What are all the options to deploy SPFx webparts to a SharePoint Online environment?
Is it always necessary to have the .sppkg uploaded to the SharePoint App Catalog?
What is the recommended approach?
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Q1: Depends on your environment setup. There can multiple ways you can handle deployment of SPFx. For example, if you are using Tenant wide App Catalog vs using Site Collection App Catalog. The answer is not a simple one to two liner which can be discussed here.
Q2: Yes, you need to upload SPFx component to App Catalog, either Tenant or Site Collection.
Q3: Again its theoretical, and mostly depends on your organization standards. For example, in my environment, I am using Azure DevOps to handle such jobs. I am using DevOps git based code repo, on which CI/CD is implemented. When the developers complete work on there branch, and creates a pull request, once approved code automatically gets deployed to dev env. Once testing is complete we tag the build and release it to staging env and finally to prod.