Most MOBA and MMO players and developers have accepted the presence of smurfs in their games. And “for better or worse” wouldn’t really be an appropriate euphemism to apply here – it’s more like “for worse or nothing, really.” Why do people smurf? Is it cheating? What’s the big deal?
Schlonglor and Warp
Smurfing goes all the way back to before the beginning of time, so long as one considers the beginning of time as the release of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. The practical idea is much older than that, with ringers and sharks popping up in fights and card games as long as anybody can remember. But for video games, the term comes from the late 1990s.
Three years before even the release of StarCraft, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness hit the shelves of Media Plays just in time for Christmas, 1995. A few years later, with the introduction of Battle.net, a relatively small community of competitive players by today’s esports standards earned reputations as the best Warcraft II players. Two particularly well-known players were Schlonglor and Warp.
But eventually, their reputations became a problem. Back then, matchmaking was as rudimentary as it could possibly be. And when anybody who knew anything found themselves in a room about to go against the infamous duo, they’d turn tail and run, or just pay homage to their superiors before bowing out gracefully.
Rare footage of a 14th century English smurf
So the alleged roommates decided to create aliases. Schlonglor chose PapaSmurf as his, and Warp played as Smurfette. The two would occasionally write about their matches, providing a chronicle that now serves as a trail of breadcrumbs back to the origin of the term. Eventually, other competitive players started using aliases against the two smurfs and the rest, as they say, is smurfing history.
But those were different days, as Evil Twinkie points out on a gamereplays.org forum thread. Back then, smurfs had rules to live by. Chief among the differences is that there was some fun in knowing a player’s style and strategies, and being able to look through the smurf shroud and say, “I think I know who this really is.” There was also a ceremonious identity reveal after the match, and the whole thing had a much more personal and friendly air to it. Originally, smurfing was much more closely related to the way pros stream under different handles than to what gets called smurfing today.
Behold the Neo-Smurf
Across a variety of MOBAs and arena shooter titles, smurfing now is a much more anonymous affair. With random matchmaking, you might be playing a smurf, or you might think you’re playing a smurf, but either way the game ends and everybody leaves. What once was a fun twist on the game between top players has become an issue that plagues a variety of titles, from Counter Strike to League of Legends and Dota 2 to Overwatch. The critical question here is simple: Is smurfing cheating, and should it be punished?
So far, there is no clear answer on this. Debate raged on the Overwatch forums in a thread titled “Smurfing is cheating. Stop downplaying it.” The thread gained notoriety when Blizzard’s Vice President and the Lead Designer for Overwatch, Jeff Kaplan, stepped in to give a few morsels of insight and wisdom into the developer/publisher’s approach. While the team is committed to eliminating opportunities for the dubious actions of certain players to undermine the competitive spirit of the game, Kaplan states that smurfing “isn’t really that big of an issue.”
He’s not alone in his position. In an Ask Riot Q/A from a year ago, two members of the League of Legends team responded to the community’s concerns about smurfing. This included WookieCookie, who was very active about enforcement cases until dropping off the forums four months ago, and the game’s Lead Designer Ghostcrawler. WookieCookie said at the time that Riot “can’t endorse” but are trying “to minimize issued caused” by smurfing. Furthermore, Ghostcrawler said that not all smurfs are “trying to grief actual new players.”
Meanwhile, Valve took steps earlier this year to limit the practice of smurfing, at least in ranked matches of Dota 2. Back in May, they began a new practice of requiring players to register a phone number in order to play ranked matches. But the forums are still rife with complaints of smurfs, and as one person points out, it’s not the year 2000 and the one account/one phone number system can easily be fooled.
When you sift through the toxicity and the rage, smurfs at least create problems, if they’re not inherently a problem themselves. Are there morally sound reasons for smurfing? Ghostcrawler mentions playing with a friend with a different skill set is “a noble pursuit.” Indeed, if you’re Challenger and your friend is Bronze garbage, you’ll probably have a better time playing together against other Bronze players. But even in that scenario, it would definitely be poor moral judgement to do that in ranked play.
This is the point where Match Making Rating (MMR) frequently comes up. According to the Ask Riot with WookieCookie, it doesn’t take long before the LoL matchmaking system increases a new smurf account’s MMR and starts matching them with other smurfs. So does that mean smurfs are just a red herring? Is the real problem the fact that players won’t accept their own Dunning-Kruger cognition? Are people playing MMOs too protective of even their unranked records and stats if they feel the need to experiment on a completely different account?
It should also be noted that a smurf is basically just a secondary account. They might also be a booster, or an intentional feeder/thrower, both of which violate terms of service for many games. Disciplinary action can and should be taken in those cases, but the simple act of playing on a secondary account is much more of a grey area.
Everyone can agree that in the ranked version of any game, smurfing is mischievous at best. But regulation isn’t easy. Games frequently institute requirements on entering ranked matches – being a certain level, playing for a certain amount of time, or having a certain number of champions to choose from. The assumption is that the requirements dissuade the malignant smurf from investing the time. Applying increased account verification on ranked players – Valve’s approach – might be in the right direction. Developers and publishers have much more of a responsibility to maintain the sanctity of their ranked scenes, and should allow freedom of experimentation in casual games. If you’re tilting from getting smurfed in unranked play, maybe you should just see it as a learning experience.
Full Disclosure: The author of this post technically smurfed before in League of Legends, by creating a second account after taking a break from the MOBA for approximately 3 years.