Since last weekend, Overwatch console players have flooded forums with denunciations of so-called "cheaters" who play with a mouse and keyboard set-up. That way, they will nail the headshots and swift movements that console players must work hard to master. Players stuck with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers call mouse and keyboard conversion devices an unfair advantage. But gamers with disabilities call it a crucial tool.
On Battle.net, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan posted an unusually terse message rejecting the use of mouse and keyboard on console. He called for a full stop on Xbox and PlayStation's recognition of input conversion devices or, equivocating, open and easy support for all console players choosing mouse and keyboard. A vocal majority of Overwatch fans rallied behind him.
But for America's several million gamers with disabilities and the millions of others worldwide, the input conversion technology that allows for mouse and keyboard console play is what makes their favourite games accessible. Steve Spohn, CEO of AbleGamers, told me that a block on these devices would prove "disastrous for gamers with disabilities." He added that "such a system-wide ban would not only eliminate mouse and keyboard, it would also block out almost all of the assistive technologies we give to people with disabilities to be able to play on consoles."
— Steven Spohn (@stevenspohn) February 6, 2017
Mouse and keyboard input converters have been around for nearly a decade. The technology translates mouse and keyboard inputs into an input that a console recognises as a console controller. Essentially, it maps a console controller's commands onto a PC's. There's significant demand for the equipment because it lets players aim and shoot with improved accuracy and speed. For snipers especially, it gives players an undeniable edge.
On Xbox One, mouse and keyboard play isn't natively supported. On PlayStation 4, it is, but players must purchase peripherals. Input conversion devices are an intermediary. But they have to be good — otherwise, the mouse will feel jerky and unnatural.
Game developers can't monitor the use of these conversion devices, so there's no penalty for using them. And when an Xbox One player is pitted against a mouse and keyboard player, they're often at a disadvantage. Blizzard has no way to prevent that from happening.
Here's what it looks like:
Jeff Kaplan and the Overwatch team told me that Kaplan's recent Battle.net statement comes from their desire to provide an even playing field. "Ideally, we want Overwatch players to know exactly what they're up against when they sit down for a match — but right now, console players have no way of knowing whether they're competing against someone with a keyboard-and-mouse setup or a controller," Blizzard said via email. Neither Sony nor Microsoft responded to requests for comment.
Mark, who founded XIM, one of the more popular mouse and keyboard adapters, told me that there's a lot of "false information" about the technology. On Amazon, the device does for $US150 ($196) and claims to provide "the highest precision mouse and keyboard (and more) experience."
He explained that "XIM doesn't give you PC aim on consoles (it can't)." But when I asked whether the XIM 4 adaptor gives an unfair advantage to its users against other console players, he told me that "XIM isn't about an advantage, but, for the many people out there like myself who cannot game well using a thumbstick, it's about not having a disadvantage."
A XIM4 keyboard and mouse converter via Amazon
While that may be true for some people, others are clearly using the technology to get a leg up on the competition. Several of the top console snipers on Overwatch admit to using a mouse and keyboard setup. Kojsdojo, a top 500 Widowmaker player, uses XIM technology on his PS4. He's unashamed, posting his XIM settings on his YouTube channel and calling himself a "grandmaster" with "unreal reflexes": Steady aim, on; 35.0 sensitivity; 80 boost. On Overwatch's UI, he sets his sensitivity to 100.
That said, Mark contends several gamers with disabilities use the technology. On XIM's forums, gamers with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy share accessibility tricks using the XIM 4.
One XIM.com thread attracted several thousand readers. Users map console controllers onto the keyboard for less painful gaming and, paired with other hardware, is super customisable. "I want XIM to be the best way for people with disabilities to enjoy console gaming and will continue to make that happen," he said.
Spohn pairs his XIM with a QuadStick, which is a mouth controller, and an Adroit, which he says allows button to be replaced by switches. "These are the options that I am left with because standard controllers don't work for me," he explained. Spohn says he'd participated in dozens of conversations accessibility on Blizzard titles and thinks they're "standup company when it comes to accessibility." He thinks that "to implement a ban that would completely stop an entire segment of their audience from playing one of their games is completely unlike them."
Completely nixing mouse and keyboard input converter support from consoles was only one option listed in Kaplan's controversial forum post. Blizzard also explained that they could enable mouse and keyboard on PS4 (Xbox has said that mouse and keyboard support is on its way.) These players would compete against other mouse and keyboard players, though it wouldn't solve the problem of detecting input converters.
It's not a matter of banning the hardware as much as it's about having "a clear and consistent policy from the console makers about these devices, along with tools to help identify when they're being used," Blizzard said.
Spohn says it's undeniable that XIM gives an advantage in first-person shooters. But "to completely ban people from using the only controller that allows you to be able to access a particular game is to alienate an entire segment of your audience. The alternative to that is to allow everyone to use whichever controllers they need to."