The Problem of Smurfs in F2P (And How to Fix It)

Bloodline Champions had a smurfing problem, but it wasn’t the only one. Just look at Dota 2, CS:GO, LoL, Starcraft 2, etc. Those communities are constantly complaining about smurfs and how they ruin the game for everyone else. Is it a problem that can be fixed? Maybe.

First, a definition:

A smurf is an experienced player who plays on alternate accounts.

Smurfing exists when there is a competitive environment and players can freely create new accounts to play under. So if a game is F2P and uses some form of ranked matchmaking, then there’s a good chance it will have smurfs.

In this article, we’ll explore why people smurf, why it’s so problematic, and some ideas on how to solve it.

The Many Reasons for Smurfing

Smurfing isn’t always malicious. It can be, but there are also legitimate reasons for playing on a non-main account. To the best of my knowledge, these are the most common reasons for smurfing:

  • Recalibrate MMR. If a player doesn’t think his main account’s MMR is accurate, he’ll play on a new account to get a more “accurate” rating. This depends on how the system itself works, though.
  • Faster queue times. There will always be more newbies than experts in any game that isn’t already dead. The higher one’s rank, the fewer players there are to match against, meaning long waits between matches.
  • Easy tournament rewards. With the in-game tournament system, some players would smurf to play in the amateur tournaments (which had a grade cap restriction) and beat newbies for easy results and rewards.
  • Self-satisfaction. Players may smurf in queues — both ranked and unranked — simply to beat down on weaker players and feel better about themselves. This can be a form of relief after going on a losing streak.
  • Play with friends. What if an expert player wants to play alongside his newbie friend? Either the newbie has to play at the expert’s level or the expert has to play at the newbie’s level. Smurfing is less damaging to the newbie friend’s experience of the game.

It is what it is. Yet even though some of the reasons are valid, the question is whether or not the ability to smurf is a net gain or a net loss to a game’s overall quality. Some people are fine with it, but many argue that it’s detrimental.

Kill the smurfs before the smurfs kill the game.

Why Smurfing Is Such a Problem

In a game like Battlerite, which will presumably have the same in-game tournament system that Bloodline Champions had, the problem actually has two parts — queue smurfs and tournament smurfs — but they have the same roots.

The main problem is that smurfing ruins the newbie experience. Some players hate getting ratings boosts from playing alongside a smurf, but those folks are rare. The real victims are the players who are on the team opposite the smurf, the ones who have to eat the losses.

No matter what game you play, the complaint against smurfing is always the same: it’s simply unfair.

What’s the point in playing against someone who’s way better than you and decimates you with zero effort? The entire idea of matchmaking is that you should be getting matched against players of similar skill. Smurfing destroys the integrity of the queue system, which is why it’s so harmful.

Smurfers usually have a canned response to all of this: “Playing against people who are better than you is how you get better yourself. Suck it up and keep playing. This is all good for you.” But this is just naive at best, disingenuous at worst.

Newbies get better by playing against players who are slightly better than they are, and only if they have some tips or guidance. What can a Bronze learn from getting stomped by a Diamond? Not much. It’s nothing more than abuse and it’s not fun to be in that position.

There’s one more reason why smurfing is so harmful: If you’re a Bronze newbie playing against another “Bronze” smurf and that smurf is absolutely wrecking you, wouldn’t that make you feel like you suck? “If this guy is Bronze and he’s this good, then I must really suck.”

It’s deceptive, but a newbie wouldn’t know that. They might just conclude that “Battlerite is too hard, I’m just bad, and this game isn’t for me” and decide to quit. And that’s how the playerbase hemorrhages until the game one day dies.

The Solution: Verified Accounts

When you boil it down, the problem is that it’s way too easy for players to create multiple accounts. In a game with an upfront price tag, it’s less of an issue because most players aren’t willing to drop another $60 just to smurf.

But in F2P? There’s no limiting force.

Valve recently implemented something called Prime Matchmaking for CS:GO. In short, players can upgrade an account to Prime status by binding the account to a phone number (once a phone number is bound, it cannot be bound to other accounts) and join a separate queue only for Prime accounts.

It’s a brilliant and elegant solution — one that Battlerite should use.

Maybe Battlerite accounts could unlock verified status by binding a phone number or credit card number. Then, only verified accounts could join ranked queue and participate in tournaments. Maybe there could be non-verified tournaments with no rewards.

I prefer the phone number option because everyone has at least one phone number whereas credit card numbers are only for 18+ players. Plus, inputting a credit card number always open the risk for database hackers and what not gaining access to that sensitive data.

Anyway, the binding of a unique real-life identifier would be enough to stop smurfs from ruining the newbie experience in ranked queues and tournaments. Are there loopholes? I’m sure there’s at least one, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Leave it to Valve to be brilliant when necessary.

On paper, it’s the only idea that really works in F2P.

One common suggestion is to adding a timewall or paywall to new accounts to discourage smurfs — e.g. don’t allow queues until an account is level 25 or only paid accounts can queue — but these are bad because they also harm actual newbies.

Another common suggestion is to restrict accounts based on IP address so that every IP can only play one account — but this is unfair to dorms, Internet cafes, and households with siblings.

So, yeah. If you have any ideas to combat smurfing, please share it below! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Otherwise, answer this: are you okay with smurfing or do you think it’s detrimental to the game?

Zanetski

He is the lead writer at Battlecrank. You can find him on the Battlecrank Discord.

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