It’s placement time in Overwatch and, as you’re reading this, players are haunting the servers like cursed ghosts forever bound to relive their past lives. After ten seasons of this, players have noticed an unnerving and demoralizing truth: a lot of the time, players’ competitive rankings turn out to be basically whatever they were last season.
On Monday, Overwatch’s latest competitive season started, giving players a chance to reset their ranking for competitive mode. These three hours of placement matches are like an SAT test you have to take every season, except, you know, with video games. After grabbing our two or three most competent friends, Overwatch players subject themselves to ten high-stress, apparently high-stakes games before Overwatch sorts them into player categories: bronze, silver, gold, platinum, diamond, master, grandmaster, and top 500, roughly translated as bad, fine, good, pretty good, holy shit, holy fucking shit, and god.
These categories are Overwatch’s version of castes. To serious players, it’s a determiner of respect, like how much money you make or what kind of car you drive. And the gateway to that kind of respect is Overwatch’s much-derided placement system. I’ve completed Overwatch’s competitive placement matches eight times. I’ve gone 9-1, 1-9 and 5-5, in no particular order, and every time, as the ranking ticker’s number climbs after my ten adrenaline-pumping judgment matches—and as I nervously anticipate getting cast down into the hell tier—I place just about where I ended up in the last season. Whew. But also, hold on: Why does Overwatch keep putting me through this?
Under an /r/Overwatch thread titled, “Placement matches are just 10 matches that you play without being able to see your rank,” dozens of players described their experiences receiving last season’s rank after this season’s grueling placement matches. “I did fuck all in my placement matches (rusty, not throwing) and lost 8/10. Places 50 sr [skill ranking] lower than my end SR from last season,” wrote one. “I went 0/10 in my placement matches last week in season 9. I got 2820 SR, which is +-10 points from my previous SR,” said another. (Bronze is 1500 and below, silver is 1500-1999, gold is 2000-2499, platinum is 2500-2999, and so on.)
Frustrated by their low-impact placement matches, lots of players have opted to purchase the game again and open up a fresh account so the now-unbiased Overwatch oracle can determine their truest, and ideally, highest rank. Players report higher placement rankings on alternate accounts.
How can Overwatch assess the same player’s skill differently on two accounts? Skill rating—a player’s rank—is reset every season. An invisible, similar stat called match-making (MMR) rating is not. MMR is Blizzard’s internal calculation of who it is fair to match you against while skill rating (SR) rises and falls as you win games and do well in them. MMR is therefore a firmer judgment of skill—although increasing your MMR relies on the success of players you’re teamed up with, too. So even when it feels like players enter a fresh season with a blank slate, that’s just not the case. MMR is why someone can win 100% of her placement matches but still languish in the lowest tier. Yet, all this doesn’t account for why players’ newly-calculated skill rating (SR) can be so damn similar to their last season’s.
While publisher Blizzard did not provide comment for this article, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said something last August that could help answer this persistent question. In the upper echelons of ranks, players’ SR slowly declines if it’s not kept up. Kaplan explained that, “at the high levels of play, skill rating decay is kind of required because it prevents a lot of undesired behaviors we see.” Kaplan’s probably talking about a few things here: Players who hit some god-tier ranking and let it sit, untouched, in its glory and players who get other people to play on their accounts and “boost” their rankings.
Blizzard needs to keep Overwatch’s highest rankings feeling special; if players don’t have to constantly earn them, they’re not worth playing hundreds of hours of Overwatch to achieve. It also needs to keep players honest. Placement matches, combined with skill decay, keep the top players working at it and, in theory, keep the cheaters in check.
On the flip side, prodigious players and cheaters likely form a minority of Overwatch’s player base. Then, there’s the rest of us, mired to the game like Tantalus to hell. Every season, we climb back in the competitive pool and reach for the fruit (platinum? diamond?) that always escapes our grasp.
Overwatch’s placement matches, which mark each new season, aren’t really a fresh opportunity to prove ourselves to the game and its community. They’re a rite of passage, a deterrent for cheaters and lazy players and a thankless, high-anxiety slog. One solution? Stop taking them so seriously.
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