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The Ultimate Guide to Everything You Need to Know About SBMM in Call of Duty

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Credit: Activision

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II is out now, and it's been out for a couple of months at the time of writing. The game has its positives, and the game has its negatives, depending on who you talk to, but there's one especially contentious 'feature' of the game that almost everyone has a strong opinion on, SBMM or skill-based matchmaking.

But what is SBMM, and how does it work? Is it really a bad thing, or are gamers just upset they can't pull down easy wins against noobs? What's really going on with SBMM in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II? Not to worry, because in this article we're here to give you the ultimate guide to everything you need to know about SBMM in Call of Duty.

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What Is SBMM?

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Credit: Activision

In its most basic form, the idea of SBMM in general is to try and make online gaming a fair and balanced experience where players are pitted against other players that have similar skills, avoiding imbalanced matchups that aren't fun for anybody involved.

Historically, SBMM used to be 'ranked' or 'competitive' modes in games that was often represented by ELO. ELO is, at its most basic form, is a number that represents your skill. So, say you booted up a game and as a new player you started off at 1000 ELO. As you played, when you won games, your ELO would go up, and as you lost games, your ELO would go down.

In time, as you played more and more games, your ELO would roughly reflect what level of skill you had as a player. So, when matchmaking, you would be matched with people at a similar ELO to you, ensuring that games were always reasonably fair and every player involved in the game had a chance.

Related: The Controversy of Skill-Based Matchmaking, or SBMM, in Call of Duty Explained

For a long time, ELO and competitive modes in games were just about the only SBMM a game would use. Usually, if a game had a competitive mode, there would be an unraked, quick-play type mode as well that didn't involve SBMM or ELO at all that players could use to chill out and have fun or practice.

However, this has changed significantly in the modern-day. Now, SBMM is everywhere, spread across casual and competitive modes alike, and in a lot of cases, ELO isn't used nearly as much. Rather than a number you can look at that represents your skill, oftentimes there'll be hidden calculations going on behind the scenes that determine what your skill level is and who you ought to be matched up with.

As gaming has gotten much bigger so too has the number of people who game, ever widening the skill gap between players, so (to some) there has definitely been an increasing need for SBMM systems in games. Plus, back in the day, games rarely if ever had dedicated servers. Instead, gaming was done via P2P (or peer-to-peer) play where gamers would connect directly to one another rather than to a central server.

Related: Why Is SBMM, or Skill-Based Matchmaking, in Call of Duty?

In this case, prioritizing connection over skill was the only choice that made sense, because matchmaking you with someone roughly at your own skill level didn't make a lot of sense if the other player you're going up against had a significantly better or worse connection than you did. This is a big part of why SBMM wasn't as prevalent in older games without dedicated servers.

Today, SBMM also goes by a variety of other names, like engagement-optimized matchmaking (EOMM) or any other number of terms. These are not technical terms, though, and in general, they can be used interchangeably. Regardless of what they're called, the idea behind these kinds of matchmaking systems is as described above: to level the playing field of online gaming.

However, while the idea behind SBMM sounds fair, there are many problems with this kind of system, especially in Call of Duty.

SBMM in Call of Duty Historically

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Credit: Activision

In the Call of Duty community, there's a lot of contention about whether the older games (think pre-Modern Warfare (2019)) actually used SBMM at all. The answer here is a little complicated, but there is an answer to this question.

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Put simply, ranked or competitive modes in Call of Duty have always used some form of SBMM, as you'd expect. However, even casual matchmaking in older Call of Duty games also used SBMM. Though, it's not the kind of SBMM you're used to or the kind you'll find in Call of Duty today.

As mentioned above, Call of Duty didn't use dedicated servers for a long time. Many Call of Duty games in the past ran off of a P2P networking setup that connected players directly to each other rather than to a central server. So, while older Call of Duty games did, to some extent, try to create matches that weren't too horrifically one-sided or imbalanced, SBMM was quite light.

The most important factor in older CoD matchmaking came down to ping. Ping was, in every sense, very much king. The worst thing that could happen in a match was you lagging, truly ruining any chance you had at competing with the other players in a particular lobby. So, matchmaking was largely driven by connection, pairing you with people that you had a decent connection with.

