Recently, IGN wrote an article about the ongoing Team Fortress 2 "bot problem".
For those unaware, TF2's matchmaking mode has been flooded with cheaters for approximately two straight years. You queue up for a match, wait to join, load in, and you're greeted by ten snipers on both teams, spinning in place, instantly killing anyone in line of sight, and spamming racial slurs.
Valve has yet to formally acknowledge this issue, despite it being present for so long. Matchmaking is practically unplayable. 90% of games will be flooded with bots who make conventional Team Fortress 2 gameplay impossible.
Team Fortress 2 is, or was, my favorite game. I have near 3000 hours across eleven years. I do not blame the botters for this game's demise, and I don't think anyone should.
This shit is squarely on Valve.
See, way back when I first got into Team Fortress 2, there was no matchmaking system. There were a handful of official Valve-run servers, but the real draw of the game for me (and, at the time, the majority of the playerbase) were the beloved Community Servers. You see, Valve used to be fucking genius. TF2 gave its users full access to the official development and server-hosting tools, and told its users to run wild. You couldn't modify the game directly, but you could make your own maps, you could host servers with a plugin layer known as Sourcemod that could make all manner of changes. Upon joining a server, if you were missing any of the custom content (such as the aforementioned maps), TF2 would automatically download them for you.
If you exist on the internet but haven't played Team Fortress 2, I guarantee you still witness the results of this system. TF2 was tailor made for 24-32 man servers, loaded up with custom content, and set up in such a way that you'd end up with groups of regulars coming in waves throughout the day. communities formed. Bits grew into in-jokes grew into massive, internet-wide memes. Thousands of small servers turned into a beautiful web of communities, each catering to a different group of people. Want to play without crits? Easy. Want to play exclusively vanilla maps? Sure. Want to play maps that are custom made, but on the same level of quality as the official ones such that you'd think they were official? No problem. Want to play 30 different variations of 2fort over the span of 10 hours? Godspeed, you magnificent bastard. Want to dick around in a minecraft-themed lobby, stuffed full of secrets and hidden rooms? Easy.
TF2, and its community, used to be for the people. It was an inherently less profitable system that encouraged players to dig through the tangled web of servers to find the ones that suited them, and it was so beautifully easy. If you run into a server you dislike, you just leave. There is no leave penalty, there is no Queue time unless you're trying to join a full server. Just put in the tags/map prefixes you want and go hunting.
The majority of these community servers are gone.
In July of 2015, Valve launched the beta of a new matchmaking system, spurred on by a handful of competitive-play-centric community members who saw the matchmaking system present in Overwatch, the latest in a long line of "TF2 killers", and wanted to preemptively one-up that game.
Valve introduced a number of incentives to get people to play this new system. First, the percieved convenience of "just click the button to Queue, no digging through the server list!" was enticing (even if it's not anywhere near convenient, which I will get into in a bit). The less scrupulous method was that the newly-introduced Weapon Skins (in the style of CS:GO) could only be obtained through Contracts, which could only be completed while playing on an official Valve-run server.
All of which were now Matchmaking.
The effects of this update were at once immediate and insidiously slow.
You see, if there is one flaw that Community Servers have/had, it's that they rely on two groups, who I will be referring to as Regulars and Pubbies.
Regulars are exactly what they sound like; someone finds the server, loves it, favorites it, and continues to revist it when they play the game. They become recognizable to other regulars, they might even have input on how the server is run, if they're there long enough.
Pubbies are more interesting.
See, regulars are still people, dictated by time and sleep schedule and how close they are to the server. An American server will always be more active during American hours, but in a 32 player server, you need more than just regulars to keep the server full/near full for the entire duration of the day. This is, of course, where Pubbies come in. A Pubbie is a public browser. Someone who has either yet to find a server to be a Regular on, or is simply taking the time to peruse the server list for any new places to play for one reason or another. They may spend an hour on the server, they may leave after ten minutes. All that really matters is that they make the playercount higher.
What Valve did with matchmaking is simple, and utterly reprehensible: They killed the Pubbie.
The percieved convenience and promise of free items removed the gentle tide of random users from the circulation of community servers. The blood in the veins between each heartbeat that is a pulse of Regulars. Server counts dropped to Zero, fast, and when a server is at 0 player count, two things occur:
Regulars will opt to pick a different server in their favorites list.
What few Pubbies remain outside of matchmaking will opt to look for a different server.
All at once, hundred of communities collapsed, seemingly overnight. The Pubbie was TF2's greatest asset; with it, no servers needed to organize playtime. The casual comfort of being able to look at a list of your favorites and join a server without any wait or hassle at any point during they day is a luxury that cannot be overstated. There is a sense of comfort, of belonging; you get home from work, or school, and hop on to a server where multiple people recognize you, where you can be sure the server is modified to exactly your liking, since you picked it above all others.
Those comforts are lost, now.
Matchmaking is, at its core, a soulless machine. A perfect haven for the smaller, equally soulless machine that is a bot. Players are mindlessly shuffled from match to match, given no opportunity to express themselves through custom content or sprays or even alltalk. You do not get to find recognizable people. You do not get to find people who like to play the game the way you do. All you can do is click the Queue button and submit to the machine.
You see, in the era of Community Servers, a bot as TF2 knows it today cannot exist. Human moderators play on the servers they run, and removing a bot from a game is as easy as typing "kick playername" into the console. It is trivial. If some unfortunate mistake is made, and a real player is banned, what happens? In Matchmaking, that player no longer has the right to play. In Community Servers, you simply browse the list for another.
I firmly believe that matchmaking is the heart of so many problems we see in online multiplayer spaces today. You do not get the luxury of choosing who you play with any more, and so playing with those you don't get along with is a forced act. All the tools we 'need'; rootkit-tier Anticheat like in Valorant, automatic language filters and hard-set Class Limits like in Overwatch, these are all solutions to problems that do not exist outside of Matchmaking.
I think, that when given the opportunity, people who think they "prefer" Matchmaking will always wind up preferring Community Servers, if they are put into an enviroment where Community Servers can thrive. There is a growing stigma towards Community Servers in the TF2; one I believe only exists due to the loud voices of youtubers and internet celebrities, most of whom, frankly, arrived to the scene after Valve had already done the damage. It's upsetting. Heartbreaking, even. People lately like to parrot this idea that "Community Servers are all gimmicks"; they're all 24/7 allcrits, "silly gamemode" only, admin abuse filled hellholes. If you believe nothing else I say in this article, believe this: in 2014, I had 20 different servers in my favorites list. In none of them did I ever see admin abuse. Two of them were "silly gamemode" servers. None were part of a big server network, at least not that I can recall, unless you count FuG's Hovel of Tomfoolery having a surf server.
There is no end to this article, like most of the others I've written for this site. I maintain my belief that the best thing Valve could possibly do for the game is to flick the switch and remove matchmaking altogether. That maybe I can return to the beloved times I've included throughout this article, videos embedded of a better era for multiplayer gaming as a whole.
I'm aware that probably won't happen, but can't I hold just a little hope in my heart, just this once?