I argue to remove Match Making Rating (MMR) from Competitive matchmaking.
In Competitive matchmaking, MMR ensures the type of match that Blizzard wants players to have: hotly contested and as long as possible, with a 50% chance for either team to win. But true competitive players want no such guarantee.
And because the matchmaking system ensures those 50% odds by arranging teams based on hidden skill-metrics (MMR), it:
- Covertly *handicaps* Competitive matches
- Favors new players over experienced players
- Fails to prove the skill difference between players
- Requires prohibitively long wait times for groups
- Lowers the quality of gameplay across all competitive tiers.
How is such a travesty possible? It is possible because most players do not realize their matches are being handicapped. And those of us who know of handicapping fail to see its implications. Overwatch’s own designers seem to have missed the point.
Overwatch’s designers say they “balance” matches with MMR. The system sorts the twelve players from each match into teams, based on the merit each player has shown in matches past. Matchmaking uses merit-tracking algorithms (MMR) to keep matches from being ‘uneven.’ Principal Overwatch Designer Scott Mercer explains:
In Quick Play, we do not count wins and losses as we do in Competitive Play. We do not stake our rank and reputation on a number, like we do with SR. And MMR skews everyone’s SR. Because if you are a relatively skilled player for your SR, handicapping/MMR makes your teams worse than they would be on average, by random chance.
Semantics – “Balance” vs. Handicap
This discussion has a fulcrum, a single word around which it turns. It is a word that Blizzard has chosen incorrectly, misappropriated from the design parlances of casual, non-competitive games. The word is “balance,” which is actually handicapping in the context of a competitive game.
Dictionary.com defines a handicapped contest as one in which “certain disadvantages or advantages are placed upon competitors to equalize their chances of winning.” For example in old Quebec (French Canada), parishioners had a tradition of racing home from church in horse-drawn sleighs or wagons, which they would handicap by placing different numbers and sizes (weights) of passengers in either vehicle.
That’s an example of a friendly competition where handicapping is appropriate, because the important thing isn’t who wins the race; it’s the closeness of the race and the fun to be had along the way. The race itself is merely a pretense for a good time. Any scoring that took place between drivers would be in jest. That is what some of us expect from a game mode like Quick Play.
But players expect Competitive Play to be different. We have a “Skill Rating” (SR) that ticks up or down when we win or lose. That number is both our reputation and our right to compete with other players of our caliber. Handicapping makes light of that number and, in turn, it makes light of Competitive Overwatch players.
When you play Competitive Overwatch you may be a horse pulling your team along, or you may be a passenger just along for the ride. And the handicapping system might designate you as such correctly or incorrectly. But those designations happen to determine the nature of every match you play.
This is where the difference between individual and team competition comes in. Players participate in matches as teams, but they participate in the SR system as individuals.
Handicapping teams is not the same as treating individuals fairly in the SR system. Blizzard wrongly conflates those ideas, distorting players’ very notion of what fair competition is, and what they are doing in Competitive Play.
Blizzard says that handicapping/balancing matches makes them fair for competitive players, and that is false.
“Forced 50% win rate”
When players talk about this, they are trying to talk about handicapping. An argument against handicapping has already taken place in the Overwatch community, based on vague terms and phrases that do not address the problem. Without clear terms to inform the discussion, players have turned away from it like a losing battle.
But ‘handicapping’ is a real gaming term that many players understand. It is a word with history, meaning, and a proper definition. I bring you the word ‘handicapping’ as a banner to rally under. I urge you players: use this word to understand what MMR truly is, to frame your own discussions, and petition Blizzard for Competitive Play that is free of handicapping.
I have a long argument to make, but my case is simple. Anyone with basic understanding of game theory – any Overwatch player – can grasp it.
Case in point
In every match, MMR tells matchmaking which players are relatively strong and which players are relatively weak. The MMR/handicapping system does not put all of the strongest or weakest players on either team (6 v 6) because it predicts that as a one-sided match.
