Ranked Play Revamp: Improvement or Failure?

Blizzard finally introduced the first season of ranked play almost a month ago after a year-long preseason. Along with the new season, they also completely revamped the ladder. Gone is the flat ranking system of 1-50 where each rank represented roughly 2% of the population. The new rankings instead have a much more League of Legends-esque system.

This is probably the most impactful update Blizzard has ever added to the game, and it’s long overdue. The woes of the previous ranking system and its failure to recognize outstanding players grieved the community for several months; it was about time for a proper fix to an obviously flawed system. Nonetheless, revamped ranked play came with some growing pains of its own.

 

 

There have been some serious issues with the way the ranking system has been revamped that have caused a lot of frustration in the community. The problems on the surface only tell a portion of this titanic issue. It’s not just matchmaking or promotion matches. The ladder sometimes feels similar to the preseason ranking system, hinting that we haven’t made any progress at all with these updates.

The Preseason Ladder

Blizzard’s original implementation of a ranking system in Heroes of the Storm was clearly aimed toward the casual crowd. The ranks were plain 1-50, and passing in between them was easy. Four to five wins at minimum could rank you up, creating the illusion that it was easy to improve and get better at the game. At the same time, it was very easy to rank down as well.

Slippage of Rank

The result was a “slippage” of rank. Aside from Rank 1 players, everyone tended to slide around between ranks rather fluidly. The result of this effect is that no clear level of play could be established between players with fluctuating ranks. I had a friend who worked his way up from Rank 35 to Rank 6 and then back down to Rank 25 over the course of preseason. Even if his actual skill fell in the median, the slippage of rank prevented him from properly assessing his clear worth.

This effect has not gone away entirely in revamped ranked play either. The new system still emphasizes quick ranking to give the feeling on improvement. Players still slip between ranks consistently when it only takes a minimum five to six games to rank up or down. Blizzard introduced promotion and demotion matches To combat the slippage and prevent occasional wins and losses from pushing players up or down a rank too easily.

I was originally skeptical of promotion matches having any real effect on the slippage, but they have proven to be more of a bear to get through than anything. In fact, the most frustrating thing in the game right now might be grinding games to rank up and losing four or five promotion matches in a row. In any case, they still do not prevent slippage entirely. A player’s skill level can still vary from Gold 1 to Gold 3 depending on their teammates, their play that day, or how well matchmaking was working.

The Race to Rank 1

The previous iteration of the ranking system made it very easy to get to Rank 1. Several pro players managed to get there in under 50 Hero League games on smurf accounts. While it was only supposed to represent the top 2% of the server’s population, it could very well hold more, from HotS Logs MMRs of 2.6k to 4k+. The difference between low Rank 1 players and the top players in the region was as wide as a canyon.

With the ranked play revamp, you’d expect this problem to go away. Not quite. Promotion matches do indeed slow down the rate of ranking, but good players (and duo queues) can still rank up to Grandmaster in only a day or two with a 70+% win rate. Thus, the top league is still filled with professional players and their smurfs as well as friends who were carried in duo queues.

Master League became Rank 1’s spiritual successor. Like Rank 1, no cap was put on Master League. It’s entirely based on points that you earn rather than ranking up or down, similar to Hearthstone’s Legend rank. Assuming players continue to play and improve, Master League will accommodate a larger percentage of players than all other leagues until reset at the beginning of next season.

There are pros and cons to this, but the most obnoxious part is that it becomes easier to reach Master League earlier in the season. Much lower skilled players can rank up early in the season and fill Master League with lower MMRs, skewing the demographics in the same way that Rank 1 had widely varying MMRs. It also means that getting Grandmaster early in the season means very little in terms of accurately representing your skill.

The Soft Reset and Matchmaking Woes

One of the greatest problems with Heroes of the Storm is undoubtedly the matchmaking system. It’s been through a lot of changes over the past few months to improve the quality of matches, but it stills causes a lot of problems among players in the upper echelons and has some abusable traits.

The “soft reset” was implemented by Blizzard during the ranked play revamp. This was done by widening the “uncertainty” levels of each player, allowing them to rise or drop in MMR much more easily for the first few weeks. The reset had two main goals. First, it gave the new system a chance to recalibrate successfully and settle players into their proper league and ranking. The other goal was to give players who had been weighted down by thousands of games some breathing room to allow them to rise to the level they deserved.

