From Halo to Call of Duty, players are debating skill-based matchmaking (SBMM)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II promo screenshot
(Image credit: Activision)

Skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) is a contentious issue in the gaming community, brought to the fore once again with the biggest release of the year, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Since its release, Youtube, Reddit, and streaming platforms are awash with views from both sides of the fence on how SBBM is ruining the experience of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and similar multiplayer games, on the other hand, it has its vocal supporters when implemented correctly. So what is everyone up in arms about? And what even is SBMM?

Skill-based matchmaking — what?

If, like me, you generally avoid getting too sweaty in competitive games, SBMM probably hasn’t affected your gaming sessions too much. In short, it’s a method the game uses to decide what players it will match you up against in a lobby. 

The algorithm compares your performance in the game to match you with players at your skill level in the matchmaking process. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, this is done by your kill/death (K/D) ratio, among other factors. For those that don't know, kill/death ratio is a calculation of how many kills you have, divided by how many deaths. If you got 10 kills in a game and died 5 times, your calculation is 10/5 so your k/d ratio is 2.

In fact, SBMM is nothing new and has existed in some form or another since the only games we had were board games. Elo is a rating system used in the card game circuit to put similarly skilled players against others. No, not the Electric Light Orchestra, Elo is a system for matchmaking named after its inventor, Arpad Elo. Elo was a competitive chess player who sought to improve the previous rating system used in chess. Using the player’s stats and overall performance a player's rating would go up or down. If a player were to win more games than expected, their rating would go up. If they lost a lot of matches, their rating went down. The Elo system was implemented by the World Chess Federation in 1970, as a fair way to predict the outcome of a match and assign variable rewards or penalties to players based on a match outcome. Today card games use this system to rank regional players, and online games such as CS:GO, Rainbow Six Siege and League of Legends all boast the Elo rating system. 

That sounds pretty fair, what’s the problem?

Whilst, in theory, SBMM sounds fair, when implemented in non-ranked casual play it can reduce some of the dynamism, spontaneity, and variety in online gaming. 

When randomly matched with other players, some argue that you shouldn't already know if you are going to dominate or get dominated by the competition. With SBMM, every single game being a sweat fest is just not fun.

Streamer TimTheTatman has stated on his channel "SBMM is I daresay killing video games." He goes as far as to say that he won't be streaming Modern Warfare 2 for this reason. His point is potentially a strong one. Hopping into unranked, casual "Quick Play" in older games generally created a spontaneous and dynamic experience. TimTheTatman argues that SBMM should only have its place in ranked play. Increasingly, games like Modern Warfare 2 have dropped the separation. 

An example on why this could be bad, if you have a few lucky games in a row, and your K/D ratio improves, your fun will be cut short as you are dropped in lobbies with more aggressive and serious players. If you don't have the map memorized like your own back garden, or you're not using the meta weapons — you could be in for a bad time. Indeed, some argue that SBMM can feel like a punishment for playing well. 

Indeed, some argue that SBMM can feel like a punishment for playing well.

Players have been complaining that the SBMM in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is tuned at a level that punishes the player for simply having a good game. Even if you do manage to rise above and have a couple of good games where you feel you've got a grip on the situation, the algorithm will again drop you in with even better players to drag you back to earth and shatter your delusions of grandeur. Oh, you had a good game? Now it's time to feel the pain! But the problems are arguably amplified even further when playing with friends. 

SBMM has only affected me personally when playing with friends, and it's been enough to put me off playing with specific people because of the difference it makes to the game. For instance, in a lobby of friends, if you have one or two with dramatically higher K/D ratios, chances are you are going to be matched with many highly skilled players, and it's going to be a blood bath for your team — and you're going to feel like the weak link. 

Being forced to compete at a higher grade than you're capable of just is not a good time. For the non-casual players that may just want to play a game after a long day at work — they may not want to jump into a hardcore sweat lobby to blow off some steam every single time. Isn't that what ranked mode is for? SBMM takes this choice away and kills any variety in their experience with the game. It also encourages smurfing, which is a practice of artificially deflating your SBMM rank by losing games on purpose just so you can get into lower-skilled games. 