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However, in the modern era, CoD has dedicated servers. This means better connections for everybody, and it means that the matchmaking systems in these games don't have to prioritize connection speed like before, because everybody in a particular region will be connecting to the same server which can guarantee everyone a solid connection.

While that's great news in terms of lag, it also meant that CoD could rely on a much stronger, more complicated SBMM system. And as CoD has continued to grow over the years, incorporating more and more casual and new players into the mix, the need for a system that matches players together appropriately has grown. Especially so when you consider that ranked modes are never usually that robust or attract that much of the playerbase in Call of Duty.

Existential Problems With SBMM in Call of Duty

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Before we get into the specifics of SBMM in Call of Duty, we need to talk about the larger existential problems with SBMM in Call of Duty.

See, SBMM isn't the same across different games, especially games in different genres. In an RTS like Starcraft, SBMM is a lot firmer and more substantial a mechanic, and similar can be said of MOBAs like League of Legends. The same can even be said of an FPS like Counter-Strike, too. These are games where skill calculation is roughly pretty reliable and can be done relatively easily.

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Call of Duty, though, is not like that. For one, Call of Duty games have always been known for their extremely powerful weaponry without much in the way of recoil alongside extremely fast time-to-kills (or TTKs). So, even if you miss the majority of your shots you still have a great chance of killing someone. Plus, even though Call of Duty is played in teams, it's never been a team game. In fact, it's been the king of lone wolf shooters for decades.

Essentially, this means that there's almost never going to be coordination or teamwork between players on a team, unless you run with a group of friends where you all decide together to work as a unit, which is extremely rare, even for highly skilled players. However, whether you win or lose a game in Call of Duty or even perform well individually is often determined by your teammates.

Of course, this kind of tension almost always exists in competitive games. But that's another existential problem with SBMM in Call of Duty: it's not a competitive game. Of course, you are competing with other players to win matches or kill your enemies, but in terms of the game's overall balance, it's never been an especially competitive series.

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What does that mean, exactly? Well, a bunch of things. Oftentimes there'll be mechanics put into CoD games that don't have good counters, meaning if you unlock a particular killstreak or use a piece of equipment in the right way, well, even if your enemy is a player with significantly more skill than you, they won't have a chance. In a lot of ways, there isn't much in the way of counterplay.

Plus, every CoD game has trouble managing its meta. Almost always there are overpowered guns, attachments, or equipment that most of the playerbase will rely on for an advantage, further limiting the possibility of counterplay. When an assault rifle can 2-shot kill you from across the map, or something, there just isn't much of anything that can be done to stop a newbie player playing their first game from owning a professional.

Then, there are the tactics and strategies of CoD players. Some folks, in every game, just kit themselves out to be undetectable and sit in corners, meaning that there's essentially nothing you can do to stop them from murdering you, no matter your skill level. Then, there's spawn trapping, where if an enemy team forces your team into the right position, well, they'll be lined up aiming at you as soon as you spawn in, once again totally eliminating any possibility of fair competition.

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All of this adds up to make SBMM in Call of Duty a very tough system to get right, because of how hard it is to actually measure skill or create matches that actually feel like you're on an even footing. So many variables outside of your control can radically skew a game in one team's favor, largely independent of the skill of the players on either team.

How SBMM Actually Works in Call of Duty

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So, we know what SBMM is, we know how it's existed in CoD historically, and we know about the larger existential problems with it in a game like Call of Duty. But how does SBMM actually work in modern Call of Duty games?

First off, it's important to note that we've never gotten official word from Activision on how SBMM works in Call of Duty. There's no technical breakdown and nothing in the way of official interviews about SBMM outside of a handful of comments from developers over the years as well as ex-employees. So, what we know comes from the community and is, as a result, non-specific.

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Okay, so, how does SBMM work? Well, it starts off with your own information as a player. SBMM likely takes note of stats like kill/death ratio, win/loss ratio, score-per-minute, and more, but there's also a hefty weighting to your performance in your recent games, too.

And when you queue up for a match, the system takes that information and tries to find an appropriate lobby of similarly-skilled players queueing at the same time as you. The lobby you load into, though, can have quite a varied range of skill levels. What's more is that queueing as a party doesn't rely on the host of the party's stats but rather the aggregate data of all the people in the party.

Once you find a lobby, step two of SBMM kicks in. Teams are also created by SBMM. So, if you're an especially good player and you find yourself in a lobby with a handful of newbies, you can expect the new players to end up on your team, as that's how SBMM tries to balance out the teams of a lobby.

