'Ping is king': Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer matchmaking is demystified in the latest intel drop

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Warzone Season 1 Reloaded content reveal
(Image credit: Activision)

What you need to know

  • Call of Duty's matchmaking system has long been a mystery, but recent experiences have left players speculating that Skill-based and engagement-based matchmaking may be making lobbies, and the game experience as a whole, worse.
  • Sledgehammer Games committed to discussing multiplayer practices and demystifying the process before the 2023 holiday break. 
  • The latest intel drop on the Call of Duty blog is the first to give players a look at the actual multiplayer matchmaking process, with the team stating "Ping is King" as it reiterates efforts to prioritize connection over skill for the matchmaking ecosystem.

In today's intel drop on the Call of Duty blog, Sledgehammer Games follows through on its promise to be more transparent with players about the matchmaking process. The system that the top first-person shooter franchise uses to match make multiplayer lobbies has long been shrouded in mystery and the source of many gaming conspiracy theories. 

Call of Duty players often disparages the game's use of "Skill-based matchmaking", a process that prioritizes a player's skill and performance in the game to match with others of similar skill and performance. The idea is that Skill-based matchmaking, or SBMM, improves the multiplayer experience for casual players by ensuring that the more skilled players are locked behind a skill wall. Stuck with other "sweats" or "try-hards", the game supposedly becomes harder and less enjoyable for those with more skills. 

SBMM theories have even gone so far as to evolve into Engagement-based matchmaking theories, recently. Players have begun speculating that Call of Duty's multiplayer system can detect when you are about to quit out of frustration, at which point it adjusts the lobbies to be easier so that you will continue playing. The intel drop from the Call of Duty team paints a different picture, minimizing skill as one of the lesser factors among the following list of priorities:

  • Connection
  • Time to Match
  • Playlist diversity
  • Recent maps/modes
  • Skill/performance
  • Input device
  • Platform
  • Voice chat

Prioritizing connection and latency

The Call of Duty Staff's breakdown of matchmaking points to a system that is much more inclined to prioritize player connectivity over skill ranking, however. According to the development teams, "Ping is King" and the player connection is the most critical factor for the Call of Duty matchmaking process. The teams behind matchmaking feel that decreasing latency is among the most pivotal improvements to the multiplayer system that can be made, and are therefore dedicated to prioritizing player connection above all else. 

Following up on connectivity and ping, the time it takes to match make is the second most important factor for the Call of Duty team.  The aim is for players to spend as little time searching for matches as possible. However, the process sometimes leaves players waiting, which then leads to them canceling the search and starting it again. This recycling of the process has led to some unintended results, especially when players are doing it to choose a more preferred map or game mode. 

SBMM is an element of matchmaking for Call of Duty's multiplayer, though it is lower priority compared to connection and latency. (Image credit: Activision)

How Call of Duty uses Skill-based matchmaking

Skill-based matchmaking has been a component of Call of Duty since as far as back as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007). Despite its existence in the franchise, the system is considered to be one of the lesser factors in the matchmaking process. The Call of Duty multiplayer system determines skill based on a player's overall performance, including kills, deaths, wins, losses, mode selection, and more to determine the lobby makeup of enemies and teammates. According to the Call of Duty staff, player data shows that the current state of matchmaking results in players of all skill levels experiencing a proportional amount of wins and losses.

This balanced win/loss ratio is necessary to keep lower-skilled players from quitting the game out of frustration, which can lead to increased matchmaking times and a smaller player pool overall that is mostly composed of high-skilled players. Players who find themselves complaining that they are already locked into those "try-hard" lobbies with the "sweatiest" players would then be in for an even worse time. 

Despite the need for this balance, however, the developers have acknowledged that high-skill players want a more varied matchmaking experience. Many of us have fond memories of loading into Call of Duty in late December to rack up kills on "Christmas Noobs", a multiplayer hazing ritual that has gone by the wayside in recent years with tighter SBMM metrics pushing for that golden win/loss ratio that keeps players engaged.

Call of Duty staff answered community questions about matchmaking, reiterating that money spent in the COD store does not factor into matchmaking in any way. (Image credit: Activision)

Matchmaking questions and answers

In addition to sharing a behind-the-scenes look at how matchmaking and the factors that are prioritized when assembling lobbies, the Call of Duty staff blog also answered questions from the community. Those questions focused on player engagement (time played), microtransactions, and special consideration for content creators.

The Call of Duty team made a point to address that player engagement does not determine a player's position in matchmaking. There were also rumblings in the community that players who recently made purchases in the COD store would receive a 'boost' in multiplayer, further encouraging them to spend more to continue doing well. Call of Duty's development team has said that this is not true and that money spent is in no way a factor in multiplayer matchmaking. We can effectively consider the theory of engagement-based matchmaking dispelled.

Our data suggests that splitting the player base with an opt-in / opt-out matchmaking system will have negative consequences on the overall player pool. That means, potentially, longer wait times based on the type of matchmaking selected (plus add into that playlist, map and mode history, platform, and more) and matches with poor connections.

Call of Duty staff

The team also addressed the potential of matchmaking affecting in-game elements like hit registration, player visibility and aim assist. Players have become increasingly concerned that these gameplay elements were being adjusted to allow other players or teams to have better results to keep them engaged and playing for longer. However, Call of Duty's teams have said that is not the case, and these elements are not impacted during matches.

Similarly, players were concerned that bots were being injected into multiplayer. In some cases, players expressed that high-scoring enemies were bots set in place by the game to prevent a low-skilled team from losing against high-skilled players. In other scenarios, players expressed concerns that they were placed into 'bot lobbies' to prevent them from quitting out of frustration. The team says there are no current instances of bots being deployed to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer. Any changes to bot deployment would be shared with the community beforehand.

SBMM is here to stay in Call of Duty's multiplayer. (Image credit: Activision)

The future of multiplayer matchmaking

While multiplayer matchmaking has utilized some semblance of SBMM over the years, the team has said it continues to balance and adjust the match-making algorithm as player data and feedback roll in. It is unlikely that any sort of Opt-out system could be integrated into multiplayer in the future, as the data has shown it would result in negative player consequences. However, SBMM continues to be tweaked and adjusted, with some tests having been run over the years to remove it from various playlists and modes. The timing of those tests is kept under wraps, however, to prevent players from skewing the results. 

While engagement-based matchmaking rumors seemed to have been put to rest with Sledgehammer Games and the rest of the Call of Duty team's newfound transparency, it does also appear that Skill-based matchmaking is here to stay. The questions and answers provided from this particular intel drop pertain exclusively to multiplayer, though the team has shared that more intel on Warzone and Ranked Play matchmaking will be forthcoming.

Call of Duty is published by Activision, whose record-setting acquisition by Microsoft was finalized in October 2023. While there have yet to be any indications of how the acquisition will affect Call of Duty's history of tight release schedules, the studios behind the billion-dollar-a-year gaming franchise were all hit with sweeping layoffs when Xbox cut 1900 employees earlier this month. 

Cole Martin

Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.