What is ‘smurfing’ in gaming?

Joe Craven
Valorant character next to Octane from Apex LegendsRiot Games / Respawn Entertainment

You may have heard the term ‘smurfing’ thrown around, whether in-game, in a stream, or from a game developer. But what does it mean in gaming and why is it controversial? Here’s everything you need to know. 

When a video game places players in a lobby or match, it uses a series of factors to determine your teammates and opponents. Typically, the matchmaking algorithm will consider connection and MMR as two primary focuses. 

MMR (matchmaking rank) is a game’s assessment of a player’s skill level. Players tend to be placed among players of a similar MMR to make matches closer and avoid one team or player being far too good for that match. When an algorithm places a lot of emphasis on players’ skill levels, that’s called skill-based matchmaking (or SBMM).  

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We’ve started with that explanation because it’s important context when thinking about ‘smurfing’. 

‘Smurfing’ in gaming explained 

Smurfing refers to players who try to avoid coming up against opponents of similar MMRs by using new or low-ranked accounts. The idea is that the game cannot assess their skill level properly and they are placed into lobbies with less-skilled players who they are able to dominate. 

These smurf accounts can be accessed in a series of ways. Some sites sell low-ranked accounts for smurfs to purchase, while others will simply create multiple new accounts. 

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Sometimes this is also achieved through ‘reverse boosting’. This is a tactic where players deliberately sabotage their own in-game stats to try and trick the game into giving them easier lobbies. A common method sees players intentionally kill themselves over and over, thus ruining their K/D ratio in-game. 

fortnite chapter 4Epic Games
Fortnite has had historic issues with smurfing, alongside many other titles.

Is it cheating? 

This is a difficult question to answer. In theory, yes. Players are manipulating in-game mechanics to garner easier lobbies and dominate opponents. 

In practice, it’s more complex. There are plenty of reasons players want multiple accounts – like playing with lower-ranked friends or having an account that is used ‘casually’ – and isolating those deliberately smurfing is incredibly difficult. 

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Regardless, most games will ultimately ban players who are deemed to smurf over and over. 

Which games have smurfs? 

Unfortunately, most. SBMM is becoming more and more common in video games as developers and publishers seek to keep their player base as engaged as possible. 

As a result, smurfing is becoming increasingly common in a host of titles, including Apex Legends, Valorant, Call of Duty, and Fortnite. 

Can it be stopped? 

Yes, but it’s not easy. There are a number of tactics video game developers use to isolate and prevent smurfing. 

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Valorant recently introduced an ‘Automated Smurf Detection’ system to help stop players from continually starting or acquiring low-ranked accounts. Changes to players ‘stacking’ (meaning those queuing for matches in parties of multiple players) can also help. 

However, as previously mentioned, it’s very difficult to stop because there are legitimate reasons for starting new accounts and using accounts that are ranked differently. 

It’s a battle devs will continue to face and one that doesn’t really have a simple solution.

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About The Author

Joe is a former writer for Dexerto, who focused on Call of Duty, FIFA, Apex Legends and Rainbow Six Siege.