It's not just Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Halo x Fall Guys crossover.

(Image credit: Windows Central)

Another game that has been criticized with regard to SBMM, is Fall Guys. At one point #SaveFallGuys was trending with SBMM as one of the most popular issues with fans of the game. Players just don't want to be playing against pro players every single time they are thrown into a lobby, but the matchmaking in Fall Guys also failed to have distinctive casual and ranked modes to give players choice in using the SBMM system. With the daily and weekly challenges rewarding wins, this got progressively less rewarding. Fall Guys is a cute, quirky, and casual game by design, so I question the need for SBMM at all for its target fanbase.

You would only need to take a cursory glance over the Halo Infinite subreddit to see some polarizing stances on SBMM implementation with the game. Some players say it is “the worst they have ever seen” and others say “SBMM is the only thing keeping multiplayer from devolving into a cesspit.”  I went to our resident Halo expert Brendan Lowry for his take on SBMM in the game and he had a more balanced opinion on its use. The matchmaking ratings in Halo Infinite impact both casual and ranked modes, overall though it's implemented well and the main antagonists of SBMM in the game fail to consider that for them to "relax and have fun" it may impact others in the lobby and their experience, therefore the matchmaking is an essential barrier to this.

Perhaps a more competitive game to compare to Call of Duty would be Apex Legends, within which the community has been having similar arguments since launch and the developers themselves have talked about their vehement support of SBMM. In an interview with VG27, Apex Legends developers Respawn Entertainment had a lot to say about SBMM in their game and the fact it works exactly as intended. To prove their point Respawn have randomly turned off SBMM without notice for periods of time in certain regions and collected data that suggest not having it present actually negatively impacts their game. 

Could SBMM just be a scapegoat for a player to blame for their bad performance?

We have no concrete stats on this such as the sample size or time periods but the experiments have clearly been impactful enough to reconfirm Respawn's position on the subject and cemented their decision to keep it in their lobbies. Interestingly they also mention that SBMM isn’t always the culprit when someone complains about getting destroyed in a game or ‘penalized’ for previous good performance.  If people choose to play at 2am in their region, then it’s going to affect the size of the pool of players they are matched with and the type of players that tend to play at that time of the day. They could either be matched with others all over the world and sacrifice ping or continue to match in a much smaller region but the time of day will impact your game more significantly than any SBMM in effect. This leads nicely into my next point, could SBMM just be a scapegoat for a player to blame for their bad performance?

Is there copium at play?

Shatterlink, a free-to-play FPS on Steam is well known for having no SBMM system in place and has often been recommended as an alternative to Call of Duty for players that specifically have a problem with SBMM. That didn't stop this Redditor from posting about their woes with SBMM and how they blamed it for them having a number of bad games. The Redditor stated, " the game heavily stacks the lobby against me." The developer quickly responded to this post with a statement confirming that there was no implementation of SBMM in Shatterline at all, as they do not have the resources to build it into the game. Furthermore, when they introduce it, it will be in a ranked mode. 

In Halo's case, Bungie has previously stated SBMM has been a part of the Halo series since Halo 2 when they were at it's helm, and the unranked playlist in the game also used it. The difference between ranked and unranked was only ever the visibility of the skill rating being available to the players or not. The problem today, Bungie has said, is that people are just more aware of SBMM being in existence, but it's always been there. It's a lot more convenient to blame the game and its matchmaking methods than blame yourself for having a bad session. 

Halo Infinite Rocket Launcher

(Image credit: 343 Industries)

Some have highlighted that content creators may have ulterior motives for asking for its removal, given that it's potentially better for entertainment purposes for them to be the curb-stompers. In fact, arguing for SBMM can be interpreted as somewhat hypocritical, "so you don't want to be obliterated, you just want the opportunity to obliterate some noobs?" If there's a random allocation, a good streamer will get matched against lower-skilled players more often than not, and be able to feel joy at squishing noobs in a casual mode without trying too hard.

