If you have spent any amount of time playing competitive online multiplayer games, you have probably heard the term Matchmaking Rating, commonly abbreviated as MMR. This is a discrete number used to determine your in-game skill level for the purpose of placing you against opponents of a roughly equal skill level.
In short, your MMR goes up when you win and goes down when you lose. In competitive modes, the different MMR levels are typically denoted with specific ranks. For example, many games structure their competitive ranks as Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Masters, Grand Masters, with each rank representing a particular range of MMR levels.
When it works correctly, an MMR system should make games more accessible and fun for all players, regardless of their skill level.
How MMR is determined
While every game has a slightly different process for determining your MMR, the basics are roughly the same across the board. Your initial MMR is determined by a series of placement matches, after which it is adjusted based on your win/loss ratio and at the upper ranks your in-game activity level.
Competitive placement matches
For competitive modes, a player’s MMR is usually a publicly available number that is determined using a series of placement matches. During these placement matches, you will not be tied to a specific rank. Instead, the match-making system will place you into varying ranked games and use that data to determine the best place for you in the game’s competitive ecosystem.
When you win a placement match, the system will place you against tougher opponents. When you lose placement matches, they will place you against easier opponents. While games do take into account factors beyond your win/loss ratio, winning is the most important aspect of moving up. If you have an amazing game as a player and your team still loses, your MMR will drop.
Most competitive games feature various seasons of play. A competitive season will typically run for about two or three months, depending on the game. At the end of the competitive season, everyone will lose their rank and have to play their placement matches over again at the start of the next season.
While everyone has to “rerank” every season, players who have ranked before don’t necessarily start with a clean slate. Games like Overwatch, League of Legends, and Rocket League, only do soft resets during placements. So you can expect to be placed roughly where you were at the end of the previous season, unless your placement matches go exceptionally well or poorly.
Climbing the ladder
Once you have completed your initial placement, you can start grinding away. If you win and lose an equal number of games, you should theoretically maintain your current MMR rank. If you find yourself winning several games in a row, your MMR rating will begin to climb. If you lose several games in a row, it will drop.
When you reach specific thresholds, you will be promoted. For example, in League of Legends when you reach 1410 MMR, you will be promoted to Gold division, where you will stay until your climb past 1720 MMR which is the start of the Platinum rank.
If you want to move up the ladder quickly, you should focus on improving your in-game fundamentals rather than trying to game the MMR system. While players lose games for any number of reasons, ultimately folks tend to land roughly where they belong when it comes to their MMR. So if you want to move up, the best way to do that is to genuinely improve your skills and bring more value to your team.
MMR decay is an important aspect of most modern ranking systems. MMR decay is essentially a slow, steady drop in rank for high-ranking players who take too long of breaks from playing the game. So even if you reach the Grand Master rank in a game, if you take a few weeks off, you will return to an account that is no longer in the Grand Master division.
While MMR decay may sound frustrating, it’s actually essential for high level players. This system makes sure that the folks in the upper echelons are all active players.
Having active players in your top-ranked positions is important because as you move up the ranks, there are fewer players in each rank. This can drive up match-making search times, as the game has fewer players to match you with who are at your same level. Queue times would be made even worse if a large number of the highest ranked players never play the game.
MMR decay is also good for the players who do take long breaks. If you are competing in CS:GO at a high rank and you take a few months off, when you return you probably won’t be quite the skill level you were before the break. Automatic decay can help adjust your match difficulty to an appropriate level for you to ease back into the game.
There are some disadvantages to MMR decay as well. Overwatch, for example, removed its MMR decay for Masters and Diamond-level players in 2019, because some players reported that maintaining their rank was too stressful. But the benefit of a decay system generally out way the drawbacks.
The Smurf Problem
Since the earliest versions of MMR systems, there have been folks who seek to exploit it by intentionally tanking their MMR to go against easier opponents. Smurfs intentionally throw their placement matches until they are against opponents who are much lower ranked than themselves. Then they have a field day dominating people who are less experienced in the game.
Smurfs ruin games for the players they face. It’s not fun to be torn apart by a much higher skilled player. The practice of smurfing is a big issue in lower ranks of every major competitive title, from Overwatch, to League of Legends, to Rocket League.
Smurfing is unethical and undermines the fundamental design of MMR systems. Smurfing is also tough to police. There are a number of different reasons why a player might be under leveled, so game developers can’t immediately assume that a decent player is a smurf and ban them. Even if they could determine that a player is a smurf and ban the account, the smurf can just make a new account and start the process all over again.
The issue of smurfing is made even worse in free-to-play titles, where it is free to make a new account with no competitive history. In free titles, there are rarely real consequences for smurfs, since they aren’t forced to buy the game again to repeat their abusive behavior. That said, there are still plenty of smurfs in the paid games too, so there are more factors involved than just cost.
Overall, MMR systems are a big boon to video games. They help players of all skill levels enjoy the game and give a clear sense of rank and progression for serious players. While MMR systems may not always be perfect, they are better than forgoing ranked matchmaking all together.