Team Fortress 2, despite being the third most-played game on Steam as of mid-2016, doesn’t get a lot of coverage from gaming media.
Of course, there’s the occasional post when Valve’s biannual major updates land, and sometimes even posts covering community-made updates, like last year’s excellent Invasion update, which pitted the game’s nine mercs against aliens on 3 (4 if you count the 2Fort reskin) new community-made maps.
Since the release of TF2’s latest “Meet Your Match” update, its community has been roughly divided. Due to the introduction of Casual and Competitive Matchmaking, the way that the game is experienced has been massively changed for everyone, and with a disastrous day-one launch and issues remaining to be ironed out, there’s a lot of discussion to be had.
The Casual Debate
The biggest outcry and debate has come from the introduction of Casual Matchmaking, which caught the TF2 community at large off guard. The community knew for the longest time that the next major update would bring Competitive Matchmaking out of Beta, along with new maps and balance changes. What they didn’t expect was a massive change to how “pubs” were played.
A Brief History of Quickplay and Community Servers
In the years following TF2’s Free To Play Update, a feature known as Quickplay was introduced to the game. Quickplay allowed players an easier alternative to get matched into servers, and it also introduced Valve servers to the game. These servers were completely vanilla- and for the longest time, Quickplay directed to them as a high priority. For the newer players coming to the game, using Quickplay and Valve servers was the only way to play the game.
Before the introduction of Valve servers and Quickplay, however, the Server Browser and Community servers dominated the game. Having a full-vanilla experience in TF2 was quite rare back in those days, but the most popular servers only made tasteful additions to the base game, such as SourceMod server moderation and HLStats.
Most of these servers survived through advertisements displayed when a user connected. By contrast, Valve servers were ad-free. As these advertisements became more intrusive and Quickplay more exclusive, community servers began to see less traffic and slowly started to die out.
Community servers once offered server communities of players who checked by on a regular basis, knew each other by name and were incredibly close-knit. This is an experience that has, unfortunately, been lost to time for most TF2 players, especially the newer ones.
How Casual Changes The Game
With the addition of Casual Matchmaking, Quickplay is now gone completely, as are Valve servers that can be hopped into at any point in time, or through ad-hoc connections. Now, Casual Matchmaking places players in 12v12 matches with a cosmetic EXP and more explicitly laid-out scoring system.
Players are now expected to play more around the objective, and friends can only play together if they party together in the Matchmaking que. This is a huge change to how TF2 is played, and puts it more in line with the modern titles it competes with, such as Overwatch or even Valve’s other titles, like CS:GO and Dota 2.
Community servers remain, but are now relegated to the Server Browser. To many people, this is a welcome change that can revitalize a part of TF2 that’s been long-lost: for others, especially in regions where server hosting is rarer or more expensive, the traditional drop-in, drop-out way of playing TF2 has been lost, and they are quite upset about that.
The main reason behind the introduction of Casual Matchmaking is ostensibly to bring TF2 into 2016 and to allow the transition from Casual to Competitive play to be more natural.
For most people, however, TF2 isn’t a competitive game. The idea of it being played like that is especially a shock to the gaming community at large, who often considered TF2 to just be that one free, cartoony shooter on Steam.
TF2 Can Be Played Competitively?
Surprisingly, Team Fortress 2 has been host to a self-funded, self-produced and self-run competitive scene for many years since the game’s initial launch in 2007. Competitive Matchmaking being added to the game was speculated about as far back as October 2014 (before Overwatch’s initial announcement later that year) and it was confirmed in late April of 2015. The Matchmaking Beta itself started in July of 2015, just a few months later, well before any word of competitive play was mentioned from the Overwatch team.
A Brief Overview of TF2’s Competitive Scene
While many competitive formats were tried and tested over the years, the two dominant forms of TF2 competitive have always been 6v6 (also known as “Sixes”) and Highlander (a 9v9 format using one of each class per team). 6s itself is the dominant competitive format, employing strict class limits and weapon restrictions to turn TF2 into a fast-paced competitive game that harkens back to the game’s Quake-powered roots. Highlander, by contrast, uses one of each class at all times and is less restrictive on weapons, but is usually played at a much slower pace, is more difficult to spectate and organize, and is more strategy/coordination based than the raw deathmatching and rapid-fire style of its big brother.
Each competitive format has its merits, but 6s is the one that receives the most attention. Due to years of operating independently, the TF2 competitive scene doesn’t get a lot of massive events or prize pools. LANs still happen each year, though, and the most popular one happens at the Insomnia Gaming Festival each year, where the top competitive teams from around the world meet for some of the best plays you can see in TF2.
Competitive Matchmaking Beta
The Beta was introduced as a 6v6 matchmaking mode, but had noticeable flaws. There were no placement matches (a standard for competitive games that Valve themselves helped create with Dota 2 and CS:GO), weapon bans or class limits. This, in addition to settings restricting graphical performance configs and player-side tweaks like viewmodel field of view, made the Matchmaking Beta quite unpopular. The competitive community gave Valve plenty of feedback during the Beta’s duration, but unfortunately the Beta launched with little changes to the biggest issues.
The Community’s Reaction
By and large, the community’s reaction the update has been backlash. The larger casual scene of TF2 is upset at the removal of Quickplay and the downsides of Casual MM, including the longer queue times and the inability to drop in and out of friend’s games whenever you please. The competitive scene is upset with Valve for introducing a Competitive MM mode that was nearly unchanged from the Beta, forcing people of all skill levels to play at the lowest rank and agonizingly climb up the ranking ladder. In fact, the update outright didn’t work for the first day, since the game coordinator was overloaded from everyone trying to use the Casual and Competitive Matchmaking systems simultaneously.
While the death of Valve servers was initially cheered upon by community servers, the lack of Quickplay makes it more difficult than ever to fill a community server. Casual and Competitive MM themselves also suffer from obvious design flaws, including having to re-queue after every match (instead of voting for the next map a la CS:GO) and player abandoning in the latter used as a tool to prevent the winning team from getting credit for their hard-earned victories. The biggest issues with Matchmaking can all be fixed if the TF Team opens its ears to the community (and even their coworkers who made the excellent MM systems for their other titles), but even a month after launch these large issues remain.
The TF2 community’s response has mostly been flares of anger, including brigading negative reviews on the game’s store page. Regardless of where you stand, though, it’s incredibly clear that changes need to be made to the game for its continued growth and survival.
In my opinion as a member of the TF2 competitive and casual community, I see this update as the beginning of a new era for TF2. I firmly believe that with the right changes and additions, TF2 can be brought into 2016, its competitive scene can grow, and community servers can flourish once more.
For now, however, only time will tell.