The Debate Over Skill-Based Matchmaking in Online Multiplayer Games
Skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) is a system of matching players up with others of a similar skill level in multiplayer online games. At a surface level, this may seem ideal, but its implementation has proven to be controversial for a variety of reasons. Here, we run through everything you need to know, from what SBMM is to why it is controversial.
SBMM refers to how a game decides which players to put into your lobby. When you search for a match in any video game, the game uses a complex algorithm to find other players. This process is called matchmaking. Matchmaking usually prioritizes location and connection to reduce lag and improve connectivity. SBMM is an added component of the overall matchmaking process—it is a skill issue. SBMM does not discard factors like connection, but it puts emphasis on matching players with those of a similar skill level. Different games use different metrics to evaluate a player’s skill, such as their in-match stats and the number of victories they obtain against opponents of varying strength.
For example, in Call of Duty, the matchmaking algorithm is believed to consider your statistics, like time played, score per minute, and kill/death ratio. As a result, players generally end up in matches with others who score similarly in these areas. This means that in the majority of cases, lower-skilled players are matched with other lower-skilled players, and higher-skill players are matched with other higher-skilled players.
Naturally, it is an imperfect system and there will be occasions where players are put into matches with others better or worse than them.
Why do games include it?
SBMM was designed as a way to protect new players from being comprehensively beaten in every game they play. If a player is still learning the mechanics of a game, putting them into a lobby with experienced and talented players would not be very fun or useful for them. If players are engaged for longer, there is more money to be made off them. Therefore, instead of having new players be dominated every single match, causing them to quickly lose interest and stop playing, SBMM matches them to games that keep them interested for longer. Protecting lesser-skilled players means they are less likely to quit in frustration and can continue to feel challenged by a game.
Pros and cons of skill-based matchmaking
The case for SBMM is seemingly obvious and almost indisputable. Players who are less skilled or do not have a lot of time to spend on a game get some sort of protection from being beaten down by Twitch streamers and those who have played for thousands of hours. Despite its good intentions, SBMM has definite side effects. Here we list the pros and cons of SBMM:
- Gives casual players a better chance to play. By pitching players of equal levels against each other, the playing field is leveled, allowing more enjoyable games.
- Allows players of all skill levels to have decent matches. If players were matched with others with far higher or lower skill levels, they would not have a fair chance of winning.
- Gives players who struggle a reason to say, “one more game,” because by having more balanced games, outcomes are less predictable, making players want to keep trying.
- Punishes skilled players. Top-tier players often have nobody at a similar level to match with. As a result, they may be stuck with an entire team of low-level players that they need to carry, which can lead to unenjoyable matches.
- Prevents streamers from showcasing their skills and dominating weaker players in livestreams. Although comprising a tiny minority of players, streamers are highly vocal about how SBMM negatively affects them in this way.
- Hurts connection in favor of balanced matches. Depending on the SBMM algorithm, similarly skilled players with throttled Internet connections and high pings may be prioritized for a match over less similarly skilled players who have stable Internet connections.
- Forces gamers to become more competitive. Most games today are separated into ranked and casual play. Having SBMM implemented into casual play makes the game play feel similar to ranked play. Having every single match be balanced is not necessarily fun. Although all players can do fine with SBMM, this inevitably leads to most games feeling more of the same and being too competitive.
- Results in extreme difficulty variation between games. The algorithm may potentially pitch players in a yoyo fashion against highly skilled opponents in one match, causing them to lose spectacularly, and then pitch them against low-level players in the subsequent match, giving them an easy win.
Effects of skill-based matchmaking on the gaming community
A clash ultimately occurs in the gaming community between those who prefer SBMM and those who do not. The various ways that SBMM has divided the community are as follows:
Highly skilled players who stream their games would prefer to be able to dominate lesser-skilled players, at least occasionally, so that they can showcase their talents and entertain audiences. This is also what audiences want to see. Furthermore, game publishers want these streamers to be popular, however that may be achieved, because game streams are a major marketing strategy. However, this clashes with the desire to create level playing fields for lower-skilled players. Game studios have a conflicting need to protect the lower-level players.
Gamers are divided on the game modes in which SBMM should apply. Generally, most players agree that an SBMM belongs in a ranked playlist, where rewards are given to players who consistently beat those who are at the same level, whereas public matches should be more casual, so that players can just have fun playing, regardless of the skill level of their team members or opponents. In recent years, developers have implemented strict SBMM into casual playlists, leaving few avenues for gamers to simply play a relaxing game. Developers of several games, including Call of Duty, Fortnite, and Apex Legends, have confirmed they use SBMM in the standard playlists.
Social effects of SBMM
- If your usual teammates are no longer at the same level as you, the SBMM may not allow you to form teams together.
- Some players prefer matching and playing with other gamers for reasons unassociated with relative skill level. Whether teammates have microphones for in-game communication is to some players more important than whether their skill level is similar.
- SBMM cultivates a more competitive gaming environment, preventing players from casually playing in a relaxed manner. If each team has similarly skilled players, the game will be closer and the outcome less certain, and players must therefore focus on their own performance and improvement rather than on teamwork or social interaction.
Smurfing happens in almost any multiplayer game, but especially those that apply SBMM. A smurf is a player, often highly skilled, who creates another account to play against lower-ranked players. The smurf pretends to be new, then dominates their opponents due to being so much better at the game. Unskilled players will likely assume that the smurf account is roughly equivalent to them in skill and become frustrated when they cannot compete.
Players caught smurfing are usually banned instantly. Although it has obvious negative effects, the reasons players smurf are not always ill-intentioned:
- Finding matches takes a lot of time at the highest ranks. A smurf account at a lower level where there are a lot more players will be matched with much more quickly.
- Players of all levels usually enjoy dominating other players. Smurfing can be a way to get at least one round of satisfaction, especially if a player has not been having good results at their actual rank for a while.
- Streamers might create smurf accounts to disguise their identities.
- Some players find it enjoyable to make a new account and see how quickly they can progress after starting again from the bottom.
Most gamers are in agreement that poorly implemented SBMM is better than no SBMM. Although SBMM is not going away, its development path is unclear. SBMM’s implementation in games is intentionally opaque and surrounded by a lack of clarity; developers and publishers rarely address questions about how their matchmaking systems work, because to do so would invite gaming of their systems. Despite the controversy, more games appear to be moving towards SBMM as a primary part of their matchmaking algorithms. We hope that SBMM in upcoming games alleviates some of the challenges we have described.
Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.