But what if you were not born with the sharpest reactions or the handiest of hand-eye coordination? Can hardware help? We asked a range of experts what to look for in equipment such as headsets, controllers and monitors, and tried some out ourselves. Here’s what we discovered.
There is one big benefit with headsets: they allow you to pinpoint the spatial positioning of sound effects much more accurately than through TV speakers. So a decent pair of phones will almost definitely improve your performance in shooters such as Fortnite, Overwatch and Call of Duty, in all of which you need to hear exactly where your enemies are coming from. Headsets with mic attachments also let you chat to your squad mates, which is important if your tactical approach is anything more advanced than “let’s run around and shoot at things until we’re dead”.
So what should you look for in a good headset? “The fundamental things are sound quality, all-day comfort, build quality and a great microphone,” says Nick Bourne, director of product management, eSports and partnerships at headset manufacturer Turtle Beach. “You’ll want a great microphone so you’re heard loud and clear by your squad, and make sure the build quality is good enough to take the brunt of a few lost one-on-one situations, and hopefully some Victory Royale celebrations. A great place to start is by asking your friends what equipment they’re using, especially if their voice sounds clear and natural in-game – that’s a sign that you will too.”
For console owners, most of the pro gamers we spoke to recommended Turtle Beach as a reliable brand from budget to professional level. The Stealth 300 (£70) is a good intermediate set, with metal-reinforced headband and memory foam ear cushions, the wireless, noise-cancelling 700 model (£105) moves things up a notch, and the Elite Pro (£170) is the high-end tournament choice with great comfort and sound.
YouTuber and Xbox On presenter Benny Central says the upper end Astro and Razer sets are also widely used on the pro circuit. I’ve tried the sleek, lightweight Razer Kraken Pro (£80) and the feature-packed Razer Thresher Ultimate (£250), and they are both very good. With its chunky build, super comfortable cups and noise-cancelling tech, the Sennheiser GSP 600 headset (£220) is also gaining traction in the pro scene. Right now, I’m using the HyperX Cloud Alpha (£90), which is super comfortable, has a nice weight, a good microphone and excellent sound – a great all-rounder.
However, for PC gamers, a couple of experts we spoke to recommended staying away from specialist headsets. “Buy headphones from companies that specialise in them,” says developer Chris Wilson. “Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, etc, aren’t even that expensive compared with some of the higher end ‘gaming’-branded headsets. They’ll also last a lot longer and have replaceable parts. A good pairing would be an entry-level set of headphones from any of these companies, and something like a ModMic5 stuck on the side. I use a Beyerdynamic DT 797 headset, which also doubles as my setup for live streaming.”
A range of surround-sound technologies are coming in, but Wilson is sceptical. “They are still more of a gimmick – a decent pair of stereo headphones will produce better results, even for location tracking. Software can do an excellent job of providing positional cues through stereo.”
Televisions and monitors
Having the right display is vital in games where being able to spot and identify targets quickly is the key to survival. So any action game then. A screen with low input lag (the time it takes for the TV to display what your games machine sends to it) gives you vital milliseconds to line up a shot or move to cover. The sweet spot is a lag of 20 milliseconds, but anything over 30ms is a problem.
You might think the best option would be a 65-inch LED monster with stacks of high-end image-enhancing technology – but you’d be wrong. A giant screen makes it more difficult to scan the area for potential threats and to monitor the game’s mini-map, which is crucial in military shooters such as Call of Duty. Pro players we spoke to tend to stick with 24-inch to 32-inch displays. Furthermore, features such as 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) and high dynamic range (HDR) can add significantly to lag, so make sure you have a TV with a decent gaming mode, which will switch these off. The website Rtings regularly reviews new models from a gaming perspective, but I’ve always used Samsung sets, which have excellent gaming modes and decent lag times.
The alternative is a specialised, dedicated monitor, and this is especially important for PC players: a good monitor will provide you with crystal-clear visual information and much slicker spatial movement and awareness. “Three things are important to me,” says Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz from the Astralis team. “I look for a refresh rate of 240Hz, the lowest response time possible, and colour controls: I prefer a lot of saturation on my monitor, so this needs to be customisable. The screen size is important, too. We play on 24-inch monitors at tournaments, so I always go for that.”
All the big brands (Asus, Acer, LG, Iiyama, Dell) produce decent models. You’ll need to consider the resolution of the screen, the type of panel and the refresh rate – the higher the better. “Once you’ve tried 144Hz, it’s hard to go back,” says Wilson, “But you need to have the hardware to drive games at that frame rate.” You’ll also need to ensure your graphics card is synced with the monitor so that the visuals don’t tear up under the stress. Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s Freesync technologies are the current solutions, although Nvidia is also trying to get its BFGD (big format gaming display) format off the ground.
