20.08.19

Bringing the game home

Drive Mult Mon
Racing games are the exception to the “one screen up close” rule, and also tend to use conventional speakers to avoid having wires tangle in the cockpit.

I’m guessing you’ve at least heard of eSports even if you have never attended an eSports competition. You know, people watching gamers or teams of gamers playing against each other while enormous audiences watch online. Or, eSports matches where many thousands jam arenas to watch the competition live. If you think that is not only a bit bonkers and has little to do with your business, please hold that thought while we set the stage with two interesting venue-based facts.

First, no matter where you live in the world you’ve probably heard of, watched, or perhaps even been to an event at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “The Garden” as New Yorkers call it, is home to basketball (the Knicks and college tournaments), hockey (the Rangers), many famous concerts, political conventions and rallies, and virtually everything else from pro wrestling to religious services including a Papal Mass.

Second, even readers outside the US have likely heard of NBC’s Tonight Show, a late-night chat show staple that is said to be the world’s longest running chat show. Among its famous past hosts were Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Both made NBC Burbank as their studio home for most of their Tonight Show tenures. The current incarnation staring Jimmy Fallon has moved back to New York, where it all began. Why is this important? The same studio in “beautiful downtown Burbank” where Johnny and Jay did their shows is now the home of the Blizzard Arena. If I drove over there tomorrow, I would not see musical acts or comics, but the intense eSports competition of the Overwatch League.

Blizzard Arena
The TV studio in Burbank, CA where NBC used to tape the Tonight Show has now been converted into an eSports arena. Seen here looking up into the audience. (Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment)

eSports is a fast-growing phenomenon. eSports is everywhere and it is likely to spread in one way or another to requests from your clients and prospects to replicate the eSports environment in the home. To the uninitiated it may seem like simply plugging a console or PC into a display, but as we’ll see it is much more than that.

eSports competitors, whether novice wannabes or professionals who want to train, use a variety of gaming devices. That is the one thing you don’t want to specify! Other things the gamer will select themselves are the controllers, keyboard and mouse, as applicable. Leave that up to the gamer.

However, it is important to know what their device and accessory choices are, as that will determine many of the things you will provide. Thus, your first task is to add these items as questions for your pre-job questionnaire or have them add it to an RFQ. 

With those things established, the first thing to think about is the display. Your first instinct might be to have as large a screen as possible, but in many cases that is not the best choice. Remember that gaming is a “close-in” situation where the gamer wants to concentrate directly on the screen without any distraction. Thus, the wide angle of view you look for on a theatre situation is not what you want here. 

Rather, work with the gamer to see what their desk will be, measure the eyes-to-screen distance, and suggest the largest display they are comfortable with. In all cases you want a good quality display, particularly for contrast. Remember that many console games are now encoded with HDR, and some feature Dolby Vision. Be safe and include that in the display specs. 

Resolution should be a minimum of HD, with the option for UHD/4K dependent on “console or PC”. For the former, know that 4K is increasing. For PC, add a question as to what type of video card the gamer uses. That, in turn, will determine the resolution and refresh rate needed. For many high-end gamers, 144Hz refresh is desirable. Based on prototypes shown back at CES in January, 240Hz monitors are on the horizon, as well.

One exception to the “close-in” rule would be for “driving” games. There, the physical realities of a full-out driving seat and control system mean that the displays will be further away. In addition, driving games work best with a wide field of view, so multiple displays of curved projection might be in order.

A note on connectivity: in most cases the video connection will be HDMI. In that case, use the best cables that meet the budget; don’t scrimp. However, for some PC game systems you may find DisplayPort video cards. Make certain that you don’t plan for the wrong cable!

Legion PC Play
This setup from Lenovo’s new Legion brand is not unlike what a gamer would want.

Now that you can see the games, what about listening to them? As with other personal-centric products, sometimes the gamer/client will have their preferred headset brand or model, but even then you will be involved from a connectivity standpoint. However, when there is no preference, show your knowledge with some key spec and feature items.

For those of us used to provisioning “big sound”, your first instinct might be to suggest a high end multichannel system with subs galore, but that is rarely what you should do. Remember, games are played on a personal world, regardless of how many people are watching, either on the internet or in the home. Thus, headsets rule!

