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Call of Duty team finally ready to address players’ big complaint: ‘skill-based matchmaking’

Devs aim to demystify the concept of SBMM

Two modern military characters in a screenshot from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Image: Activision
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Skill-based matchmaking in Call of Duty is always a controversial topic, and last fall, the teams behind Activision’s still-dominant shooter franchise pledged to be more open about how players are matched together in games of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In a new blog that details the issue in depth, it appears the Call of Duty team hopes to demystify players’ No. 1 complaint about the game’s core multiplayer mode and explain how matchmaking actually works.

One of the biggest takeaways from the latest Call of Duty blog: Matchmaking in multiplayer games might not work how you think it does.

“The single, biggest priority with respect to Multiplayer matchmaking is delivering a fun experience to our players,” developers said in a lengthy breakdown of how players are sorted into teams in online games.

“We often see the community refer to our matchmaking system as ‘Skill-based Matchmaking.’ Call of Duty does consider skill (or more specifically player performance) as a component, as do most in the industry, but skill is not the dominant variable,” developers said. “We consider and prioritize several factors to create lobbies.”

Those factors are led by connection (“the most critical and heavily weighted factor in the matchmaking process”) and time to match, developers said. And, yes, skill is a component of the matchmaking criteria, as is playlist diversity, ensuring that players see a variety of maps and modes.

Since players will likely have a general understanding of how connection and time to match influence matchmaking, how Call of Duty developers determine skill is probably the most illuminating insight.

According to developers, skill is determined based on a player’s overall performance, factoring in kills, deaths, wins, losses, mode selection, and recent matches as an overall metric across all multiplayer experiences. “This is a fluid measurement that’s consistently updating and reacting to your gameplay,” developers say. “Skill is not only a factor in matchmaking players against appropriate enemies, but also when finding teammates.”

Those skill determinations have been in place in some form as early as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, developers say, noting that “continuous refinement is required to deliver the best possible experience for our players.”

“We use player performance to ensure that the disparity between the most skilled player in the lobby and the least skilled player in the lobby isn’t so vast that players feel their match is a waste of time,” developers say. “Our data on player outcomes clearly indicates that the inclusion of skill in Call of Duty’s Multiplayer matchmaking process (as it currently stands) increases the variety of outcomes experienced by players of all skill levels. In other words, all players (regardless of skill level) are more likely to experience wins and losses more proportionately.”

Some longtime Call of Duty players and prominent streamers have pushed back on the use of skill-based matchmaking, especially in casual or quick play modes. They say it makes games overly competitive (or “sweaty”), and saps the joy of steamrolling a weaker opposing team.

Developers say that data shows that lower skill players are likely to quit matches (or stop playing altogether) if they’re “consistently on the losing end.” And fewer players means smaller player pools to match against others, and a lower variance of skill. “Eventually, when only high-skilled players remain because lower skilled players have quit out of frustration, the result is an ecosystem that is worse overall for everyone,” developers say.

They add, “We also understand that many high skill players want more variety of experience, but often feel like they only get the ‘sweatiest’ of lobbies. We have heard this feedback clearly and will continue to test and actively explore ways to mitigate this concern.”

In an FAQ accompanying the blog, developers also break down some frequent assumptions and misconceptions about how matchmaking works in Call of Duty multiplayer. They say that player engagement (time played) is not factored into matchmaking. They also said that spending money in Call of Duty does not impact how players are matched with others, nor does “partner” or “content creator” status.

The Call of Duty team also says that it doesn’t plan to remove skill measurement as a factor in matchmaking, nor provide players the choice to opt out of its matchmaking algorithm.

Whether that explanation will satisfy Call of Duty players who complain of blowouts, “sweaty” lobbies, or manipulated engagement remains to be seen. But for players looking for more insight into how they get matched, based on skill and otherwise, it’s worth reading and considering for your next match.

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