TF2's new competitive mode, judged

A pro player, caster, and longtime member of the TF2 community dissects the latest update.

Image by Deviantart user Ragepandademoman, click for link.

After over a year of building excitement, Team Fortress 2 received its official matchmaking update last Friday. It hit alongside a community-focused Pyro vs. Heavy metagame, a large change to quickplay servers, and a patch which rebalanced weapons for 6v6. While the quickplay and balance changes have equally enraged and disappointed, matchmaking mode is a great way for casual players to hop in and try competitive TF2 straight from the main menu. It’s a good start, and hopefully it’s just the first iteration.

Team Fortress 2’s matchmaking mode bears many similarities to the way its niche competitive scene has played for years. Matchmaking throws players into a 6v6 game, “designed as a new challenge for experienced TF2 players.” It allows you to rank up, earn medals, and track your stats in every competitive game. You’ll need to have a Premium TF2 account and a working phone number tied to your Steam account to play, or for those without phones, a $10 matchmaking pass available. After the crackdown on LMAOBOX earlier this year, Valve are clearly committed to expunging cheaters from TF2 as in CS:GO.

Image by moonyelloweyes, click for link.

Ranking up is exclusively based on your wins and losses, with a hidden ELO deciding who you get matched against. You can track every aspect of your competitive history directly from inside the lobby along with stats for your entire career, something I think is really missing from Overwatch and CS:GO matchmaking. Ranking up will also send you higher up the leaderboards, letting you see where you stack up globally and among your friends.

Although it’s a simple system, and lacks features seen in CS:GO such as map picking, it works well. Hopping into a lobby alone or with friends sends you to a 6v6 game that is matched for your rank, and the competitive experience is refreshing after an uncoordinated pub. At three to 10 minutes on average, the games are fast enough that even a total roll isn’t disheartening, and games can be highly rewarding when players communicate over voice chat and are motivated to win. Unfortunately the search time is currently quite high, making you wait five to 10 minutes for a game which could last half that. This may be the reason map picks are currently not implemented: anything that splits the player pool extends the waiting time even further.

Australium (gold) weapons are "awarded upon completing a full Advanced or Expert Tour of Duty in Mann vs. Machine mode," according to the TF2 wiki. Image by iKonakona.

Unrewarding rewards

After spending many years involved with TF2’s competitive scene, I’m aware that much of the TF2 community doesn’t enjoy playing competitively purely for the sake of winning. In this update Valve had an opportunity to make the ranking up process engaging with contracts or achievements, or could have combined ranking up with unique cosmetics as with Australiums in MvM. They chose to do neither, and are relying on hype and the raw enjoyment of leveling up to draw players into competitive. If it works, it will prove the mantra of 6v6 players: if only casual players knew about competitive, they’d love it! But to me it seems like a missed opportunity for them to pull more players away from other modes of play, especially when the precedent has been set in MvM. TF2 is a casual game with a casual audience. Just offering them the opportunity rather than enticing them to stick it out and improve may not be enough.

The matchmaking ruleset is where the format starts to diverge from what people have previously thought of as “competitive TF2.” Valve has gone with an open approach, without limits on classes or weapons. If your team want to run six Pyros with the Phlogistinator, you can. You might not win… but you can!
Matchmaking has been hailed as the second coming by the passionate competitive community, but they seem unaware that their version of 6v6 is now the ‘old 6v6.’ The game that they love in all its intricacies has been overshadowed in one swift update, eclipsed in terms of players by a version of 6v6 that is significantly different.

In order to compromise between the competitive, technical gamemode of ‘old 6v6’ and the wants and needs of the average TF2 player, Valve have had to tread a middle ground. The lack of class limits is the most important change; the tournament class limits have grown organically after years of testing, and were required to preserve the competitive nature of the game. A good sport needs rules in order to be set the parameters for skill and strategy. A good esport needs strong rules as well to avoid unpredictability and chaos.

The lack of weapon bans will also create a new feel for the game. There are a ton of unbalanced weapons still in TF2, despite the recent balance patch. These weapons are not fit to be used in tournaments, as they let solo players become killing machines or create defences that are impossible to break through. A core concept of a competitive game is that your impact should be proportional to your ability, but many of these weapons were designed so a casual player could have an impact in a 32-person server. Valve have indicated that they aim to rebalance those weapons based on statistical feedback from matchmaking, and I hope that happens soon.

There are a ton of unbalanced weapons still in TF2, despite the recent balance patch.

Other changes were pushed to TF2 along with the matchmaking update. These included a revolutionary optimization update which makes the game far smoother for players, and a major change to the quickplay system. Rather than being thrown into a pub gamemode of your choice, quickplay (now Casual) sends you into a 12v12 game where teams are encouraged to play to win. If you want to hop into a laidback pub, you have to find a community server. When our community met with him last year, former TF2 lead Robin Walker promised to revolutionize the way casual players think about the game; that’s Valve’s aim with this change, but at the moment players feel robbed of their classic, laid-back pub experience. Valve are banking on community servers to flourish once again and fill that gap.

The most important change I’d like to see are some perks for players to play matchmaking. Valve have a long history of creating gorgeous cosmetics (or sourcing them from the community) for MvM which entice people to spend money and time grinding that mode out. Rare drops of unusual weapons when ranking up would make matchmaking more exciting and take the focus slightly off of advancing one’s rank. Even implementing contracts or achievements that are specific to matchmaking would make each experience fresh and encourage players to return.

This is not the end for the struggle of competitive TF2, it’s actually the beginning. If matchmaking is a success and even a tiny proportion of TF2’s active players become competitive regulars, they will associate ‘competitive’ with the experience they get in matchmaking. Their numbers will outweigh the classic idea of competitive TF2 and they may find it impossible to identify with the professional players and the tournaments they play in. It would be a disaster for TF2 if another schism within the competitive scene to opened up after the split between competitive and casual had been healed.

The arguments have yet to brew about whether tournaments such as the upcoming world championship, insomnia58, should remove class limits or weapon limits but for anybody keeping up with Overwatch’s nascent competitive scene the similarities give a queasy feeling. Is it possible for TF2 tournaments to keep some basic class limits and weapon bans without alienating their audience of matchmaking players? I think so, but it will require careful navigation around the rocks.

Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson has more than 7,800 hours played in TF2. In the last six years, he's climbed to the top of the competitive scene, placing 2nd in Europe last season with his team Perilous Gaming. Sideshow is also a writer, caster for teamfortress.tv, analyst, and tournament organizer.