Call of Duty: Cold War YouTubers are trying to crack the code of its matchmaking

Since launch, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War's skill-based matchmaking system has remained a mystery. Where most competitive shooters estimate a player's skill level with a visible ELO rating number, CoD games have traditionally hidden those details in the background. To hopefully shed some light on how Cold War determines skill, a group of Call of Duty YouTubers, led by TheXclusiveAce, ran a small experiment and shared their findings in the video above.

The results? While certainly not definitive with a small sample size, Ace's data suggests that Cold War (and other CoD games by extension) doesn't determine skill in the way FPS players are accustomed to. Across the 90 matches examined by Ace from nine accounts of varying skill, he observed a trend that suggests players are matched based on their kill-death ratio from recent matches. The data is consistent with a similar experiment Ace ran last year in Modern Warfare, suggesting the two games may share methods.

If accurate, it's a curious system that differs from how many games handle skill rating. Rainbow Six Siege, among other shooters, doesn't weigh individual skill at all. As an objective and team-based FPS, winning and losing in Siege are what determine whether your rank climbs or sinks. Once you're in a ranked bracket, it gets harder to leave that bracket the more matches you play. The idea is that the game is figuring out where your average rank lies and will try to keep you there.

Ace's data seems to suggest that Call of Duty doesn't get that granular. As long as another player's current K/D ratio is similar to yours, they're a match. "It gives you the highs and gives you the lows," as Ace points out in the video. And, in theory, an even distribution of "highs and lows" is what games should shoot for. What's more balanced than winning exactly half the time? It also makes sense that a game with several deathmatch modes would care about how often you're killing enemies.

What many players are after, though, is the transparency that'd allow them to come to their own conclusions about matchmaking. With no visible rank to compare against, players naturally get paranoid about how balanced their matches truly are. One question, for instance, is whether CoD tries to find your average skill level and keep your there, or if it essentially 'punishes' you for having a few good rounds by then matching you with people who are way better than you.

As any frequenter of Cold War's bustling subreddit knows, posts outlining frustrations with SBMM are commonplace. "First game I played, had a 2.0 K/D, next 5 games proceed to get destroyed by people who feel like they've been playing this game for months, auto headshot, jump shot pros, etc. I then string together two decent games in a row. Next couple of games after that, I get wiped again by immediate headshots, etc," said Reddit user Marino4K.

The K/D-focused system that Ace is observing is consistent with Call of Duty's emphasis on short matchmaking times. Finding a competitive match in CS:GO or Valorant (games with plenty of players) can take anywhere from three to eight minutes depending on your region and rank. That wait is intentional—the matchmaking algorithm isn't willing to compromise on low ping or similar skill.

Treyarch hasn't publicly shared how strict Cold War's matchmaking is (and likely never will), but its wait times speak for themselves. No matter if it's peak hours or the middle of the night, I can be in a CoD match within seconds. It's a valuable perk that makes CoD attractive, but one can't help but feeling like a longer wait could result in a fairer matchup.

Of course, these are problems that are already solved by games with separate casual and ranked modes. Maybe it's time for CoD to do the same.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.