It would be hard to name a map with more popularity in the TF2 competitive community than cp_badlands. Since its release in 2008, the map quickly became a staple, forming the backdrop to some of the most exciting matches in history. Badlands's dominance in the competitive scene stretches nearly 8 years, surpassed only by the perennial Granary in longevity. Badlands's popularity is rooted in its exemplary map design—a mid that forces fights across multiple layers of verticality, a spire on second, and a last that allows for constant interactions between both teams with a fast capping point that creates a strategic tradeoff between sacking for the point and taking a DM fight on the upper portion. At its best, Badlands presents the competitive player with a series of options at each stage of the game, creating a fluid and varied game experience. In this respect, Badlands has served as the ultimate standard for how competitive TF2 should be played.
Playstyles on Badlands have shifted in parallel to more general ideas about how to play 6v6 across the map pool. ESEA Season 4 is a perfect example of this. During this time, flanks were largely left unchecked and empty, overheals were barely on the register of most medics (in comparison to modern play), and midfights consisted of both teams rolling out through house, taking their train, and fighting until one team was almost wiped. Holding second, if it happened in a proper, orderly fashion, would usually involve putting the combo on gray bridge (or even trash), spamming rockets at the incoming team, and backing out. The shotgun roamers played a much more passive combo-centric role, bombing only rarely. When preparing for a last push, medics and combos would often hold in lower lobby, although a number of top teams held in top lobby as modern teams do now. Teams attacking last would almost always pop Uber on their pocket through the main entrance, with other team members rushing the point and the pocket jumping up to high ground to fight. "Pocket" strats were fairly common at the time, with pyros or heavies occasionally being run to mid through valley.
This was the era of compLexity's dominance and Badlands was a perfect showcase of this. coL had a tremendous combo in relic on pocket and PYYYOUR on medic, a combo that could take on any other in the league and win. coL also had an ace up their sleeve: with loose, unguarded flanks and non-overhealed soldiers, carnage, their star scout, could play to his strengths, running straight into enemies and meatshotting them before they could return fire. In a period where scouts as a whole were less powerful due to overall lower skill and fewer overheals, carnage ripped holes in combos and singlehandedly won his team pushes.
Season 5 saw wholesale changes to TF2's competitive landscape. Scouts as a whole began to rise to the top of the game, competing with soldiers on a more equal footing due to generally better aim and movement. coL's secret sauce wasn't quite as secret anymore. cyzer had long been considered a carnage-slayer, but now other scouts (particularly Muscle Milk and Moolians's star Stamjally) could do so as well.
As such, the season served as a turning point for both Invite as a whole and Badlands in particular. While coL won ESEA’s first TF2 LAN in convincing fashion, they were shown to be vulnerable. carnage, while still a devastating force, could not roam through the flank at will due to a general increase in other Invite scouts' skill levels, better distribution of overheals, and tighter cohesion between roamers and scouts on the flank. Unlocks saw more use (though not used to their full potential quite yet), while offclasses (except for sniper) saw less, and the stage was set for Season 6.
While the Equalizer was used in the previous season, it wasn't until Season 6 that teams began to realize its potential for rollouts. While previous seasons would see teams rollout through house, take their respective trains, and duke it out, wider usage of the Equalizer allowed for a more dynamic approach. Now combos could roll out through valley, which made the classic "offclass to mid" strategies obsolete due to early vision on the enemy valley and punished teams attempting to sit passively on their train through devastating bombs from valley.
This period also saw the adoption of the Gunboats, now considered a staple of competitive play. The Gunboats allowed a much more aggressive roamer style, creating a larger differentiation between the pocket and roamer roles. While the roamer running shotgun could be devastating on the flanks, it allowed him less mobility and he was often forced to play close to the combo in order to receive the heals needed to do his job. With Gunboats, a more fluid and dynamic roamer style became possible—no longer would roamer have to serve as static firepower. Instead, the roamer could jump around behind enemy lines, serving as a constant distraction, and wait for the right moment to bomb into the combo and unload his rockets. Similar to the advent of Equalizer rollouts, it took a while for roamers to fully understand the use of this new unlock and practice the fluid jumps necessary to reach its potential.
When it was perfected, however, it led to vast shifts in the meta as a whole. While previously teams had to win Uber vs. Uber fights through the sheer firepower of the pocket, now teams were able to more consistently force their opponent to pop in bad situations and then Uber their own team back in for more reliable pushes. This led to teams placing more importance on scouts' abilities to guard flanks and deny bombers—while the Gunboats were a powerful tool in harassing the enemy combo, removing the shotgun also made roamers significantly more vulnerable to scouts. As a result, medics began to overheal their flank more efficiently and effectively. Teams could now statically hold the midpoint after a round win, with combo spamming choke to prevent bombers and scouts trying to create space on the flank for their roamers to initiate a fight. The waiting game became much more effective, as roamers could fail their bombs but still return to the fight with decent health after respawning.
Season 11 began with the emergence of a super team that looked capable of disrupting the top level of Invite. PYYYOUR, formerly of coL and The Experiment, created a team designed around new and unorthodox strategies: Mihaly's Flow. With both soldiers on Gunboats, Flow was predicated on scout shrugger's ability to completely dodge damage while protecting the medic, a method known to MMO fans as "evade tanking." The team was a potent combination of raw DM and strategic brilliance. The double Gunboats strategy proved tremendously successful on Badlands in opening up space for Flow’s scouts to work their magic.
Disappointing performances by Flow at LAN, however, eventually culminated with the creation of two new teams with diametrically opposed playstyles: a merger of Classic Mixup and Flow combined the aggression of both teams, and a roster with b4nny known as High Rollers Gaming that played a much more grinding, defensive style. HRG would win a fight and put a chokehold on the enemy team, preventing them from pushing in while utilizing roamer Taggerung for repeated bombs until they could successfully find a forced Uber. HRG's approach proved to be superior on Badlands, with them finding dominant LAN wins on Badlands against their rivals in successive seasons by preventing any room for star scout Ruwin of mix^ to maneuver.
b4nny consolidated his dominance in Season 16 by creating a new superteam: froyotech. FROYO combined the synergy of HRG with raw aggression to become the most dominant team in the history of Invite. From the formation of FROYO to the present season, FROYO has won all seven of their regular season appearances on Badlands, dropping only 7 rounds total in the process. FROYO's closest rival during this period (handing them their only finals loss on Badlands) was Ascent, another highly experienced team that allowed their pocket rando to take the entire Uber and serve as a veritable battering ram, laying down massive damage and creating immense space for the rest of his team.
In many respects, the changing meta of Badlands can be directly tied to how teams were able to utilize the skills of their scouts. While early teams saw slugfests between Ubered pockets as the route to victory, more and more alternative playstyles opened up as teams began to refine their approaches and scouts improved their DM. It's important to note that while the meta as a whole has become much more aggressive and focused on pushing off of slim advantages, the more aggressive playstyles have not necessarily proven strictly superior on Badlands, as evidenced by matches between mix^ and HRG in Seasons 13 through 15. The most successful teams have been able to incorporate both differing styles of play: the grinding and methodical pushes of HRG and the double Gunboats soldier aggression initiated by Flow.
This is a condensed summary of an article looking at the full history of Badlands in ESEA.