Finally, veteran hardware reviewer Mike Jennings says that curved monitors are great for immersion, which can really help with racing sims, but they’re expensive.
There are two key issues with gaming mice: comfort and response times. Both can affect your performance.
“The key thing is: how large is your hand, and how do you like to hold mice?” says Alex Walker at Kotaku. “Build quality matters, but if the shape of the mouse is wrong, you’ll always be up against it.” He recommends measuring your handspan and comparing this with the specifications of mice you are considering buying.
As for response times? “You need main buttons that are shallow, fast and clicky, which means you’ll have rapid response during frantic games,” says Jennings. “All the big-brand stuff, at a reasonable price, will be fine in this regard – but you do get improvements – and diminishing returns – as you go up the scale of prices. Optical sensors give more precision and faster response times than laser sensors.”
Will a mouse that can handle 12,000 dpi (dots per inch) make you better? Jennings is sceptical. “High-end mice will boast of insane dpi figures, but the vast majority of players will never need to go near the top end of those scales. Even eSports players won’t need to truly push it.”
Andy Kelly at PC Gamer – which has just published a mouse guide – swears by the Razer DeathAdder (“to me, it’s pretty much perfect”); Jennings suggests the Corsair Gaming M65 Pro RGB FPS (£59) at intermediate level, and the Razer Mamba Tournament Edition (£90) for serious competitive players, thanks to its adjustable click force, tilting scroll wheel and 16,000 dpi sensor.
All the experts we spoke to recommended using a mechanical keyboard, where each button press is controlled by a mechanism rather than a plastic dot or membrane. “Mechanical keyboards are best for gaming 99% of the time, as they have the fastest, firmest and most familiar response,” says Jennings. “For many years, most mechanical keyboards used switches made by a company called Cherry MX. They use different colours to denote switches with different characteristics – some are louder, others quieter. Some have more pronounced ‘bumps’ in their typing action like old-school IBM keyboards, while some are smoother, without bumps.”
Now, companies such as Razer and Logitech are making their own mechanical keyboard switches, but the effect is the same: sharper and more precise control over the action. More expensive keyboards offer features such as macro keys (“important for customisation of gaming combos,” says Jennings) and dedicated media buttons, but they’re more about preference.
“I use a Logitech G413, which is pretty highly regarded, and is tastefully designed,” says Andy Kelly (his magazine has a keyboard buyer’s guide, too). Jennings suggests the Corsair K55 RGB (£50) which has RGB LED backlighting and six programmable macro keys, but doesn’t have a mechanical keyboard. The Cooler Master Masterkeys Pro L RGB (£90) has CherryMX mechanical switches, customisable RGB LEDs, macro support and Windows software for customisation. Then there’s the high-end Corsair Strafe RGB (£150) which offers a raft of features including, “fully programmable buttons, a USB port, sets of keys for FPS or MOBA play, 100% anti-ghosting, media controls and a tangle-free cable”.
Until recently, the best joypads were made by console manufacturers. Third-party alternatives tended to be less robust budget options. Now models such as the Razer Raiju (or the Wildcat or Wolverine), the Nacon Revolution Pro and the Scuf Infinity all offer excellent build quality and additional features designed to give you an edge.
“Before we founded Scuf, there was a perception that third-party controllers were cheaper alternatives for the cost sensitive or modded/cheat controllers with rapid-fire chips,” says Duncan Ironmonger, chief executive and co-founder of Scuf Gaming. “Changing this perception took a lot of time and education. I spent a great amount of time travelling to Pro Gaming events in the US and Europe talking to the professional gamers about why paddles and hair triggers made sense.”
But do they work? Well, we’ve tried the latest Impact model from Scuf (£115), arguably the company that kickstarted the modern pro controller market. It provides customisable thumbsticks, trigger extenders and adjustable hair-trigger mechanisms (letting you adjust how sensitive the triggers are). These are all really nice features, but they’re more about comfort and preference than outright performance enhancement.
The key addition is the four programmable paddles on the underside of the pad, which – like the extra buttons on the Razer Raiju, for example – are intended to give you quicker access to certain in-game actions. Instead of pressing the four main buttons on the front of the Xbox or PS4 pad to reload, crouch or change weapon, you remap those controls to the paddles, so you’re not taking your right thumb off the analogue stick, thereby losing valuable seconds.
They take a bit of getting used to, but they do make a difference. In Fortnite, being able to reload or switch to building tools by just nudging a paddle has been a lifesaver on several occasions.
Verdict: Yes, specialised hardware can make a difference to your gaming prowess but you need not buy the most expensive “pro” equipment. A decent, comfortable headset will improve your sensory perception, a better keyboard and mouse set-up will improve your click efficiency, and a monitor with a super fast refresh rate will give you a more fluid view of the game world, but none of these have to be top end.
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