The Overwatch 2 developers explained the constant battle they have to fight for fair matchmaking in a stream today (opens in new tab), and said one of the hardest problems to solve are players who smurf (opens in new tab).
"To be clear: please don't do that," lead meta designer Scott Mercer said of players who make fresh accounts to see how fast they can climb the competitive ladder (opens in new tab) or to dunk on new players, otherwise known as smurfing.
Mercer and senior software engineer Morgan Maddren said smurfing ruins matchmaking for new players because the system was made to expect gradual skill improvement. Overwatch 2's swap to free-to-play from the first game brought in tons of fresh accounts, and the new matchmaking system was carefully built to handle that.
"The situation we don't want is like, 'Hi, I'm a new player to Overwatch,' and we totally misevaluate your skill and you lose a bunch of games because we think you're way better than you are," Mercer said.
The team had to build systems to anticipate new players, returning players, and players who just want to stomp on people who aren't as good as them. With little info to go off of for fresh accounts, the matchmaker has to predict how skilled you are as quickly as possible, and smurfs derail that.
"One thing that's like the bane of my existence is when people do unranked to GM, like they make a fresh account and play to GM," Maddren said.
Late in Overwatch 1's life, "Unranked to GM (Grandmaster, the game's highest rank)" challenges became popular among influencers, and it's carried over into the sequel. Some people do it for educational purposes and others do it to obliterate low-skill players for fun.
Both approaches upend a fairly fragile system, according to the developers. When a smurf tears through games, all of the other new players have their invisible skill rating, or MMR, thrown off. Not only is it a miserable experience to get outplayed by someone way better than you, but the matchmaker has to readjust for what is essentially a fluke match, which requires you to play even more to hit an accurate rank.
Maddren said they've reduced the number of matches to calibrate new players "by quite a bit," to handle smurfs, but said it still causes unfair games before that happens.
Like with Valorant (opens in new tab), I assume Overwatch 2 developers can't speak to exactly how they combat smurfing to avoid players gaming the system. It's a problem that has plagued competitive games for as long as ranked modes were a thing. And it's why Overwatch 2 requires new accounts to have a phone number attached (opens in new tab) and for them to win 50 unranked games before stepping into ranked. But it's also why a whole black market for purchasing ranked ready Overwatch 2 accounts exists.
There's only so much Blizzard can do without adding too many barriers for real new players, so the battle against smurfs continues.