How Call of Duty’s SBMM Controversy Divided a Toxic Multiplayer Community

A seemingly simple way to help people play together has instead divided an increasingly hostile Call of Duty community. Here's what you need to know about skill-based matchmaking.

Call of Duty
Photo: Activision

Ahead of Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War‘s release on Nov. 13, the CoD community remains divided on the subject of skill-based matchmaking (SBMM).

Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard about SBMM, but you can rest assured that if you’ve played a Call of Duty game in the last 15 years, you’ve probably been affected by it. In fact, you’ve probably unknowingly participated in the SBMM debate if you’ve played just about any major multiplayer game.

So how has this prevalent and seemingly simple bit of game design become such a venomously contested subject? Here’s an overview of the ongoing SBMM controversy and how it may not only impact the future of the Call of Duty series but the culture of gaming itself…

What is Skill-Based Matchmaking?

Skill-based matchmaking is a way for developers to fill multiplayer lobbies with similarly skilled players to ensure a fairly balanced experience for all participants. Fairly simple, right?

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It’s when you dive into the specifics that things become a bit more complicated. While major games such as Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty have implemented some form of SBMM in at least some of their play modes, different games utilize different algorithms to determine what equal skill means.

Because developers don’t typically share the full details of their matchmaking algorithms (likely to try to ward off copycats and exploiters), we can only really guess what constitutes “skill” to a formula. For instance, it’s strongly suspected that Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War’s SBMM system accounts for a player’s “Kill/Death Ratio” as well as other intangibles such as killstreaks and total time played in order to match each player with other participants whose own stats and performance metrics are relatively similar.

Why Do People Like Skill-Based Matchmaking?

While the full answer to this question is really based on personal preference, these are a few things that most fans of SBMM systems will probably tell you:

First off, the idea behind most SBMM systems is solid. If you could perfectly match players based on their actual skill levels against each other at all times, you could eliminate frustrating balance issues caused by more general matchmaking systems. Furthermore, you could help ensure that every multiplayer match offered the kind of competitive experience that they were designed to deliver. Granted, there is no such thing as an SBMM system that is perfect at all times, but even imperfect applications of these systems help eliminate some of the more obvious instances of unfair matchmaking.

SBMM is especially important to fairly casual (or “the average”) players of multiplayer games. Imagine coming home, playing the two Call of Duty multiplayer matches you’ll get to squeeze in that night, and being matched against pro or top tier amateur players. While your mileage may vary, you’ll most likely end your game night feeling like you barely had the chance to enjoy the matches you played.

Maybe that’s an extreme example of the problem, but the basic benefits of SBMM remain the same: to ensure a more balanced competitive experience for players of all skill levels. It’s also been suggested that SBMM games tend to have better player retention rates, which could be one of the driving metrics that inspire companies to implement such systems in the first place.

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Why Do People Hate Skill-Based Matchmaking?

There are a few potential problems with SBMM, but its most vocal critics tend to be streamers, pro players, and others who spend quite a bit of time playing a particular competitive multiplayer game.

Their main complaint is that SBMM systems aren’t really designed with them in mind. The issue, they say, is that high-level players being grouped with high-level players at all times makes it almost impossible to just sit down and enjoy a game casually. Some claim that even players who are not pros are being treated like professional participants by SBMM systems. As such, they’re constantly having to play at the top of their game against other high-level players.

Other logistical issues impact the benefits of SBMM for high-level players. For instance, some games make it difficult (or impossible) for high-level players to group with their low-level friends in SBMM titles, while most SBMM game also make high-level players wait longer to find a lobby which accommodates their “needs.” It’s also been pointed out that cheaters are more likely to find their way into high-level SBMM lobbies unless they intentionally tank their stats (or kill themselves during matches) to ensure they’re matched with low-level players.

To be fair, critics of SBMM aren’t limited to pros and other players who devote more hours to a particular game. Some contend that even more casual players will eventually reach a skill ceiling where they too will be matched incorrectly with other players based more on perceived skill level instead of preference. To put it another way, SBMM works under the assumption that you want to play a highly-contested game at all times. For some, that’s simply not the case.

There are some possible workarounds for that issue, but before we dive into them, we should really talk about what truly makes SBMM such a controversial concept: the culture of competitive multiplayer games, especially the culture of Call of Duty.

How Did Call of Duty’s SBMM System Divide the Community?

At this point, you may be asking, “So, are really good multiplayer gamers just upset that they’re not getting matched against lesser players?” There’s a degree to which the answer to that question is “Yes.”

In the SBMM debate, there is a group of players who feel that it’s something of a rite of passage for lower-skilled players to occasionally be matched with higher skilled players. It’s a mentality based partially on the old-school methods of matchmaking which didn’t always take skill level into account or at least didn’t emphasize that element as a primary matchmaking parameter. Some players feels that if they went through the process of facing much tougher opponents, then everyone should. There are even some who have called SBMM a system for “participation trophy” players who they believe don’t want to be matched against “better” players.

