Design Illuminated : Rank doesn’t matter? Pondering SR Systems.

This article is part of a series called Design Illuminated, where I plan to explore and challenge what really makes certain games great (or not!) The point of this series is to provide deeper insight into games but to do it in a concise, understandable manner that isn’t bogged down with technical jargon. I hope you enjoy this entry!


Fair warning, this article is going to be a little bit different in regards to my previous ones. Consider it something of an opinion piece: though I’m going to propose some potential positives and negatives of SR systems, I fully acknowledge that several points arise out of personal preference and experience. Still, I think this is a topic worth exploring, and I would be more than happy to discuss any counterpoints you may have to what is said here.

Let’s get into it.

Maybe you’re like me. You have a fondness of competitive fighters or shooters but can’t quite get over the skill hump. You dabble in certain games and may even play them for months, but you never make any headway in the “competitive” modes. You tell yourself that you’re done and that you really should start avoiding these types of games. And then something like a new teaser or reveal comes along:

And you’re sucked right back in. You really, really want to be a part of the action and–sometimes more importantly–the community.

Funnily enough, there is a multiplayer game that I have been really into lately (hint: its the one my last article is based off of.) I’m having loads of fun, I’m forming strategies and I feel like on a good night I can run with some of the big dogs. The kicker? This game has no “ranked” mode at all. None. The game in question for the video above–Rivals of Aether–has a competitive mode, but I’ve barely touched it since I jumped back in several days ago. Its been mostly CPU thrashing and non-ranked online.

I used to think that if I truly wanted to get better at a game, I needed to spend most of my time in the competitive modes where everyone is generally expected to put a good foot forward. Oh sure, its good to supplement that with practice and tutorial videos, but the real deal is where you truly prove yourself. But as I continue forward as a hopeless multiplayer romantic, the divide between doing and theorizing is becoming more apparent: competitive systems–particularly SR (skill rating) systems–are primarily in place to prove your skill, not enhance it. So what does this mean for competitive ladders, and is it necessarily the best approach?

Competitive Cliques

First, let’s establish how SR is supposed to work in the first place. The basic idea of the system is that of natural separation: though everyone starts out on even footing, the best players will win more, thus gaining more SR and bubbling to the top of the competitive ladder. The better a player you are, the more SR you get and the more you climb. Eventually, given enough time, there should be a smooth increase of skill the farther up the ranked tiers you go.

In an ideal world, this creates several tiers of skill that players settle into. The result is that the vast majority of your matches will be evenly matched so long as everyone is close in rank (smurfs and derankers not withstanding.) Although opinions vary wildly on whether or not SR systems attain this balance, it is ultimately what is being strived for. Bronze players vs. bronze, silver players vs. silver, etc. It creates this “walled garden” effect where different “levels” of player skill are represented by different sections of the SR continuum.

When matchmaking, the variation in SR between players is kept within a certain bound, leading to games that are very competitive on both sides of the line that divide two players/teams. Finally, when and if you get better at the game, your SR will naturally improve and you’ll move into the next tier of competitive play where you belong.

Ultimately, this is meant to be good. Going off the reference above, a bronze player probably will get obliterated by a grandmaster. That being said, the bronze player (or any player for that matter) typically has a goal of reaching a higher rank. Decent players can normally climb a rank or two from the bottom, but its not unusual for people to eventually hit a wall or–as it is commonly referred to–get stuck in “elo hell.”

Does “it” exist?

Just like the usefulness of SR systems, the idea of “elo hell” is a hot button topic as well. But what’s really going on here? This brings me to the first point I’d like to make about SR systems. Maybe climbing to the next tier isn’t the problem; perhaps its staying there.

Imagine someone, for instance, who is in gold. They are very good for a gold player, and finally make it up into platinum. However, they are not familiar with platinum tactics, and are swiftly punted back down into gold. Ultimately, the SR system has done its job: The gold player wasn’t ready for platinum. But why should he be, if he’s never been exposed to platinum strategies before?

I implied as much earlier, but players sometimes have to take initiative outside of competitive ladders to get better and prepare themselves. Nonetheless, isn’t experience the best teacher? You may fail against the platinum tactics, but if you aren’t given ample opportunity to adjust and absorb your new surroundings, how will you learn anything? It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

This brings me to my first point: ranking and deranking should not be overly volatile. One thing I’ve seen done before are “gating” tests. To rank up, for example, a player must win 2 out of 3 of their next matches; when faced with deranking, they must lose three in a row before they’re sent back down. This gives players a bit of breathing room and doesn’t gut-punch them the moment they finally get over the hump. The SR system is still technically doing its job, while giving the player at least a moderate sampling of what they need for higher level play. It doesn’t guarantee a player will rise to the occasion, but it at least gives them the benefit of the doubt.

