The trusty mouse. The chances are you’re currently wading your way through your PC or laptop with help of the decades old technology, but boy have we come far from the original trackball invented by Ralph Benjamin in 1946. In fact, today’s pro gamers are using mice that pack in tiny little pieces of tech more advanced than the computers they connected to until not so long ago, including dedicated processors and customisable weights.
You only have to look at the likes of Dendi with his with his Na`Vi Edition SteelSeries Sensei RAW, Fnatic’s flusha with his SteelSeries Rival or Cloud 9’s Hai with his customisable Logitech G502 Proteus Core to see what some of the top pros are brandishing – and you can sport the same goods if you want to.
But what exactly is it that sets gaming-grade mice apart from the regular rodents that ship with your basic beige PC? What do the top eSports athletes in every scene look for when they’re shopping for a tournament input? We spoke to some of the leading gurus in the mouse game from Logitech and SteelSeries to find out just what exactly goes into your high-grade gaming mouse and what the pros really want. Hint: it’s not just bright LED lights.
You might take your mouse for granted, but it’s come a long way since the trackball was first prototyped. Today’s pro gamers don’t just need any mouse though: accuracy is just one of the key elements that add up to a definitive mouse, and while sensor technology has evolved leaps and bounds since you were cleaning out the trackball buried in the belly of your wired rodent, mouse tech continues to be developed and enhanced. Comfort and grip is every bit as important, something any poor soul forced to endure an Apple mouse for any length of time will tell you, all while rubbing their crooked hand.
Razer hit the scene in 1998 with arguably the first dedicated gaming mouse. Dubbed the Boomslang after the venomous African snake, Razer attempted to slay the traditional mouse for dedicated tasks like gaming and designing, and practically ended up creating the pro gaming category on its own. With its odd Y-shaped, ambidextrous design, see through panels, and on-the-fly sensitivity adjustments, the Boomslang became a hit with top pros, including Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel, who scooped a $40,000 first-place check at Razer’s first ever pro gaming tournament in Dallas with the mouse, hosted by the now defunct CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League).
Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan tells us that, “the Boomslang was a groundbreaker because it took advantage of the latest technology and thinking in ergonomics. It was the first mouse to feature a 1000 DPI sensitivity, which was unheard of at the time.”
“Uniquely, the ball for the mouse was situated in the heel, which gave users the ability to use a ‘twist’ action for making quicker turns and take a snapshot – crucial in a railgun match in Quake. The design of the mouse was radically different, with a shallow front end, widening into two large, rubberised buttons – ideal for quick presses and finding a comfortable, long-term grip for intense playing sessions.”
“At that time, mice were seen as just a way to interact with the PC,” he says. “No-one had given any thought to how they could be improved or adapted specifically for FPS games, so producing a mouse with all these features was a major game changer.”
Compared to today’s industry, now dominated by several different high-grade gaming mouse makers, Razer had hardly any opposition to begin with, but soon enough the likes of Logitech and Microsoft hopped on the bandwagon too.
Logitech’s first foray into gaming mice essentially started with 2002’s MX500 mouse. With an ergonomic design that fit into the palm of your hand, it set the template for future Logitech mice, such as its successor, the MX510 and eventual MX518. Chris Pate, product manager at Logitech, sums up quite succinctly what exactly a gaming mouse is when we asked him: “Gaming-grade mice require excellent tracking, responsiveness, and comfort characteristics. In general we use our best sensors,” Pate tells us. That means the ones that don’t break, even after thousands of hours of training, and more spent travelling between tournaments. “Our most durable and highest-performing components, and tweak the design and materials over many iterations for comfort.”
When Pate says ‘many iterations’, he means it. You only have to look at Logitech’s back catalogue of mice to see how the company’s design language has been refined: you can still see design remnants today in some of the company’s oldest mice. Our very own and trusty 2003 MX510, for example, is a relic from years gone by, now overshadowed by today’s super mice, yet it still remains one of our favourite pointers due to its ergonomic contours (biased for right-hands, admittedly), dedicated thumb grip and easy to reach side buttons – it’s a classic design that you can still see parts of in some of Logitech’s more modern mice, including one of the latest, the G402 Hyperion Fury.
