The ethics of smurfing

Smurfing is an MLB All-Star homering off of Little League pitchers. Or it’s a risk-free way to play ranked Rocket League matches with your lower-level dad. Wait, maybe it’s a practice used to test if you’re stuck in ELO hell thanks to shoddy teammates? In that case, you’re probably just wasting your time starting a second account—trust me, you’re never as good as you think you are.

In all honesty, it was fun as hell smoking people who were new to the game.

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There are a lot of definitions of smurfing—basically, it's creating a new account in a game and playing against less-skilled players—and just as many arguments over how heinous it is, or if it's even bad at all. When I asked people on Twitter to DM me with their takes on smurfing, I got hundreds of responses, either passionately defending their reasons for smurfing or condemning those who do it.

"Like a Superbowl quarterback joining a high school team, even if they are playing a new position, their years of training and knowledge and skills give them and their team significant advantages over every other player on the field," League of Legends shoutcaster Jake Kelton told me. "If an MLB player wants to practice a new glove, bat, or field position during spring training, does he join a freshman college team? No, he plays against equally skilled players and has to play catch-up to return to form on his new role."

Others think it’s all about semantics: "The biggest issue with ‘smurfs’ right now is that people are wrongly equating a smurf with an alt account," a Twitter user named Mark M. said. "If I have a GM healer account in Overwatch, my plat DPS account isn’t a smurf. It’s a correctly placed alt account."

And then there’s the people who just want to utterly destroy lower level players.

"I created smurfs to play against lower ranks for memes and fun."

"In all honesty, it was fun as hell smoking people who were new to the game."

"I made a smurf account once on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive because I felt the need to just destroy silvers. I got mad when I was paired against other smurfs because I was toxic."

The majority of players told me they simply use their alternate smurf accounts to play with friends who are lower-level than them. And that’s why I do it, too. I initially bought a smurf account to see if I could place higher in Overwatch than my main account—to test if ELO hell is real. 

Nearly everyone—developers and players, professional and casual—has a different definition for what it is to smurf. And smurfing affects different games differently, making it hard to nail down when it's bad and when it's not. Still, I talked to people who make and play some of today's most popular online games, including League of Legends, Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege, to give it a try.

Why players smurf

It was important to many of the 100 or so players who contacted me that their friends be able to play against others just learning the game too.

A major grey area for smurfing is the practice of a higher-skilled player using a lower-level account so they can play with friends. Tom Gerbicz, a 25-year-old League of Legends player, said he created his first smurf a few years back so he could play with friends new to the game. "Given the notorious community and learning curve, I thought it would help them learn to play without the pressure of playing against higher-skilled players, while still allowing us to play together," Gerbicz said.

He added that he never used the account in ranked play, playing as he normally would, but typically in a more supportive role to let his friends learn the game better. "The main distinction for me is, why are you playing at lower levels?" he said. "If it’s for the kick of an easy victory, it’s a different motivation entirely. I don’t agree with smurfing just to stomp lower-skilled players, as it cheapens the experience for everyone involved."

It was important to many of the 100 or so players who contacted me that their friends be able to play against others just learning the game too. But it’s not only for altruistic reasons: the higher-skilled player using a smurf also ensures that their main account won’t be affected by their lower-level friends weighing them down.

Some people reached out to me and felt like smurfs were a waste of time. Why pay extra money just to preserve your ranking? But for a lot of players, those numbers matter. And having an extra account, whether it’s to use to play with friends who aren't as good as you or just to play without extra pressure, can make a game feel less serious. And then it’s less stressful.

Allison Rossi, a 27-year-old diamond-level Overwatch player, has multiple accounts. Her two main accounts are ranked similarly, but reception from other players makes having separate accounts useful. "The benefit of a new account was that nobody was forcing me to play what heroes were technically my mains," Rossi said. "I no longer get comments like, ‘Oh, you have X play time on this hero, so you have to play it. If you don’t play your mains, you’re throwing.’"

Rossi said these assumptions based on her hero play time happened most on her main account when she used voice chat—players heard a woman’s voice and made assumptions that she can only play supports.

Another benefit, Rossi said, is that she’s not ruining other people’s games by trying out heroes she doesn’t know how to play. Sure, she could jump into quick play, but Rossi said it’s a "terrible" place to practice Overwatch. "There’s no coordination, communication, or team building," Rossi said. "It’s about picking whatever you want. How can I possibly learn to practice a newly-released hero in that environment?" Instead, she uses her lower-level practice account for trying out heroes in ranked games. 

