How rampant is boosting in Shadowlands arena?

With the advent of significant gear rewards through PvP in the Shadowlands expansion, a huge market for boosting services have opened up. Browsing through the LFG system, there is usually no shortage on posts advertising boosts for sale.

The WoW forums are also filled with people lamenting that they can't push rating due the prevalence of boosters, and the inevitable counterpost that it's simply an L2P issue.

A concern with the supposed identification of boosters is that people might see that their opponents have very good gear and conclude they must be boosting. Similarly, with Gladiator mounts and titles now being account-wide, people can erroneously assume that a Gladiator is boosting when they are instead just playing an alt (badly). In this article we try to decouple these different issues and provide an estimate of what percentage of games actually feature someone doing a boost.

The data

The basis for this analysis are games submitted to the Ludus Labs website in the last two weeks. We will be looking at games in the 1400 to 1900 rating range. For these games, we pull out the opponents that people faced, and query these against Check PvP (we thank the Check PvP creators for allowing us to do this for the purpose of this article). Querying against Check PvP allows us to get the highest rating for a character in a given bracket. Note that not all characters have been looked up on Check PvP, but characters with no Check PvP profile are incredibly unlikely to be boosting. In our investigations, all characters that did not have a Check PvP profile were players with very little arena experience (and thus have not been looked up by anyone).

The inclusion criteria were 1) that the MMR was between 1400 and 1900 for both teams, and 2) that the game was played in the last two weeks. For US realms, we identified 2004 games that met these criteria. For EU realms, we identified 873 games.

The definition of a booster

A booster is someone who plays significantly below their true rating in a given bracket with the intention of carrying their partner(s) to a higher rating than they would be able to achieve on their own. In practice, this person will be both significantly more skilled and better geared than the MMR range they are currently playing in. For the purpose of this analysis, we define a booster as someone who is playing at least 400 rating below their season best in that bracket. Thus, someone who plays at 1750 MMR in 2v2, but has a season maximum of 2020 in 2v2 is not considered to be boosting. On the other hand, someone who plays at 1600 MMR with a season maximum of 2100 is considered to be boosting. Choosing a threshold here can be difficult, but it is important that we give an appropriate margin. If we go much lower than 400 rating for the margin we risk identifying people that have themselves either been boosted previously, or have just had fluctuations in rating. In addition to just standard fluctuations, we also have to allow for things like a nerf to specs, a nerf to their partner's spec, or the player changing from one spec to another. We do not consider the motivation of the booster. Some people play with their lower rated friends; others carry people for gold. Here, we are only interested in identifying people who are effectively carrying others by playing far below their true rating in 2v2.

So how rampant is boosting?

The below figure shows the results of this analysis for US realms. The plot shows the distribution of the rating that someone is playing at below their season best. In other words, if your season best is 1750 CR and you're currently playing at 1650 MMR, you would be placed at 100 on the x-axis. Indeed, we can see that most people are playing at around 100 MMR below their season best. This is not symptomatic of boosts, but rather reflects that people sometimes have a good queuing session, with results that exceed their actual ability (e.g. due to playing with a particularly skillful partner or by meeting a series of very favourable matchups). Over time, their rating will go back down to their actual rating, giving them a season best above their MMR.

The presence of the long tail (i.e. people with season bests that far exceed their current MMR) is a clear signal that boosting is happening. We would not typically expect people to randomly drift 400 rating above their true rating. It might very occasionally happen, but in all likelihood these people are deliberately playing at lower rating for one reason or another. If we simply tally up the games that exceed 400 rating below season best, we see that this amounts to 8.8% of games.

The EU data looks broadly similar. The US data is more numerous (reflecting the demographics of the site's users), but overall the shape of the curve is essentially identical. If we again tally up the number of games where at least one opponent is playing 400 rating below their season best, we get 11.1% of games.

Taken together, these results suggest that around 10% of games in the 1400-1900 range features someone who can be fairly unambiguously identified as a booster. Note that this does not mean that there aren't other people who are overgeared for the bracket. For example, using similar criteria, we can identify a further 11% for US and 7% for EU that have a 3v3 season best rating that is 400 rating higher than the 2v2 MMR. Note that this does not mean that the person is boosting, especially given that 1) 2v2 is generally more deflated than 3v3, and 2) not all specs do well in 2v2. For example, an Enhancement Shaman who plays at 1600 MMR in 2v2 and happens to have reached 2020 rating in 3v3 this season is likely not a booster. Some of these characters may indeed be, but it is not straightforward to identify them as such from this data. A similar observation can be made with respect to RBGs. An additional 7% of games (US) and 5% of games (EU) featured someone with an RBG rating that is 400 above their 2v2 MMR. The reasoning around 3v3ers not necessarily being boosters is especially applicable in RBG since arena and RBG are fairly non-overlapping skill sets.

Parting thoughts

The fact that around 10% of games features a booster means that the reason people are struggling to climb rating is probably not due to the prevalence of boosters. That being said, 10% of games is far from an insignificant number and can definitely impact people's perception and experience of the game. More important than actual boosters is probably the perceived unfairness of gear advantage that many players obtain through other PvP brackets or other forms of content (e.g. M+ or raids). Many of these characters might be erroneously labelled as boosters (e.g. because they have 226 ilvl while playing at 1550 rating). We have previously reported that the lower rating range generally features players with higher ilvl than is available from the gear rewards in that rating range. Contrary to the perception of boosting, having to overcome both a skill and a gear disadvantage in order to climb rating is not a matter of perception, but is arguably a fairly significant flaw in the PvP gear progression system.

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