Heroes of the Storm

The “Match Making” Problem, the Metaphysics of MOBAs, and the Demise of Competitive HotS

HeroesoftheStorm 10 - The "Match Making" Problem, the Metaphysics of MOBAs, and the Demise of Competitive HotS
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I'm here to offer a contrarian argument about the common HotS narrative. What is that narrative? The base game is fine, with the usual MOBA balance issues. What's ruining the game has been, is, and will continue to be bad match making. This post collects a number of different ideas and arguments I've formed over years of time invested in playing and understanding MOBAs, browsing their reddits, &etc – Specifically HotS, Smite, and LoL.

Here's the TLDR in the form of a Table of Contents. God this ended up long, sorry. Hopefully it's easy to read and at the least gets you thinking, even if it's about how I've gotten it all wrong with a poor argument.

  • The "Match Making" Problem Isn't Match Making
  • Match Experience and the Even Teams Means Even Games Fallacy
  • The Sports Model (Points)
  • The MOBA System (Resources)
  • The Genesis of MOBA (RTS + RPG)
  • The Economy of Resources and You: "Snowballing"
  • How HotS Revolutionized MOBA Match Experience
  • Player Variability: Your MMR Doesn't Exist and You Aren't Better Than Your Team
  • Why the Myth of the Matchmaking Problem Could Kill Competitive HotS
  • Fighting to Fight vs Fighting for XP
  • The Death of Snowball – Killing a MOBA to Make it More Sporting
  • Competitive HotS is Dead and We Have Killed It

The "Match Making" Problem Isn't Match Making

There have definitely been systematic match maker snafus, but these have usually come about as a consequence of scuffed attempts at overhauling the system to meet community desires. The real problem, the one behind "bad team-mates, stacked teams, every game a stomp, every game one person ruining the match" is one of player match experience. The HotS match experience is largely influenced by two connected issues – game design and player variability.

Match Experience and the Even Teams Means Even Games Fallacy

HotS has had problems delivering a particular match experience. What experience is that? It's the same one people always say they want in a MOBA – even, back and forth games that are perpetually balanced on a razor's edge until the last inning, when cunning strategy secures the W off play around an objective. Both teams are playing with a similar level of skill and coordination, and can never edge out a lead too large or fall too far behind off of mistakes.

Sounds fun, right? But there's a fallacy at work. Evenly matched games do not necessarily cause evenly experienced matches. One fundamental characteristic of many esports, that differs from regular sports, where we commonly get our idea of what competition looks like, drives against such an experience.

The Sports Model (Points)

How do most normal sports work? Players are rated and compete in tournaments based on that rating. Or teams compete in tournament on the basis of drafting these rated players. Yes, there are bad teams and good teams in e.g. the NFL, but most games won't look like blow outs and will maintain well matched struggles even in a rout – especially the "big games," when sorting the teams through pools or elimination brackets has occurred.

So evenly matched players get you even back and forth games, right? But why? Well it's in the way most sports are designed. Sports don't have a resource economy. Sure they have a field of play and players have limited physical capabilities, diminishing over time, but these "resources" stay relatively even. Exhausting an opponent is a possible strategy but it doesn't define the norm (and when it does it's usually thought to be a perverse strategy).

Sports stay relatively even because sports not only constantly reset their "map," they keep the game state after each reset largely independent. What does that mean? It means after you score a point in tennis you go through the same process of serving. It means after a point in fencing you both go "en garde" again in the middle of the piste. Each inning of baseball starts with the same number of players under the same conditions as the last. A point in soccer resets the game at center field. The main potential inequity after a point is just one of morale. The lead may even be insurmountable but it's still an even fight for every point until the end.

The MOBA System (Resources)

In sports you accrue points through success, you do not accrue resources. In many esports, you accrue resources. What does adding a resource economy behind in-match success do to gameplay? It creates "snowball." Snowball is simply a case of "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" – of zero sum economies.

The Genesis of MOBA (RTS + RPG)

MOBAs are a combination of two game types that Blizzard'married in WC3. Those two genres are RTS and RPG. How do resources work in these genres?

RTS's are about map control, base development, resource control. If I win an early fight and get control over the neutral mineral fields, or destroy some of your capital investments, I now have a decisive advantage. My gains are your losses and my destruction of your resources sticks.

MOBA's take character progression from RPGs. As you are victorious in RPGs, you grow stronger. You get xp and gold which translates into items and stats and abilities. A MOBA takes the RPG economy and turns it into a battlefield. Instead of just grinding xp and gold out of the environment at your own pace so you can fight bigger and tougher monsters, you fight over the resources on an RTS style map.

