We recently published an article explaining why SBMM, or skill-based matchmaking, is in modern Call of Duty games (Modern Warfare 2019 onwards) as well as why modern Call of Duty games are different from games of Call of Duty's past. In this article, we're going to explain why SBMM is such a controversial topic for Call of Duty fans and why people have such strong opinions about the subject.
It's important to understand that nothing about SBMM is directly confirmed by Activision or developers at Infinity Ward, Treyarch, or Sledgehammer aside from the barest acknowledgment of the general existence of a matchmaking system. While many features of the SBMM system in Call of Duty can be understood through personal testing and experience, this kind of anecdotal evidence is inherently unreliable.
We know the general way the system works, but be careful if you hear another content creator, website, or even just friend telling you they know for sure that matchmaking works in a certain way. They don't, and we all probably never will, because it's unlikely Activision decides to allow this system to be fully explained. This makes conversations about SBMM difficult, because one person can say one thing and another can say another, and then it becomes a game of he said, she said.
So, why is SBMM so obvious and important but still an open secret? In part, there are likely features of the matchmaking system designed to maximize Activision's ability to make money that if revealed would be unpopular. More importantly, though, Activision doesn't want anybody to exploit the matchmaking system, which is unfortunately designed around giving players an in-game experience they don't ideally want.
If you play a game and you have about as many kills as you do deaths, that's about average and to be expected when matched up against people of a similar skill-level. The entire SBMM system is built around this idea: matching people of a ‘similar skill-level' with each other, which if true will see most players in a lobby hovering around 1.0 KD ratio and fairly low score-per-minute, or SPM.
The problem with all this is that actually playing games where you just have as many kills as you do deaths is extremely unpopular in the Call of Duty community and what most players consider the most basic expectation from their performance in-game. Call of Duty as a franchise, pastime, and video game is about racking up kills and dying as little as possible.
For nearly two decades we have been glorifying crazy montages of insane kill feeds on the internet directly because of Call of Duty. This isn't to say that it's bad that most people are at an average skill-level or that it's a bad thing they're performing as would be expected of someone at their skill-level when matched up against similarly skilled opponents, the problem is that that isn't fun or what Call of Duty's multiplayer experience is all about.
Call of Duty has laser-accurate weapons and super quick time-to-kills, which means that there isn't a lot of room for gunskill or tactics or even strategy as compared to other shooters. You have to hit your shots, sure, but it's all about reaction time, really, when nobody else on your team even has a mic. And when the opposing team is filled with somebodies that perform about as well as you do, it can be extremely hard for either side to gain any ground or really feel like they're doing much except competing.
And most people don't want to compete in Call of Duty, not really. They want to grind their guns; they want to unlock camos; they want to relax; they want to meme with thermal LMGs and smoke grenades. People don't actually want to compete.
Even when you don't want to relax and when you want to be ‘good' at Call of Duty, you still don't want to compete. Watch a competitive Call of Duty match with actual eSport professionals. There are no crazy feeds and insane streaks. Most players in most games hover around a 1.0 ratio without an insane SPM, and there aren't these 100+ kill monster games. When you think about being ‘good' at Call of Duty, it usually brings to mind ideas of a high KD ratio and SPM.
This means that you rack up the kills but you don't die that much. And that playstyle is fundamentally the opposite of competition. So, ultimately, the SBMM system in modern Call of Duty is designed to place players in games with opponents of roughly the same skill. This creates matches that play more like an eSport event than Call of Duty games in the past once did or how other popular shooters play outside of dedicated competitive modes.
Activision won't explain this system or directly confirm its intended purpose in so many words, because that confirmation would ultimately just upset players who don't like the underlying philosophy of the system. So, unless Activision is prepared to change it substantially, which they aren't, they just won't talk about it until they're forced to talk about it, if they ever are.
If lobbies were truly random, or if they were simply created based on ping, this would make the experience of actually playing Call of Duty a lot more variable. Some games, you would absolutely dominate. Some games, you would get dominated by an especially cracked player on the other team. Maybe they were a streamer, who knows. And some games, you would sweat really hard to just perform okay.
Ultimately, you would never know, but when you found a good lobby with just the right balance for you, you could hang around there and keep playing with the same people. You could curate your playing experience a lot more directly precisely because of how variable it all was.
Activision doesn't want some players to just load into lobbies with people much more skilled than they are, because if a bunch of casual players load into games and end up with just a kill or two amidst twenty or thirty deaths, they'll just stop playing the game because that isn't fun for anybody.
Consistency is exactly what Activision wants. They want a reliable matchmaking system that creates as few game-quittingly frustrating matches as possible, sacrificing a lot of room for fun for everybody in the process. But this is a business decision and less so pure evil, even if the jury is still, literally, out on the ‘how bad is Activision, actually' front.
We'll have another article on exactly what we know about how SBMM operates in Call of Duty games, at least how it works in games from Modern Warfare 2019 onwards, but the last important takeaway about this controversy is this: SBMM in Call of Duty also doesn't work.
Regardless of your skill-level, you'll frequently hop into matches in any modern Call of Duty and do unexplainably bad or unexplainably good, and then that performance will shortly and swiftly be followed by its opposite in the next few matches. There isn't, for any players, a feeling of consistency, like their lobbies are always pairing them up with people about as good as they are good.
This has led to crazy practices and wild speculation on what you have to do to get into ‘good lobbies' of Call of Duty games. What you have to do or who you have to party up with or how you have to play the game just to make sure you get a ‘good lobby' is a whole new internet subculture unto its own.
Related: Is Call of Duty: Vanguard Good?
All of this combined is what makes talking about SBMM with gamers often a rocky proposition. But if you're a fan or simply want to know what's going on, these are the facts to know. Make sure to check out our pieces on why SBMM is in modern Call of Duty when it wasn't in the past as well as our in-depth explanation of how SBMM actually works.
For more articles like this, take a look at our Gaming page.