Unsurprisingly, Pate tells us, “the capabilities of the components and the materials we have access to are significantly better now than they were in 2003.“ Our MX510 can bite the dust, really: while its design can just about keep up with today’s gaming mice, the considerably older MX510’s 800 DPI (dots per inch) sensor lags behind the competition, and even Logitech’s own modern rodents. Today’s mice can register up to 120,000 DPI, a huge increase that you might not even be able to comprehend, but one that lets gamers target more precisely, honing their headshots, killstreaks and game winning AWP shots.
Even so, DPI isn’t everything. “DPI is not an indicator of sensor accuracy and we do not select or design sensors with a DPI value in mind,” Pate tells us. “We work with our partners to create sensors that deliver incredible accuracy and responsiveness and then test to see where the capabilities of the sensor let the maximum value be.”
Tan thinks it might become a factor once again though, and soon. “With the rise of higher resolution screens, especially looking into 4K multi monitor systems and beyond, DPI might become an important factor in the future again, so we are not ruling out changes in the maximum tracking rate,” he says.
So what is it that the pros want exactly? “Pros want everything to be more responsive and more accurate. Each of them normally also has very specific individual desires for shape, materials, and weight,” he says. “We involve various pros throughout the development process. We take their input on physical design, technology development, materials and prototype functionality.”
Tan tells us that pro input into designing mice lets them get exactly what they need out of a mouse. “When you face your opponents in-game, your equipment shouldn’t limit your skill level,” he says.
SteelSeries’ chief technology officer Tino Soelberg on the other hand (no pun intended), simply tells us that the biggest request from professional gamers is "ergonomics that feel good in the hand. That and, durability and consistency.”
“The mouse click feeling used to be a big issue from pros,” he says, “with many comments such as the buttons feel mushy, but we’ve developed our own in-house switch for the mouse 1 and 2 buttons to particularly deal with this.”
“You can easily compare it to sports shoes,” says Tan. “Feet didn’t change that dramatically within the last 100 years, however the products used by professional sportsmen did. New materials which optimised the weight, the grip and the comfort are used in every new product line.”
What they don’t want: wireless tech. While many top pro gamers still shun wireless mice, due to latency and lag, especially in tournaments, Logitech has made plenty of effort over the years to bridge the gap. Pate tells us: “We have an on-site anechoic RF chamber that lets us map out and tune the wireless performance of our devices,” he says. “We have been making RF wireless mice for nearly 20 years now, and our engineers have one of the largest (if not the largest) pools of knowledge in the entire industry. Our wireless gaming mice outperform many wired gaming mice in terms of both accuracy and responsiveness.” Still, try telling someone that when more than a million dollars is on the line in a single game.
“Plenty of pros come down to one of our research centres in Copenhagen to test the mice. When we come down to the actual development, we try to have them in different phases,” Soelberg tells us. “The direction we have is rough prototypes – super rough, 3D printed models, prototypes made of foam and clay – and at these early stages, we have pros test out shapes. Ergonomics are so key to this. And that's the hardest part. They're a bit sensitive to the sensors, but not as much to the ergonomics. They're used to older mice like MX518s, Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer 3.0s and so on, but getting feedback on how they feel is the biggest deal.”
The Danish company, founded in 2001, has been involved in high-performance mice since day one, although not quite in such an obvious way. Known previously as Soft Trading, the company created the IceMat and SteelPad mouse mats to help give gamers a competitive edge before changing its name to SteelSeries and diving into peripherals – the company now works with and sponsors teams like Fnatic to make top end gaming mice as well as headsets and keyboards.
While plenty of accessory makers like to slather their wares with garish LED lights and go faster neon paint, SteelSeries has a cooler take on those bright LEDs that you might find in your off-brand ‘gaming’ mouse. “We had a stance where we felt that we didn't really want it,” Soelberg says. “We have since decided to only really apply it if it makes sense. Not just for the pure looks – there has to be some sort of meaning. Multiple illumination themes, for example, with a certain colour to go with one config or another. But we’re not totally against style.”
