Overwatch’s 5th Competitive season debuted last week, and in its wake, players are finding themselves demoralized and embarrassed. Skill ratings, Overwatch’s measure of how good you are, have plummeted about 200 points across the board since the end of last season. And, of course, adamant players are flooding Overwatch forums with protestations that these numbers do not reflect their skill.
It’s not a new complaint—for months, player have noticed a few hundred points bleeding out from their SR between Competitive seasons—but it is one that feels particularly bad after dozens of hours grinding in Season 4. Today, we spoke with Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer about what goes into skill ratings and why, in fact, these salty players are both right and wrong about how good they are.
Of the numbers we use to measure our worth—weight, salary, Facebook likes—our rankings in online video games are often more inscrutable, though still a little superficial. They’re not just measures of our kill/death ratios, damage healed or headshots; in online games, they determine who we play with and, often times, how they play. In Overwatch’s Competitive mode, it can really suck to miss out on the possibility of great teamwork and coordination when you’re paired with three aim-challenged snipers. So, in the same way I might compulsively check my bank accounts or Twitter notifications, today, I found myself checking my Overwatch skill rating on OverBuff, a website that scrapes Overwatch Competitive data.
Last night, I grinded out my 10 Season 5 placement matches in a bleary-eyed four hours. Around midnight, after six triumphant victories, three losses and a tie, my SR clocked out at a number that felt like a personal insult. I entered an endless stream of expletives into my “Team” chat box. It felt unfair, a funhouse reflection of my Overwatch skill. That is not my worth, I thought. After ending last season at a respectable ranking, and killing it on my latest placement matches, how had my SR amounted to this? Angry and demoralized, I checked my bank account before I went to bed.
Since Season 5 launched on May 31st, Overwatch’s Battle.net forum has been rife with complaints similar to mine. Overwatch players are feeling bad about themselves, as they do early on in a new Competitive season. “10 PLACEMENT MATCHES WON = BRONZE,” a player wrote, suggesting a complete SR reset every season. One reply pointed out that the player had won 10 games against other low-ranked players, adding, “Looking at your stats, such as your average 1.5 kdr [kill/death ratio] against said players, I’d say you belong there.” Other demands to wipe the skill rating slate clean were met with instances that, actually, we’re as bad as Overwatch judges us to be.
Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer doesn’t think resetting competitive rankings is a great idea. “There are two competing concepts,” he told me. “Psychologically, a lot of people want a fresh start. . . The other thing we’re trying to do is find as fair matches as possible.” If Overwatch forgot our skill ratings, its matchmaking system wouldn’t know who to match us with. It would take hours of play to recreate that data. “On the other hand,” he says, “if we rolled over last season to the next one, it wouldn’t feel like enough of a start. It’s like, Why have this season?”.
Skill ratings go up when we win a game and play well during it. On top of that, Overwatch is constantly making predictions about how well we’ll play compared to an enemy team and to a chosen hero’s average player stats—and we receive more SR when we exceed expectations. (Contrary to popular belief, the amount of time a player spends “on fire” isn’t a direct influencer as much as it’s a reflection of how well they’re doing). Also, SR isn’t the only measure for skill. There’s also an invisible stat called matchmaking rating (MMR), which only Overwatch developers see. Essentially, SR reflects MMR, but with rose-colored glasses. So, if you’re playing on a super-powerful team against a not-very-good team, and you win, you’ll gain at least the minimum amount of SR, but not necessarily much MMR. That way, you’ll feel rewarded for winning, even though the match wasn’t fair.
After several seasons of ranked Competitive play, I noticed my SR climbing up as the seasons ended, and back down right after my placement matches, regardless of how well I did. It’s something the Overwatch blog mentioned in December prior to Season 3, but hasn’t detailed much officially.
Today, Mercer confirmed something that, in my sad state last night, I had insisted to my teammate: Our ratings are artificially lowered around 200 points between seasons. But during a player’s first 40 to 50 games that season, wins will bring in more SR than they normally would until you’re back up to your real, accurate ranking. “We do that to give you a sense that you are improving over time,” Mercer explained. I asked him whether that’s not unlike gambling—the feeling of minimizing losses instead of maximizing gains, all with the desperate hope for winnings. He replied, “Certainly we’re not trying to get [players] to gamble on more games. We want to create a positive experience as they play.”
Mercer understands that it can feel bad to see a low rating after grinding out placement matches. He says it was a compromise: “A lot of game designers make trade-offs between varying goals that sometimes work at opposites. This is one where we made the decision to lower you initially so, as you play, you have a more positive experience.”
After speaking with Mercer, I loaded up OverBuff again and checked my percentiles. While, for example, my hook accuracy with Roadhog was great compared to others’, my aiming could be much better. It felt bad to see so plainly, and I won’t be checking OverBuff again. But now, it won’t be a sense of personal injustice that motivates some frenzied SR grind. It’s that I could be better, and I want to be, and I did not technically deserve a low SR (Hallelujah!).