Removing Ranked PvP from SWTOR does come with major downsides, it was just the lesser of two evils!
Loss of the Competitive Environment
The beauty of Ranked PvP is the pure competitive environment. It’s expected that everyone is trying their best, so victory is sweeter and losses are more informative for those wanting to hone their skills. The exclusive, top-shelf cosmetics offer community validation and an incentive to improve.
There’s no such expectation in regs (unranked PvP) that everyone is trying their best, and that’s completely fine on its own. People need a space to learn the basics and most don’t want to be dialed in all the time, especially those that play video games to relax.
Without a defined competitive mode, players have nowhere to go where they can actually test their mettle and subsequently improve their skills.
No guaranteed challenge means that the most skilled players in the game are more likely to end up in lopsided matches with new players.
I think BioWare understands this, but it’s likely gotten to the point that they probably feel they’re pouring so much money down the drain to maintain a hazardous, rickety, old roller-coaster that few are willing to risk riding in the first place that it’s time to just tear the whole thing down and use that money they’re saving to build something better.
Ranked PvP is broadly considered to be the most challenging form of content in all of gaming; eSports are often some form of PvP for this reason, and while SWTOR’s PvP is challenging, it’s not an eSport.
The inherent difficulty of ranked PvP in SWTOR is the first problem that feeds into a vicious cycle of unpopularity, making it a bad economic decision for BioWare to keep supporting the game mode.
PvP in SWTOR is fundamentally difficult because it’s extremely complex, chaotic, and time-sensitive.
The complexity stems from the sheer number of abilities (30+ in SWTOR vs 10 max in other PvP games) that each player possesses and the unique interactions between such abilities.
It’s not enough to just recognize that an incoming attack is dangerous, you have to know to respond with a specific ability of your own that is capable of mitigating that attack, requiring the consideration of damage types, capabilities, and judgment over whether it’s even worth it to use what you have against what your opponent is doing.
Oh, and all of that usually needs to be done in less than 1.5s and if you’re wrong, you could be defeated right then and there or will be on the floor sooner than you need to win because the game is about outlasting your opponents.
You also need to consider both your and your opponent’s positioning, and there are unique advantages depending on the PvP Map, your combat style, and your group’s composition and skill vs their composition and skill that will alter your optimal movement path.
If you mess up your positioning, you could die right then and there or won’t survive long enough for your team to win.
All this complexity means that no match is the same, so while there’s a lot of information you need to know and act on, you can’t really lean on memorization either because every round will be different.
If that wasn’t enough, you also need to devise and execute some sort of offensive strategy. Usually, you’re trying to focus down someone specific based on skill, match-up, and overall game balance.
You’ll need to execute the best rotation you can (which will be different from what you do in PvE), stay on target, but swap if they’re guarded, and then swap back as soon as they aren’t again.
Don’t forget to keep track of the DCDs your opponent is doing so you don’t unload all your burst into someone that was immune and/or had a reflect attack active, in which case they’ll be perfectly healthy.
The best case scenario is you just wasted your OCDs but more likely, you guessed it, you could die right then and there or will sooner than you need to win.
Toxicity and the New Player Experience
Ranked PvP is the most toxic cesspool in the game, bar none. I don’t mean to say that toxicity isn’t present elsewhere, because it absolutely is, but it’s much harder to avoid and is far more targeted and personal. Also, I am not saying that everyone playing ranked is toxic.
A lot of the toxicity you’ll find in FPs and Ops boils down to tanks or healers throwing temper tantrums because the DPS are running ahead before everyone fully heals between trash pulls or having the audacity to not let the tank pull and keep aggro every single thing.
In these cases, it’s easy to not take it personally because you can usually still get through the content, so the toxicity is not based on reality.
If everyone has high health and you know what you’re doing and have DCDs, you’re gonna survive the next trash pull regardless of what everyone else is doing.
Sometimes it’s a little more personal. Skill is sometimes the cause of toxicity, like not having high enough DPS or not knowing the fight. But there’s almost always relevant easier content or guides that can quickly alleviate the problem.
There are plenty of lovely guilds and helpful players out there to help teach you how to play the game.
It’s a lot harder to brush off “You’re a terrible player, here’s why, we just lost because of you and I’m mad because I just needed 1 more win to rank up, so now you’re a bad person too“.
