The term “Smurfing,” in the context of online multiplayer gaming, has virtually nothing to do with the classic 1980s cartoon. Instead, people use the term Smurfing to describe the act of a high-level player creating an alternate account in order to play at lower levels – and sometimes to dominate the competition. Smurf accounts are made for a variety of reasons, from players wanting to play with lower-level friends to testing new gameplay strategies.
The ethics of Smurfing is often debated in the gaming community. Some games like Fortnite and Dota 2 will completely ban players who are caught Smurfing. Other games like League of Legends and Overwatch make it harder to Smurf in the first place. As online multiplayer games become more accessible and ambitious, Smurfing is becoming more rampant. However, it’s not a new phenomenon.
How Smurfing Has Evolved
In 1996, Warcraft 2 players Geoff “Shlongor” Frazier and Greg “Warp” Boyko became well-known in the community for their skill, trouncing the vast majority of their opponents. As word spread about these players, other Warcraft 2 fans backed out of matchmaking when they saw the infamous usernames, leading to the strong players essentially being unable to play the game. To combat this, the duo created brand-new alternate accounts with different screen names and dominated unsuspecting competitors. The term Smurfing was coined from their alternate usernames: PapaSmurf and Smurfette.
By the late 1990s, Smurfing was a concept that a variety of gamers were familiar with. The term even appeared in a Warcraft glossary which defined Smurfing as, “A slang term coined by Warp! and Shlonglor to mean good or famous players using fake names to hide from people then attempting to beat other players. It is only a ‘Smurf’ if those players win.” By 2004, the term began appearing all over Internet sites such as Urban Dictionary following the release of Halo 2.
Halo 2 had a revolutionary online matchmaking system that implemented ranked play. With the game’s algorithm, players would compete against others with a similar skill level. This skill level was determined through a system of players either gaining or losing points based on the final result of any given round, moving their rank higher for wins and lower for losses. This system for matchmaking in competitive play set the precedent for more modern games like Overwatch, and continues to be the foundation for many online games.
Ranking can be extremely beneficial for players at lower levels, allowing them to play with other beginners rather than being thrown directly into the ring with experienced players. It’s also easy to exploit, as many systems (especially older ones) had no way of knowing if accounts were Smurfs or not. Many fans and game studios agree that Smurfing is a practice which can be incredibly harmful to players. New players in particular can face a massive barrier to entry when trying a game if all of their opponents are experienced individuals who are interested in taking down newbies for fun.
In recent years, players have seen waves of Smurfing take place in newer games, leading to a ban in Fortnite. Players of other battle royales like Apex Legends and Valorant often ask developers to crack down on Smurf accounts too, and while Respawn Entertainment has commented on the possibility, Smurf accounts in a majority of games are acceptable when it comes to the rules of play. While players can technically Smurf in games and not get in trouble, they may find themselves facing a lot of hate from other players if they do so.
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