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Monday Tip-Off: Thoughts on Skill-Based Matchmaking

Monday Tip-Off: Thoughts on Skill-Based Matchmaking

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with some thoughts on skill-based matchmaking.

Did you know that the concept of skill-based matchmaking, commonly abbreviated to SBMM, is controversial? I’ll admit that I was surprised at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense; especially given my experiences playing NBA 2K online. As the name implies, skill-based matchmaking is a system for matching both teammates and opponents in online play according to their abilities. The criteria and algorithms for this vary from game to game, but are generally based on winning percentage, ranking or reputation systems, and other statistics relevant to the genre.

Sounds like a good idea, right; the kind of proper matchmaking that we’d expect to see in a basketball game like NBA 2K, with all of its connected experiences? Well, you would think so, but not everyone is a fan of skill-based matchmaking. This disdain stretches beyond NBA 2K and the basketball gaming community, but the basic reasoning behind gamers’ objections to the concept remains the same. Frankly, this is unfortunate. SBMM is indeed a good idea, and would undoubtedly clean up the online scene in NBA 2K by reducing the toxicity and sense of gatekeeping. I’d like to explore why it’s necessary, and also examine the controversy surrounding SBMM.

First of all, let’s look at where the controversy lies. As explained by the article I’ve linked above, skill-based matchmaking means that highly skilled or “elite” players will be matched up with players on their level, while less skilled players will end up together. The idea is for everyone to be playing with and against players who are about as good as they are, in the interest of fairness. As you rank up, you’ll face tougher opponents, but will also be squadded up with better teammates. This way, elite players face a tougher challenge befitting their skill level, while newcomers are able to hone their skills in a competitive environment and improve at their own pace.

Introductions in The Rec (NBA 2K21)

In my opinion, this makes sense if you want your online scene to be welcoming and competitive, and should be the standard approach. Once again however, not everyone is a fan of the concept. Ironically, it’s the elite players crying foul, as they believe that skill-based matchmaking is unfair to them. The argument is that it punishes skilled players by matching them up against tougher competition, which they can’t dominate and defeat as easily as less-skilled players. There’s also the suggestion that it’s harder for elite players to play the game more casually or socially, because they’re always going to be thrown into a highly competitive environment with the best of the best.

As far as the first point is concerned, I think that’s ludicrous. Look, I always prefer to approach issues with a balanced outlook, but to quote Hank Hill, that’s asinine. It’s far more unfair to put the top players in the same arena as newbies, who are still learning the game and honing their skills, and are no more deserving of being stomped by elite competition because they’re far less equipped to be competitive in that scenario. I’d have thought that a truly elite player would want to prove their mettle against top tier competition, not just feast on gamers with far less skill and experience. It doesn’t seem sporting to me, nor is it very “elite”, to back away from a bigger challenge.

To me, that’s like an Under-19s basketball team in the top grade/division of a local junior league wanting to be placed in the lowest grade of the Under-15s competition, or perhaps a team of professionals taking on kids who aren’t even in high school yet. Sure, it might be fun for the team with the huge advantage to run roughshod over their hapless opponents, but it’s not very enjoyable for the competitors who aren’t in the same league. I do see their point about not being able to have a more relaxed, casual game when skill-based matchmaking is in effect, but lesser-skilled players are also entitled to that experience, not to mention competitive play that’s on their level.

The Playground lacks proper matchmaking (NBA 2K20)

After all, that’s how you “get good”, as so many elitists like to sneer. Being thrown in at the deep end may work for some people, but most likely, you’re going to have more fun and develop your skills quicker if you’re playing with and against gamers who are on the same skill level as you are. You’re not overwhelmed, and more importantly, you’re not going to be frozen out by higher level players who have decided that you’d just be a liability. In that scenario, you won’t get opportunities to improve as you’re basically a bystander. Even if you’re part of a Pro-Am squad, it’s better to grow as a team playing opponents who will provide a competitive but ultimately fair match-up.