Instead, matchmaking ensures that both teams have about 3 strong players and 3 weak players. If one or two players from either team are real standouts (for good or ill), the ratio of strong and weak players might be closer to 2:4 or even 1:5, on either team.
The degree of difference in skill between players is different in every match. But MMR picks up on every discernible difference between players. According to those differences in player skill, matchmaking arranges the teams and effectively handicaps matches, with no regard for individual players’ SR, outside of the 1,000 unit range.
So what’s the problem?
These kinds of matches are unproductive by design; they consistently prove as little as possible about the relative skill of the players participating. When matchmaking uses MMR to mix strong players with weak players, it guarantees in every match that some strong players will move down in rank, and some weak players will move up.
Hypothetically speaking, the most productive match is one where all 6 of the strongest players are on one team and all 6 of the weakest players are on the other. Because in the win/lose result, the strongest players all gain SR and the weakest players all lose SR. Even an impartial matchmaking system would not produce this type of match all of the time. But MMR/handicapping turns it into a unicorn.
MMR circumvents the natural selection process that is supposed to be taking place in Competitive Play. It makes the SR system inefficient, stagnant, and keeps the SR system from sorting players according to their merit.
Evidence of handicapping
Here are three simple things you can observe for yourself, which show how matchmaking and MMR handicap your matches:
1) Group and queue for matches with other players who you know are good at Overwatch. You will see that your wait times for matches scale up in direct proportion to how good you are, and how many of you are in the group. While there are other groups available to play at your collective SR level, matchmaking takes time to seek a group with an equal MMR profile.
2) Win matches as a group, and you will see your wait times increase from match to match. Matchmaking delays your games in order to handicap them, based on your group’s record. Again, there are other groups available to play at your collective SR level, but matchmaking takes time to seek a group with an equal MMR profile.
3) Note the spread of player experience (portrait color, stars) across teams, when you join matches in small groups or solo queue. You will see the teams in each game have roughly the same number of experienced and inexperienced players. The matchmaking system arranges teams this way to handicap matches.
Whether or not you sense the skewing of your matches depends on how good you are, as a team player, and where you find your SR rank to be. But if you are a relatively skilled player for your SR, then handicapping/MMR is designed to make every match difficult for you, specifically. It sounds like a persecution fantasy, but it’s patently real.
Fighting your own shadow
Under MMR’s influence, every player has to ‘fight at their weight’ in every match, regardless of SR standing. Handicapping/MMR ensures that every standout player finds a doppelganger or a set of players on the enemy team who are able to counteract them. This might sound fair-handed, but let me explain why it’s not.
Suppose your SR is low for your skill level, and you are the best one of twelve players in a match. In that case, handicapping/MMR singles you out by placing the second, third, and even fourth-best players in the match on the enemy team. Hence you, like a baited bear, must counteract their joint efforts.
That becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The harder you try — the more you kill, heal, and play the objective — the more skilled opponents you will be faced with in your next match…the more skilled teammates you will be separated from. The challenge of the game is literally guaranteed to ramp up, whether or not you win your present match; whether you climb or fall in the SR system; as long as you try your hardest.
It is not enough to be good, to climb in SR. MMR follows you from match to match, figuring out how good you are. Then it informs matchmaking, which forces you to be better than yourself if you want to advance.
In this way, you can experience the same difficulty playing at most competitive ranks, regardless of how good you are. From a game design perspective, this seems like a magic formula, a dream. But from a player’s perspective, it is a nightmare.
Handicap favors inexperienced players
If you are an experienced player (with one or more stars of experience), you have a strong interest in MMR’s removal from matchmaking. MMR ensures that players of similar experience will be distributed evenly across teams. Again, this might sound fair-handed but let me explain why it’s not.
If you are the most experienced player in a match, handicapping/MMR teams you with the most inexperienced player in the match while placing the second, third, and even fourth-most experienced players to oppose you on the enemy team. It is inexperienced players who benefit from that arrangement, and experienced players who suffer.
You may deny the correlation of experience and skill. Why then, does matchmaking never place a slew of experienced players against a slew of inexperienced players? Is it interesting to see the outcome of such a match, or is it no contest? Why doesn’t handicapping/MMR allow those matches to take place?
