Video gamers are putting down their traditional controllers in favour of something more interesting—weird, specialized ones they build themselves out of almost anything. Their numbers are growing on Twitch and YouTube, where I've seen one beat Dark Souls using a Rock Band drum set.
But I was still shocked when a friend, who was attending the recent Super Gonq Battles fighting game tournament in Ottawa, messaged me on Facebook with a blurry picture of a guy playing Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3—with what appeared to be a piano keyboard.
One of the biggest surprises was seeing such an unusual setup in competition. Until then, I had only seen alternative controls in action when the gamer was free to keep trying after they failed. An intense double elimination tournament like Super Gonq Battles hardly seemed like the place to break away from the norm.
The piano keyboard-wielding gamer was Gregory "Gono" Chow, a computer science graduate from Waterloo, Ontario, who programs for a living. He's a competitive fighting game player who travels a few times a year to participate in tournaments. He attended EVO 2016 in Las Vegas to compete, and managed to make it out of pools (a round robin which seeds people for the elimination bracket) on the winners side in Pokkén Tournament before losing his first two games and being eliminated.
I tracked him down to ask about his unique controller, and why he uses it in a competition.
"I modded the piano to do it mainly because I had this video of me playing a PC fighting game on a longer keyboard," said Gono. "I played on stick for a while, but could never get used to it fully. I was very comfortable on keyboard and decided it would be like playing on a hitbox [a controller that mimics a computer keyboard], except with the humour factor attached."
Gamers like France's Louffy have made it a point to use their preferred inputs: he won Ultra Street Fighter IV at EVO 2014 using a controller for the original PlayStation. If top-level players are employing converters to play with outdated hardware, then it stands to reason that any input would be viable if someone was willing to modify it.
I reached out Juan Gonzales, an arcade stick builder/modder based in Phoenix, Arizona, who sells his wares online through Anomaly Arcade Sticks. I wanted to ask him about why people go through so much trouble to play with custom controllers. Gonzales has been making sticks for seven years and isn't afraid to deviate from the norm, having turned objects like tool boxes and camera boxes into arcade sticks.
"When you buy a controller from the store, it looks like everyone else's. For a hardcore gamer, your controller is the extension of you with the games you play. It's like it's your weapon and you want it to represent [who you are]," said Gonzales. "You can mod a controller to your preferences to work with you, which in turn can make you better."
Piano Keyboard IaMP. Video: Gonorrhea/YouTube
According to Gono, it's worth jumping through the hoops partly because people appreciate seeing the effort he puts in to use a unique device.
"I think using a piano to play fighting games requires the same amount of effort as using any other controller. The effort put into being creative about what you play with is what people appreciate," he said.
Gono is still managing to win games with his unique control scheme. He placed third in Street Fighter V at the Super Gonq Battles tournament, where my friend met him. While he's good at what he does, he has no immediate plans to begin livestreaming his exploits on Twitch like other users of weird controllers. But we're sure to see more of them, both online and off: We may be moving towards a future where all competitive gamers will have hyper-customized controllers, and nothing plain or out-of-the-box.