The Economy of Resources and You: "Snowballing"

So you accumulate "points" during the game (towers destroyed, camps taken, kills made, waves denied, objectives taken) and spend those points to basically draft MLB players into your little league game (levels, talents, items). Small victories bring inequity. Inequity brings a negative match experience. It's neither fair nor fun for a level 10 DnD hero to fight a level 6. If your zerg rush got hard countered by someone's build orders, you're probably not coming back and it's just a matter of waiting for the ax to fall.

In other words, snowballing, stomps, one sided games, one player's loss ruining every other player's match is baked into the genre. That's part of what makes MOBA's fun. It's NOT just an FPS CTF or most games in the FGC or competitive Madden 20xx. You get to level your avatar(s) and use that power to "carry" and "1v9." That's empowering. You also have to coordinate around issues of resource control to do it. That's exciting.

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So MOBAs are designed to create snowball. They can use lots of strategies to control its pace or shape how it occurs, but it's always going to be there as long as you maintain a resource economy. In my opinion, without a resource economy you enter another genre.

This suggests at some level match making fundamentally can't fix match experience. Even evenly matched pro teams, coordinating together, going back and forth in sets, frequently get stomps from match to match in every MOBA. If I can solidify a power differential, that differential should tend to increase over match-time. Otherwise it was never a power differential in the first place. It was just a pseudo-point I get to feel good about.

How HotS Revolutionized MOBA Match Experience

Certain HotS features exacerbate the problem relative to other MOBAs. I'll try to list them – multiple maps, ambiguous role assignment, lack of role queue, lack of laning phase, shared experience. None of these are bad things per se. They are all new twists and variations on the genre which open up novel and fun ways of playing a MOBA. Blizzard wanted to make a MOBA focused around the team play, without the boring laning, and with new kinds of variety and more flexibility in role. But that also adds new problems.

The big problem here, and the one that creates the illusion of a match making problem, is player variability. If you look at LoL or Smite (i know nothing about DotA, sorry), they have forces pushing towards player consistency and game quality lacking in HotS.

  • There is only one map to learn – player performance doesn't vary by map.
  • They have role queue or at least a community standard of role call and role specialization.
  • Team composition is constrained by lane assignment.
  • An individual's zone of resource responsibility is defined by lane/role assignment
  • Players are individually incented to optimize their team's economy through well defined zones of care and individual resource gain.
  • Players have more individual control and responsibility over team parity during laning phase.

There are larger periods of the game where players feel a sense of autonomy that HotS lacks. You can always play for yourself and try to convert your small wins into enough power to "carry" the failures of others. And even if you can't carry you still have the satisfaction of individual achievement through gameplay success immediately rewarded with personal resources you can translate into more small victories.

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But look also at the game's expectations of a player. A LoL/Smite solo queue player is encouraged and aided in only having to know one map, one lane, one role, a couple heroes. One tricks are lightly frowned upon but don't face anywhere near the ire of an instalock nova.

Player Variability: Your MMR Doesn't Exist and You Aren't Better than Your Team

In HotS you are expected to know a dozen maps with distinct laning and rotational set ups across multiple roles and to know enough heroes to strategically draft for each role across maps and team comps. Each map brings different mechanics, different win conditions, different strategies and ways to win, different meta games. That's hard. And it's why you should never accept that HotS is somehow less complex and demanding than other MOBA's. Its difficulty is different, not easier.

Layer this on top of the variability basic to solo queue team games – unfamiliarity, lack of communication and coordination, individual performance variability (hunger, fatigue, tilt, &etc). By now you should realize that you don't have a skill rating. You have a skill range on certain champs in certain roles on certain maps for certain team strategies that fluctuates with your own biology. These ranges get averaged into your "MMR."

Why is your tank so bad? Maybe he mains mages. Why is the other team winning so hard? This guy always plays Sonya on this map and bleeds out huge soak/merc xp leads for his team. But he can't do that on other maps. Why is your uther in bot while you fight top for an objective? He usually plays globals and is hyper attuned to soak and no one else was paying attention to the waves.

I get frustrated and angry over team mates in MOBAs all the time. But I don't attribute it to match making. I know enough of the math. I understand how a matchmaker works and what it can measure and account for. I'm pretty sure my middling ELO team mates in plat or gold or wherever I'm ending up in the game are no better or worse than I am. We just can't read each other's minds. So we disappoint each other, a snowball happens, and we fume over the failures we noticed that trap us in a losing game we feel powerless to control.

This is the HotS problem. This is the MOBA problem. And it doesn't have a solution. It's a feature, not a bug. Remove the feature and you transform the competitive environment. Team play in a zero sum economy. Undeserved snowball.