SBMM can be a good thing, when implemented correctly

SBMM has its place and is a welcome method for ensuring newcomers to a game aren't immediately curb-stomped by the veterans. In fact the Halo 2 matchmaking system mentioned previously, worked so well that Microsoft based its TrueSkill system on it. TrueSkill is the skill-calculation system used on the Xbox 360 Live Service.

In times of old, if you were no good at a game you just had to get good, and get good fast. Nowadays a plethora of games are at our fingertips, and more accessible than ever. So if our interests wane in a game, there are plenty of titles to move on to that we find more enjoyable. Developers know this and want you to enjoy and play their game. Immediate gratification is king, SBMM ensures new players get an enjoyable onboarding experience and aren't immediately turned off to another title. Games can struggle to gain traction if they're completely impenetrable to new players.

Immediate gratification is king

By separating game lobbies into casual and ranked, you would assume those that want a consistently high-bar challenge will choose ranked play. Without skill-matching, it's easy to envision scenarios where skilled players can create completely unfair matchmaking scenarios for lesser-skilled players, as was often the case in the early days of Xbox Live. When you look at the argument from this point of view, you can see why SBMM is needed at some level to maintain a constant stream of new players to games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Halo Infinite, with as many players as possible getting the opportunity to feel like they're contributing. 

At the same time, something truly is lost when everything revolves around algorithmic matchmaking. The free-for-all chaos and randomness of old-school arena shooters have become a thing of the past. 

Forcing everyone, regardless of skill level, to compete at their best at all times is increasingly a contentious topic. It feeds into other mechanics like battle passes and daily challenges that increasingly make these kinds of games feel more like a job, whether you're competing in ranked modes or not. Holding gamers to account and a sense of long-term commitment is quite possibly creating burnout. 

What's the solution?

Both sides of the debate seem to agree that separate modes are a must, casual play and a ranked mode that rewards the best players and adjusts to their skill level seem like the best solution. We want gaming environments where we can try hard against other try-hards, but also be able to play with friends – you need both.

That's not to say there shouldn't be any SBMM in casual modes at all, just that the tuning shouldn't be as much to punish a player for a few good games — or make playing with friends awkward when nobody wants to play with you because your K/D ratio is 0.3. There needs to be something in place to prevent total bloodbaths and bring some form of balance. Increasing the variance of skill levels that show up within a casual match but still protects against the fringe cases where a noob is going up against a seasoned pro.

Overwatch 2 has become my FPS of choice for playing with friends, as while I do have some strong feelings about its monetization, the separate systems of ranked and casual play feel appropriate. We can enjoy games as a group regardless of skill level. This is not to say there is no SBMM in place in Overwatch 2 casual play, it just feels weighted toward its competitive modes. 

If Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had separate lobbies, it would go a long way to correcting the disparity felt among some players. And sure, the previous Call of Duty games have launched with ranked modes post-launch in the past, and there's no reason to think COD: Modern Warfare 2 will be any different. 

Either way, the point of random lobbies is that the majority of players will be mid-range in ability. Consisting of a small percentage of highly skilled, and those players that might as well be wielding potato guns. It would be statistically improbable to be thrown into lobbies with pros every time, the variety of who you may match against is half the fun. Let's hope this spontaneity isn't completely lost with the over-implementation of SBMM.

The argument against SBMM in casual lobbies in Call of Duty specifically has been raging over the past few releases, though, so it's unlikely to change any time soon. In the meantime, if there are other games that do SBMM well, then just go and play those games.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2022)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2022)

Not to be confused with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2009), the Activision FPS is back with Task Force 141. With campaign and multiplayer modes, Modern Warfare  takes us to Amsterdam, Chicago and Urziksta.

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Jennifer Young

Jen is a News Writer for Windows Central, focused on all things gaming and Microsoft. Anything slaying monsters with magical weapons will get a thumbs up such as Dark Souls, Dragon Age, Diablo, and Monster Hunter. When not playing games, she'll be watching a horror or trash reality TV show, she hasn't decided which of those categories the Kardashians fit into. You can follow Jen on Twitter @Jenbox360 for more Diablo fangirling and general moaning about British weather.