What is SBMM in gaming and why is it so controversial?


Skill based matchmaking, frequently abbreviated to SBMM, is a controversial and contentious topic in the gaming community. But what does it mean, why is it an issue and why are more and more developers and publishers using it?

What is skill-based matchmaking (SBMM)? 

Skill-based matchmaking refers to the matchmaking system and algorithms a game uses to find other players for you to play with. 

Different factors can be used to decide which players you’re matched with. Location and connection are usually prioritized in order to reduce lag and improve connectivity.

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Skill-based matchmaking does not discard factors like connection, but it also puts emphasis on matching players with those of a similar skill level.

For example, in Call of Duty, the matchmaking algorithm is believed to consider your statistics, like time played, score per minute, and Kill/Death Ratio (KDR). As a result, you’ll generally end up in matches with players who score similarly in these areas. 

This means that, in the majority of cases, lower-skilled players are matched with other lower-skilled players, and higher-skill players are matched with other high-skill players.

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Naturally, it’s an imperfect system and there will be occasions where players are put into matches with others better or worse than them. 

Which games use skill-based matchmaking?  

We don’t know every game that uses skill-based matchmaking. Developers tend to keep their matchmaking systems under wraps for various reasons and rarely address them publicly. 

Regardless, a host of the world’s most popular games definitely employ some level of skill-based matchmaking. These include Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty and its Warzone battle royales.

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Apex Legends characters standing in unity.Respawn Entertainment
We know that Apex Legends uses some level of SBMM in its matches.

Why is skill-based matchmaking controversial and unpopular?

There are a number of reasons why SBMM is disliked by players. Many argue it punishes higher-skilled players by putting them with other talented players. This prevents them from showcasing their skills and dominating weaker players.

This argument can also be made about players improving. Where is the incentive to improve and invest time getting better if you won’t reap the rewards and get ahead of the competition? 

This also leads to some claiming it stops games from being casual. If a high-skilled player is put with other high skill players, they will be required to invest more focus and effort. This is particularly relevant in games that have both public and ranked modes.

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A lot of players think Ranked modes should have SBMM, but public matches should be more casual. Fortnite, which has both a ranked mode and public matches, has SBMM in both. The same is true of Apex Legends. 

Another issue with SBMM’s deployment relates to the lack of clarity surrounding. Developers and publishers rarely address their matchmaking systems and so players are often left in the dark. This increases frustration, speculation and cynicism about matchmaking systems. 

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Epic Games
Fortnite has a designated Arena mode, but still has SBMM in its public matches.

Why do developers/publishers use SBMM?

If it’s unpopular with a lot of players, then why is it used so widely? There are a number of reasons, but a couple are most obvious.

First off, it protects lesser-skilled players from being comprehensively beaten in every game they play. If a player is still learning the mechanics of a game, putting them into a lobby with experienced and talented players wouldn’t be very fun or useful.

This also allows video game developers to engage their player bases more effectively. Protecting lesser-skilled players means they are less likely to quit in frustration and can continue to feel challenged by a game. As you’d expect, this leads to anger among players who argue that SBMM is a financial decision. If players are engaged for longer, there is more money to be made off them. 

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It is also designed to keep matches more competitive. If each team has similarly skilled players, the game will be closer and, in theory, more enjoyable. Contrast this to a game in which one team is being dominated, it will be far more difficult for a member of that team to enjoy the game.

This is ultimately where the clash comes. Higher skilled players want to be able to dominate lesser skilled ones, at least occasionally, whereas game studios try to protect worse players to encourage them to keep playing.

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Despite its controversy, more and more games appear to be moving towards SBMM as a primary part of matchmaking.