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This process repeats for every game you queue into, and you can expect your previous five to ten matches to have a pretty significant influence on the games you're queueing into. For example, if you manage to win five games in a row and perform well every time, you can like clockwork expect that to change soon. And the same can be said of if you lose five games in a row.

There are other facets to SBMM in CoD, too. There's a protected bracket where the very lowest-rated players are kept, which is precisely why higher-skill players will sometimes try to exploit the system by creating accounts with terrible stats to get into that protected bracket, for example.

Ranked modes in Call of Duty work a lot closer to how you'd expect SBMM to work, more strictly trying to pair players together with similar ratings you can sometimes see outright, depending on the game. But in general, the above is how you can expect matchmaking in modern Call of Duty to work.

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The Problem With SBMM in Call of Duty

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So, what's the actual problem with SBMM in Call of Duty, then? Is it just weird people on the internet angry that they can't actually match up against people that are far worse at the game than they are? Is something else going on?

Well, the answer is actually quite complicated, but the long and short of it is that SBMM doesn't really serve any kind of player all that well.

So, if you're a low-skill player who might be new to the game or just someone who doesn't have the time to dedicate to the game to get that good at it, you're going to run into problems. For example, if you try to party up with anybody of a higher skill than you, lobbies are very quickly going to become toxic for you.

You'll also run into a problem as a lower-skill player where the lobby you get queued into is filled with higher-skill players so SBMM decides to put the highest-skill player on your team with other lower-skill players and fill out the enemy team with the rest of the lobby. You'll be put into a position where the high-skill player on your team is expected to carry the whole team while you get destroyed by the medium-skill players on the enemy team, which usually isn't even possible for a single high-skill player to do anyways.

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High-skill players have it even worse. If you're at a high enough skill level, most lobbies you load into will be filled with lower-skill players. So, to 'balance' out teams, the game will always put the worst players on your team. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, it's just usually not possible for one or two players on a team to carry an entire game, so it's oftentimes a recipe for disaster.

What's worse though is that the higher your skill gets, the worse you can watch your ping become. Because the vast majority of the playerbase isn't particularly high-skill, the game will have to search far and wide for appropriate match-ups, making you connect to servers further away from you than normal and essentially punishing your skill with the unfair disadvantage of poor ping.

Both high-skill and low-skill players also suffer from a key disadvantage of this kind of SBMM system: never being able to watch themselves improve. Generally speaking, if you start off as a low-skill player and get better, you won't feel like you're doing better in games because of how much SBMM curates your experience for you. Same for high-skill players trying to improve.

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Because of how much recently played games impacts SBMM, generally speaking, you'll just never have too many good games or too many terrible games in a row, and it'll all reduce down to a very same-y feeling experience regardless of what level of skill you actually have in the game.

How to Best Avoid SBMM in Call of Duty

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So, now that we know what SBMM is, how it works, and why it's a problem, how can you as a Call of Duty player best avoid all the negative effects of SBMM?

Well, first off, the unfortunate reality is you can't ever turn off SBMM quite by design. The good news is that you can avoid some of its worse effects by doing a variety of different things, some better than others.

First off, the best thing you can do is party up. And not just with one friend but with a full six-person party. The larger the party, the harder it is for SBMM to tailor the experience to you as an individual. Of course, if everyone in the party has roughly the same skill level, then the benefits of partying up will be reduced, but nonetheless, a full party is always best.

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Then, turning off crossplay is another good way (if you're on console) to limit how punishing SBMM can be. With a smaller pool of players to matchmake between, well, the system can't be as effective. This isn't a silver bullet, but especially as time passes, this can be an effective tool.

If you're able, an extremely effective way to combat SBMM is by playing your game of choice at off-peak hours. For example, if you play in the morning when comparatively few people are playing, there'll be significantly fewer lobbies to choose from, so you'll end up having a much less predictable, much more dynamic experience. Of course, the worse time to play is a Friday or Saturday night, as you might expect.

Playing modes with larger player counts. Naturally, SBMM is usually less strict when there are more players the game has to fill a lobby with. So, to minimize the effects of SBMM, playing the highest player count modes available is always best. This means that Warzone, for example, is always going to have a less strict, more variable SBMM than multiplayer.

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