This is a topic that is more or less extremely important and dear to my heart, simply because I have had a lot of experience in this particular area being both that I am someone who at one point was extremely competitively driven, as well as the fact I’ve been keenly aware of how the matchmaking experience has suffered tremendously over the years since it reached its peak.
Typically speaking, matchmaking is a very common feature which exists largely for one purpose: getting a player into a match as quickly as reasonably possible. Not humanly possible, of course, but reasonably possible, largely for a variety of factors such as player skill as well as player counts and so forth.
The thing is that through the course of this, we’re going to look at people who fall ahead of the curve, as well as the topic of skill growth as a whole.
Note: The gifs/webms used in this are *old* and are of a lower quality than I normally present on the site and in some cases are simply outright memes because the author has largely walked away from competitive gaming as a whole. When I compete these days, I compete when I know me or my team can win.
The Modern Experience
For most people logging into a game and trying out matchmaking, if you do fall into the aforementioned category of generally being good at games, you’ll likely find yourself having a very specific experience: typically you’ll have one match where you do exceedingly well and the next match where you get rolled so hard it’s not funny.
Furthermore, it’s not you getting rolled: it’s most often your teammates, and the fact of the matter is that a certain skill threshold, it’s no longer feasible for a single player to carry. You might be able to win duels with single players, but when their team eliminates yours except for you, what can you do when you have more than three or four players shooting at lonely old you? Quite frankly, not a whole lot.
In fact, in large part, at a certain skill threshold, it becomes less about actually out-playing your opponents, and more about making fewer mistakes than them; in other words, you start aiming for a risk prevention strategy. Is risk prevention a good strategic approach? Absolutely.
But let’s face it: you’re playing a video game, you’re not engaging in real life. Losing doesn’t matter, what matters is how much you grow as a player from your experiences, and when you’re focusing on risk prevention, you’re not looking towards growth, you’re more interested in making every shot count.
So what happened to every shot you don’t take is a missed shot?
This is the crux of this. Growth is largely a matter of taking risk. Being willing to put yourself out there and get exposed, both to danger and success is largely one of the only ways you’ll win in a matchmaking environment. But, simply put, when you’re more focused on winning, you end up distilling a shooter down to cover exposure or a damage race against your opponents.
However, taking risk isn’t the only factor, and we’ll explore that momentarily.
Ye Olde Experience
Matchmaking as a whole hit its prime with the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, let’s not kid ourselves, that was the best experience one could have possibly had with titles like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, and Halo: Reach, and there’s reasons for that.
Part of it probably includes that there was less of a reason to put on your tinfoil hat and assume you’re being manipulated.
Now let’s not kid ourselves, during that era, video game developers mastered the art of telemetry. What’s telemetry, you ask? Well, simply put, it’s data that can be quantified, measured, and more importantly, is reported back to a (central) location. With Bungie knocking out their old Halo stats, we can see a number of things which have, largely, never been done before.
Once upon a time, you could view your player profile provided by Bungie and see, exactly, how you played and where you needed to improve in the latter Halo titles. You could view heatmaps, determine where you weakest on a map, see where you were faltering with a weapon system, and furthermore, you could review your gameplay – and others – via theater mode.
But all that is putting aside the most important factor: Halo 3, Halo Reach’s, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare as well as Modern Warfare 2 had an important factor going for them with matchmaking that is not often seen these days: their matchmaking systems heavily emphasized keeping players together and making sure they got a chance to play repeated matches with the same people.
This data certainly didn’t go away. It’s no doubt still something developers seek to gain, but players themselves are removed access from this. We might get some API access that provides the same sort of information the scoreboards might provide us, but not the in-depth information of yesteryear.
There are a lot of factors that relate to skill growth, but chief among them, is experience. I’m not going to lie, I have bad motor control. It’s been a factor ever since I was a child and it’s prevented me from enjoying different activities like “normal” children when I was one. That said, I’ve made up for it in other ways: I learn much more quickly than others, and usually it only takes my first or second exposure to a topic to internalize something consciously as well as being able to reverse-engineer different things after staring at it for long enough.
Putting my own characteristics aside, however, I’ve learned something over the years: people learn the best after they’re given repeated exposure to a subject. If you expose someone to the overall effectiveness of a given technique, repeatedly, if they’re in a small group, they will almost immediately target that behavior and adapt.
This both reflects my own growth experience and my experience watching others grow. Putting my own strategies and tactics on display, I’ve noticed that others take only a handful of matches if they’ve been given repeated exposure to adapt to my techniques.
Even if someone does learn something the first time, or they learn quickly, they’re still going to need to take the time to adapt and get better. I myself might learn something quickly, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to get the opportunity to put it into practice effectively and efficiently in the modern environments of matchmaking. So here we have where matchmaking fails us completely as a learning/teaching tool: we might learn something one match, but quickly find ourselves unable to apply it because we’re simply not facing up against the same opponents again. Any opportunity for the lessons to be reinforced is immediately forfeit.
The Crux of the Problem
A wide number of matchmaking tends to aim for a near 55% win/loss ratio, the idea being that if you feel like you’re winning the majority of the time, you’re more likely to sink your teeth in deeper and hold on, attempting to move forward and push through whatever blockers are present – before you suddenly find yourself flung into the deep end with a bunch of players who are barely out of the kiddie-pool on your team.
If you’re a player who genuinely falls ahead of the curve, you’ll likely find yourself put in strange matchmaking situations that are pretty consistent: you’re okay, but your team is nowhere near the skill level of the enemy team you’re engaging. Maybe it’s that you went in solo-queue and you’re up against people who are pubstomping with a full team, or you and a close buddy are thrown in against people who are far and above your skill level.
Then, for a match or two, you’re tossed in with people who are in the kiddie pool on the enemy team, and it’s not even an engaging challenge or an entertaining one. It might be an opportunity to gain some fascinating clips, but it’s not necessarily something that’s good for anything other than a highlight reel, all the while with ‘competitive matchmaking’ offering the illusion of you getting better as you climb up through the various different ranks.
Because of this, if you truly embrace the concept of winning and the drive to improve yourself, in today’s age you’re better off avoiding competitive gaming in standard matchmaking, player-versus-player experiences as a whole: the real realm for improvement is with singleplayer and co-op focused experiences which genuinely push you to go farther, do more, and get better. Titles which I recommend in this area are largely those like the Soulsborne titles, classic action game series like Devil May Cry or God Hand, and finally, absolute mountains which demand more and more of you as you climb while subtly teaching you the art of survival and destruction like Monster Hunter. Perhaps consider speedrunning and other areas of non-direct competition wherein there’s only room for improvement and not room for back-end manipulations of the matchmaking systems to provide a rigged experience.
Oh, and ULTRAKILL is pretty dope in all these regimes, too. Truly, getting one’s ass kicked is simply a right of passage.