It seems that every time a season of ESEA rolls around, we are greeted with the usual sight of players playing in a division lower than expected, and the inevitable calls of sandbagging ring out. Being interested in understanding more about this phenomenon, I went and computed stats from history to see whether I could find any interesting trends.
The first statistics I looked at were comparing the division a player was playing in a season and the division the player played in the previous season. The graph shows both Counter-Strike (1.6, Source, Global Offensive) and Team Fortress 2 statistics for comparison’s sake. It also has two distinct statistics for each division, one being the “immediately prior” statistic that only reflects players returning from the immediately prior season (e.g. Season 18 to Season 19), while the “most recent” statistic reflects players returning from any prior season (counting their most recent season for the purposes of determining whether they’re playing in a higher or lower division). Each of the actual statistics ends up being representative of the net difference between the percentage of players playing in a higher division (“promotions”) and the percentage of players playing in a lower division (“relegations”).
In a very general sense, the graph helps to show the effect of ESEA rules, with the “immediately prior” statistics being more directly affected by the move up and down process of ESEA, while the “most recent” statistics include players that have had a gap between their appearances and thus more likely to start in Open (as per ESEA rules). Therefore, we expect the “most recent” statistics to be lower in the general case than the “immediately prior” statistics, and indeed this is the case. This graph shows that over the last few seasons (excluding Season 17) the net percentage difference between players being promoted and relegated has been around 0.1 (as in 10% more players are getting promoted than relegated).
An interesting trend to note here is that CS and TF have generally had similar statistics when it comes to the returning player trends. This indicates that they’re generally being affected the same by the ESEA rules. Why, then, does it seem like TF has more of a problem? My theory would be based on the number of divisions - top CS players have more divisions to “fall into” (being unlikely that a player from Professional or Premier could only find a team in Open willing to accept them), while top TF players can only go down to Intermediate or Open and thus making the effect more apparent in those divisions. After all, there is a reason why Open is considered a very difficult division in CS, and a reason why a few top Open teams are promoted directly to Main and several more are promoted to Intermediate.
I then looked directly at statistics of players “sandbagging” by playing in a lower division. Once again, I looked at “immediately prior” and “most recent” statistics from before, and this time added in “any” statistics, which reflect all players who have ever played in a division above their current division.
With the “any” statistics, this graph helps to add in the players that have played in recent seasons but not at the highest level they did. The effect is massive, with about 5-10% of players falling in this new category dating all the way back to Season 10. There are several possible reasons for a player to make it into this category - they declined in skill since their appearance in that division, they’re playing with a team better suited for a lower division, there isn’t enough space in that division for their team to make it, etc. No matter what happens, though, they’ll always be marked as a “sandbagger” here unless/until they can make it back into that higher division. (In some ways, that’s a reflection of public opinion, where once you’re Invite, you’re always Invite, and playing in a lower division is you either “sandbagging” or being “washed up”.)
So where does that leave us? Well, we know that more players are getting moved up than moved down, so a majority of our problem is actually just part of the natural process shifting players through the ranks as governed by ESEA rules and policies. TF2 probably just feels the impact more due to being much smaller as a game right now and having less divisions than CS does. A significant minority of the problem is composed of players staying below their highest division, for whatever reason they may have. At the end of the day, though, “sandbagging” is here to stay, and it’s definitely a more complex topic than I can cover with these statistics. I’ll leave you to make the subjective decision on who qualifies as a true sandbagger and how much of a problem it actually is.