The problem with Call of Duty’s Skill-based Matchmaking

People who play Call of Duty have been mad about the modern implementation of Skill-based matchmaking since the moment they became aware of its existence. And people who don’t play Call of Duty have been making fun of them every step of the way.

And I get it. The prevailing stereotype of a Call of Duty player is that 14 year old kid who screams obscenities when he loses. Of the streamer who has an epic gamer moment when he dies. When people who call themselves Gamers (with a capital G) think about Call of Duty, they think about the masses consuming endless blockbuster dreck at the expense of time that might be spent on art.

So when they hear that Call of Duty players are upset about something in the game, they are dismissive. Derisive, even. And so it is with the Skill-based matchmaking issue, which has existed in Call of Duty for years now. On the surface, it reads pretty simple — Call of Duty players don’t like skill-based matchmaking because they just want to be able to stomp noobs all day. The vocal contingent of Call of Duty players rebelling against this SBMM are surely just sore losers, tired of being matched up against one another without the opportunity to slap down some bambinos.

The truth is far more complicated.

First things first, we need to get something straight. Nobody is mad that Call of Duty has skill-based matchmaking. They were, but that ship has long since sailed. Call of Duty has had some form of matchmaking in it since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — the 2007 classic that took the series from a very compelling first person shooter and launched it into the stratosphere.

And people were mad. Primarily PC players, who had long grown accustomed to server browsers and weren’t ready to give up the communities that system had enabled, things came to something of a head with Modern Warfare 2 — when gamers threatened to boycott the game if matchmaking was made the only option.

The point being — matchmaking has been around for a long time in Call of Duty. After the initial outrage (which didn’t work out too well) people got used to it, and as the convenience of matchmaking replaced the control of server browsers, most players forgot it was ever an issue at all.

This is important, because it clarifies something — Call of Duty players aren’t mad that matchmaking is in the game. They’re used to it and in general they like it. For years Call of Duty has been successfully matching players up against others in a similar skill bracket, and it has been good.

So what are they actually upset about, then?

With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — the 2019 game that eventually gave us Warzone, not to be confused with the 2007 game or its 2017 remake — Infinity Ward decided to alter the way matchmaking works.

Skill-based matchmaking isn’t very complicated. Let’s say there are 100 players all trying to get into a game at the same time, each one numbered from 1 to 100 in terms of skill. Player 100 is the best, player 1 is the worst. A purely random matchmaking system would select 12 players at random and put them together. Here are 12 numbers from 1 to 100 that I generated at random.

Team 1

54 91 41 60 36 98

Team 2

84 53 17 34 77 14

Team one has the third-best player in the pool playing for them. And the tenth best. Team two has two players ranked below 20.

Team two is about to have a very bad day, and Team one is about to get their stomp on.

Let’s be frank for a moment. Stomping noobs can be fun. I’m not gonna sit here and try to claim that nobody enjoys a stompfest, that nobody is interested in clowning players who are far worse than they are. I’ve been on both sides of the stomp in my time and there’s no question which side I’d rather be on — but even beyond that, wrecking all comers has its appeal.

But it gets boring. That’s why games have difficulty settings — because beating up on easy enemies gets dull after a time, and challenge is critical to a player’s improvement. You can only get smarter by playing a smarter opponent, and all that.

So what Skill-based matchmaking does is restrict the matchmaking pool. The most basic form of SBMM would look at those 100 players and decide “nobody from the top 20 or bottom 20 will find themselves in a game together”.

The reality is, of course, far more complicated, but you understand the idea. The players in the bottom 20 no longer need fear getting put up against veterans, and those in the top 20 should get higher quality games against others of similar skill. They’ll still get to stomp — they’re very good players, after all — but in general they’ll see broadly competitive matches.

We see this in all sorts of games, even beyond Call of Duty. Rainbow Six Siege, Counter-Strike, Dota 2, League of Legends — SBMM is par for the course in multiplayer games these days. Hell, games like Grand Theft Auto will even use it as an offensive weapon in the arsenal against hackers, pairing up cheaters exclusively with other cheaters.

And those games I mentioned? Counter-Strike, Rainbow, League and Dota — they all go one step further. They give you the opportunity to restrict that matchmaking pool even more. Instead of a range between 20 – 100, if you feel up to the task they give you the opportunity to only play games against people 10 points away from you. So player 91 from the game before will only see players from 81 up.

Players who opt to restrict their matchmaking pool to this degree — and remember, this is just a simplified example — find that every game is extremely tense, full of tough moments requiring supreme concentration and focus.

But if they win, if they succeed, they’re rewarded. They get — and this is important — a higher rank, an uptick in their MMR rating or some other demonstrable evidence of their skill relative to all those who also play their chosen game.

Because the way you reduce your matchmaking pool in this manner is by opting to play in Ranked games.

And with Modern Warfare 2019 — and subsequently with Black Ops Cold War — Activision has implemented Ranked style matchmaking in a game that doesn’t have any rankings.

