Ladder Anxiety and the Starcraft II Multiplayer Experience


I’m going to break the mold a little here and talk about something completely unrelated to tactics. I want to talk about “ladder anxiety”. For those who don’t know, ladder anxiety is basically the fear or anxiety in playing a quick match, despite wholeheartedly wanting to play. In a nutshell, people with ladder anxiety are scared to play.

Sounds silly doesn’t it? Honestly, it is but that doesn’t remove the fact that it’s real. A quick search of reddit, Team Liquid, and the official forums paints the picture. In fact, the term is no longer limited to SC2 and can be seen used in any online multiplayer game with ladder.

How does it happen? How can you enjoy playing a multiplayer game yet at the same time be scared to death to play it? Some argue that it’s the body’s reaction to stress and I guess it makes sense. Starcraft 2 is particularly stressful. It’s the epitome of a hard game, with one mistake often being your last. The body responds to a stressful situation by avoiding it in the future and if it’s stressing out when playing a match of SC2, then it makes sense that the body subconsciously avoid it.

Some believe that it’s the ladder itself. SC2 is a 1v1 game (for the most part) and having no team mates to take the blame for losses means that every loss is on the player. It’s a psychological blow to the ego.

What ever it is that triggers ladder anxiety, it’s one of the main things that drive people away from SC2. People who have no desire to improve and increase their ranks are scared off and they don’t even know why. I believe that while SC2 in itself is a stressful game, the presentation of the multiplayer aspect of the game has a far greater effect on ladder anxiety than we care to admit.

From the very beginning, SC2 is designed to be a competitive multiplayer game. Blizzard saw the eSports community grow with Brood War and decided that its sequel, SC2 must be a competitive game worthy of following in Brood War’s footsteps. Whether or not they succeeded (I personally think that they did), there’s no denying that SC2 is focused on competition.

Screenshot2015-09-09 18_45_33

Ranked is the main mode.

Perhaps as a product of this focus, the entire multiplayer experience has been focused on competition as well. SC2 multiplayer revolves solely around ranks and leagues. When you go into the matchmaking menu, you’re immediately greeted with your league badge and your rank. Ranked mode is the default multiplayer mode. Even the quick match option, Unranked mode mirrors this. The name Unranked itself seems like the mode is only secondary to Ranked, making you feel like you should be playing Ranked.

While great for its target audience, I think that this focus on competitive multiplayer leads to a few problems particularly in drawing in casual or non-competitive multiplayer crowd. Focusing the multiplayer solely on Ranked places an unnecessary expectation on the player to do well, contributing to the feelings of stress in an already stressful game. This ends up having a larger effect on the perception of SC2 being too competitive and ultimately leads to ladder anxiety and subsequently scares another potential player away from the game.

It’s no secret that SC2 is on the decline. Despite remaining as the most popular RTS game on the market, its current population dwarfs in comparison to what it was a year or two after release. What SC2 needs is new blood, new players who want to try the game out and see what the fuss is all about. How can we get new players if the presentation of multiplayer is already as intimidating as it is?

How can this be addressed? I think it’s quite simple: de-emphasize ranks and leagues. Having a ranked mode is still important, of course. As I’ve said, SC2 is a competitive game and the people who stick around are all mainly competitive players. That said, it doesn’t hurt to stop making people feel like if they’re not playing Ranked, they’re not playing the real deal at all.

Personally, I think it’s in the subtle things. Subtle changes that can help welcome new players without affecting veterans and changing the nature of the gameplay of SC2:

  • Renaming Unranked to Quick Match. Take DotA 2 for example. In DotA 2, matchmaking is divided into Normal Matchmaking and Ranked. Ranked is regarded as a special mode wherein you try your hardest to do well and be graded based on your win and losses through MMR. The same is true for Heroes of the Storm. Quick match is regarded as the main mode in Heroes and both Hero League and Team League are special modes.
  • Leagues should not be shown in the loading screen, instead be shown after the match. Take cue again from DotA 2 and this time CS:GO where the ranks and MMR of your teammates and opponents aren’t shown until the very end. While it can be argued that Valve has done this in order to reduce toxicity within teams, I think it also does reduce stress during gameplay by hiding the true skill of your opponents.

    Screenshot2015-09-09 18_45_52

    Leagues can be intimidating especially before beginning a match.

  • Provide motivation for players to play aside from ranks. I think Blizzard should take the Daily Quest system of Heroes and Hearthstone and implement it into SC2. In a perfect world, we’d see skins as rewards for these daily quests but seeing as the engine isn’t built for custom skins, other rewards for this system should be considered.
  • Have other modes besides Ranked. This is in part, going to be a reality with Archon mode (which is amazing if I say so myself. All the complexity of 1v1 and literally half the effort). Blizzard needs to push Archon mode and I think they know it too.

SC2 will probably never again reach the heights that it experienced before but that doesn’t mean that having new blood, new players is no longer important. With subtle changes to the presentation of the multiplayer, I believe that SC2 can become less intimidating to players and therefore reduce if not completely remove ladder anxiety which can ultimately lead to a healthy and sustainable player base.


2 thoughts on “Ladder Anxiety and the Starcraft II Multiplayer Experience

  1. This is such an intelligent idea — it’s all in the language used. The term “Ranked” implies that you will be judged against your peers. It is stressful, it is anxiety-inducing.


    • I believe so as well. Unranked is also presented like a second-rate mode where you only play when you’re “scared to play ranked”. Even DotA 2 has their Unranked mode named Normal, iirc.

      Thanks for reading!


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