By Jim Jones
SBMM or skill-based matchmaking has effectively become the standard in online multiplayer gaming, particularly in FPS games. But is that standard the best option for the players? With the recent boom in gaming, due in part to the isolating effects of the pandemic, the discussion surrounding skill-based matchmaking has started to heat up again.
There a quite a few pros and cons of skill-based matchmaking and some players see some of the cons as outweighing the pros, as well as vice versa. I’ve put together 10 of the biggest pros and cons of skill-based matchmaking to help illustrate some of the benefits and drawbacks that you may experience.
10. Con – Bad Connection + SBMM = Bad Mood
One of the issues with skill-based matchmaking is that it frequently does not take into account any information on your connection, such as ping rate and connection stability. This means that even if you have a rock-solid gigabit fiber connection, you may get into a game with connection problems. Particularly if there is an ocean separating some of the players in the match.
Other players at or near your skill level may be across town, across the country, or on the other side of the planet. But with skill-based matchmaking, if you have a hypothetical skill level of 100, and another gamer wanting a game at that moment has a score of 98, it’s incredibly likely that you two would end up in a lobby together. Even if you are far enough apart to make an earth sandwich.
Many people feel that if skill-based matchmaking were able to be combined with connection-screening, that it could be really great. Unfortunately, since most games rely strictly on skill-based matchmaking to fill vacancies in lobbies, it should not be made the end-all-be-all of team and squad creation.
9. Pro – It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination
In theory, players should get better over time if playing opponents of the same skill level. This is the same in almost any sport. You don’t get better by repeatedly trouncing your opponents, because there is no resistance. You can’t build muscle without lifting weight, but if you go to the gym every single day and lift empty barbells you aren’t really working out, are you?
You also can’t get better, particularly as a new player, if you are constantly put into games with people who munch you down like an old Twix. In games with a particularly steep learning curve, like the Battlefield franchise, and Apex, new players can be discouraged from playing entirely if that initial learning phase is unpleasant enough. You don’t bench press 450 on your first day working out, first-person shooters are no different in that respect.
Playing with other gamers close to your skill lever should place you with some players that you’ll beat, as well as some players you probably won’t. The difference is, when you die or are killed by a player close to your skill, you often have the chance to learn from it. You are playing against other players, in most cases, who are the best match for your current abilities.
8. Con – Don’t Want to Participate In SBMM? TOO BAD!
In most games, skill-based matchmaking remains a part of the matchmaking algorithm and applies to all games, all maps, all matches. Even in an unranked playlist! This leads to isolating causal players when they just want to play for fun, after work or on the weekend for instance. This is a large section of the gaming community because not everyone wants full-throttle gaming all the time.
This is because theoretically, you’re playing opponents of very similar skill, leading to close or competitive games. Sure, there will be some exceptions, but you will largely be playing other players with similar abilities. This means no zone-out free-for-alls. No simple walkthrough domination. Sometimes you want to just turn your mind off and play a game, however, this is impossible with skill-based matchmaking.
In my personal experience, if I’m not feeling up to playing competitively, I’ve just not played for the night. Especially when skill-based matchmaking cannot be avoided in whatever game I wanted to play. Sometimes I want a challenge and a fight, and sometimes I just want some mindless entertainment, and not having that option is a bummer.
7. Con – Variety Is the Spice of Life…. Right?
Most of the time when you have skill-based matchmaking systems, players are forced into the “meta” of whatever game they are playing in order to get any advantage they can get. This discourages variety whether that’s trying that new gun or a new character.
This is an ongoing problem in games that have “seasons” or similar cyclical content development or release structure. Apex, Overwatch, and Fortnite are prime examples. This reinforces the “grind” mentality that sets in while trying to earn or unlock weapons, skins, or other effects. Some of these effects even offer performance advantages in-game, rather than being purely aesthetic.
This is frequently seen in games like Apex, where many players feel tremendous pressure to not let their squad down. This often leads to them playing a “role” that’s needed for match effectiveness, not a character that they’d like to play or simply try for the first time. It even puts pressure to change a gamer’s entire playing style if it doesn’t give them the “edge” they need to unlock this or that.
6. Con – Friends Are Worse Than You? Good Luck!
This kind of echoes the last ‘con’ in that players are forced into the skill-based matchmaking meat grinder. It’s hard to play with a friend who may not be as good at the game as you, which is hugely frustrating for those who want to introduce someone to the game or to help them progress. It’s happened to me personally where my friend and I have a big gap in skill in a particular game, and this leads to the match being noticeably tougher for both of us.