Things are slightly different for professional players. "It’s almost impossible for me to play [Rainbow Six Siege] without getting recognized, meaning my teammates will never shout at me or harass me, which I’m thankful for," said Rainbow Six Siege pro player Niclas "Pengu" Mouritzen, who plays for top Siege team G2 Esports. But the bad comes with the good: "My opponents often try extremely hard to beat me, which is a double-edged sword. I like a challenge, but I don’t want the entire purpose and reward of the game to change simply because I’m in it. What about my teammates?"

Anonymity also is an outlet for pro players to try out new heroes or strategies secretly. Pengu said that it was once common in games like League of Legends for pros to smurf to try out champions without airing their test runs to the world. Likewise, pros often use smurf accounts to try out the meta a few ranks down from the top—an interesting way to develop and learn from off-meta trends in other ranks.

"Going a few ELO steps down to experience the 'off-meta' or lower ELO meta surely won’t hurt and can be learned from in multiple games," Pengu said. "Often at the highest ranks, it’s a very strict meta, [with players] being forced to do certain things simply because it’s 'better.'"

For most of us, anonymity isn’t a problem. There’s no one who wants to steal my gold-level strats. (But if any Overwatch League teams want to learn my solo Mei strategy, hit me up. It works.) No one notices when they’re matched with me in-game—unless someone recognizes my brilliance from a previous game. ("Hey, aren’t you the idiot who kept trying to lone wolf it with Mei last round?") But for professional players, the anonymity can ease some of the pressure of public life on the ladder.

How developers deal with smurfing

Not all developers are taking the same approach when it comes to dealing with smurfing. In Overwatch, Blizzard doesn't consider smurfing inherently bad. It only becomes a punishable offense when a smurf account is used to do things that are against the rules, like boosting or throwing.

Whether it's against the rules or not smurfing is hard to prove, which makes it a grey area for many.

Game director Jeff Kaplan wrote in 2017 that there’s a bad perception of smurfing, but in reality, it wasn't really an issue in Overwatch. Kaplan defined smurfing as "an experienced player buying a second account to reset their account progress and internal matchmaking rating."

"For example, a few weeks ago one of the pro Overwatch players created a smurf account and was streaming from it," Kaplan wrote. "We were able to watch his MMR internally and compare it against his ‘main’ account. Within 15 games, the MMRs were equal. I know there is a very bad perception of smurfing. But the reality is [that] skilled players are moved rapidly out of lower skill situations."

In Overwatch's case, a smurf mainly becomes problematic when it’s used to do things that are against the rules. Say, a high-leveled player throws games to keep the MMR low on a smurf account so they can keep crushing low-level players. Or they go on a rampage with a fresh account to boost lower-skilled players into higher tiers.

Other studios aren't as forgiving. Rocket League developer Psyonix has listed smurfing as cheating in a 2016 banning policy notice posted on its website and it is something players can report in-game.

"The length of player bans for any valid reason is also at our discretion and could include permanent bans if appropriate," Psyonix wrote. "Furthermore, the more often you are banned, the longer each subsequent ban will be, including an eventual permanent ban."

Players on the game’s Steam forum, still, are confused whether it’s against the rules or not—smurfing is hard to prove, which makes it a grey area for many. Psyonix declined to be interviewed for this article.

Riot Games has been more explicit in not endorsing smurfing in its game, but hasn't banned the practice altogether, either. League of Legends lead meta game systems designer Ed Altorfer says that smurfs are defined as something "you’re doing whenever you create a second (or third, or fourth) account to play on." Altorfer said that only a minority of players use smurf accounts to "stomp low skill games or grief without repercussions," and that there are plenty of good reasons to create a smurf, including trying out new champions or being nostalgic for the early progression of the game.

Like in Overwatch, playing with lower-level friends is another reason people make smurfs in League of Legends. League of Legends restricts low level players from playing with higher level accounts. Accounts are free, so making a new one is painless.

"Regardless of the reasons for smurfing, my opinion is that overall it makes the experience worse for other players," Altorfer said. "In a competitive game like League, we rely on matchmaking to put you into games you have a fair shot at winning. In order for us to do that, we use your hidden matchmaking rating, which is a number that describes how good you are based on all the matches you’ve played. When a player plays on a different account, we don’t have any of that information, so we have to recalculate it from scratch over many games. That hurts our ability to make fair games in the meantime, which makes games feel more frustrating and less winnable."

Public perception swings wildly in both directions, with some vehemently against smurfing—convinced it ruins all their games—and others who openly smurf for a ton of different reasons. Not all of those reasons are malicious, but there's no grey area for folks who smurf solely for personal gratification—as Pengu put it, "pro players smurfing in the lowest rank to feel good because they can 1v5."