Pointless: The HLTV Points Problem

I like HLTV. But we have to talk about their rankings

HLTV’s rankings did some weird things at the end of January, as the end of last season and the Christmas break caught up with the beginning of competitive fixtures in 2021. A number of teams suffered big drops in their rankings due to the decay of their points from three months previous, while teams that grinded out tournaments towards the end of 2020 found themselves on the verge of the top 30 despite having a lower-than-usual points total for such an achievement.

To give some examples: Endpoint dropped 20 places in a week, falling from #30 to #50, as a result of their matches in ESEA Premier expiring. North, whose last competition was Dreamhack Masters Winter, went from #25 to #46. Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum, Sinners’ run to the final of the Vulkan Fight Series put them into the top 30, while EXTREMUM managed to climb five places to #22 off the back of points inherited from 100 Thieves despite playing no official fixtures. In other words we had teams losing many rankings, despite losing only a small number of points, and we had teams gaining lots of ranking places, with only a few strong results.

There are, as I see it, two problems, which combine to give the above outcomes:

  1. Lower-ranking competitions do not provide enough points for the teams that compete in them.
  2. Points decay means that those same teams lose many of the points they do acquire during player breaks or lulls in competition.

Let’s look at what I mean by there not being enough points. The European top 30 starts with Astralis, who are also the global #1, on 1000 points. The top 5 are separated by some 712 points (G2 in 5th have 288). But from Cloud9 in 13th (98 points) down to Lilmix in 30th (20 points) there are far fewer points in play. #21 to #30 are separated by just 7 points, not helped by the fact HLTV has no joint rankings despite a 3-way tie for 25 points and a two-way tie for 27 and 22 points. Endpoint’s points decay dropped them 20 places in one week but they only actually lost 11 points. Meanwhile StylDunow, a Polish mix team that has only competed in two events, gained 27 points — ranking them 45th in the world — from a total of six matches.

Pictured: Europe’s #17-#30, with their points totals, from HLTV.org. (Dated 1st Feb 2021). Movistar Riders are ranked #29 globally, Lilmix are #56 in the global rankings.

To be clear, the problem is not that StylDunow do not “deserve” their points. On the contrary, beating teams like Anonymo and MBAPPEEK is an accomplishment. The problem is that there are so few points in play that a single run in a tournament that is weighted by the algorithm, such as the DH Open January Closed Qualifier, can be enough to boost a team— while other teams who play more matches, but whose tournaments are not considered as worthy, struggle to accrue enough points to maintain their ranking. The low number of points, and consequently the large shifts in rankings, turns the rankings outside the global top 40 into something little better than a random number generator.

The other problem, to go back to the issue of points decay, is that if you start from such a small number of points, and then take two weeks off to avoid burnout or to comply with the tournament break, you will naturally drop some of your points. But when there are so few points involved, this can have a comparatively large effect on your ranking. If Astralis were to take two weeks off and lose some of their 1000 points, they might drop one or two places, if that. But teams like Sprout and Endpoint, despite winning tournaments, do not have that luxury. Sprout fell to #44 during their tournament break last summer, despite having won MDL only a month prior, as their points total was only double figures; consequently they lost nearly a third of their points in a week.

You might say this isn’t a problem, that HLTV is only a fan site. But HLTV’s rankings are used by tournament organisers to decide seeding, and close attention is paid to them. Most notably, the two ESEA Premier groups were decided, at least in part, on the HLTV rankings of the teams. This created a problem: because of the problems mentioned above, the group distribution is uneven. The HLTV rankings simply do not have enough points in beyond the top 40 for them to be meaningful in any way — which is a problem when teams and organisations within the scene then want them to have meaning.

How can this be fixed? Simple: there need to be more points within the system. A simple points multiplier for all points would be a start but ultimately lower-tier tournaments need to give out more points. (It’s frankly odd that ESEA Premier as a tournament doesn’t give out points already — in either HLTV or ESL’s rankings). This would reduce the likelihood of a team making a single strong run and cheesing their way through the rankings. It would also mean that while points decay would still be a factor, it should not result in silly results like teams dropping 20 places for taking two weeks off to practice. It also means that rankings can be decided primarily on the server — and not on the timing of breaks and points decay.

It’s true that some of these problems will be mitigated once competition starts up again in earnest. But that should not be an excuse for them to remain. HLTV’s rankings are considered the best within the scene, and they have importance — that’s why so many teams set out with the explicit goal of trying to break into the top 30. If they are distributed on a weekly basis then it is important they are trustworthy — from top to bottom — and it is important they adapt to shifts in the scene, such as the growing size and professionalism of lower-tier Counter-Strike.

HLTV’s rankings started with the goal of creating a global top 30 that was based on a circuit of international LANs. While they made some changes to adapt for the online era, the lower-tier circuit has grown far larger than their rankings were originally designed to handle. Hopefully the owners of the website will realise this and adapt for the future of Counter-Strike action.

HLTV’s rankings have come a long way. But they can still be improved to make sure they continue to be the gold standard of the CS:GO scene.

A geek, trying to make up for the mistakes of my past.