Not everyone who criticizes SBMM buys into or touts that “participation trophy” mentality, but there is a general feeling among the anti-SBMM crowd that the multiplayer games need a space where SBMM isn’t used. For some content creators, for example, the anti-SBMM mentality is an extension of their desire to more easily produce YouTube highlight videos by playing against opponents of lesser skill.

This brings us to “try-hard” players.

Also known as a “sweaty” player, the exact definition of a try-hard player isn’t exactly set in stone, but the term typically applies to players who other gamers believe are taking a multiplayer game too seriously and are trying too hard to win. The term can apply to cheaters and those who get angry at their teammates during matches, but it’s not uncommon to hear it used to slander anyone who camps with a sniper rifle or uses the most powerful weapon in a game rather than a “fun” alternative.

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It’s a popular belief among those in the anti-SBMM community that so-called “sweaty” players are the ones who keep pushing for skill-based matchmaking. This claim is particularly popular with streamers and content creators who say that they’re tired of being matched against try-hard players who force them to play so intensely just to survive a match when they just want to relax, have fun, and occasionally just goof off.

That mentality has been criticized by some who point out that those whose livelihoods are partially based on spending hundreds (or thousands) of hours in a game would also qualify as try-hard players according to broad definitions of the word. Of course, that’s the other problem. The use of “try-hard’ as an insult is really based on perception. You can really throw it out in just about any instance and justify it however you’d like. While many agree that in-game cheaters and toxic teammates are typically deserving of the phrase, the fact is that the usage of “try-hard” is typically proportional to a player’s anger at any given time.

It’s another example of how the SBMM argument often boils down to emotion. What about logical solutions to this potential problem, though?

How Can Call of Duty Fix Its SBMM “Problem?”

Many of those who oppose SBMM in games are often quick to note that the solution to this problem lies in the expansion of a game’s ranked system.

Again, people differ on the details, but the idea is that most competitive multiplayer games should feature at least two modes. The first mode, designed for more casual play, will not utilize SBMM (or will at least use a very toned-down version of the matchmaking system) while the second, a ranked mode, will utilize SBMM and give players official rankings and rewards for reaching new levels.

On paper, it’s a solid solution, based on the belief that SBMM systems don’t offer an accurate indication of a player’s skill level or any incentives to reach a higher skill threshold. In other words, top players are doing all the work of playing against other top players but they have nothing to really show for it outside of the pleasure of playing in a theoretically competitively balanced environment.

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The implementation of an expansive ranking system complete with rewards isn’t even all that far-fetched. Games like Hearthstone, Overwatch, and League of Legends all offer some kind of a reward and ranking system. While few would claim that any of those games feature perfect matchmaking, those games are obviously not caught in the crossfire of the SBMM controversy quite like Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and Fortnite.

While an extensive ranking system could solve some of the SBMM problems, it’s not a perfect solution.

The biggest problem with implementing a ranking system brings us back to the question of preference. If you are a casual player and a game offers you both Casual and Ranked mode options, you may assume that the Casual option will offer a more relaxed play experience. However, under the most popular variations of this solution, Casual modes could match you against nearly anyone, meaning that the chances of being matched against players well-above your skill level are much higher there. Meanwhile, in SBMM-enabled ranked option, players would be further incentivized to play with a competitive mindset to earn new rankings and rewards. That could lead to an increasingly toxic gaming environment, especially in team and squad-based modes, while leaving those who want to just play more casual matches with even less options.

Some games, like Hearthstone’s recently revamped Battlegrounds mode, still use an internal rating system to determine matchmaking that doesn’t always match up with the external rank conveyed to the player. SBMM critics point out that such systems make many modern ranking systems useless since they still don’t relay a player’s skill level relative to matchmaking. Some SBMM defenders note that internal matchmaking parameters are often more reliable in comparison to in-game ranked systems that can sometimes be exploited by individual players.

While many SBMM solutions involve some kind of extensive ranking system, further alternatives exist. One of the more interesting proposals involves going back (at least to an extent) to the days of private playlists and custom server selections. Players argue that a more classic approach would not only foster better communities of like-minded players but that they offer gamers more opporunities to find multiplayer matches that fit their needs.

We could go on, but it all comes back to the same point. There’s not really a perfect system, and many SBMM alternatives suffer from logistical hurdles that made SBMM systems increasingly popular in the first place.

Will Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Have a SBMM System at Launch?

The Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War development team has indicated that some kind of SBMM system will be featured in the final version of the game. While Treyarch will undoubtedly continue to tweak Cold War’s multiplayer systems ahead of release, it doesn’t seem like SBMM will be going away any time soon. In fact, at least one member of the series’ development team recently defended SBMM as a concept and cited its uses in just about every major Call of Duty game in modern times.

Of course, the bigger issue is how SBMM has divided the gaming (and especially Call of Duty) community. It’ll be interesting to see whether major multiplayer studios will pursue alternatives or serious modifications to existing SBMM systems in an attempt to bridge the increasingly widening cultural gap.

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