esports

The real issue with Skill based matchmaking in Call of Duty Modern Warfare

© Activision
By Joab Gilroy
We take a look at what's really wrong with SBMM in the new Modern Warfare, and why it has players so annoyed.
As a whole skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) is a good thing. By design, it's supposed to give you fun-but-challenging multiplayer experiences — not one or the other.

'Back in the old days'

Back in the old days, before matchmaking was a thing (and when PC players were definitely, absolutely, assuredly going to boycott Modern Warfare 2 over it), you'd use a server browser to find a game, you'd jump in and you'd deal with the hand you were dealt.
And if you joined a server where one side was all players rocking the same clan tag, you were usually in for a rough time. These cats were pubstomping — or getting sweaty, as the kids say these days. They were using hardcore strats, taking things super serious and getting ready to wipe the floor with you. Generally they were warming up before scrims or a ladder match, but their reasons didn't matter to you. You were the nail, and they were the hammer, so you were about to get hit in the head. A lot.
The reverse also happened sometimes. Either you'd form a crew of sweat-lords to stomp it up, or the universe might just serve you a big plate of bambinos, ready for you to devour. Like at the Multiplayer Reveal Event for this very game, where they put us on keyboard and mouse and queued us into games with players on PS4 controllers. It's fun, but not exactly challenging.

Super Bros Mash Melee

SBMM is supposed to marry the two elements, matching you up with players who are around your skill level so that you'll have some games where you smash, some games where you get smashed — but overall what you'll do is (ideally) have a good time.
Call of Duty has done this for years. Hell, it's why we were sold matchmaking in the first place. On some vague level, the COD games have tried to match you up with and against players who are in your league.
But if previous COD games were using that league to mean a unit of measurement, then Modern Warfare has reduced that measurement to just inches. The players you're matched up against in 2019's COD are all up in your personal space skill-wise.

Rank amateurs

This is pretty common in other games too, actually. And people love it. A great example is Rainbow Six Siege — where the team at Ubisoft is not only trying to match you up with players who are as close to your skill level as possible, they're trying to make a viable competitive pathway out of it.
Like Call of Duty, Rainbow Six Siege has a form of SBMM in its Casual mode — mostly designed to make sure you don't sit there crushing brand new players every time you play. But you can also opt in to a more aggressive form of SBMM, and come 2020, that matchmaking will provide players with a way to enter the Pro League (if they're good enough).
That's because Rainbow Six Siege has a Ranked mode for players to enter, and — like Ranked modes in a dozen different games — your performance is carefully monitored and rated using an Elo style system.
As a result, you get two things. Over time, you get games against players who are roughly around your same skill level. And secondly, you get a ranking — a visual indication of what your skill level actually is.
Ranked modes in games are very carefully managed, and with good reason. They're not exactly the most positive play experience for those taking part. There's a real frustration tied to the idea of Elo Hell — being trapped at a skill level you don't think you should be at because you keep getting bad teammates — and it can turn some players away from a game forever.
They also take place under specific competitive settings. In Siege, you'll never play Hostage or Secure Area in Ranked mode, but it's basically all I seem to play in Casual. Bomb is the competitive mode, so all Ranked games are played on it. They have specific map pools and other rulesets for competitive as well, and Ranked usually adheres to these — tying back to the idea that esports is supposed to be educational, Ranked modes typically allow you to translate what you've learned into practice.

The crux of the issue

Call of Duty doesn't have a ranked mode, but it uses a ranked mode style matchmaking, and that's precisely what is upsetting players. The careful management involved with Ranked modes in other games isn't there in Modern Warfare, so instead you get all the fun of Elo Hell without any of the TLC most games put in. And your reward for taking part in this is… no ranking of any kind.
It's a massive issue.
And it's going to get worse. Smurfing has existed in matchmaking systems for as long as they have. The idea being you deliberately lose to tank your matchmaking rating so that when you play next you have games against opponents far below your skill level.
What happens when this occurs is far worse than the frustrating ennui delivered by pointlessly overbearing matchmaking — instead, you will see players knowing they are stuck against a specific class of players suddenly getting utterly stomped.
It also ties into our biases. I played 5 or so matches of PUBG yesterday. Still, I only really remember two — the last one I played, and the game where I went buck wild and secured a chicken dinner for my team. The games I remember of Modern Warfare are the narrow losses I feel we should have won or the campers who killed me from shitty hiding spots.
When we're enjoying ourselves, we remember the good times more readily. When we're not having fun, it's easier to revisit why that is.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare desperately needs to soften its SBMM, probably back to what it was. On a fundamental level it doesn't make sense to have it as narrow as it currently is. Why reimplement Killstreaks — a move I am still against, although you can switch to scorestreaks via a perk — and then drag the focus of each match so dramatically away from individual efforts? That's what Killstreaks are about — the hero player. But with hyper-aggressive SBMM, there is no hero player. Just a bunch of evenly matched regular players, all of them slowly getting bored with the way Modern Warfare has been designed one way while they are heavily encouraged to play another.