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Dote Night: MMR Problems And A Potential Solution

The case for a reset

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Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

Above is a picture of two bears. I have been watching a bearcam while I try and write about matchmaking rating (MMR) in Dota 2 [official site]. Eventually I started imagining the bear you can just about see in the background shouting at the one on top of the little waterfall “WHAT’S UR MMR, SCRUB?” as they both fail to catch any fish.

I guess that’s as good a jumping off point as any: I don’t associate MMR with anything good. I associate it with miserable gaming experiences and being used to undermine people in discussions.

Before I get any further, I want to be clear that I’m talking about *visible* solo MMR – the number Valve shows you after you’ve played a certain number of ranked calibration matches. I’m not talking about the invisible ratings that they use to put you into groups in non-ranked play.

I’ve written about MMR before so here’s the theory as I outlined it then:

The point of matchmaking as Valve describes it is to set up games of Dota such that each team has as close to a 50% chance of winning as possible, that a five stack of players (likely on external voice comms) isn’t matched against five individual players speaking different languages, and that the spread of skill is similar on each side. Essentially matches are supposed to be balanced and fun.

One of the main factors it takes into account for all this is the MMR. There are five different MMRs at the moment and they depend on the type of game you’re queuing for as well as who you’re with. You’ll have a number assigned for solo unranked games, party unranked games, solo ranked, party ranked and team games.

When people ask about your MMR it’s the solo ranked number that they mean. That’s also the one people are talking about when they mention the “Road to 6K” challenge. In order to change that number you need to win matches in solo ranked mode. For the general MMR area I’m in right now a win gives everyone on your team roughly 25 points and a loss takes away roughly 25 points. The idea is that you move up or down until your number stabilises because you’re winning as much as you are losing around that particular number rating.

Having a high MMR (6K is considered high, hence that challenge) is therefore correlated with being “objectively” good at the game. It’s treated as a badge of honour and, often, authority.

There are various strategies people suggest for improving your MMR:

Play a carry and then if you’re good enough you’ll be able to brute force a victory.
Play a support and then you’ll be able to control the pace of the game and give your carries the best shot at snowballing.
Play something independent so you can do well if your team is shit.
Play something team-focused so you can save their sorry asses when they screw up.

And so it continues with some options making more sense than others…

Thing is, the strategies are different but the mentality informing them is often pretty similar. By that I mean they tend to assume that you are a) being placed below your REAL skill level and b) that your teammates are liabilities. They’re not people, they’re weird, unpredictable NPCs to be corralled into formation as best you (the blameless hero of the piece who is being hard done by on the MMR front) can.

In my personal experience ranked matches are far more hostile than unranked. If you’ve found otherwise please do say – I’d be interested to hear your experiences. But in my time with the mode the players seem more prone to blaming others and less inclined to help one another. I’m convinced it’s because of those MMR numbers and that aforementioned mentality. You want your hit of nice green 25s – you deserve them – and every mistake a teammate makes gets in the way. This isn’t the case in every match, but it’s been a common experience for me and one I ultimately stepped away from. Unfortunately not before I’d decimated my own MMR while trying to improve it ;)

“Does that number matter?” is a question I’ve asked myself a few times now that I have the damn thing.

It does and it doesn’t.

It doesn’t because I know when I’m getting better at Dota and when I’m stagnating. I know when I’ve got the hang of a new hero or worked out a new skill build or pulled off a tricky set of actions or found a fantastic ward spot so we can catch chumps unaware. I truly don’t need a number for any that.

It does because I now have that number – for better or worse – and that number means something in the wider community. Sometimes when you play, your MMR is a factor – I’m playing an industry tournament at the moment and they asked for everyone’s MMR so they could try and work out the bracketing for games. When emailing mine over I felt horribly self-conscious because I know it’s about half of one of my teammate’s. It has never gotten in the way of us playing together and we have very different in-game roles and styles of aggression which complement one another. Generally I don’t think about our MMR, we just play together as a team and accomplish cool things but at that moment I was reminded about these numbers and it felt bad.

I felt self-conscious again when an MMR of around my level was being spoken about as “low” while on a Skype call despite (I hope) that I’m considered an equal to the people I was with.

I see Redditors and commenters asking each other or asking authors for their MMR as if it impacts their ability to make observations about the game. Making observations about how crowdfunding works? “What’s your MMR?”

At the moment ranked solo queue just seems such an unpalatable option. It’s partly because the matches simply aren’t fun what with the stress and the 1vs4 mentality you’ll see in teammates (or yourself). It’s also because you never get to recalibrate. I did my calibration games aeons ago. The first number I was working with was when I knew far less about the game. Now I know far more about the game but I’ve been through phases of trying to improve my MMR, wiping hundreds of points off it as I go. Regardless of how accurate it is, it’s felt like a weight for a long time. It’s a problem lurking, a broken thing needing to be fixed rather than anything positive.

What I’d love is for those solo MMR levels to be wiped after every International. You have a season lasting a year, you calibrate and then you can try to fiddle with it all you like. People can ride the Road to 6K or Meander Down The Lane to 3K or Fall Drunkenly Into The Ditch of Double Digit MMR but then once TI’s confetti is swept away you start again. Solo ranked never risks becoming this intractable problem because there’s always a point at which you get a fresh start.

Maybe your MMR is lower than average. That’s pretty common, actually, because that’s how averages work. It should be okay. It *should* just mean that you’re matched with people of around the same level so you can get a relatively balanced gaming experience. But giving people that number overtly means it’s used differently. For some it’s a way to gauge their own progress. It can be a challenge or a puzzle to solve. That’s cool. For others its something they feel bad about and which other people use as a weapon. It ends up being correlated with all manner of unrelated knowledge or skill. It can make you feel like you’re stuck.

Allowing for a reset would help alleviate some of the negatives without ruining the positives.

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Philippa Warr

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