A cadre of some of Team Fortress 2’s top competitive players made a journey to Bellevue, Wash. on April 28, where they toured the headquarters of the game’s developer. Brandon “Seagull” Larned, Carl “enigma” Yangsheng, and Grant “b4nny” Vincent joined community figures Jeff Extine and Jay “mana” Kim to discuss the future of the game with the company and a crucial change that’s in the works—the addition of a competitive matchmaking system.
Matchmaking is a pillar of competitive multiplayer titles in the modern era. Games that pit players against other players rely on matchmaking to ensure a fair match and the best experience for both parties. No one wants to get destroyed in game and few enjoy a lack of challenge.
But Team Fortress 2, released in Oct. 2007, was one of the last major multiplayer releases that didn’t include some form of matchmaking. That meant the only way to play was through servers hosted by Valve and the game’s big community.
That didn’t stop players from operating their own version of matchmaking, using internet relay chat to coordinate pickup games in places like #tf2.pug.na and later sites like tf2center.com, complete with their own statistics, ratings, and player behavior checks.
Valve says it will introduce its own solution “soon.” Of course, “soon” for Valve could mean another three years—the players in attendance feel it’s at least a year away. But Valve does already have technology in place; it’s implemented ranked systems in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, after all.
The idea right now is to create a matchmaking queue experience similar to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Valve’s other wildly popular competitive multiplayer first-person-shooter, where players queue for games, play against similarly skilled foes, and receive a ranking representative of their individual skill.
The most basic is the format of the game, one that most people feel is “casual,” not “competitive.” Team Fortress 2 is usually played in large 20-man servers. It features 9 classes with hundreds of different in-game items and weapons. It’s a hodgepodge of crazy antics and hats in current servers, with people just as likely to form a conga line and dance around an objective than to actually play to capture it.
But that doesn’t the mean the game doesn’t work for competitive play—it has a longstanding community that’s managed to keep itself alive for nearly a decade, despite little support from Valve. And now Valve is looking at bridging the gap between casual and competitive play.
In addition to matchmaking, Valve plans to promote Team Fortress 2 streams from Twitch on the login page for the game, similar to what it does with Counter-Strike. This has the potential to highlight things like important esports matches. As a game released before the streaming boom, Team Fortress 2 never managed to build a big streaming base. Promoting streams in-game should be a big boost towards a title that’s still kicking, with room to grow should matchmaking kick off.
Of course, implementing this matchmaking system in Team Fortress 2 represents a number of unique challenges.
These are some of the logistic challenges and how Valve plans to tackle them—for now. Matchmaking is a complete work in progress for Team Fortress 2. Neither Valve, nor veterans of the game’s competitive community, truly know how it will play out.
The size of the game
The competitive Team Fortress 2 community is currently split between the traditional six-on-six format featuring class limits and nine-on-nine highlander matches, where each player on each team plays a different one of the game’s nine classes—there can be only one medic, pyro, spy, et cetera per game.
Valve is leaning towards using a smaller number, to start, according to Yangsheng and Larned. It’s easier to match, say, a total of 12 players for a game, especially without the highlander class restrictions, or any class restrictions at all. The company doesn’t think the playerbase can support two separate queues, at least for now; the idea is, if matchmaking kicks off, to allow players to queue for multiple game types. Highlander fans, your time may come, but you may be stuck supporting a smaller game mode until then.
The game features a myriad of different game types, but the one most neglected on public servers is the one best designed for competitive play: control point. The cp_ game type, where two teams attempt to capture points on a map until they control the opposing team’s base, features the best flow of gameplay for competitive styled play.
Valve is toying with the idea of a best-of-three round system, but Yangsheng doesn’t think that will work. Valve will realize that after testing, he says. In Team Fortress 2, a bad mid fight can lead to a round ending in about one minute, but a lengthy stalemate can draw one out for half an hour. A more prudent format would be similar to the current six-on-six competitive standard: first-to-four or first-to-five rounds with a 30 minute time limit.
One major concern is balance. In Team Fortress 2, with nine classes and hundreds of items added to the game, there’s little balance to be had. Valve has zero data on which to judge balance, considering Team Fortress 2 is so far only played in public servers, with no consistent format, or in competitive formats that strictly limit items available for use—something that Valve will not do. That doesn’t mean Valve won’t restrict overpowered items until they are tweaked, but right now there’s no way to know how things will play out.
Team Fortress 2 features nine classes, but in competitive six-on-six games, only four of them are represented in a standard lineup. The other five see time in game but are situational depending on the map and the game situation, with many often never appearing in game.
That’s a situation that Valve will likely want to change, but their goal isn’t to have equal class representation. It’s not a problem for them if, say, Pyro is played less than Soldier, Yangsheng says. But if Pyro is played not at all, like for most six-on-six matches right now, then Valve may seek to adjust things in that classes favor.