This is due to the inherent difficulty in reconciling a game-wide skill-based matchmaking algorithm with any lobby that allows premade squads of friends or teammates to come in as a unit. If you are each assigned a skill level and the game has to find you a match, the game may compromise by putting you in a lobby that is harder to fill, and these are generally the more difficult or higher-skilled matches.
5. Pro – Quite the Crowd
Skill-based matchmaking is demonstrably good for the gaming community, as a whole. One of the problems with online multiplayer games is that they lose a considerable percentage of their player base as time goes on. According to game developers who implement skill-based matchmaking, it helps keep a healthy population of players.
This is because not only are high-level or high-skill players often kept in their own matches with relatively equally-skilled players, but when a new player starts the game, they are often in a protected skill bracket. Many games delineate this by the skill level as well as the rank so that new players even have their own lobbies that are entirely inaccessible by higher ranks.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a very big and very important ‘pro’. Increasing the longevity of popular games has the obvious benefit of you being able to enjoy those games for longer. Many games only offer an extremely basic single-player offline game and are now being essentially being operated as online multiplayer services. This means they have the potential to be around as long as people are interested in them and they remain profitable.
4. Con – Hey, You’re Not Supposed to Be Here!
As useful as it is, and as fair as it tries to make the game, it is still relatively easy to avoid for those who are determined enough. Unfortunately, this leads some high-skill players to try to circumvent skill-based matchmaking with various exploits.
Some of these tactics are as “hands-off” as changing some router settings, while some methods like reverse boosting are a grind. Some players even create an entire second account or character to soak up amazing stats, once they’ve mastered the game on another toon.
Often, they have their own reasons, and those don’t matter here. The point is, that skill-based matchmaking can be gotten around in some circumstances. The downside is that this circumvention often results in significant dissatisfaction for the lower-skill players in the game that the high-skill player is forcing themselves into.
3. Pro – Protects Newbie from Sweaty Eddie
Skill-based matchmaking theoretically protects players of lower skill levels from having to play players who are much better. This is your typical fence separating casuals from competitive players and noobs from vets. This is a ‘pro’ any way you look at it, and I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
As a streamer, there is no benefit to me or my viewers watching me stomp on folks that comparatively can’t even fight back. It’s not impressive, and it’s boring. I want some meaty footage for my subscribers, and I don’t get that from imbalance.
If I’m just starting a game or still learning & trying to hit my stride, this is crucial. If I’m working long days all week, I’m probably getting home tired and only playing for shot times, on the weekends. It’s no fun trying to relax in a game when I’m on the wrong side of a Bane vs. Pink Guy meme.
2. Con – Oh You Wanted to Play Tonight?
Depending on the game, skill-based matchmaking can increase queue times by a lot, because the game is looking for players of similar skill levels. This is one of those things that infuriates me. There are times when I just want to play, and I don’t care if it’s wildly unbalanced right now, just drop me in a game and let me deal with it! If I don’t like it, I can run matchmaking again after the match, or quit if it’s that horrendous.
This problem becomes more and more prevalent as your skill increases. Players with lower skill levels are very common because everyone is lower level at some point or another. Many players will quit playing before getting extremely good. This leads players with very high skill levels to be very rare, comparatively. As a result, the better you are, the longer you can expect to sit in line for a game if it’s a busy day.
1. Pro – Hard Fought Wins Are the Best Wins
PUB stomping is fun and all, but what’s really great are those games where it isn’t just handed to you, and you only win by a point or two. Games that are neck and neck the whole time. You think you have it in the bag, then the tide turns and you’re frantic to make up the difference. Then you take the lead again, you know you can’t hold it too long, you’re on the razor’s edge and they’re catching up as the screen fades. You win.
Those are the best games. We’ve all had these games, these are the games we always remember and that stick out to us. I can still remember individual matches from the golden days of ranked Halo 3 on Guardian and Narrows. Without skill-based matchmaking, those games would be exceedingly rare.
When all is said and done, I really feel the pros outweigh the cons, and that skill-based matchmaking is one of the better matchmaking evolutions for the gaming community. I feel this is particularly true as many FPS games become more and more competitive.
Also, as the new generation of consoles and cross-platform play really come into their own, console players will be matched to PC players increasingly frequently, and skill-based matchmaking algorithms and criteria will be refined further and further. This will eventually enable extremely precise matching and extremely fulfilling gaming.