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Esports Pros Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead Without a Mechanical Keyboard

Pioneered by companies like IBM, mechanical keyboards are now vital equipment for professional gamers.

by Nicholas Deleon
Apr 26 2016, 11:00am

Jonathan “LodA” Berg – Team Captain, Alliance Dota 2. Image: SteelSeries

They call it "peeking."

The name Alexander Deily may not ring a bell, but you might recognize his handle, LeX, if you're among the estimated 134 million people worldwide who regularly watch e-sports, the fast-growing world of competitive gaming where players face off against each other in online titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Hearthstone.

Deily's game is Counter-Strike, the notoriously difficult first-person shooter in which two teams, terrorists and counter-terrorists, take and rescue hostages, set and defuse bombs, and perform other acts of digital derring-do.

"As your avatar is moving throughout the game you're making these very minute, detailed movements," Deily recently told Motherboard, explaining the concept of "peeking," or making tight, controlled movements to sneak up on your opponent (as seen above). "So if you're having to exert a lot of force on your key to make that movement, you're spending not only time doing that but it's not going to be anywhere near as precise as it would be with a mechanical keyboard."

To Deily and other professional video game players, a mechanical keyboard, decidedly old school input technology that's made by companies like Logitech, SteelSeries, and Das Keyboard to cater to the e-sports crowd, is as crucial to their performance inside the game world as a comfortable pair of Under Armour sneakers are to Steph Curry or properly wrapped hands are to Canelo Alvarez. And just as Canelo wouldn't enter the ring after a shoddy wrap job, these players wouldn't be caught dead at a major tournament with anything other than a mechanical keyboard.

SteelSeries Apex M800. Image: SteelSeries

"There was one tournament where my keyboard actually broke, and I had to use a shitty rubber one," said Sam "BuLba" Sosale, of the professional Dota 2 team Evil Geniuses. "Let me tell you, that was a rough tournament, man."

***

Walk into the electronics section of the average Best Buy or Walmart and you'll likely find two kinds of keyboards: a smattering of mechanical keyboards that pros like Deily and Sosale swear by, and a seemingly infinite sea of what's known as rubber dome keyboards. And while both types of keyboards ultimately perform the same job, the difference in how they perform that job dictates whether they're useful for high-end professional gaming or barely good enough to start a tweetstorm.

The woeful rubber dome in action. Image: Ripster/Imgur

Rubber dome keyboards have a piece of dome-shaped rubber underneath the individual keys. As you press down on the key, the dome depresses, bringing together the electrical contact located underneath the key and the switch located below, thus completing the electrical circuit. After you release the key, the rubber dome then pops back to its original shape awaiting further keypresses. These keyboards are prevalent because they're dirt cheap to manufacture, making them attractive to the kind of person who'd ask the Geek Squad to clean their PC or for soulless corporate IT departments merely looking to spend as little as possible. (A good mechanical keyboard typically starts are around $150, while rubber dome keyboards can be found for less than $30.)

"It's probably five times more expensive to make a mechanical keyboard than a rubber dome keyboard," Mark Starrett, senior global product manager for Logitech G, the gaming-focused sub-brand of the peripheral maker, told Motherboard.

Mechanicals, on the other hand, use tiny springs to guide the key downward until it completes the circuit. The springs are faster than the rubber domes, last longer, and aren't as wobbly, leading to a more precise typing experience. (Go ahead and rub your finger over a key on MacBook Pro to see it dance.) This is helpful if you're trying clear a Mythic dungeon in World of Warcraft or trying to strafe out of the way of an incoming rocket in Doom.

"You have to be in the zone," said Jonathan "LodA" Berg, the captain of Alliance, a professional Dota 2 team. "Going from mechanical to non-mechanical is a little bit difficult."

As Berg explained, a key reason why pros like him prefer mechanical keyboards to rubber dome keyboards is because of their shallower actuation points. That is, with a rubber dome keyboard you have to depress the key all the way down to tell Windows or OS X that you've typed a letter or number. With mechanicals, however, the keys actuate even if only lightly pressed. That matters, say, when you're playing a fast-paced game like Counter-Strike, where the difference between victory and defeat can be measured in fractions of a second. You don't want to fail your teammates because your avatar was half a second too slow so move out of the way of sniper fire.

"Playing with a non-mechanical, some of your commands don't even come out because you're used to being able to type at a certain speed," said Berg.

"There is a definite, noticeable—my character moves this amount of space when I click the key one time," said Deily, "and suddenly that distance becomes a lot farther because the actuation point is lower."

***

Logitech G810. Image: Logitech

It's not just professional gamers who now swear by mechanical keyboards, with entire subreddits and wikis dedicated to exploring the major difference between models like the Logitech G810 Orion Spectrum (per-key LED lighting), the Das Keyboard Zero X40 (interchangeable metal panels), and IBM Model F (old, built like a tank).

IBM Model F reproduction. Image: modelfkeyboards.com

That last one, the IBM Model F, first went into production in 1981, and was recently resurrected by a member of the Deskthority mechanical keyboard wiki who goes by the handle Ellipse. Ellipse, whose first name is Joe (he declined to give his surname), has been working with Chinese manufacturers to bring back the Model F because it's "probably the highest quality, mass produced keyboard anyone has or ever will type on," he recently told Motherboard. Plenty of other people share his enthusiasm, with sales of the old school replica hitting $87,000 for the first production run (prices start at $325).

To Ellipse, who's from Long Island, New York, the appeal of mechanical keyboards like the Model F is less to do with the precision control needed to dominate round after round of Counter-Strike, and more to do with the ethereal sense of pleasure he and his ilk derive from typing on the springy keys of a mechanical.

"If you've never typed on a Model F," he said, "it is difficult to convey the experience."

***

Before Michael "Bunny FuFu" Kurylo, of the League of Legends team Cloud9, turned pro, he was used to using whatever random laptop, complete with rubber dome keyboard, happened to be lying around. "But then I switched to actual equipment," he said, including a mechanical keyboard, and never looked back.

"I went from, like, the middle of the pack ranking to the top rankings," he said. (Cloud9 is currently ranked 18th worldwide and 3rd in North America.) "At the level we play at, they honestly make a difference."