One possible road to balance is allowing players to ban items. That lets the developers gather knowledge of what players feel is overpowered and allows plays to selectively deal with problems themselves. In Dota 2, for example, Valve is able to make massive changes with unpredictable consequences, like in the recent 6.84 patch, with the knowledge that the community can self-correct for overpowered strategies thanks to the pick and ban system. But with hundreds of items available in Team Fortress 2, it’s nearly impossible to design a reasonable system to allow players to ban items in the matchmaking format. What’s more likely is that Valve will implement a blacklist themselves, should certain items become problematic, and disable new items on launch until the community sorts out their power level.
Team Fortress 2 is famous for being a hat factory, but the in-game item economy also features tons of gameplay-enhancing weapons. In current competitive play, some of these are banned for their adverse effects on gameplay. Many are useless in a competitive environment. Some are nearly required, like the Soldier-enabling Gunboats or critical hit-creating Kritzkrieg.
Valve will likely allow all items, and no one, not even Valve, knows how things will play out. The company realizes it will need to be proactive with balance changes and monitoring how things play out once matchmaking is available.
The other issue is actually acquiring the items. Currently, you receive a random item after a certain amount of time in-game. You can scrap the item for materials and use it to craft a specific item you want or trade it for another item. Getting the particular weapon you want can be a pain; some of the recipes require many obscure inputs. You could buy a weapon you want from the store, but usually you can trade for an extra in short order on the many trade servers. Right now, acquiring items may not be a problem.
But what if matchmaking makes certain items in-demand? Will the supply quickly dry up, giving certain elite players who have the item an advantage unless they buy one from Valve’s store? That has potential to disrupt the fairness of matchmaking.
One way around that issue is allowing all weapons to all players, but Valve told Yangsheng that presents a “technical challenge.” Doing so may create issues where non-matchmaking servers gain access to all items, including hats, which could disrupt or destroy the item economy. That may sound like an excuse to sell weapons, but Valve says that money isn’t an issue—they don’t need to make a buck off weapons when they’re already raking in the dough from hat sales, and they want to avoid a situation where players label the game “pay to win.”
Picking your class
Competitive six-on-six Team Fortress 2 typically feature two soldiers, two scouts, one demoman, and one medic. Part of the reason why is class limits implemented to foster the flow of the game, like limiting the number of medics and demoman to one.
Valve will likely do away with such restrictions—it’s worried about how the competitive scene has stagnated over the past eight years. And no one knows what the results will be.
That brings up another issue: what if everyone on a team wants to play Medic? What if no one does?
Stopping cheating and trolls
This is a major problems for any competitive game. As the stakes get higher, so does the thrill of ruining things for other people by trolling them or cheating.
In Team Fortress 2, the possibilities are endless. Just imagine the rage when every player on a six-man team refuses to play Medic, or a player stubbornly mains the Pyro class even though it isn’t viable in most situations.
To make matters worse, Team Fortress 2 is free to play. Even if you ban cheaters, they can simply sign up for a new account in a matter of moments (one script creates a new Steam account and rejoins a server that banned you in less than a minute with the click of a button), making solutions like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s Overwatch system less effective.
League of Legends handles the problem a number of ways, with systems in place to combat players who leave games and who troll in game. They also feature a leveling system that requires every account to put in a significant time investment before they can compete in ranked matchmaking, which makes the prospect of punishment more effective.
Team Fortress 2 and its cosmetic items and weapons could serve as a proxy for that account level, if it’s a flimsier deterrent considering unlockable items are generally less time intensive to acquire than League account levels.
It’s unclear how Valve will combat cheaters and trolls, but it’s certainly a priority for the company.
An esports future?
The runaway success of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was predicated on a few things. Matchmaking was the key new feature that brought the gameplay of the most popular esports of the aughts to a new audience, but it didn’t truly catch fire until esports tournaments with in-game item tie-ins created a boom in the game’s popularity.
Now Counter-Strike features audiences of over one million people, with multiple major tournaments combining to offer millions of dollars in prizes each year.
Could that be Team Fortress 2’s future?
That’s probably a pipe dream, but it’s not hyperbole to say that matchmaking could grow a resilient Team Fortress 2 competitive community into an esports power, and the combination of esports and matchmaking could take an eight year old title to new heights.
The eight-year-old game still features a solid daily playerbase. Smite, a MOBA released just one year ago, boasts a playerbase that ranks around fifth on the Steam charts, according to COO Todd Harris, right around where team Fortress 2 ranks. And Smite managed to put together a $2.6 million tournament thanks to effectively leveraging the community and a robust in-game item system.
Larned said that Valve’s merchandise people were “very supportive” of the possibility of esports-related in-game Team Fortress 2 merchandise, like the signed in-game weapons and items Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players sell to their fans.
While there was no mention of upcoming Blizzard first-person-shooter Overwatch, it’s quite possible that Blizzard’s new title has pushed Valve to see Team Fortress 2 in a new light. Right now, Team Fortress 2 fits in a niche in the shooter market—it’s one of the only popular team-based multiplayer shooters that doesn’t feature tactical-style gameplay, such as Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, where you point-and-click for kills. Overwatch is set to fill that void in a big way. This could be Valve’s answer to keep its game relevant.
Valve’s developed a blueprint for esports success and made Dota 2 and Counter-Strike prosper. Why not catch lightning in a bottle a third time?
Image via Chris Moore/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)