Everyone else on your team is surviving for multiple minutes despite it now being a 3v4 because they actually are more skilled at the game while you got annihilated almost immediately after leaving spawn because the existing ranked community didn’t recognize your name and saw that you were inexperienced because of your gear, guild, or a visibly incorrect utility, so they knew you’d be an easy kill and focused you down before you could activate more than a single ability.
And then the scorecard pops up and you see all the metrics for yourself that confirm you really were the sole reason for the loss. You see you did almost no damage, you managed to take almost no damage before dying, and of course didn’t manage to take out anyone else, let alone buy time while the enemy team finished someone else off first.
Let’s not forget that toxicity isn’t limited to cruel criticism either. Wildly insufficient moderation meant that serial throwers were frequent occurrences that remain allowed in the game, despite countless reports from multitudes of players.
Even if you don’t internalize it, why on earth would you want to endure more of that? Pretty cosmetics certainly aren’t worth playing literally hundreds of matches.
Furthermore, if that’s your first experience in SWTOR’s Endgame content, why would you bother to try other types of content? Why not just find a different game instead? Not everyone is a Star Wars fanatic.
A Vicious Cycle of Unpopularity
The extreme, unavoidable challenge and toxicity create a vicious cycle where only the few that are willing to endure it stick around. The awful state of the mode gains a bad reputation that is enough for many to not even want to bother to try it in the first place.
It’s practically impossible to find a match that consists of players at your skill level and doesn’t include at least one toxic player on one of the teams.
This is in stark contrast to PvE where you will find loads of people with similar skill levels. Toxicity is an occurrence, but not a core part of the experience.
Ranked PvP is so unpopular that queues are usually nonexistent outside of primetime, and even then, there is never more than 20 players in queue at a time, which is only enough for 2 matches.
Since it has to be 4v4, as soon as the 8th person left, everyone had to stop playing. Ranked PvP is fundamentally inaccessible to those that aren’t available to play the game at primetime.
It’s not a great experience to wait in the queue until you realize it’s never gonna pop either and a queue of 0 at any time of the day will diminish the number of people who requeue because they’re not gonna wait around to find out that they can’t play.
Before explaining how all this results in bad economics, I want to note that while I am a Satele Shan player, I understand that some other servers have a slightly more active ranked PvP scene.
I do not believe that this difference in activity is enough to alter my conclusions. An extra match or two happening at the same time does not result in a vastly improved experience or remotely adequate skill-based matchmaking.
The Bad Economics Factor
Cheating and win-trading were rampant. At the end of each season, BioWare would have to go through and verify that all the winners actually earned it. That’s a non-trivial amount of work after each season.
Designing top-shelf rewards that ranked PvPers get also takes a lot of resources. Making something that looks cool definitely takes more work than something that looks good enough.
These high-quality rewards effectively became loss leaders (like Costco’s $5 Rotisserie Chicken). Now, it’s absolutely possible for loss leaders to make economic sense, the term exists for a reason, but I think it’s much harder to argue that it’s a good idea for a bunch of the coolest items in the game to be loss leaders.
It makes little sense for BioWare to be giving away a bunch of golden eggs from their golden goose for such an unpopular mode.
Going forward, the Replica rewards from past ranked PvP seasons will be available for purchase with PvP Season Tokens as part of the upcoming PvP Season system, so it will be very similar to how you can purchase past subscriber rewards with Galactic Seasons Tokens, which should provide a greater incentive for players to actually participate in PvP.
(As an aside, I can’t imagine the actual human beings working at BioWare were very excited to create such fancy cosmetics where a decent chunk are going to toxic players. Please understand that I am not calling all of the best ranked PvPers toxic, I’m just saying that a not-insignificant proportion is. For those of you negative Nancies out there, this would absolutely not be a factor in BioWare’s decision to end Ranked PvP, but it would cause morale issues.)
The Future of Ranked PvP
Ranked PvP has been a failure in SWTOR. It’s stuck in a vicious cycle that prevents new and casual players from participating, actively damages the mode’s reputation, and ends up being too big a drain on BioWare’s currently available resources to be worth supporting.
The silver lining here is that ranked PvP doesn’t need to be gone forever. If their plan to revamp and revitalize PvP is successful, and the community (at large) wants it, BioWare could easily add ranked PvP back to the game.
With a larger playerbase, that future ranked PvP experience could easily be better than it’s been in a long time, maybe ever.
Note: The images in this article are from the new Olympic Palatial Ruins Arena on Onderon, coming with Update 7.2.