NBA 2K does have some rudimentary skill-based matchmaking along those lines. In The Rec, MyPLAYERs that are 93 Overall or better are matched up, while everyone 92 Overall and under will be put together. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. With the way you can squad up and head to The Rec, that broad approach to SBMM can very easily be broken. Team Pro-Am likewise has tiers, but they will be ignored if it means creating a match-up when there aren’t enough teams at a certain rank, which will result in elite squads facing off against less experienced or more casual teams. The criteria for reaching and maintaining ranks also remains unclear as of NBA 2K21.

Given the amount of toxicity in NBA 2K’s online scene – and this isn’t even getting into The Playground, as matchmaking is user-based and thus self-governed in Park games – the situation needs to be improved. There must be deeper matchmaking that makes use of SBMM to some extent, in order to be balanced and welcoming to new, less skilled, and more casual competitors. I do think there needs to be a solution for Playground as well, but that’s admittedly tougher as long as it utilises the Got Next system, and gamers of different skill levels and experience are able to join each other in The Neighborhood. Pro-Am and The Rec could definitely use SBMM, though.

NLSC GrindTime in 2K Pro-Am (NBA 2K18)

What about the issue of elite players being unable to play more casual games? The problem there is that allowing them to jump in with lower-ranked gamers exchanges one problem for another; it’s no longer unfair for the skilled players, but it’s now unfair for the less skilled ones, and that’s hardly ideal. This is where having casual and competitive settings might work, as casual play could feasibly forego the skill-based matchmaking. Technically, this is what The Rec is for, but it’s prone to elite players and squads heading there to beat up on randoms and less skilled players, who have been encouraged to go there if they don’t have a dedicated squad to play with.

Again, this is a conundrum. I’m not unsympathetic to the issue of elite players being unable to play in a more casual environment, but I don’t think other gamers should have to suffer the toxicity and an unenjoyable experience, either. One solution might be to bar squads of five from entering The Rec. If you’ve got five, then you’ve got enough for Pro-Am, as per the current requirements for 5v5 play. Besides, the casual and competitive settings seem to work just fine for Rocket League, which has a far less toxic online scene. If there’s some actual depth to the matchmaking and ranking systems, along with options for competitive and casual play, it can work for 2K, too.

Of course, I also think that casual and competitive settings could facilitate bringing back the ability to play with a minimum of three users. There could also be an option to either play or not play against teams with AI players, or perhaps the game could only ever match up full squads against other full squads. Unfortunately, all of these options – much like skill-based matchmaking – are absent from NBA 2K, and online play is far more toxic for it. Instead of being welcoming to everyone, the connected modes are really designed for elites only. They’re not having an optimal experience either, but the gatekeeping is definitely geared towards excluding “lesser” gamers.

Team Takeover in The Rec (NBA 2K21)

It should also be noted that NBA 2K’s “skill gap” is rather artificial, especially in light of the modded controllers fiasco, and reliance on canimations and meta-gaming over true stick skills. I went into detail about this in a Twitter thread that has had a little traction, so I know I’m not alone in seeing these issues with balance and mechanics in NBA 2K’s gameplay. Matchmaking is still a major part of the problem, though. As such, SMBB – along with options that allow the connected modes to be enjoyed by everyone – are a must. Those modes are nowhere near as fun and accessible as they could and should be, and that’s a shame as they have the potential to be amazing.

If I may be blunt, these are issues that should’ve been solved years ago, long before the impending launch of the next generation. As soon as online team play began to gain popularity, this is what 2K should’ve been working on; not adding clothing and a hub world that helps drive recurrent revenue, not emotes and overpriced vehicles, and not a spinoff of Park play like The Cages. Core gameplay mechanics, balanced builds, and proper matchmaking should’ve been the focus instead. I’m not suggesting that simply implementing skill-based matchmaking will solve all of NBA 2K’s problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s overdue, but as they say, better late than never.

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