The tools of the trade are the key to any sport. Like a tennis racket or a set of clubs, good equipment does more than simply facilitate play; it is the key to mastering the craft, and familiarity with the different pieces needed to play the game is necessary to consistently perform at a high level.
In esports, your tools are just as critical. Rather than cleats or bats, players' tools for most esports can be boiled down to a handful of key components: the mouse, mouse pad, keyboard, headset and controller (depending on your chosen esport).
Wiktor "Taz" Wojtas, a member of Virtus.Pro's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team, stresses the necessity of each piece in a succinct manner.
"In Counter-Strike, you need to have good movement, which is your keyboard. You need to have good aim, which is your mouse and mouse pad," Wojtas says. "And then, in order to actually move on the map and understand what is going on, you need to have a good headset."
In all of our early discussions with players across games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the importance of the mouse was emphasized. In Dota, the mouse is your key to controlling the in-game action, managing the many different movement and action commands your hero needs to execute. For Counter-Strike players, the mouse is your crosshair, which is the difference between a critical hit and a miss.
The crucial aspects of the mouse aren't found in numbers. Statistics like DPI, or dots per inch, detail the sensitivity of a mouse. A higher DPI means that sensitive, minute adjustments with your mouse are better detected and translated to in-game actions. It's an appealing statistic, but many high-level players don't look to those "box-quote" numbers, instead opting for feel and reliability.
For Counter-Strike players like Alex "LeX" Deily of Winterfox, the mouse is as much a mark of personal identity and preference.
"If you're showing up to an event and you need to have one thing that nobody else has that is yours and yours alone, that's a mouse," Deily tells ESPN. "Having a mouse that can be reliable and isn't going to disconnect randomly. Something that you know is going to perform the same way on any different computer you have."
Even tiny aspects -- like how the mouse conforms to the way your hand grips -- can mean the difference in matches. But he also emphasizes the importance of understanding the specs -- and more importantly -- what the top players are using and why.
"It's easy to go to a shop and pick a mouse that's a good-looking one, or your hand fits on perfectly," Wojtas says. "But it doesn't end there."
And while the mouse is critical as the most direct form of input for many esports, what can affect the performance of that tool is its counterpart: the mouse pad. Acting as a catalyst for the mouse's sensor, the mouse pad helps ensure reliable and accurate information is transmitted from the mouse to the game, providing a consistent surface for the big swipes and snap movements key to games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike.
It might seem silly, but Kanishka "BuLba" Sosale, offlaner for Evil Geniuses' Dota 2 team, offered an anecdote from DreamHack 2013, when he had to play with an unfamiliar mouse pad.
"They're looking for the best possible performance out of their product, so that way nothing's holding them back when they're playing their game of choice." Travis Hezel, global director of partnerships for SteelSeries
"I had to use a different one because they didn't have the exact mouse pad that I wanted and it just totally screwed my game up," Sosale explains. "A lot of it was mental, obviously, but we ended up losing that tournament. I hate to blame it, but I'm blaming my mouse pad."
When traveling internationally and playing on massive stages, having your inputs feel consistent from match to match can make or break your tournament run.
"Esports is much about feel, and especially [in] Dota. I don't really think about what I'm doing. I don't really think about my hand movements and how things feel. I just kind of get used to it so I can focus on the game," Sosale says. "When something changes, though, your brain is focused on, 'why does my mouse feel different?' and then, you're focused on that instead."
That familiarity carries over to the keyboard as well, as every game has critical inputs mapped to the keys. Whether it's inputting your Exhaust in League of Legends or managing several different groups of units in Starcraft, having quick and responsive keystrokes means an advantage over less dexterous opponents.
LeX detailed to us many of the specific aspects Counter-Strike players look for. Although there's no control-grouping or complicated shift-queuing of inputs, all movement in CS is input through the keyboard. Mechanical keyboards are the most common, as they allow for the use of customizable switches. Consisting of a base, stem and spring, switches allow you to set each key's pressure, often reducing the amount you have to press on a key to activate and deactivate that specific input. MX Cherry Reds were the repeated gold-standard, but more important to LeX was "having light presses, not super-clicky keys."