What to recommend? While competitive eSports athletes play only for an hour or so at a time, they practice for hours on end. For those playing via services such as Twitch, game sessions can run all day. That will tell you that comfort is key. Over-ear headsets are the go-to choice, but make sure that the ear cups are replicable and fit properly. Some brands make special design accommodation for those wearing glasses while others focus on light weight and headband comfort. Have a few recommendations from game-wear specialists such as Plantronics’ Rig series, Astro, Turtle Beach or newcomers such as LucidSound. 

Audio playback is the key, and there are some other things to know when it comes to gaming in general and eSports, in particular. First, consider the connection. While wireless headsets are great for listening on a plane, and are common for casual gamers, the need for ultra-reliable connectivity demands direct cable connection for competitive or streaming play such as Twitch.

EQ and amplification factor into headset selection, as well. Consoles usually have mixed, or minimal EQ. Gamers tend to prefer the audio to be as flat as possible, so some EQ is often needed. Thus, to tailor sound with the console gamer, the headset is typically plugged into the game controller, with an EQ/audio system accessory between the two. For PC gaming the EQ is often adjusted in the PC system, so an external “box” isn’t usually needed. 

Similarly, active noise cancellation (ANC) is also great for travel and works well given the steady-state nature of cabin noise. However, the constantly variable level and spectrum of background noise in a gaming situation tends to take ANC out of consideration as a feature for gamers according to experts we spoke to at Plantronics, a leading gaming headset brand. 

Rig VC Wire
Plantronics RIG 500 Pro includes a volume control on the connection to the controller. This lets the gamer adjust the sound without taking the fingers off the controller. (Courtesy Plantronics)

Object-based audio, as exemplifies by Dolby Atmos and DTS:X is clearly a growing feature of residential audio systems; what about for gaming? After all, one would think that the ability to localise the game’s “action” would be valuable. Perhaps true, but the downside is that if the “over the shoulder” sound cue is too sudden and loud it might cause an instinctive reaction to turn one’s head to see what and where it is.

Object-based audio is part of some console games, and it can be useful in a casual gaming environment where a large screen is used. On the headphone side, there are products that use true decoding or virtualisation, but that is a user’s choice. By and large, good, clean, flat, accurate stereo headphones that are easy to wear for long periods of time, but which have design input from those who know the gaming scene are more desirable.

Note that this is another exception for racing games. They more frequently use multi-channel or object-based audio with external speakers. After all, you don’t want the headset cable tangles up in the steering wheel!

Given that, one might ask why the best choice wouldn’t be a good set of “audiophile” headphones as one might find in a “can jam”. Beyond the design for different applications, there is one other requirement: the need for a chat/communications mic. Remember, solo “Twitchers” need to speak to their viewers and professional or even casual gamers need to talk with teammates. For that, one needs a mic. Sorry, even a good mc mounted above the screen won’t do the trick, as it would pick up too much background noise. 

When advising on, or selecting, a mic for game play fit is important, so that it conforms properly to the shape of the user’s face. Equally important, given that we’ve already set the reasoning for a wired connection, which side is the mic boom on, and which side has the connection cable? Competitive gaming requires a great deal of arm movement and the gamer does not want to get caught up in a cable or the boom. Some headsets have mic booms that can be plugged in to either side; that is an interesting alternative.

eSports Zone
Even when playing as a team, eSports athletes play close in to the screen, and large screen projector in the arena is for audience viewing.

A few more things, some of which may be obvious, some not. To be certain, regardless of which type of game device is used the mantra is high speed and low latency. Make sure you deliver both. Of course, reliability/QoS is also key, so a wired broadband connection is essential.

If the gamer is in the same room as other viewers, such as a “gamer desk” in a home theatre, den or family room, make certain that the ambient lighting in the room does not bother the gamer. Make certain that task lighting on the game area is carefully controlled. The same goes of the large room audio when a gamer is also present. The gamer’s headphones will deliver some noise isolation, but their audio perception comes first. Then set the base room levels, also being careful not to have too much bass that it jolts the gamer’s game presence.

Finally, ask the gamer what their seating preference is. There is a whole market segment that specialises in “gaming chairs”. About the last thing you want a gamer to do is sit in an otherwise comfy theatre chair! 

Your clients may never be, or be home to a professional gamer, a Twitch-based player, or an aspiring eSports league team member. That said, the increased consumer attention to eSports means that sooner or later you may be asked to create that type of environment for a client. Some of the requirements are obvious, some not. Some items will be the sole decision of the gamer and then it is your job to accommodate them and integrate with the rest of the system. In other cases, you’ll be asked to suggest a whole “game arena”. No matter how the job falls out, awareness of the basic components and configurations will definitely up your business game!

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.