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Smurf DOTA: Why Pro Players Game in Disguise

  • By
  • PC
  • Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
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dota 2 heroes

Smurfs, ever heard of them?

No I’m not talking about the blue characters made famous in the 80s and popular recently by the very buyable (apparently) antics of the usually infallible Neil Patrick Harris. I’m referring to the gaming term which describes a player who hides his skill behind a relatively inexperienced character or account (also referred to as a twink, particularly when describing MMO characters).

Anyway, obscure gaming terminology aside, the term “smurf” has been thrown around more and more lately – mainly because of the popularity of MOBA games and the way their ranking is structured, traditionally using the ELO rating system.

Basically an ELO rating system (originally devised for ranking chess players against each other) gives players a starting rank, for example let’s say 1000. Then if you win a match against someone of a similar rank, you gain a number of points – for example 10. Then as you rank up you receive less points for beating people of lower score than you, and lose more points by losing to people with less points than you. Similarly you gain more points for beating someone with more points than you and lose less points for losing against them. Then the matchmaking system of the game tries to pair you against people with roughly the same ELO rating as yourself, creating a fair game where the difficulty progresses at the same rate as your skills.

Sound simple enough? Well realistically it sounds kind of complicated, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Now the problem occurs when someone gets frustrated at their current ELO level, wishing things were simple and easy like back when they first started playing. Of course, there is a fairly simple way to get around this: make a new account with a fresh rating. Thus the popularity of smurf accounts in games like DOTA and LoL.

Of course, since the competitive play of these games is so well tracked and televised, traditionally any sort of rating manipulation to create unfair teams like this is restricted to public games (or “pubs”). Unfortunately, since pubs are where the majority of people play, this means that it’s fairly common for the games matchmaking systems to appear to fail at balancing the skill of the players in the game – mainly due to the presence of overskilled smurfs posing as amateur players.

And this doesn’t just happen for people who have played a couple hundred games and want to be the big fish in a small pond again, even professional teams have admitted to using smurfs from time to time solely to demonstrate the skill gap between newer players and the professional grade skillset.

Ultimately any extended play on the smurf would render it invalid, as your win percentage would inevitable cause you to climb back into the bracket from whence you came and nullify your smurf advantage – but it’s still interesting to think about the subtle ways players get around their bracket for a quick moment of glory.

Sure there is an argument to be made that a shallow victory is no victory at all, but ultimately in a genre where we play solely for entertainment – can you blame someone for blowing off a bit of steam and having some (relatively) harmless fun?

Sure you can. Blaming people is what MOBAs are all about :P

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