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Black Ops Cold War: The SBMM Debate

You might have noticed that playing Black Ops Cold War is a little harder nowadays, that’s probably thanks to SBMM. But, what is SBMM and is it even a good idea? Should Multiplayer be competitive by default?

Black Ops Cold War has, like it’s predecessors, proved an unusually controversial title amongst players. While simultaneously lamenting Game Developers for making “the same game every year”, much like the arguments aimed towards EA Sports and FIFA, players also find criticism in every alteration and change to the Call of Duty formula.

For example, Black Ops Cold War has provided fans with the long-awaited return of Alex Mason, Frank Woods, and Jason Hudson. However due to a change in the voice talent behind the characters in Black Ops which released way back in 2010, there has been criticism.

Although I actually prefer the new talent behind the characters ( I know, shoot me!), we’re not here to talk about that. Rather, we’re here to discuss SBMM… By far, the most criticised aspect of the new Call of Duty.

What is SBMM in Black Ops Cold War?

SBMM might be an acronym you’ve seen scattered about Reddit posts or Twitter threads, but what actually is it?

SBMM stands for Skill-Based MatchMaking and refers to the algorithmic process that constructs and populates Multiplayer Lobbies in Black Ops Cold War. That means that every time you search for a Multiplayer game in Black Ops Cold War, the game is attempting to match you with people of a similar skill level.

Black Ops Cold War SBMM
Some of the new Prestige Icons in Call of Duty / Credit: Activision

That’s rather than a Connection-Based Matchmaking system which often features in Multiplayer games; this system looks for players with similar/ the strongest internet connection to form Multiplayer lobbies. That isn’t to say that connection isn’t a relevant factor in SBMM algorithms, it’s just not always as high a priority as it could be…

Every matchmaking algorithm uses a variety of factors to construct and populate Multiplayer Lobbies. Most developers tend to keep these exact formulae under wraps for obvious reasons, but there’s a few key statistics that are widely-presumed to be used in SBMM. Kill/ Death Ratios, Time Played, and Rank are all things the SBMM algorithm most-likely considers for Black Ops Cold War.

In theory, it makes sense. Through this system, theoretically, everyone playing Black Ops Cold War Multiplayer would face a similar challenge overall. It’s an important step in furthering fairness in Multiplayer games for all those who play.

Well… That’s what it should be, anyway.

Why Is There A Debate Around SBMM?

The debate is primarily based on what SBMM takes away from Multiplayer games, not what it brings. In Ranked Playlists, SBMM is commonplace and expected. These playlists often operate on a separate ranking system that aims to better place players in lobbies with others of the same rank.

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In Black Ops Cold War, you’d expect to see the same. Or maybe in a Hardcore playlist. However, much like Fortnite, SBMM is applied to every Multiplayer playlist regardless of whether it is ranked or not.

Pro-SBMM arguments praise the implementation of the system as it helps to protect newer players from matchmaking with experienced players well-above their skill level. It allows them to match with other newer players, undoubtedly helping a title retain players in the long-run.

Lee Perry, former Lead Designer for Epic Games, touched on this in his discussions on Gears of War matchmaking in 2017. He highlighted the fact that around 90% of first-time players don’t play a second Multiplayer match if they don’t get a kill in their first.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Not only does it highlight the fragility of a multiplayer game’s player-base; Gears at it’s peak was extremely popular. It also highlights the importance of a players initial experience and the importance of success. It seems pretty solid proof that people play multiplayer games for the competitive edge, rather than as a past-time.

That being said, the same competitive edge is what is drawing so much critisism. Anti-SBMM arguments are primarily reinforced with two similar factors.

Firstly, SBMM is abhorred by higher-skill players for placing them against other higher-skilled players. More often than not, these players want to showcase their skills or dominate against a weaker team. However, SBMM restricts this and levels the playing field much more than they would like.

OpTic Scump, by all accounts a professional player, tweeted this about the Alpha. He instantly found SBMM an issue…

This may not be a good enough argument for the removal of SBMM, but this goes further than just inconveniencing higher-skill players. Many are complaining that their lobbies are ‘ sweatier ‘ than ever and find that it removes any ability to play Multiplayer games casually. This is where things become interesting.

As a professional player, you should expect to be challenged and continue to fight for your place at the top. The fact that Black Ops Cold War has SBMM, which makes this more difficult, is almost a good thing. However, as many lower-skill players argue… It should be included in Ranked modes, not Casual. So, the question must be asked then… Should every Multiplayer game have a Ranked mode?

Smurf Accounts ( secondary accounts with lower SBMM rankings ) are commonplace amongst games with competitive Ranked modes. In Overwatch‘s case, for example, there is a limit to who you can party up with. Smurf accounts allow higher-skill players to party up with their friends who are lower-skill and lower ranked.

For free-to-play games, such as Apex Legends and Fortnite, this is beyond easy to do. However, for games like Overwatch players go as far as to buy the whole game again. It’s a strong commitment, which would suggest that it is an important factor in these games much like it is in Black Ops Cold War. There is also the issue of Throwing too, where someone intentionally loses/ had a bad game in order to lower their SBMM ranking. These issues only plague and already plagued system, highlighting the flaws as extreme experiences.

Despite fan outcry for most of the current lifetime of Black Ops Cold War, Treyarch and Activision have done little to address these complaints and the issues SBMM raises. With it apparent that they could lose 90% of their player-base, potentially anyway, it appears that the pros outweigh the cons from a developer stand-point.

Catering to everyone is important, though it may be impossible. A Treyarch developer revealed that almost every previous Call of Duty title has had some form of SBMM, despite claims against it… In Twitter fashion, though, many just ignored the statement.

So why it is a problem now? Is it that the skill-divide between players is larger? Or, perhaps the increased playtime overall due to the COVID-19 Pandemic has made it a more noticeable factor?

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Nadeshot, of 100Thieves, also called out SBMM and followed it with this… fairly valid suggestion?

It is hard to find sympathy for those who play games for a living as a casual player, I know, but if we have learnt anything from the continual lockdowns 2020 has served it’s this…

Players, of all skill levels, ultimately want to enjoy playing Multiplayer games despite the inherent drive for competitive success. It is important to face challenge, but not in the current degree. No matter how competitive you are, if you don’t enjoy playing a game… You’ll stop.

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