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Overdog aims to enhance multiplayer matchmaking — but it needs help

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Matchmaking is sort of like the officiating in a football game. You don't notice it until it goes wrong. You also, be honest, don't have much idea how it can be done better even when it's working right.

That's where Overdog is hoping to make itself useful. It launched this week on Xbox One and the free, small (21 MB) ride-along app is there to set users up with gamers who have similar interests along not just gaming, but a swath of pop-culture subjects. (It's not yet available on PlayStation 4 or other platforms.)

The idea is that people who like the same things will enjoy one another's company more. Given how much online multiplayer is portrayed as antagonistic, hostile, or worse, Overdog figures if it helps people have a better time online, it'll find success.

It'll take a little bit of work though.

"When somebody signs up, the first thing we ask them to do is like certain topics," explained Hunter Hillenmeyer, the former Chicago Bears linebacker who came up with the idea for Overdog while working toward an M.B.A. at Northwestern. "We use them to match people based on a combination of which topic they like, and what game they're playing."

The idea is that Overdog works in the background to recognize that certain combinations of, say, music, movies and video games equate to a more intense gamer — or at least someone who can tolerate them — and its secret sauce keeps that type segregated from a more chill gamer, even if they're venturing into a bro-town shooter.

Eric Doty was brought aboard Overdog last year after a six-year tour at Microsoft, where he came to understand the advantages and drawbacks of a giant melting pot like Xbox Live. "Some you meet are fantastic, some are jerks, some sing into the mic," he said. All that should be expected when people are coming together because they have, at that moment in time, one interest: The game they're playing.

the app really is only as good as the information put into it

Overdog, Doty said, will work because it will pair players along multiple interests that they have more persistently, not because they have a controller in their hand and a disc in the tray this very moment. "We're not only matching on topics, but we also want to match on playstyle, and we're evolving our algorithm in that direction," he said. "Like ‘This person is a great match, they want to play co-operatively, they have a great rep,' now you're going into the match with a positive mindset. You're not just matching 20 people at random, and you know on some level you might like talking to this person."

The rub, in my view, is that the app really is only as good as the information put into it, and right now there's not a lot. While anyone can get going with Overdog by picking just two likes (I chose Major Nelson and FIFA) it really depends on a lot of input to refine the matchmaking and generate a credible match.

Users may choose interests not just from current games, but also upcoming ones, and then among TV shows like House of Cards, or Game of Thrones, or movies, music and celebrities, or whatever else is scraping gamers' interest when they're not gaming.

After selecting five interests, I was still getting the same recommendations on the main screen, all with a 1 percent match. That's fair, I wouldn't expect a great date from listing just a few things on Match.com. I need to spend time building out a profile. I just don't know how much time it will take. I also don't know how much this depends on other users being as descriptive as they can. And there's some manual labor involved in the user interface.

Users can sort interests based on movies, music, games and companies (the dreaded "brands") so you can pick up how Overdog may be planning to make money marshalling an audience toward advertisers. That said, there's a "community" category that includes "likes" for YouTubers like Boogie2988Hot Pepper Gaming and Jim Sterling, plus charities Desert Bus For Hope and Operation Supply Drop, so it's not all Doritos, Mountain Dew and paid appearances.

I still got the sense that we're way too early in the rollout of this app — even if it boasted 50,000 downloads in its first three days — to be making many likeminded connections. On PlayStation 4, where Overdog does not yet have a presence, I'm continually amazed by the number of friend requests I get, most of which appear based on user recommendations, my social media presence, or other PlayStation Network friends.

Overdog is a reboot of what originally began as a service to pair sports-fan gamers with athletes, lottery-style. It was run through a mobile app, and while it had enough subscribers to show promise, there was no guarantee a user would be connected with a pro.

Given how tribal online gaming can be, Overdog could be a positive force

"I think we had a marketing issue with using that branding," said Hillenmeyer, who in the past has acknowledged the oily, autograph-show nature of selling people on fleeting personal access to a celebrity. His hope for Overdog had been to connect people who were already doing the same thing — like golfers who found themselves in a foursome with a celebrity. But lacking an app on a console held back its appeal and its attachment considerably.

In April 2014, Overdog got approval to develop for Xbox One. Hillenmeyer began moving the operation away from its sports-celebrity origins, although both remain important to identifying gamer interests and pairing the likeminded. "Influencers," a more inclusive term for celebrities, will also figure into Overdog's efforts going forward. Liking Major Nelson in your profile — or liking him and a lot of the stuff he also likes — may actually pair you up with him, for example. It's certainly easy to imagine Microsoft promoting a console exclusive in this way.

The kind of new service Overdog proposes is always met with a "well why do we need this" question from skeptical gamers. It may be too early to answer that. Yet given how tribal online gaming can be, Overdog could end up being a positive force. I asked Hillenmeyer and Doty if their goal was to build Overdog's userbase or algorithm into something Microsoft, Sony, or another company with a large online presence would want to acquire. They demurred, saying they're focused entirely on making this service relevant and useful. There's a lot of work ahead.

Still, we've all recoiled at the stories of women or gamers of color who, once their gender or ethnicity becomes apparent online, get attacked and driven out of a game. If Overdog's algorithm is fed with enough information, who knows, maybe it could morph into that ideal of officiating: something that keeps a game running smoothly and fairly for all, and something nobody even notices.