The AFC has approved criteria for participation in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The final decision date was set after the Executive Committee meeting in November 2010.
On 30 November 2009, the AFC announced 12 more MA's that were keen to join the ACL, in addition to ten participating national associations. Singapore later withdrew. The full list of candidate associations were as follows:
* Number of appearances (including qualifying rounds) since the 2002/03 season, when the competition was rebranded as the AFC Champions League
The following is the list of participants for the playoff stage confirmed by the AFC. The committee further proposed that one team be shifted by the means of a draw from the West to the East for sake of balance.
The draw for the qualifying play-off was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 7 December 2010. In order to create balance another draw was held, moving one of the teams (Al-Ain) from the West into the East side of the play-offs.
The two winners from the qualifying play-off (one from West Asia and one from East Asia) advanced to the group stage. All losers from the qualifying play-off entered the 2011 AFC Cup group stage.
The draw for the group stage was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 7 December 2010. Clubs from the same country may not be drawn into the same group. The winners and runners-up of each group advanced to the knockout stage.
Based on the results from the group stage, the matchups of the round of 16 were decided as below. Each tie was played as one match, hosted by the winners of each group (Team 1) against the runners-up of another group (Team 2).
The draw for the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 7 June 2011. In this draw, the "country protection" rule was applied: if there are exactly two clubs from the same country, they may not face each other in the quarter-finals; however, if there are more than two clubs from the same country, they may face each other in the quarter-finals.
^The AFC Disciplinary Committee decided to award the quarter-final first leg to Al-Sadd against Sepahan as a 3–0 forfeit win after Sepahan were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player. The match originally ended 1–0 to Sepahan.
The final of the 2011 AFC Champions League was hosted by one of the finalists, decided by draw. This format was a change from the 2009 and 2010 editions, where the final was played at a neutral venue.