Now obviously, this assumes that skill is consistent across pre-defined tiers. In actuality, you often have sub-tiers, where players play a bit different at the lower and higher end of said tiers (i.e. low gold and high gold.) In fact, high gold and low platinum may not even be all that different! But the point of this system isn’t necessarily to prop up inconsistent players, but rather to give those players the occasional chance to breath and assess their position without the constant crippling effect of SR pressure.

On the Defensive

The other problem that SR volatility creates–if only inadvertently–is that of fostering “safe” tactics. Although its effects are seen in one-on-one formats (such as fighting games,) its effects are a bit sharper in team-based climates. Don’t get me wrong: its natural to use the most reliable tactics available to you, but the problem is a bit deeper than that.

Mutliplayer games often have a crazy amount of moving parts. There are so many different strategical setups and combinations that can happen, and that is part of what makes them exciting. As is usually the case though, “meta” tactics will arise that are known to be the most reliable. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, as people should be equipping themselves with the best if they want to win.

But is it really the best? Are there hard counters to these “meta” strategies? These are questions we may ask ourselves, but are afraid to put into action in a competitive format. Remember: practice and direct experience are two different things. If you dare use competitive as a place to try something new, expect to take a lot of heat from your teammates. But someone has to take initiative, don’t they? Experimentation and competitiveness seem to exist in vacuums, when in fact they should be feeding off of each other.

One game that seems to suffer from this immensely is Overwatch. Some months ago, Kotaku posted an article about one such meta, and this particular blurb explains the general problem rather well (emphasis added):

“Unfortunately, Overwatch’s dominant metas have a way of snowballing. Top-level competitive players watch pros and decide which heroes are “on-meta.” If other competitive players try to play off-meta heroes, they get chewed out. But the only way the meta can evolve (outside of a sudden, seismic balance change from Blizzard) is through experimentation. Some players, however, refuse to go out on a limb because they don’t want to risk losing precious rank points, and others either feel too socially pressured to switch heroes or realize they can’t make anything meaningful happen without support from their team. So the meta stagnates. People will figure out a game-changing counter… at some point, but until then, high-level Overwatch remains a place where the hero pool suddenly becomes very shallow, despite how interesting and varied it could be.”

Obey the meta!

Unfortunately, fixing this particular problem is a little more complicated. Though I like the idea of rank gates mentioned above, the leniency can’t become too severe lest skill rating becomes less meaningful. Experimentation should not be promoted with wild abandon. Besides, leniency and rank gates are more like aids to fix the underlying problem: people don’t play to win, but play not to lose. They would rather protect their SR rating than expand their skillset. But if you want to win, chances are you’ve got to take your hard knocks, lose a few rounds and learn some lessons… and repeat the process ad inifinitum.

Is there a way to change attitudes without messing up the roots of the SR system? I have two suggestions:

  1. Competitive Skirmishes : That is, a mode dedicated to “competitive” matches but without SR at stake. Not a “quick play” mode that silently matches you with similarly-skilled people, but a dedicated mode for competitive rulesets that mixes the competitiveness and experimentation together. Besides SR, it should function exactly like the real thing (which would include bannable offenses.)
  2. Community Tools : It seems particularly strange to me that games like Overwatch–which rely so heavily on team-based gameplay–don’t have more team-based tools like clans. Uniting people under a banner is a great way to “break the ice,” which can in turn remove social pressures associated with experimentation. But even in one-on-one games, clans and communities are excellent tools for finding mentors and bouncing ideas around. Many playerbases have already taken matters into their own hands: Overwatch, for instance, as several Discord channels set up for finding teams and discussing strategies. Be it internal or external to the game though, some effort should be made by devs–who should have a vision for their game–to foster a healthy, intertwined community.


At the end of the day, I realize that this is rooted heavily in how a playerbase perceives and approaches a game. No amount of precise design or community tools will eliminate the pressure associated with competitive ladders, but I still think there is more that can be done.

Ultimately, I want to see more inclusiveness. No, that does not mean everyone has the same rank. Let the ranks and tiers stay, but make room for more intermingling. Let the higher level players grace the lower level players with their knowledge, even if its in the form of a butt-kicking. Let someone with an odd approach to things have his fair chance. If we can safely reach beyond the walls of “tier-dom,” we may find that the sum of our collective knowledge is far greater than we realized.

How do we do that? How do we accomplish inclusiveness without trivializing SR? Well, that’s very much so an open question. What do you think of my suggestions? I know several games have already implemented certain of these features. Do you think they work? And what can be done beyond these things to make competitive modes not only more fun, but more competitive?

And finally, we as players have to stop expecting the SR systems to “eventually” reward our persistence. Yes, there are definitely ways that the competitive experience can be improved, but at some point it will come down to the individual player and what they are willing to do for success. If we really want it, we have to go out and get the skillsets and knowledge required to hit those higher tiers (and if we find we don’t want it that badly, lets not force it upon ourselves either!) Find the Discord channels and find teammates with whom your goals align. It is the not the responsibility of the SR system to give us a free ride to the top.

Thanks for taking the time to read this bit of a brain spill on my part. If you have anything to add, please feel free to do so!

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