Professional Overwatch player Brice "FDGod" Monsçavoir is facing online backlash this week after he streamed matches while playing on an alt account with his lower-ranked girlfriend. While the action was pretty harmless on its face, many called FDGod out for either smurfing down in Diamond or boosting his girlfriend.
FDGod posted a response to the backlash on Twitter: “People really pointing the fact that I am ‘boOstinG’ rather than real toxicity that really affects and hurts people, when I literally bought this account just to duo with my girlfriend off rolling and I’m literally stuck 3k5 since few month even though I am trying my hardest to win??”
Regardless of your opinion of whether FDGod did something wrong here or not, the backlash points to an ongoing frustration from the Overwatch player base about smurfing. It may surprise many to find out but smurfing is not a bannable offense in Overwatch. So while you may rage against the other team for “having smurfs on it” they aren’t technically breaking the rules.
The problem of smurfing in video games
Smurfing has been an issue in video games since the introduction of skill-based matchmaking. Over the years, many thousands of skilled players have fallen into the temptation of intentionally crashing their rating — or starting a whole new account — so that they can stunt on players that are less skilled than themselves.
Smurfs ruin lower-level games by introducing an unfair variable into the game. The entire point of a skill-based matchmaking system is to ensure that players compete in fair matches against other players of a similar skill level. When smurfs enter the game, all of that fairness goes out the window.
The biggest problem with smurfing is that it demoralizes low-level and beginner players who are trying to have a good time and improve. When you are just starting off and trying to get better in a bronze Overwatch match or a silver League of Legends game it can be frustrating to have a player who is head and shoulders above the entire server come in and ruin everyone's game.
In this way, smurfing artificially undermines the accessibility of games to new players. Fairness is the foundation of fun in gaming. If the match doesn’t feel fair, players won’t want to play.
At the point where smurfs are making the game less fun to play — and a significant number of high-level players have alt accounts that they use to play the games at lower levels — it seems like Overwatch should think about banning smurfing. However, there are some serious challenges related to the enforcement of such a rule.
The challenges to banning smurfs
Smurfing has been banned in Dota 2 for years and yet the problem of smurfing has persisted in that community. Dota 2 has a unique challenge with smurfs, since it is a free-to-play game. So if you ban someone's alt-account, there isn’t much to stop them from making a new one. Regardless of the challenges of free-to-play, an official “no smurfs” policy doesn’t enforce itself in any game.
Valve recently upped the ante and made smurfing a bannable offense as a means of making Dota 2 more beginner-friendly. According to Valve, they plan to ban accounts that they have a “high confidence in their smurfing and game-ruining behavior.” For cases where they are not sure, Valve will place suspected smurfs into a pool with other suspects until they can make their judgement. Players now have the ability to report other players for smurfing as well.
As of now, it is unclear if these stepped-up enforcement policies will succeed, but many have praised Valve for their proactive attempt to properly enforce their smurfing rules. Some have also called on Overwatch to adopt a similar system.
Currently in Overwatch, smurfing itself is not actually banned. Players are allowed to start new accounts and compete at any level of the game so long as they aren’t boosting or throwing. So if you get placed in a lower MMR on your initial placement, you are technically not in violation of any rules as long as you aren’t blatantly sabotaging the game or artificially boosting a lower-ranked friend.
Part of the issue with attempting to all-out ban smurfing is that Overwatch uses an automated reporting system, with very little human oversight. Players can be punished based on a mass of reports, so banning smurfing could easily lead to report system abuse. However, report system abuse is already happening on other accounts, meaning the new smurf ban wouldn’t make this problem significantly worse.
But even if they replaced their automated system with a more hands-on approach, the charge of intentionally smurfing is also relatively hard to prove. There are players who are legitimately hard stuck below where they should be ranked because Overwatch is a team game and their MMR system doesn’t reward individual prowess nearly as much as team wins.
Without an in-depth look at that player's history, it would be difficult to determine if they are held down by Overwatch’s placement system, or if they are intentionally remaining low.
FDGod directly addressed this aspect on Twitter this past week.
“I have never thrown games to stay at this elo, I got 3k1 as flex support after my very first placement,” he said in a tweet. “And since then I've always tried my hardest to win the games, and I'm still hardstuck 3k5 lol. It's really sad to see people hating on "BoOstIng" rather than real toxicity.”
The other challenge with banning smurfs is related to community. A lot of players might smurf because they want to play with their friends or in FDGod’s case his girlfriend. This type of smurfing may still be bad for the game, but their motivation is not to abuse other players — it’s to enjoy Overwatch socially. Some may argue that this is what quickplay is for, but this argument ignores the fact that the only definitive Overwatch experience is competitive play.
Even if it’s unenforceable, Blizzard should ban smurfing
Officially banning smurfs might be a good PR move to appease the Overwatch player base, but enforcement of that policy is going to be very difficult, if not impossible. As mentioned above, Dota 2 has banned smurfing for years and hasn’t yet found a way to properly enforce the policy.
However, even with all the issues of enforcement, Blizzard should at least officially ban smurfing. Smurfing is a violation of the purpose of the MMR system and undermines the competitive integrity of lower-level games. They can’t start to even think about the enforcement of fairness in lower-level matches until they also acknowledge and address the ongoing smurf problem in their game.
So long as alt-accounts are allowed — and even encouraged — by the Overwatch developers, smurfing will continue to be a problem. An official ban on the practice of using alt-accounts to get around matchmaking rules is the first step toward solving the issue.
The real question, of course, is how does a professional support player have a support account that is hard stuck in Diamond? But that is a discussion for another article.
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.