Inexperienced/unskilled players think they are being tested by placement matches and regular competitive matches in the same way that more experienced/skilled players are being tested. So a player with less than one star of experience assumes that they are equal to all players at their SR level, regardless of experience.
It does not occur to inexperienced players that they have arrived at their SR standing through the assistance of a handicap. And who can blame them? The handicapping/MMR system is hidden, after all. But it is not fair to experienced players that they should be forced to contribute to the success of less experienced players.
New players may have a right to prove themselves in Competitive Play. But they do not have a right to be braced by veterans in every match, and escorted to victory.
Handicapping has caused millions (billions?) of pointless arguments between experienced players and newbies who will not accept their advice or command. New players deride experienced players for not being ranked higher, for all their hours of practice. And since newbies and vets alike are unaware of the handicapping system, the situation suggests to everyone that experience counts for nothing.
Classification without consent
It’s not only about the number of stars under your portrait. If you are the best healer, tank, or DPS in a match then MMR brands you as such, and pits you against the next best player in your hero class. This might sound fair-handed, but…
If you step out of one role to fill another, your team is likely to crumble because no one on your team matches your proficiency with the hero/class you switched from. This effectively locks you into a role without your knowledge or consent. And it ensures that if you are proficient with many (or all) of Overwatch’s hero classes and characters, you gain no advantage from it.
Handicapping/MMR discourages groups and teamwork
By punishing outstanding performances, handicapping/MMR catches the most effective Overwatch strategies in its snare. When a group chooses characters who complement one another, they create ‘statistical anomalies’ that the MMR system ‘corrects for’ in its ‘matchmaking problem.’
When a coherent group presents itself, the MMR system painstakingly matches them against equally coherent groups, despite the availability of less coherent groups of the same size, at the same SR level. Not only does that mean prohibitively long wait times for everyone involved, it costs such coherent groups the advantage they are supposed to have, by working out strategies and vetting their teammates.
MMR costs coherent groups countless opportunities to apply strategy against opponents who do not. It negates the advantage a coherent group would naturally have, under an impartial matchmaking system. Conversely, handicapping/MMR coddles players who ignore the principles of good strategy, sheltering them from competition with coherent groups they should be facing in their SR level.
MMR makes Overwatch the antithesis of a team-based game – a running contradiction to the idea that group cohesion and synergy mean anything at all.
Handicapping/MMR promotes ‘DPS instalock’
Healing and tanking are desperately ineffective when you have unskilled/inexperienced players filling the other roles. Solo players know this intuitively, and that is why we start every match pleading for sanity with 3-5 DPS instalocks. Despise these players if you will, but they are acting in their best interest under the handicapping/MMR system.
When a player climbs in SR by playing DPS well, they are essentially locked in to that role. That is because handicapping/MMR ensures that equally skilled DPS players in subsequent matches will be placed on the enemy team, so changing to tank or heal leaves the enemy DPS unchecked.
The leaderboards are absolutely dominated by DPS players (https://masteroverwatch.com/leaderboards/pc/us). Is it because DPS characters are intrinsically more effective than tanks and healers? Or is it because they have an advantage in the handicapping/MMR system?
E-Sports above all
Blizzard wants to use Competitive Play as a mere filtration system for people with fast reflexes, nothing else. It is a casting call for E-Sports celebrities, not a proving system for team players who understand the game; the players who are truly the best at the game of Overwatch.
Those experienced and skilled players are buried in the middle tiers, the dumping grounds into which they are swept by a never-ending stream of new Overwatch players. New players have no problem qualifying for gold and higher, because of the boost that handicapping/MMR gives them.
Meanwhile smurf account buyers scramble over us, like drowning swimmers, clawing their way up by pushing the rest of us down. They are gaming the MMR system that Blizzard has created by giving them more money. Is it any surprise that Blizzard is complacent in that behaviour?
