

In an even uglier scenario, the lower bracket finals for ESEA Open also took place the same night. This match was between the regular-season-undefeated The Meat Market and the star-power (no pun intended) team BUDSQUAD, composed of several former players from Invite. During the first half of the match, BUDSQUAD rolled its normal lineup – seanbud, a former Invite scout, was playing pocket, and Lange, a former Invite soldier, was playing scout. After going down 3-0, a halftime switch was made – seanbud now on scout and Lange on soldier. This new lineup change allowed BUDSQUAD to surge back from their deficit to a 4-4 tie at the end of regulation and then to grab the golden cap round, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. This team now goes on to face Quantum Flux, a team also composed of former Invite players, in a match that seems like it belongs in a higher division. Much controversy has erupted over this narrow victory and its implications.

That brings us to a question – is there a serious problem of sandbagging, wherein players play below the division that they should be playing? Perhaps there is – another team composed of former Invite players was similarly criticized for breaking their “commitment” to offclass just to get into playoffs, in which they were summarily defeated. And certainly there are several stories of how teams are able to adopt top players to give their team a quick boost in the standings.

However, what causes this problem? Certainly there is the issue of the Open teams saying that they would play handicapped and then going back on it when there’s something important on the line, but can they be blamed for having to play in a lower division? Probably not. As it stands, ESEA’s policy makes it difficult for teams to be placed appropriately – a new team can either be moved up to Invite by decision of the league admins or left in Open, with no other recourse for new teams not suited for Invite but perhaps too experienced for the lower divisions. The only way to get a team into a higher division is to “hijack” a roster that is qualified to be in a certain division, and ESEA even makes that difficult by requiring that a certain number of players from the previous season play in the first few matches. In addition, Invite players were hit by a new rule this season which only allows them to play in two teams – a problem erupted when players from one dead Invite team joined another as a backup, and then could not join another Invite team in the middle of the season – leaving them the only option of joining teams in lower divisions.

It is unlikely that ESEA will change these longstanding policies any time soon, given that they are uniform across the other game leagues of ESEA including the CS:GO league. The issues with team placement can also be seen in other leagues, though not as severely as in ESEA. In UGC Highlander, the top of the Platinum division is so stacked with Invite talent that top Gold teams are reluctant to accept a promotion to compete with such top teams, and admins are reluctant to force them to do so given that teams have first pick of what division they want to play in. In ETF2L, teams are automatically moved up and down based on their finish within their division, with qualifiers held for top divisions and admins choosing to promote new teams to certain divisions based on player experience and results from scrims.

Obviously, team placement is a difficult question, and no league does it perfectly. However, the oft-mentioned new alternative to ESEA, CEVO, has demonstrated a different approach to handling qualified teams for its other game leagues – placement tournaments. An example of this is seen in the CS:GO league – in addition to the automatic moveups and movedowns based on season performance, CEVO is additionally holding a placement tournament for 192 teams. In this tournament, teams initially compete in a group stage with 5 other teams, and the top 2 teams from the group are invited to a single-elimination tournament. All of these teams are automatically invited to the Intermediate division. In the knockout round, the top 16 teams receive an additional invite to the Main division. Ultimately, this tournament seems like a better way to handle the issue of team placement, although it suffers from issues as well – for one, teams must commit to playing a strict schedule of matches for three weeks, as the match times are predetermined and suffering two forfeit losses precludes a team from receiving an invite to a higher division.

So the question remains – how do you best organize a league to prevent problems like this? That’s perhaps a question to be organized by a radical new league or reorganization of a current one. For now, however, we’re stuck with the somewhat-flawed implementations that we currently have.

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