This comes into factor when executing a move like "peeking" in Counter-Strike, where you pop out from behind a corner and back to cover, to either scout the opposition or to take a few potshots at enemies. For LeX, the minute factors of key sensitivity and the individual feel of the keyboard make a world of difference.
"If I'm peeking a corner in Counter-Strike, I'm rapidly pressing my left-strafe and right-strafe keys. The movement is, a lot of the time, based on how sensitive my keyboard keys are," Deily says. "If I switched to another keyboard or if you just handed me one on the spot here, those peeks that were previously very consistent and tight, would be wide and inconsistent."
The headset is the last component, and while less important than the mouse and keyboard, it is still your audible window in-game. Having a good headset means having good communication with your teammates, as well as having another sense beyond sight to rely on for contextual information.
It's also one of the places that was highlighted as having room for improvement, according to Warren "Hades" Rettich, a Counter-Strike player for Winterfox. "There's only a couple headsets out there that are really good. And even those ones, they're not great, or at least not great for Counter-Strike," he says.
"The directional sound in this game is pretty poor. If there were a headset that came out that made all the directional sounds way better, that would be a pretty big game-changer," he adds.
Making the grade
These four tools form the necessities of competitive esports, at least across the computer-based games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Companies like Razer, Kingston, Logitech and SteelSeries all work in this space, creating gear for a growing market of PC-playing, esports-loving enthusiasts.
In discussing the concept of esports gear with Travis Hezel, global director of partnerships for SteelSeries, it became clear that for the top-tier competitive gear, having an open dialogue with their clientele is important. Pros want tools that are made for their level of play.
"They're looking for the best possible performance out of their product, so that way nothing's holding them back when they're playing their game of choice," Hezel says.
SteelSeries works with teams like Winterfox to develop designs. Both Hezel and LeX described an open dialogue between the team and manufacturer that goes beyond sponsorship. Winterfox players help the engineers and designers at SteelSeries create equipment that competitive-minded Counter-Strike pros will both benefit from and want to use.
"Esports is so much about feel, and especially [in] Dota. I don't really think about what I'm doing. I don't really think about my hand movements and how things feel. I just kind of get used to it so I can focus on the game." Kanishka "BuLba" Sosale, offlaner for Evil Geniuses
It especially comes in handy when pros can test the equipment, finding issues that others might not. Hezel explained the development of the Rival series of mice, and how Winterfox players would come in and test it. While playing with the mouse, some of the players noticed an issue with lift-off distance. Because most competitive mice use laser optics, the laser will detect and transmit information as long as it has a surface underneath it to do so. While executing the wide sweeps common to Counter-Strike, they immediately identified the lift-off distance as creating problems for their play.
In Counter-Strike, which LeX described as a more "physically demanding esport" than any other, having equipment that can cope with those movements and adjustments is important.
"They need to make sure that they can whip that [mouse] around and be able to have consistent feedback over and over again with the mouse tracking in order to actually aim properly," Hezel says. "Otherwise, if a mouse goes into a tailspin because it's getting too much data too quickly because they're moving it too fast, you can't play Counter-Strike like that."
These kinds of partnerships have led to the rise of player-endorsed equipment and "signature" lines. Much like Nike and LeBron James, players and teams are getting their own branded versions of mice, mouse pads, keyboards and headsets.
Even now, development has progressed to even grander designs. As Tori Pugliese Beebe, SteelSeries' global PR director tells ESPN, modular upgrades are becoming a new way for companies to vary their offerings and provide new avenues for aspiring competitors looking for their next piece of hardware. Aspects like optic lenses, laser sensors, track wheels and macro buttons could be swapped out and upgraded on a single mouse body.