What this means for players
It violates the faith we all have had in Competitive Play; that we can climb the ranks of the SR system by showing merit as team players. SR is our only form of rank and reputation but when we show true merit, an invisible hand guides us to challenges that are virtually assured to destroy our SR, our rank and reputation.
…is Blizzard’s feeble attempt to restore the meritocracy of Competitive Play; to offset the profound SR-skewing effects of handicapping/MMR. It is a tacit admission that the SR system fails its supposed function of ranking players according to their skill.
Performance-based SR means that Overwatch players do not share the goal of victory with their teammates. The most cynical and well-informed players give up on victory to game the system.
…is a natural consequence of performance-based SR. When players see that they are being graded on their own stats rather than the win/lose result of the match, it demotivates them from being real team players. Instead of doing what is best for their team’s chance of winning the match, they start doing what is best for their own chances of racking up big numbers in damage, healing, kills, etc.
MMR works like reverse karma. It restricts our mobility in the SR system. If you’re interested to watch your SR trend up and down, and figuring out the strategies involved in your losses and victories, then no governing system outside of SR and your own group selection can serve your interest.
In SR/MMR, we have a set of systems that judge us on the performance of our team as a whole (SR), but divide us on our individual merit (MMR) at every instance. It is a galling and obvious double standard.
While SR decides the level we are allowed to compete at, the majority of us are stuck in a quagmire we cannot climb out from, because rising up makes you a target for handicapping/MMR to strike down.
A handicapped match is much more likely to hang in the balance, making it more exciting for players. But by handicapping a match, MMR makes its outcome intrinsically unrelated to the skill of the individual players and groups participating. It is absurd to increase/decrease SR based on the wins/losses of handicapped matches.
No Competitive Overwatch player has a fair chance of winning a match according to their skill. Because of handicapping/MMR, unskilled/inexperienced players are more likely to win and skilled/experienced players are more likely to lose.
Stop worrying and love the MMR?
Once you realize what MMR is doing to your odds in Competitive Play, it is still possible to enjoy yourself. If you think you can rank up, you just have to recognize that you are guaranteed to be teamed up with a statistically unlikely number of inferior players in every match. But don’t ignore that fact, or you’ll go insane.
Handicapping/MMR defies pattern recognition
Pattern recognition is our birthright as human beings, who evolved to use the very stars for navigation. Our brains have grown to run advanced heuristics in wars, and heated battles against enemy tribes. Games like Overwatch are allegories for war, which we play to enjoy our faculty of pattern recognition.
But handicapping/MMR circumvents the math that we would all use to understand Overwatch and game an impartial matchmaking system. It contradicts the calculations that we all make, based on reasonable assumptions about how matchmaking works. We assume that matchmaking is impartial, but that is not true.
Competitive Play systematically deceives players on a grand scale. When the fact of handicapping and the metrics of MMR are hidden from players, it takes away players’ ability to rely on their own senses. When matches are handicapped without our understanding or even our awareness, it debases our perception of the game we’re playing.
Worst game-design ethics since World of Warcraft
Blizzard is violating the right we have as players to see the factors affecting our matches. Handicapping/MMR is the dominant factor of Competitive Play, and it is completely hidden from view. That raises ethical issues about consent, because most players would not engage in “Competitive Play” if they understood handicapping/MMR.
Nothing in Overwatch’s user-interface even mentions “Match Making Rating,” nor does Blizzard define it elsewhere. Blizzard fails to warn players about handicapping, leaving them to labor under a delusion: that altruism is rewarded.
Cause of toxicity
Much toxicity in the Overwatch community stems from cognitive dissonance (a kind psychological distress) caused by handicapping/MMR. When a player succeeds in one match, they are challenged in their next match by design. Wondering “What changed?” they can attribute the sudden challenge to unrelated factors by mistake. They may blame their own character selection and actions, or those of their team.
I’ve been toxic in my own matches. I’ve chastised many of my own teams who didn’t deserve it (especially new/inexperienced players). Because they weren’t meant to play with me in the first place; they were destined for lower ranks just as I was destined for higher ones. But handicapping/MMR intervened to everyone’s misfortune.
