Why Ranked modes in Team-based videogames are doing it wrong

Many videogames that are really popular these days are team-based online competitive games – Call of Duty, Halo, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, and on and on. What astounds me though to this day is how little “TEAM” these games generally manage to inject into their team game modes. Oh sure, you know you’re a member of Red in a game of Red Vs Blue, you might even talk to your teammates and help and co-operate with them, maybe you’ll queue again with them for a couple of matches, maybe even add them to your friends list (at least if the crummy system lets you…)… yet, you don’t remember things or relate to prior games as a team at all, it’s always about you as an individual. At the top end of professional e-sports in some games you see actual teams that are named and known as such, so why don’t these games attempt to capture any of this for a regular player, in much the same way even a very casual sports team would do.

You see games like LoL, known for its awful community, and their attempts to help improve things, and again, I always think that trying to incentivise players to play in an actual team of known acquaintances and friends is the thing they miss totally that would have the biggest impact. What’s really got me aggravated recently is that instead of heading in the direction I think would work, many team games, and their players opinions, seem to be moving in the opposite direction and shifting towards prioritising individual rankings.

Firstly the problem represents itself in the actual rankings given out to individuals being based, even partially, on individual performance and not on team performance. David Sirlin covered the problem in Overwatch in detail:

adjusting the ranking based on individual performance rather than just win/loss is pretty dangerous.

And myself and Navan have experienced it ourselves in Heroes of the Storm:

I have recently completed the placement matches for team league with my regular team of friends. We played all the placement matches with the same 5 people, yet our ranks are wildly different, spread between Bronze 3 and Gold 1.

And of course we covered this too in our basics of Competitive Gaming 123 before:

Team games must do team ranking, not individual rankings, unless every player on the team really is trying to do identical tasks all the time

“It’s ok Peyton, I’m only ranked on TDs scored and I’m a Center, I got zero, lol!”

Secondly, and just as bad, is that even when your team’s performance does solely create you whatever skill-based ranking is being used for the game, it is still an individual score that you maintain, and you only get scored based on, essentially, your skill level when playing with an arbitrary and random group of other teammates. Now, as again, we covered in Competitive Gaming 123, that’s a valuable score, especially for someone who only ever plays with “random pick up groups” (it’s the best you can really do for such a player), but it shouldn’t be the only ranking system, or even the main one that a team competitive game should want to focus on.

The only team game I’ve ever played to date, that started to do this stuff really really well, is, bizarrely, not a team-focused game at all, but StarCraft II (one of the many reasons it’s one of only two games so far to score an exemplary 5/5 for competitive gaming design in our reviews). Now StarCraft II doesn’t even make an especially great team game, designed & balanced as it is for 1v1 for the most part, but that’s not the point here. Its competitive gaming design (ie: ranking system, matchmaking, etc) was still incredibly good for a team game: Each match you played with a group of teammates created a new “team” and you would be ranked as a team based on your win/loss results with those players. So a team of Remy77077 & Navan would have one ranking score, and a team of Remy77077 and aN00Bis could have quite a different ranking – and nothing I did playing in a team with Navan, or anyone else, or by myself, could affect my team score with my teammate aN00Bis. Given SC2 could be played in teams of 2-4 this gave a huge amount of flexibility. It does introduce the problem whereby if you don’t play with the same people frequently, you’d get lots of scores all based on a very small number of games, but at least you were incentivised to TRY and maintain a team with your teammates to play a team game, which is the main point of this. This is the fundamental level to start to do it – an accurate ranking and rating and stats etc based on actual teams, not individuals, but for how I think games could and should go further, it’s actually pretty easy to come up with ideas – just look at actual team sports:

  1. Be able to NAME your team.
    Yeh you can sort-of do stuff with clan-tags and naming yourselves similarly, as I have done in the past with “Team Shitty” but what about us actually being able to name our team in-game so that all players know it and see it. As awesome as the multi-talented Team Shitty are, they aren’t yet as recognisable a team as say, the Miami Dolphins.
  2. Have some kind of a TEAM “bench” / backup player system.
    This also neatly solves the problem of not always being able to play the exact same line up week in, week out, how do other sports handle this? Well, of course, you don’t seen an identical lineup every year, or even every week or day. Teams can be bigger than the actual basic team size needed to play the game, and yet players can still be part of the same team.
  3. Be able to signify and identify with your team in-game in ways other than name.
    How this could work would depend on the game in question, but perhaps team colour schemes, team logos or, if you want to get really crazy, even hats.
  4. Team stats.
    Why doesn’t any team videogame have something like this?

    Just as important as your overall ranking and matchmaking rating is all the other stats and records and achievements in a team game could be attached to a team rather than a person and have pages related to that teams accomplishments –

  5. Some individual types of stats too could work within the team concept.
    Things like a team voted “MVP” or if the game displayed the “best lineup” that performed the best together within the overall team, these things could be added, yet still incentivise team play.

Exactly which of these ideas would work best and how you’d toggle the numbers would depend on the game and community in question. For example, for Heroes of the Storm (a 5v5 game) and my group of players, ideally the overall team size would allow around 10 people, and I’d be happy being limited to playing on only a single Team per season. But you might find different numbers would work better or allowing a player to be on a small number of teams within the same game might be better than limiting them to a single one – as I mentioned above the main issue with SC2 was being arguably too flexible in allowing varying team sizes AND being on an infinite number of teams.

