Why eSports will always be a PC gamer’s domain
For as long as video games have existed, players have sought to climb to the top of the leaderboards. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the heady world of competitive gaming, or esports — a nearly half-billion dollar industry with a global audience estimated in the hundreds of millions.
Make no mistake: These are not your dad’s PAC-MAN tournaments. League of Legends and Dota (Defense of the Ancients) contests are broadcast live on major television networks such as ESPN and TBS with prize pools in the millions. In certain circles, esports athletes are bona fide celebrities, complete with groupies and legions of fans. Players like Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora and Peter “ppd” Dager have each earned well in excess of $2 million competing in esports tournaments, not counting salaries and endorsement deals. Each has tens of thousands of followers on the popular game streaming site Twitch, which was acquired in 2014 by Amazon for nearly $1 billion.
Like any professional athletic contest, esports offers viewers a vicarious way to satisfy a primal desire for competition, particularly for those of us more inclined to take to a mouse and keyboard than a pair of cleats and a pigskin.
While console shooters like Halo can rightly claim their mantle as the progenitors of esports, today’s competitive gaming scene plays out primarily on the PC, with the notable exception of console titles like Overwatch. The reasons for the PC’s preeminence are many and varied, but first, let’s take a look at some stats.
A 2015 study by the Entertainment Software Association found that there are roughly 1.8 billion gamers worldwide. Of those, 62 percent play predominantly on the PC. According to a study by John Peddie Research (JPR), the PC gaming market grew to more than $30 billion in 2016, even as the broader PC market continued to decline.
“Global consumers continue to embrace the PC platform for video games due to multiple factors. The desktop ergonomic is popular because the display distance offers increased detail when using HD and UHD monitors. Additionally, there is superior control with mouse and keyboard control interfaces. This has been validated with esports overwhelmingly being played on PCs,” said Ted Pollak, senior game industry analyst at JPR.
Let’s unpack that.
Arguably, the biggest point of differentiation between console and PC gaming is input method. A keyboard and mouse will always be more precise than a controller, so much so that cross-platform shooters like Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive rarely allow PC and console gamers to share a server or compete against each other. In point of fact, Overwatch is currently grappling with an influx of players taking advantage of third-party adapters to plug keyboards and mice into their consoles. The resulting matchups have not been pretty.
In the context of esports, where even a slight advantage can mean the difference between victory and defeat, this imbalance in input method is more than enough to disqualify the console as a serious option for competitive gaming.
And PC gamers are nothing if not serious. Former StarCraft II champion Greg “IdrA” Fields recounts 12-hour training days with only a day or two off per month during his competitive peak from 2008 to 2011. Dager and Arora, 22 and 25, respectively, don’t expect to be gaming competitively by age 30, when the lighting-fast reflexes that have driven them to esports stardom will likely begin to fade. NBC News reported in 2013 that an average professional gamer can execute up to six hundred actions per minute (APM), or roughly 10 actions per second.
Beyond accuracy, the PC’s next most important advantage is its spec sheet. While consoles offer the simplicity of never having to worry about upgrades or compatibility issues, this comes at a cost. In GPU benchmark tests, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One clocked in at less than half the power of a Radeon R9 290X. Their performance was roughly comparable to the Radeon HD 7850, an entry-level graphics card available for around $200.
This disparity in graphical processing power plays out in a number of significant ways. To get a sense of how big the difference is, take a look at this gameplay video of Grand Theft Auto V running on a PC with a few custom mods. While the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio are beginning to dabble in 4K, it’s unlikely consoles will add support for custom mods.
Incidentally, custom mods have themselves played a major role in the evolution of PC gaming, creating cult followings around games like Skyrim. Dota, the biggest game in esports, with tens of millions in prize money up for grabs each year, began life as a custom mod to Blizzard’s 2002 release Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.
The one caveat to all of this? According to the latest Steam survey, a majority of PC gamers are running underpowered rigs in desperate need of an upgrade. Fortunately, with top-end PC components becoming increasingly affordable, there’s never been a better time to buy the gaming machine of your dreams.