That means that in Call of Duty at the moment — in Modern Warfare, in BOCW and in Warzone — you will always be matched up against players inside a very tight skill bracket. This specific implementation of Skill-based matchmaking is what COD players are upset about.

Let me break down why.

First — there’s no ranking system, so there’s no incentive either. Success and failure aren’t tied to any sort of rank, although more than a few websites have attempted to translate Call of Duty’s publicly shared data into rankings.

But that’s the transaction here. You play your best in ranked games and the game provides you with a measurement of your success (or failure). That’s the bargain you make when you opt into Ranked modes.

Call of Duty, on the other hand, is like Willy Wonka at the end of the tour.

And that feeds into the other part of what’s wrong with this format, because this Ranked-style system only really works when players have the option to shift to a more casual, less intense game mode where the skill-based matchmaking is looser.

The truth is, I’m not trying to win every game of Warzone I play. I mean, I’d like to win. I dream of success. But a lot of the time when I’m playing Warzone, I’m just trying to goof about. I want to get into some fights, find some loot and last for as long as possible. I have no expectations of success. Sometimes I’m drunk, because why not.

But with this narrow matchmaking system, every game is Ranked.

“Ahh, but Joab, if you don’t care about your Ranking then why does this matter?” you might ask.

The problem comes down to the fact that I don’t want to play hyper-sweaty games of Call of Duty when my faculties are so impaired that I’m legally not allowed to drive a car, but thanks to Activision’s tight SBMM implementation, I have no choice otherwise (beyond not playing at all).

Hell, most of the time I don’t want to play games against people who watch every meta-analysis video, who create custom loadouts with the perfect guns and attachments, who are playing the game like it’s the finals of the Warzone Pro League and this game will  win them a million dollars.

I want to run around with a Shield and some Sticks and I want to bash people to death. I want to maybe have an opportunity to try out that new gun I unlocked without running into some dude who ground it out in regular MP for 2 hours so it has all the attachments. I want to have fun in the game, not play it like it’s my job.

And yes, having fun in the game means playing against worse opponents. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this means noobstomping.

If we go back to the 100 point system from before, all I’d like to see is a broader range. Let’s say I’m an 80. Per the system I laid out earlier, I’d face anyone from 90 down to 70 in the current version of Call of Duty’s Skill-based matchmaking. I want them to expand the search. Have me up against people from 100 down to 60.

That’s how it used to work in Call of Duty, and that’s how it works in every other game. When you queue Casual matches in Rainbow Six Siege, they’re not putting you up against a random assortment of people of all skillsets. You’re queued against people in a bracket close to your skill range — just not a bracket so tight that every game plays like it’s hosted by ESL. The same goes for the others that have both Ranked and Casual modes — Ranked’s existence itself implies a layer of Skill-based matchmaking by default, and they don’t abandon the system just because you’re not in Ranked.

Put simply — Call of Duty doesn’t earn a skill-based matchmaking system that is tuned as tightly as it is in its current implementation. And that is what people are upset about. Not that Skill-based matchmaking exists, or that they don’t get to stomp noobs in every match.

Call of Duty had a good system in place — a system that works for every other game with Casual multiplayer everywhere — and they changed it. They changed it to a system that resembles Ranked modes everywhere, without giving players the rewards they typically earn in other games. And regular COD players are annoyed by that. 

Here’s the sticky part though. They won’t change it back.

To Activision, Call of Duty doesn’t have players. It has datapoints. It’s like reverse Cypher from the Matrix — it doesn’t see Blonde, Brunette, Redhead, it only sees the ones and zeroes.

They have complex patents designed to keep players engaged for as long as possible — not the ones that encourage you to buy in-game items or alter hitboxes, or any of the conspiracy stuff, but the actual filed and held patents designed to keep players in-game for as long as possible.

And the fact that the Skill-based Matchmaking system has been implemented and maintained for as long as it has in Modern Warfare and later CODs can only mean that the data tells them the system works. That for all the outrage and complaining, a Ranked style matchmaking system keeps players coming back — even when Activision doesn’t attach it to a ranking system.

So it’s probably not going to go away, not while people keep playing Warzone and Black Ops Cold War.

Whether people are coming back because the Ranked Matchmaking gambit is working, or whether they’re only repeatedly returning because there’s nothing else like Warzone out there at the moment is difficult to tell from the outside looking in. Anecdotally, looking at the way my friends list has gone with the game, I suspect it’s more the latter, but we won’t know until a viable competitor comes out. Battlefield 6 is only a few months away, right?

But the truth is, I’m burned out on this method of SBMM. I’m tired of being swept away by the Grau, the DMR, the Mac-10, the AUG. Tired of waiting for the next overpowered weapon to inevitably dominate the meta, and then finding it on every corpse I loot. Tired of every game feeling exactly the same in a genre that is supposed to be anything but.

So I guess I’ll probably be playing more Hell Let Loose.

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