Why the Myth of the Matchmaking Problem Could Kill Competitive HotS

HotS competitive may be dying, but it's not just because HGC is dead. HotS devs have listened to us. They want us to enjoy the game. They want the game to be the best it can be. So when, for years, we complain about bad MM and one sided stomps and how shitty their game can feel to play, they've listened. And they tried to fix it through match making, but they couldn't. By my argument they can't. So they've been redesigning the game.

At times something like 40% of HotS matches have ended with 3 level leads – with snowballed stomps. What do we want? Even matches where we always feel like we're struggling on even ground. So what do you do? What is Blizzard doing? How do you stop this game experience?

You kill the resource economy. Team XP has had a problem from the start, a simple tragedy of the commons. 5 players, one level. We want to fight but someone has to soak. But the responsibility to soak is not well defined and free riding off the soak of others let's us avoid what's boring and do what's fun.

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This game has been out for years. I've played thousands of games. But I can count on one hand the number of times I've gotten anything close to a 4 man waveclear rotation and a solo laner on Dragonshire or Tomb of the Spider Queen, many of those games in R1 preseason, with me deliberately picking a wave clear tank and trying to force the strategy. LoL players at even the lowest levels work hard at csing, even if they suck at it (I suck at it). HotS players at even the highest levels can't reliably get proper laning set ups in solo queue.

This emphasizes the snowball problem. Because the game doesn't naturally encourage individuals to optimize experience gain, there's always a lot of xp floating around – it's not being vigorously contested and farmed at every point, establishing a tenuous competitive equilibrium, as it is in Hero-centered (rather than Team-centered) MOBAs.

More often than not one team ends up doing a better job of collecting that xp and that gets converted into a level lead, a talent lead, a level 20 advantage, a dead core. And you don't have great feed back on why because it emerges out of a messy mix of conflicting strategies in and between teams, rather than a well defined line of scrimmage defined by one map, 3 lanes, 5 roles.

Fighting to Fight vs Fighting for XP

Competitive HotS thrives on that. Competitive MOBAs thrive on that. Wave management, mercing/jungling, invading, ganking, denying, zoning, sieging, split pushing. These are all strategies to proactively build advantages. In spirit and in "casual play" HotS is about fighting for fun as a team over unique objectives, without the solitude and order of a laning phase on the same damn map every game. But in competitive practice both kinds of MOBAs are about fighting over xp.

The HotS team has been cutting the xp out. That's what the xp changes do. They introduce a bunch of mechanisms to equalize xp and remove a bunch of mechanisms for generating xp leads so that level parity gets maintained regardless of what happens regarding map and resource control. That's what they want to do and preliminary data suggests it does work – games are getting more even-keeled.

That's not classic RTS and RPG any more. There are games where every time you win an objective, nothing about your level or your strength changes. If I win a stock in Street Fighter we both still have full hp and the same moveset for the next stock. I'm down but I'm not out. There are even games that do it with team character progression (Everyone gets a new talent, win or lose, at each stage of Battlerite. I think).

Currently if you get a keep, or a merc camp, or a tower, or a punisher in HotS you don't get a level or talent advantage for the next fight. Or rather you only get it for as long as it takes for the background game processes to grind it to dust.

The Death of Snowball – Killing a MOBA to Make it More Sporting

No snowball. Always the same talent tier, always a good chance in a fight. Even terms at every objective. Can't bleed an advantage through early push, or out-mercing, through proactive macro. Whoever wins the coin flip late game team fight wins the match. We did it! No snowball. A less tempestuous game experience. A series of even fights where either side can win.

But this has had a perverse effect on competitive HotS. As the fundamental MOBA mechanisms for snowball, for winning, for exciting gameplay are removed (zero sum resource competition), the pros have had to create twisted strategies to bleed out an XP lead. Currently the best way to play the game is to afk soak until your opponent screws up and gives you a lane freeze. Then you bleed the freeze for everything its worth until you can force an end off of talent tier advantage and a scaled objective.

Trying to eliminate the effects of xp while still having xp is going to lead to weird, unintuitive, convoluted strategies at the highest level.

No early push strats, no contest over merc camps and invades, no macro soak responses to objective spawns. Casual HotS doesn't care. Casual HotS doesn't play around soak. Now the game doesn't get swept out from under them through mechanisms they don't manipulate. Go to lane, fight. Go to objective fight. See an enemy, fight. Win, lose, it doesnt matter. Both sides will be the same level for the next round so things feel fair, so we never feel powerless over the game because of team mates over whom we exert little to no control.

Competitive HotS is Dead and We Have Killed It

An experience economy is fundamentally at odds with the kind of game experience Blizzard is trying to make, so it's dying. Competitive HotS is dead and we have killed it. Blame match making.

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