I am really confident that introducing ideas such as this, along with proper solely team-based ranking and matchmaking, would do no end to improve the gameplay, incentives, teamwork and even the whole communities in all team competitive videogames.


6 thoughts on “Why Ranked modes in Team-based videogames are doing it wrong

  1. I’ve had a couple of comments from friends on various forms of social media, that I’m going to add and reply here to keep this all together đŸ™‚

    From Marc:
    “…You’re not wrong. With every game trying it’s best to be e-sports, some sort of built in e-sports style back-end team fanciness seems like a no brainer.”

    From BleedTheBones:
    “A new ranking score for each combination of players would make more sense than the current system, which is extremely frustrating. Being intelligent about how the team scores are presented is important though, and I don’t have a good answer for that. A long history of team scores with various PUGs? Limit it to precomps only? Show you an average team score for a prospective teammate as you debate adding him to your precomp? Same for everyone looking at him or per player perspective? And for short lived comps (for instance someone’s friend joins for an afternoon, gets lots of wins, then leaves….so the original comp loses the “progress” until he rejoins? Also how to deal with the potential for toxicity if adding one fellow to your comp drops your team score? Or causing players to resist playing with new people because it would be a score reset/stall and therefore a waste of time?

    The current system is beyond broken, that much is for sure. The ideal system will be a sort of team score, but there won’t be an easy answer I don’t think, especially if they don’t want to inadvertently incentivise antisocial/clannish behaviour. Then of course there is the spectre of matchmaking.

    I play too much overwatch so these issues are front and centre for me. But JK and his team seem to really care about these things as evidenced by the huge changes to the ranking system each season, and the games own huge departures from broken systems of the past (eliminations, private individual performance, no KD, card system)”


    1. Actually, the whole idea is to incentivise “clannish” behaviour really. To encourage people to play as regular groups and get scored as regular team groups rather than the default being a random “pick up group” or even yes, playing with new people. For when you =are= playing with randoms (which may be in a different game mode and matchmaking pool) then you would have a “you plus randoms” team score that shows how well your teams perform under that condition. That’s just like how individual team scores work now anyway in good team ranking systems (ie: pretty much everything that’s not Overwatch or HotS).

      For how to deal with “short-lived-comp” then it really depends on how the game decides to deal with the size of “bench” it allows and how many teams you are allowed to be in at once in a season. If one of those things isn’t “infinite”, then you do run into the possible downside that you would reach the limit on that season, and then wouldn’t be able to add a new team with a new friend to play in whatever team ranked mode that game allowed. But as I say above, the tweaking the number of teams you could be in and the bench-players-per-team number is an easy thing to modify to what works best for that particular game and that particular community.

      Don’t forget there would always be a “play with randoms” mode allowed as well, this is all about having a mode where you are playing as a “pre-comp” only.

      As for the toxicity thing and a teams performance going up or down with different players active within the team, an easy thing to do would be to only prominently display the ‘best team ranking’ that team had achieved in a season, and then possibly show stuff like “% time in starting line-up” for each player, and the lineup that was the “best performing” as mentioned in the article.


  2. Polari from the Fantasy Strike (http://www.fantasystrike.com/) dischord chat has commented to me, saying:

    “Dota 2 has named teams, with logos and banners that show up in your base in game, with one backup player, with team-specific ranking”

    That’s incredibly interesting to me, and although I really didn’t enjoy DOTA2 mechanically when I tried it before, it’s got me intrigued to take another look at it again now. It’s great that they are actually already implementing some of these ideas to increase team play.

    Knight from the same chat channel added this about trying DOTA2:

    “A good idea, considering they nabbed a bunch of design ideas from HotS in the latest patch”


  3. It looks like League of Legends are actually adding something that matches up with a lot of the ideas here with their new “Clash” game type in LoL:

    However one of my friends who plays the game regularly believes it could be too little too late, as the developer and community has focused on the “solo queue” ranked game type for too long.


  4. I find it most interesting that what you’ve highlighted here are all things that actual organized team sports (physical, or “e-sports”) have already figured out. Nothing you’ve described is a new idea, but none of them are applied to team based games. Heck, some of this stuff even exists within MMO guilds both officially, and player managed.

    There could be a lot of value in putting additional emphasis on the “team” in team games. I think it’d take a while for players to warm up to the systems, but there could be huge amounts of benefit to implementing even a few of the ideas you’ve listed above. If nothing else it really encourages you to work with your team, which should be the point of these games.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks & exactly re: real sports.
      I watch quite a lot of real sport which is probably why these things stand out to me so much.

      One of the potential counter-arguments I can imagine is “casual players only want a quick knock about pick-up-group game” which of course is fine, depending on the game there is probably still a way to keep that mode or option. But as soon as you design a mode for any form of competitive team play, I would always want these things personally. And very casual players of real-life sports tend to as well, so I do suspect a lot of them would in videogames too, if given the opportunity.

      Liked by 1 person

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