Unlike back when Fatal1ty was dominating Quake, top players in 2015 have plenty of models to choose from. Not just from Logitech, which currently has eight different mice in its modern line up, but Razer and SteelSeries also offer top-level mice that you’ll want to try yourself before your saddle up to play a round of competitive Counter-Strike.
As you can imagine, different mice suit different genres of game. While one mouse might suit your quick flicking, FPS needs, it might not translate well to your 10-man World of Warcraft raids or lengthy League of Legends sessions.
Tan tells us about the Razer line-up: “Each mouse is designed for a different style of grip or gameplay – so you can find an FPS mouse suiting a claw or palm grip style, or a MOBA mouse with exactly the right amount of hyper response buttons for those in-game spells.”
“With each design we work to ensure that we're solving a real need that people have with gaming. With the G402 Hyperion Fury we designed a totally new tracking technology to keep up with the high-speed flicks that high-level FPS players use,” Pate tells us. “With the G600, we delivered an MMO design with 12 buttons that are all easy to distinguish from each other without looking.”
But how many buttons is too many? Or not enough? “We have a 20 button mouse with three onboard profiles and a function that lets you set two actions to 18 of those buttons,” Pate boggles us with. “I've had hardcore MMO players tell me that it's almost enough functionality.” Golly.
“Ultimately it's about what is comfortable for the individual gamer,” Pate continues. “Some people prefer having the functionality on the keyboard, some people on the mouse, some people on the screen. We try to accommodate as many preferences as possible rather than dictating what's ‘right’.”
That includes southpaws. Since the Boomslang, Razer has focused on mostly ambidextrous mice, but not every device can adequately cater to both left-handed and right-handed players. The Razer Naga, for example, is an MMO-friendly mouse that packs in an extra 12 customisable buttons on the side, but it’s for righties only. That didn’t stop the company from giving left-handers what they wanted, even if Razer only barely covered the tooling and production costs to make it. That’s dedication.
A mouse doesn’t just pop out of the oven ready to go though. It needs testing. Rigorous, stress-inducing, potentially damaging testing, all to make sure each mouse lives up to the demands of the world’s top gamers – and the general population. “We have various tests that ensure the durability and functionality of the product after heavy use by a gamer,” Pate explains. “These include environmental, drop, ESD, abrasion, clicking, sensor performance, cable bending, cable pulling, lighting homogeneity, and so forth.” A torture chamber of sorts, if you will, all designed to push, pull, prod and poke each mouse to live up to demands of the road to The International or Blizzcon.
Says Soelberg: “All products, if they're from a major brand, they've been through plenty of torture already. It’s regulation. For our products, particularly for mice, we have all sorts of tests. Firmware torture, for example, stresses the sensor, to make sure it's not skipping.”
“While on the physical side, we inflict cable twisting, pressing, dropping, testing the mouse feet, all sorts of torture. We also have really odd things like temperature shocks. We go through all of these things – we have to stick to regulations from the likes of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), so you can make sure it's gone through a lot of stress and torture. That includes high voltage as well,” Soelberg says with a laugh.
Like a boxer relies on his gloves in the ring, mice are the weapons of choice in the pro gaming world, and accessory companies are investing in them and the science behind them more than ever.
“Professional gaming, it's only going one way: up,” Soelberg tells us. “I wouldn't say there's an explosion going on, it's been like it is for many years now, but what we're seeing is that pro gaming is expanding rapidly, mostly driven [by the fact] that users can access it easier.”
“Streaming is more prevalent, more stars are being built, and the games are becoming a little bit different. The likes of CS:GO is still steady, but MOBA games are getting bigger and bigger. As a viewer, it’s a bit more accessible, and as a gamer too. It’s not like diving into a public server in Counter-Strike and lasting three seconds.”
“Seeing the matches is driving where eSports is going. Make no mistake, it's becoming much more socially acceptable to be gaming.”
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