How keyboards and mice really impact your gaming performance

You’ve been playing DOTA2, LOL, or HOTS, and you’re getting better, when suddenly it feels like you’ve hit a wall. You’re always just a little bit late with your abilities, and you always seem to miss your skill shots. You think to yourself “maybe if I upgrade my equipment I can play like the pros!”

But is that true? Do you really need a massive multi-button gaming mouse and gaming keyboard with custom switches to play like a real e-sports star? The answer might surprise you. While upgrading your equipment does produce a noticeable increase in MOBA performance, it’s not because your equipment has more buttons on it. It’s because good equipment allows you to do what you want to do, quickly and reliably.

The paradox of finger travel time

Any e-sport played at a high enough level becomes a “twitch game.” Quick decision making and split second timing will always separate a pro from a casual player. The faster you can act and react, the better you’ll play.

This is the general thought behind the impulse of wanting to buy a multi-button gaming mouse. Players may struggle with entering certain commands, like move, with a mouse and other commands, like abilities, with a keyboard. The general idea is that your reaction time would be quicker if you could do everything with one hand.

But is this the case? Unfortunately, evidence points to the contrary. Multi-button mice tend to increase reaction time due to one simple factor: finger travel time.

Finger travel time is something that has often been examined in the fighting game community, and it’s why many professional fighting gamers switch to arcade stick or hit-box from gamepads. While using a gamepad as intended your thumb has to travel from button to button. The actual time it takes for your thumb to move adds extra time before each of your inputs. It may seem negligible, but even if it takes you only a few milliseconds to move your thumb that can amount to a frame or more of game time, and in fighting games as well as MOBAs a frame can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

This is why massive multi-button mice tend to increase your reaction time rather than reduce it. While you aren’t coordinating two hands anymore, you are waiting for your thumb or finger to travel from mouse button to mouse button, adding extra time to your ability execution. Meanwhile, the basic keyboard control scheme already eliminates most finger travel time since it essentially assigns all your important abilities to a single finger.

This theory is supported by the equipment that the pros use. Let’s examine Faker, the midlaner from SK Telecom T1’s League of Legends team. Faker has gone on record using both the Corsair Sabre and the Razer DeathAdder gaming mouse. What do each of these mice have in common? They only have a few extra buttons on them. These buttons can be used to reduce finger travel time by, say, preventing your ring finger from having to hit “Q” for an ability and “A” for attack move, or preventing your pointer finger from hitting both “E” for a basic ability and “R” for an ultimate. However, they cannot be used to map each and every function to the mouse. Faker uses both hands to control his character and is better off for it.

The issue of eye focus

Another thing to keep in mind when purchasing your MOBA gear, is how your eyes move. No, I’m not talking about getting an ultra-expensive widescreen monitor or picking up a monitor with eye tracking. That’s all just personal preference.

I’m talking about being aware that your eyes follow the movements of your physical body. For example, when you are moving a mouse with your right hand, your vision naturally skews to the right, since that’s the part of your body that’s actually doing something. If you’re pressing keys with your left hand, your vision will skew to the left.

Believe it or not, this means that the first player actually did have an ever so slight advantage in old split-screen games like Goldeneye or Mario Kart. In general, your left hand makes more inputs in these sorts of games than your right, and since the first player would be put in the upper left portion of the screen, it was simply easier for them to focus on what they were doing without their eyes wandering.

This is another point against multi-button gaming mice. If you bind several functions to the mouse hand, your view will naturally skew to the right. In general, you are going to want to keep your actions balanced between each of your hands.

There is another psychological effect to keep in mind when buying your gear. Your eyes will tend to follow wherever your pointer is on screen. You can actually test this in your seat right now. Move your pointer along these words as you read them. Then relax and stare off into the middle distance. The next time you move your cursor, your eyes will want to snap to it. Human beings are very good at detecting movement like that.

Choose Your Weapon

How does this play into choosing your MOBA gear? In short, it’s an argument for buying a mouse with a high DPI. This probably comes off as a big “duh” to most people out there. High DPI mice are simply more accurate, and this is true. However, high DPI mice also create smoother cursor movement, movement that is easier for your eyes to snap to and focus on, and movement that is harder for you to lose in the chaos of a team battle.

This also means investing in a mousepad optimized for high DPI mice. Pads like these tend to be low friction on one side, allowing the mouse to easily glide across it, and high friction on the other, making sure it doesn’t slip underneath you. However, most importantly, pads like this are uniform and designed specifically for optical or laser mice. You may not notice it, but non-uniform surfaces can screw with optical mice, making your cursor move at different speeds at different times. This ensures that your mouse speed is predicable, 100% of the time, which will make your cursor easier to follow.

And what about keyboards?

We’ve talked a lot about mice, because it’s what people have the most misconceptions about. However, keyboards also factor into your performance. In general, you’re looking to invest in a high quality mechanical keyboard with low resistance switches, something like the Corsair K70 or the Razer Huntsman.

I personally recommend a keyboard with Cherry MX Red switches, though many pros sing the praises of Cherry MX Brown switches. There are a ton of switches to choose from, from companies like Kalih, Gateron, and Razer, so it's really up to you.

Keyed Up

So, what’s the difference between a standard office keyboard, and one the pros use?

First of all, a mechanical keyboard is one that uses switches for each of its individual keys. Think of these switches like a button on an arcade cabinet. Each has its own specific circuit, and own dedicated mechanical spring, which makes it more accurate.

However, the type of switch that your keyboard uses is also important. Once again, we have finger travel time to blame. It takes time for your finger to start pressing on a key and for that key to become fully pressed and register a keystroke. Most all popular keyboard switches travel the same distance. The major variable is in how much resistance the keys give to your finger. You are, of course, looking for a keyboard with low resistance. The lower the resistance the faster you can press keys. In the Cherry MX line, the two lowest resistance switches are the red and the brown. Both are depressed with a force of 45 grams, the lowest in the line. The only difference is that the brown has a small click at the end to give you tactile feedback alerting you that a key had been pressed, and the red does not. While the brown does add the smallest bit of travel time due to its extra resistance on the backend, most agree that it’s not enough to actually affect your performance, so this is going to come down to personal preference.

There are other options too, like the Cherry MX SPEED Silver line. These keys actually do have a shorter travel time before they activate, 1.2 mm as opposed to the 2 mm of most other keys. While this does allow for faster reactions, it also increases false positives for heavy handed players.

You should also consider your key layout. To minimize finger travel time, you are going to want to bind every key function in the game to its own individual key that you can press without moving your fingers much. The more you have to move to hit a key, the less important the function of that key should be. For this reason alone, it’s recommended that you avoid things like ergonomic keyboards that split their keys up into unique layouts.

What’s your setup?

Pro play is so much more than just reaction time. A new keyboard and mouse isn’t going to compensate for a bad build, a low tier character, or a lack of teamwork.

However, equipment that ensures that your key presses and mouse movements are always quick and accurate is absolutely a worthwhile investment if you’re trying to improve your play. It’s not going to be a matter of how many buttons your mouse has, or how many macros your keyboard can bind. It’s a matter of how quick and reliably you can get your equipment to do what you want it to do.

In other words, the best equipment certainly won’t make you a pro overnight, but it can absolutely help you perform your best.