Handicapping/MMR renders the SR system meaningless, and leaves us without means to differentiate from each other. We are not in a proving ground, we are in a mill, churning inexorably with players who are not our equals.
I sound immodest, but I face this problem with tens of thousands of players like me. It is a massive and systemic problem. But it’s a simple problem, and it’s Blizzard’s to fix if they have the mind.
“Soylent Green is made of people!”
The most insidious aspect of MMR is the way it uses people. It uses the appointment of your teammates and adversaries to create your handicap, suppressing your chance of being teamed up with players who are as good as you are. So your teammates are guaranteed to be your inferiors or superiors, on a per-match basis, while your enemies are guaranteed to be your equals. What a grand, dystopian future we live in.
Dictionary.com defines a travesty as “a grotesque or debased likeness or imitation; an artistic burlesque of a serious work or subject, characterized by ludicrous incongruity of treatment, or subject matter.”
Handicapping/MMR makes Competitive Overwatch a travesty because it forces us, in every match, to play against those who are most like ourselves and with those who are least like ourselves.
Want a teammate who is as good at Hero X as you are? MMR prevents you from ever meeting them. At every instance, in every match, MMR ensures you can only be that player’s adversary; never their ally. And if you group with such a player, MMR prevents you from finding a fair match to play in.
Conflict of interest
If you would still defend the handicapping/MMR system as ‘fair-handed,’ reader, consider your principal interest as a Competitive player – victory.
Now consider these questions:
- When you queue for a match, you deserve the same *chance* of victory as any other player in the match, do you not?
- Would you accept a system that *explicitly* subtracts from your chance of victory, and adds to your chance of defeat?
- If you are an experienced player, do you accept that you must babysit the inexperienced?
- If you are an inexperienced player, do you want to be babysat?
This is about more than just “victory.” It is about the poetry of group synergy, of lucky random encounters. The uncanny lack of that poetry is what players feel when they rail about incompetency and toxicity in their team mates. Blizzard redacted that poetry when they imputed the handicapping/MMR system to Competitive Play.
Competitive players have an interest in fair, impartial matchmaking; randomly assigned teams of players with similar SR. We want to win or lose according to our merit not despite our merit. If that makes for short matches, then so be it.
It’s about money for Blizzard
Blizzard has an opposing commercial interest in making matches as drawn out as possible; they designed the handicapping/MMR system to ensure that every match is a struggle. And it comes directly at the cost of players’ mobility in the SR system.
The handicapping/MMR system does not make Competitive Play fair or even fun for long-term players. It makes matches protracted and desparate. Because that is what gives the appearance, the illusion of fairness, regardless of the truth. And it leads to repeat sales from Smurf account buyers who try to eschew the system.
When Blizzard took the decision to apply MMR in Competitive Overwatch, I think they were driven by fear. They feared that players would reject their game as unfair when they had one-sided matches, and especially when they had one-sided losses.
Thinking that MMR worked for Quick Play and apprehensive of the ‘negative customer experience,’ that could result without MMR’s careful stage-work, they put it in Competitive Play and we’ve been suffering for it ever since. Blizzard warped their own game to suit their business interests (or the business interests of other stakeholders) at the cost of user experience, ultimately failing Overwatch players.
Let me share an eerily similar experience that I had, arguing for sanity on another game developer’s forum:
In those threads, I used common sense and spoke out against user-experience problems that profoundly concerned player reputation and the fairness of scoring. These are team-based online games with great production value, just like Overwatch.
I doubt that many Overwatch players know ‘War of the Vikings’ and ‘War of the Roses.’ But they feature the same control-point-objective-based gameplay structure that Overwatch does. They compare on many levels, though the developer and publisher are both less moneyed than Blizzard/Activision.
Just as with Overwatch’s MMR/handicapping problem, the problems affecting War of the Vikings and War of the Roses:
- Were insidiously hidden from players by misleading user-interface
- Defied users’ assumptions of the game they were playing
- Punished altruistic behavior, and rewarded selfish behavior in players
- Confused players’ intuitions, causing cognitive dissonance
- Fractured the correlation of team-based strategy and victory
I proved the players’ overwhelming consensus in those threads by gathering votes, just as I have done here. The game developer, and their publisher, decided not to fix the problems. Why do so many game designers and publishers fail to recognize the principles of fair competition, in the “competitive” games they give us players?