The downside to the soft reset was a few weeks of incredibly terrible matchmaking—like, probably the worst few weeks of matchmaking ever. Extraordinarily wide skill gaps between players on each team appeared, and many pro players openly lamented the clown fiesta games when solo queueing. The only hope lay in the promise that MMR would eventually steady out and players would be in their proper place at last—and it has.

In any case, it still caused a lot of problems associated with the race to Grandmaster. Players who didn’t deserve to be in the top 500 quickly grabbed a spot before others could catch up. In addition, duo queuing was far superior to solo queuing because it tended to favor the duo queue in matches; duos would typically be placed with much lower skilled opponents, allowing them to quickly climb to the top.

The New Ranked Ladder

The newest version of ladder is, by far, a much more competitive system than its predecessor. Players are exposed to a league-based structure that more clearly defines skill levels, and a much larger emphasis is being placed on the top 500 players in the coveted Grandmaster League. On top of that, Blizzard also introduced a rule that players could only queue with friends within one league of each other—a move that prevents duo queue abuse and also vastly improves matchmaking. Silenced players (players who were excessively reported for abusive language in chat) were also banned from ranked play until their penalty had expired.

All in all, it was a huge step forward in terms transforming Heroes of the Storm from a purely casual game to one that competitors could also enjoy. However, it still retains a lot of its casual roots by allowing players to move quickly between ranks and see progress quickly—and that has presented some issues of its own.

Promotion Matches Feel Harsh

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the new ranking system is promotion matches. The system is supposed to reward hard work with frequent promotions designed to make the player feel like they are progressing. No one likes to feel stagnant. However, there is a serious contradiction between that idea and the promotion matches Blizzard introduced to prevent players from experiencing too much slippage.

Promotion matches make up a huge percentage of the games required to rank up, and their pass/fail nature makes them infuriating to lose. According to Blizzard’s Ranked Play Spotlight, it takes an average of five wins to become eligible for a promotion match. With the promotion match counting as the sixth game necessary to rank up, it weighs in at around 17% of the total matches necessary to rank up. If you lose the promotion match, you will need to win another two matches to become eligible for another promotion match.

Being forced to play an additional three matches when it only takes six to rank up is a 50% increase, and that’s only if you lose your promotion match once! The end result is that it may take you many more games than expected to rank up, especially if you’re playing at a 50% win rate. This can be monotonous and make grinding ranked play really unfun.

Blizzard should take a page out of League of Legends’ playbook here, in my opinion, by forcing players to take more time to rank up. Promotion matches should become less harsh by introducing a best of three or best of five promotion series. It may take longer to rank up, but it will still show progress and become less infuriating to grind through.

Demotion Matches Feel Worse

Same coin, different side. Demotion matches are probably the most demoralizing experience ever designed in a video game. It’s necessary to keep players from automatically ranking down and having to go through the gauntlet of ranking back up again, but it just feels awful to be told, “Last chance, don’t lose”—and lose anyway.

Similar to promotion matches, a large part of what makes demotion matches terrible is that they take up a large percentage of the games required to rank down. Lose six or seven games, and you’re demoted. Sometimes people just have bad days or go on losing streaks. The ranking system punishes them way harder than they should be punished, especially if they worked hard to get that rank.

Again, a solid solution is to just increase the number of games played in between each promotion/demotion so that there is room for error without the constant mantra of, “One step forward, two steps back.”

Is The League System Any Good?

Yes. The league system is overall a huge improvement from the previous ranking system, despite having various drawbacks. Ranks, though not 100% accurate yet, are definitely more representative of skill. Players who were originally Rank 1 in the old system are now separated in an array from Diamond 5 to Grandmasters with little slippage of rank.

The only key problem I see with the revamped ranking system is that it ranks up and down too quickly. Blizzard’s take on a reward-based system is both interesting and naive; achievement doesn’t have to equal winning. Smaller, more incremental steps as well as more in-game rewards are much more exciting than ranking up quickly. Spending an average of six to eight games in between promotion/demotion matches is just not enough time to grow and actually earn the next rank or league.

In any case, the league system was sorely needed after almost a year in preseason. It’s still quite early in its current iteration, so there are likely more changes and improvements to come. I look forward to competitive ladder seasons this year, and I can’t wait to see how the achievement of rank translates to skill among the top players in the scene.


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