P for Psychology: Heroes of the Storm, Matchmaking, and a Very Expensive Herring

Heroes of the Storm has been out for almost two months now, to moderate and respectable success. You should go play it if you enjoy games like League of Legends or DOTA2, but don’t enjoy slugging through libraries of guides on obtuse mechanics on last-hitting or jungling or whatever. However, this is not a plug. I condescend to you to discuss a problematic trend in the Heroes community right now. Despite the youth of the game, HotS continues to get a lot of flack for its “matchmaking problems.” This is the purported issue of how Heroes’ matchmaker prioritizes speed over relative skill as measured by MMR, leading to countless posts on how the matchmaker put someone with, say, 3000 MMR on the same team as someone with 2000 MMR. Moreover, since the rise of Hotslogs.com, MMR checking and other pernicious habits have started to infest the community’s mentality, despite Hotslogs.com being notoriously inaccurate. I do not dispute the existence of a matchmaking problem per se, since Blizzard has already admitted to certain issues with it, but I highly doubt just how widespread people think it is or if they even understand the supposed problem to begin with. From a higher perspective, my concern lies in people latching onto a convenient scapegoat instead of learning how to deal with the typical and inevitable variance they will encounter in an online multiplayer team game. As I said, Heroes is a young game; bad habits form easily in youth; bad habits die hard.

lol-in-past-few-battles-so-much-feeding-play-with-noobs_fb_2777317

Including making bad memes.

Matchmaking in an online game has, is, and always will be an art more than a science, particularly in a team-based game. Often people offer blind praise for the matchmaking caliber of a game like Starcraft 2…a single-player RTS game. When you get right down to it, it’s very difficult to match five players against five players while trying to narrow any potential skill-gap as much as possible, let alone accounting for stuff like allowing for friends to queue with each other. Games are not at the point where their systems can make comprehensive value judgments on a human’s behavior, so any sort of matchmaking rating is a post-facto attempt to gauge pure game performance. As everyone knows, damage meters don’t tell you how good of a player someone is. Win ratios don’t reveal if a person yells at his teammates every second game or grasps strategic priorities on every map. At the end of the day, MMR only conveys how often a person has won or lost relative to the player base over a long period of time. Everything in between is variance.

But what is variance? Well, it covers a lot of ground. For instance, no one’s knowledge of the game will ever be complete. Heroes is not a solved game, like checkers. It is constantly shifting and being adjusted by its developers, who are in turn making decisions based on the collective decisions of a vast playerbase. Nobody knows everything about everything in Heroes at every point in time. Most people don’t learn even half the heroes of the game very well, even people in Master League. This is why you end up with players that only play assassins well or who can never play support. You will run into those kinds of people at every layer of the playerbase. Knowledge variance never disappears; it just stabilizes over time as you tend to encounter more people with wider game knowledge and wider competencies.

The same applies to performance variance. Robots are not playing this game: humans are. Humans are meat-bag primates whose nervous systems and physiques did not evolve to play highly complex computer games online. We have physical and mental limitations that affect our ability to perform at tasks. Sleep problems, a bad breakfast (or no breakfast), a miserable day at work, frustrating social events, etc., can all very negatively affect one’s ability to make judgments in a game like Heroes. Glaurung has bad days. Zp has bad days. Nick has bad days (and breaks the screen to cope). Everyone has bad days. Everyone makes a bad call on occasion, whiffs that key skillshot, gets tunnel vision, mixes up spawn timers, or even prioritizes playing a champion to have fun over winning. Just like knowledge variance, performance variance never goes away.

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What? I had to get a Snape reference in here.

So what does this all have to do with matchmaking? Well, everything. Matchmaking is no god. It does not determine everything that happens to you. In fact, unless you’re at a very competitive level of the Heroes community, it probably doesn’t affect your games much at all. The other stuff I mentioned is so much more important. Skill gaps, even tiny ones, can have far more drastic influence on how often you win or lose. Your team knowing when to take mercs or to go for an objective, or knowing how certain champions scale and which ones counter which, can make or break a match before it even begins. The mere skill of knowing when to back off is something most people at the lower strata of play don’t understand, even though it’s vitally important. To chalk everything up to “I was matched with a n00b” is both lazy and self-defeating. There are very few matches where you played perfectly and everything was everyone else’s fault. Yes, they do happen, but only once in a blue moon. You have no control over whether someone’s Time Warner connection is shitting itself at that particular moment. You can only control what you’re doing, so you need to focus on helping both yourself and others instead of tossing all blame onto a convenient excuse you don’t really understand.

The Heroes community needs to stop mistaking what has come to be called “matchmaking” for normal shit that every player goes through in every online game. You will be matched with feeders, AFK’ers, the first-pick Sonyas, the last pick Novas, and you will be matched against the first-pick Zeratuls that can Blink-dance with one hand tied behind their backs. It’s called “life”. Deal with it. Matchmaking shouldn’t even be on your mind until you’ve been Rank 1 for months and your win ratio is very stable. Only then can it be an intrusive element that you can legitimately complain about. In the meantime, if you really want to improve, watch replays, watch high-level players in tournaments, analyze what they do, analyze what you’ve done wrong, and treat your teammates with respect and decency. What’s more, part of this “matchmaking” issue arises from the way the competitive ranking system is structured at the moment. It’s much harder to rank yourself against other players and judge where you really are when there are only 50 ranks, only half of which matter, and there’s no Grandmaster League yet to stratify and discriminate between the people who’ve gotten to Rank 1. That will be fixed in time, though. It’s not something to get worked up about.

Heroes has the potential to be a very popular and excellent MOBA, but if we keep instilling this mentality that “matchmaking sucks” and teaching new players to blame their poor performance on a convenient scapegoat, we poison their experience from the very beginning. Even at the very worst, Heroes doesn’t fuck you over nearly as much as a game like LoL or DOTA, where you’re stuck with that feeder for 30+ minutes and just one ill-matched person on either side can sink the game for you and waste such a significant amount of time. If you get stomped in Heroes, the match is over in 10-15 minutes and you move on. We should be selling that as a big feature instead of running around with our heads cut off about that stupid Sonya pick.

Perspective is everything in life, and we shouldn’t lose it here just because it’s a game. Games really are serious business. We enjoy them and invest ourselves in them, which is the only thing that truly matters for us in an otherwise brief and largely futile existence. If you let something as specious as “matchmaking” control your thinking, you’re not going to have fun in Heroes, and that’s a crying shame, because that’s what games are all about.

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Oh.

And winning. Winning is more important.

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