On December 1st, ESL announced they would be expanding the number of teams in ESL Pro League Europe next season from 14 to 16 teams. Thus, scheduled relegation matches that have since been played were directly impacted. Both Ninjas in Pyjamas and Fnatic have now been automatically invited to Season 9 instead of being required to fight through the aforementioned relegation against top teams from ESEA Premier. The change once again saves two popular organizations from their abysmal performances, just like a similar change helped Virtus.pro in Season 3.
Online leagues like ESL Pro League, for all of their pitfalls, are unique in the aspect that they are one of the best places for an up and coming team to earn a real salary. A team that may have never received an invite to an international LAN event will see their chances skyrocket overnight if they qualify and perform well. When a rule is changed that allows poor performing teams to remain in the league, it inherently keeps additional teams from earning their chance in the spotlight.
That’s not to say ESL Pro League Europe doesn’t deserve an expansion, it most certainly does. Although, the change should have been announced prior to the start of last season or following relegation this season. A blanket change prior to relegation hurts the competitive integrity of the league. What was originally threat at the start of the season became meaningless in the end. Why should most teams worry about trying their hardest when they know there is a good chance they’ll be saved by another mid-season rule change?
It wouldn’t be proper to criticize this situation without proposing an alternative way to approach it, so here is what my suggestions would have been. Solution #1: Following Season 8 relegation, announce the change for Season 9 which would lead to 16 teams in Season 10. Solution #2: Announce the change at the time it was announced but require Fnatic, NiP, and AGO to play an expanded relegation tournament that included the additional teams from ESEA Premier and narrow them down to four teams.