"Instead of having to completely upgrade your mouse again or buy another $100 or $200 mouse, you have the option to swap out or upgrade your sensor," Beebe says.
For players, the question is a little more ambiguous. Some brought up minute improvements, while others had more sweeping ideas. Deily brings up wireless as an avenue for improvement, as it would solve many issues raised with cord management. As many pros mentioned travel as a factor when considering equipment, wireless is appealing, but certain aspects like battery life and portability haven't been improved enough to make competitors consider cutting the cord.
"I know it's already there as far as performance [latency] goes, which is most important to me," Deily says. "But there is a stigma attached to those kinds of products that players do worry about."
No matter what, it seems manufacturers are not content to simply stand idle and rest on laurels. Hezel relates to us the story of SteelSeries' inception. In 2001, when Quake and early Counter-Strike were king, trackball mice were the go-to option for competitive play. Jacob Wolff-Petersen noticed players becoming frustrated with the cloth mouse pads, common for the time, and how individual fibers would get caught in the trackball. He invented a small glass mouse pad that replicated the feel without the cloth, and founded IceMat. There's always room, Hezel feels, for new innovations to surface.
A fighting chance
After clearing all the specifics and talking shop about the state of current and future hardware, the conversation always turned back to whether it's necessary to buy into the equipment. Standard mouse and keyboard combinations are available, ones not labelled as "gaming peripherals," so how needed is the higher-level hardware?
Wojtas, once again, sums it up neatly.
"If you want to be the worst player on the server, you buy a bad mouse pad and a bad mouse," he says. Other players echo this sentiment, as it's not just the options and premium tools they're looking for. More than bells and whistles, it's about the consistency and reliability, as well as not being limited by a peripheral's performance.
BuLba often came back to the familiarity of equipment and being able to rely on it in key moments as his reason for needing certain pieces of equipment.
"You're in a situation where adrenaline is really high, and you don't want to miss-click, because a miss-click can cost you a lot," Sosale says.
For LeX, it isn't even about form factor or appearances. As Deily puts it, "performance is paramount."
"Some equipment out there, my god, is it hideous to look at," Deily says. "[But] if it was a fine enough product, I wouldn't worry about anything like comfort, even."
Their focus isn't even completely on the equipment, as both LeX and Hades relate the importance of having a proper computer able to run the actual game itself at "a respectable FPS [frames per second]." Many of these aspects are important to competitive play, and LeX notes the difference it makes in allowing players to elevate their game if they have competitive aspirations.
"These are things that a casual player will overlook and not necessarily consider to be paramount on the necessities list for playing [their] game, because they're trying to have fun," Deily says. "Fifteen-year-olds that are rising and getting on these pro teams, I guarantee you at some point they realize, 'hey, I'm pretty good at this game, and I'd like to take it to the next level. And they invested and bought competitive gaming-grade products."
Fortunately, with the rise of esports and the culture surrounding it, these higher-level pieces of hardware don't require financially significant investment anymore. Players from multiple teams and sponsorship backgrounds spoke to me about the Rival 100, SteelSeries' entry-level mouse, as one they've seen frequently used at tournaments and which retails for $39. Hades also noted, in terms of features and what is necessary for competitive gaming, the especially higher-end products aren't worth it for those looking to make their break into the scene.
"Once you reach a certain quality level, it's all usable," Rettich says. "I don't think spending $100 is going to necessarily benefit you more than spending $50."
When it came to the question of whether the mice could make the player, Wojtas was quick to make the distinction between having the facilities to execute top-level play and actual ability to do so. Taz brought up tennis rackets as an example to illustrate the usefulness of a premium mouse: though a tool needs to be useful, you still have to master the connection between yourself and your tool to get the true effect you want. According to Taz, the top level of players aren't looking toward their equipment for improvement.
"Nowadays, you don't have time to think about it. When you're a player on the top level, you don't think about what else [you] need to improve," Wojtas says. "You're thinking about what you can improve with what you have."