It is because the creation process inevitably falls prey to greed; to blind, slavering stakeholder interest, all forms of commercial interest. Marketability trumps integrity behind closed doors.
The cholicy baby
Overwatch players themselves are to blame when they tell Blizzard that one-sided matches are “unfair” or “boring.” In handicapping/MMR, Blizzard is trying to give us what we want. But a good parent knows the difference between wants and needs. Players want engaging matches, but need to compete in an equitable system.
One-sided matches are a perfectly natural thing, and we would see a lot of them at the onset of an impartial matchmaking system. But at the end of a great sorting process of natural selection, we might have clearly established leagues and be able to expect some standards of play, outside of the bottom rank.
If you were playing in a baseball league, would you expect every game to be hotly contested? Would you expect teams to swap their strongest and weakest players to even the odds of every match?
The MMR system is handicapping system that is hidden from players, rigging their every match and dampening their best efforts. Instead of experiencing natural winning/losing streaks, we get a carefully monitored slow-drip, with victory and defeat in as nearly equal measure as matchmaking can arrange. The effects of the system are confusion, incumbency, and a completely incoherent narrative for every player’s career. It detaches a player’s merit from their rank and reputation.
We Competitive players want to deepen our knowledge of Overwatch and keep discovering its nuances by playing with our peers. But we can’t find our peers in a system that decides the nature of every match we play by pitting the best of us against each other.
For the SR system to really work, it must be the only system. Teams should not be “balanced” based on anything besides their SR and their group size. Throw all the handicapping/MMR metrics out the window.
We know you worked hard on the handicapping/MMR system, Blizzard, but you can’t justify its existence in principle. You’re effectively forcing your best players to babysit your worst players, which is questionable. But you are also deceiving players by hiding the handicapping system from them, and that makes your game like a dirty casino.
Only when matchmaking is impartial can the win/lose outcome of an individual player’s matches be reflection their skill. Until then, Competitive Overwatch will be as a rigged slot machine, causing cognitive dissonance for all who play it. You need to consider the rights of your players, and decide what side of history you want to be on.
To the incumbents
Many Overwatch players (let’s say Platinum and above) have reason to be satisfied with handicapping/MMR. I haven’t been Platinum for several seasons, but I know that the most successful Overwatch players are lone-wolf DPS types.
Many incumbents have reason to fear the change I am suggesting, because it would reveal they are not as good at Overwatch as they think they are, or as the SR system suggests them to be. Their leadership and teamwork would be proven weak by an impartial matchmaking system, which would expose them to real competition.
These are folks like Blizzard’s precious cadre of “professional players,” who have been allowed to earn their titles under a false competitive system. I see the conflict of interest for them as well. But I hope they’ll prove their smarts by taking my side.
Let us see what Overwatch really is, together 🙂
If you would like to discuss this topic on Reddit’s Overwatch forum, go here:
This discussion is not limited to Competitive Play. All experienced Overwatch players have an interest in removing MMR as a handicapping system. If you want to contribute to the Quick Play discussion go here:
Appeal for action
The handicapping/MMR system prevents good team players from transcending the ranks of the bad. It uses experienced Overwatch players as training wheels for the inexperienced, rather than allowing us to separate as we would naturally.
Players, please speak up for yourselves. Complain to Blizzard and send them to this thread. Send other players here to comment and vote. Blizzard wronged us by designing Competitive Overwatch this way; let’s prove we are aware of that and demand better from them.
Blizzard, look at the like-to-dislike ratio on this post.
Look at these posts from other players about the problem of handicapping/MMR in Competitive Overwatch:
Players, tell Blizzard that you want fair Competitive Overwatch. Make your own thread on the topic and I will index it here. Include “#faircompetitiveoverwatch” in your post so I can find it.