SBMM, short for skill-based matchmaking, may not sound like the most exciting topic in the world. But it’s become the focus of a fierce debate in the Call of Duty community, following complaints about the way matchmaking worked in the recent Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Alpha.
Over the weekend, a quick peek at the Cold War subreddit would tell you all was not well in alpha land: within 10 hours of the Alpha’s release, players started complaining their lobbies were “like COD League Finals”, and that players were struggling to keep up with the pace of play.
“The SBMM in this game is way too harsh,” said user FrostyTheSunbro. “I have a 1.4 KD in Modern Warfare and I’ve been usually going about 2.0 in this alpha. Had a really good match where I went 22 and 6 and the next five matches were me going negative, going about 6-8 kills and 15-20 deaths.
“Not going to lie, it was soul crushing and sucked the fun out of the game.”
So, what’s going on here? According to the Call of Duty community, the way matchmaking works in Cold War is that players are pooled alongside players of a similar skill level in the casual playlists – which, in theory, should prevent higher-level players from stomping on beginners, but appears to have had some unfortunate side effects. Players highlighted that playing with lower-level friends meant the whole squad was brought up into a more difficult game, making things significantly less enjoyable for the rest of the team. Others argued that due to SBMM they felt no sense of progression, as when their skills improved they would also be moved up into a pool of people around their new skill level.
Remarkably, the backlash to SBMM got to the point where players were seen deliberately “reverse boosting” during Cold War’s Alpha. That is to say, repeatedly killing themselves until they got placed in a lower-level lobby.
“SBMM does not belong in Call of Duty – there should be a ranked playlist for people to sweat in,” said professional COD player Seth Huntsman. “I’m not trying to play Scuf wielding game fuel chugging demons with szn in their psn on Miami TDM.”
Of course, not everyone was against the idea of SBMM, with some pointing out it was hypocritical for players to demand the right to play people worse than them instead of people at their own level (particularly given many of those complaining were high-level content creators or esports pros).
Rather unusually, Treyarch developer Martin Donlon waded in to debunk the myth that previous Call of Duty titles did not have SBMM.
“SBMM is one of many many tuneable parameters in a matchmaking system,” Donlon added. “It’s funny watching people talk about it like it’s a big switch that can only be turned on or off.”
It’s worth noting Call of Duty isn’t alone in implementing SBMM, as other games such as Fortnite, Destiny and Apex Legends are known (or at least suspected) to have used it in their own matchmaking – but developers are often reluctant to officially acknowledge or discuss how SBMM works. The reason for this is probably to prevent players gaming the system, or possibly to avoid heated community debates. Although, those seem to be happening anyway. All the time.
While SBMM remains something of a dark art, with the community only able to guess at what’s going on behind the scenes, perhaps there is scope for some further fine tuning of Cold War’s matchmaking algorithms – or as some suggested, a more transparent way to view your progress such as a match-making rank. But then, that’s the point of an alpha, isn’t it?