The lobby of an Unranked match of XDefiant
Screenshot by Pro Game Guides

XDefiant doesn’t have skill-based matchmaking (kind of), and that’s what makes it great

It's a skill issue.

Ah...skill-based matchmaking (or SBMM for short)—one of the evergreen hot topics in the world of online first-person shooters. You either love it or hate it, or maybe you're somewhere in the middle like me. Ubisoft's latest title XDefiant doesn't feature it, interestingly, and it is actually pretty refreshing.

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What is skill-based matchmaking (SBMM)?

Let's start with the basics: skill-based matchmaking (or SBMM, as it's most commonly referred to) is a mechanic which places you in online lobbies only with people of a similar skill level as you. This skill level is largely determined by the game's leveling or progression system. But if you're on a lucky streak and winning several games in a row, it might also bump you up to lobbies with higher-skilled players. The inner workings (or I should say secrets) behind skill-based matchmaking remain somewhat of a mystery, leading to heaps of online speculation.

The ethos behind this system is that it leads to more balanced lobbies for everyone – both the competitive, high-level players looking for "sweaty" (competitive) lobbies, as well as more casual gamers who don't want to be annihilated every game just because they haven't been religiously gaming for the past few months. Countless online shooters employ SBMM – from Fortnite to Call of Duty to Overwatch.

What's so bad about skill-based matchmaking (SBMM)?

But as with most online discourse, skill-based matchmaking also generates a lot of criticism. This comes primarily from high-level competitive players and streamers who, having leveled up much faster than the average player, grow frustrated with only being paired with other similarly high-level gamers. The queue times for these lobbies become longer, especially as a game dips in popularity, while the sweatiness (read: difficulty) of these lobbies persists. This makes for consistently challenging games, removing the opportunity for high-level players to dominate lower-level ones and, presumably, easily generate content.

Why XDefiant not having SBMM is a refreshing, if not bold, choice

The Play screen in XDefiant, displaying the Unranked, Ranked and Practice Zone game modes
Screenshot by Pro Game Guides

Ubisoft's decision to ditch skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) in its latest free-to-play shooter XDefiant is certainly one of the game's main talking points online (along with server issues and poor hit registration). Some might interpret this choice as the developer trying to appease those high-level players who are really just looking for a walk in the park. And those people might certainly have a point. But in my eyes, there are two main reasons why XDefiant not having SBMM is a good thing (at least for now).

Unranked features no SBMM, while Ranked does have SBMM

First of all, it's only XDefiant's Unranked mode (which you should think of as Quick Play) that doesn't feature skill-based matchmaking. Its Ranked mode, which is currently on a trial run, does have SBMM. This makes perfect sense to me as it gives players a choice. That is to say, unranked is for casual players who want to dive into games as quickly as possible, get a few rounds in, perhaps level up some weapons and factions, and not get destroyed by sweaty players streaming on Twitch. Meanwhile, Ranked is for those more competitive players seeking to hone their skills against real sharpshooters. This is all the more reason for them to be paired against high-level players, giving them the challenge and high-pressure environment they so deeply crave.

No SBMM is a true representation of a game's player base – warts and all

But the bigger reason why it's so refreshing that XDefiant doesn't feature any SBMM (in unranked) is that it forces players to reckon with the true player landscape surrounding the game. The fact of the matter is that there will always be low-skilled and casual players as well as sweaty pro players looking for a challenge. And believe it or not, there are very solid players who sit somewhere in the middle – proficient at modern FPS games but who don't play on a daily basis, gladly returning to the game every couple of weeks or months to see what's new and what might work better (or worse)—players such as myself.

Having a high skill level or showing off fancy skins or cosmetics also doesn't necessarily equate to being a great player. In my countless years playing online shooters, I'm surprised at how many excellent teammates or punishing opponents show off skills and talents that transcend the mere numbers and stats on their profiles.

Human beings are complex and nuanced creatures, so countless other factors affect someone's performance in a competitive online game. These range from levels of focus, reflexes and response times, hand-eye coordination, problem-solving abilities, stress levels, and amount of sleep. Luck is definitely also a factor. I can't tell you how many winning streaks I've had just because it seems to have been my lucky day. I may have been playing poorly or even recklessly, I may have even been ignoring the objective, and yet somehow I kept winning. Chance is a mysterious force. Sometimes it's better not to question it.

The lack of SBMM forces these three distinct camps to face each other – for better or for worse. What's important to remember is that this reality will not exclusively result in high-level players ruining players who are just starting out. Yes, this will surely happen. But sometimes, a high-level player might just want to enjoy a more casual game for once, relieving them of stress and the perceived need to constantly grind. And sometimes a low-level player will thank the heavens for having a highly skilled player on their team, helping them break a soul-crushing losing streak. The low-level player might even complete some tricky challenges in the process, level up some crucial weapons, and begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A couple of successful games thanks to stronger teammates might give them the confidence to keep playing and further refine their skills.

The success of no SBMM in XDefiant depends on the game's future

Above all else, Ubisoft's choice to omit SBMM from XDefiant is undoubtedly a bold one – perhaps intentionally designed to stimulate discourse and controversy in the online sphere. Its success largely depends upon how the game's player base grows and develops. Hopefully, the more casual players come to the game, the more balanced things will continue to feel. But if Ubisoft's post-release support falters and fades away, and only sweaty pro players remain, then I can certainly see how this game could become punishing for those just dropping in for a casual match.

All I know is that I'll be sticking around XDefiant for the time being. The game's streamlined modes and presentation, fast-paced nature, and solid gunplay feel invigorating in the face of Call of Duty's avalanche of content, endless new game modes, and constantly shifting meta. Sometimes you just can't keep up.

Wondering if your PC can handle XDefiant? Then be sure to check out All XDefiant minimum and recommended PC specs on Pro Game Guides.

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Image of Ivan Krasnov
Ivan Krasnov
Ivan Krasnov has been a writer for over 7 years. His areas of interest include shooters like Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and The Finals, but also RPGs like Cyberpunk: 2077 and the Dishonored franchise and single-player experiences like God of War and The Last of Us. Ivan has a double major in History and Russian from Oberlin College and when he isn't gaming – he is playing music and touring Europe with his band.

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XDefiant doesn’t have skill-based matchmaking (kind of), and that’s what makes it great

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