Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of the Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of the Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Why an old technology is getting a new lease on life.

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SteelSeries' 6GV2.

Don't Call It a Comeback

Around seven or eight years ago, something began to change in the PC gaming market. Many companies had been making gaming-specific peripherals for PC, in the form of optical mice and programmable rubberdome keyboards, but there were faint hints that mechanical switches were becoming the preferred keyboard technology for hardcore enthusiasts.

"Our first lines, the 6GV2 and 7G were around seven years ago," said SteelSeries director of products Jeff Mahlmeister. "Obviously mechanical keyboards have been around for decades, but we were attempting to bring that to the gaming market. We made the leap. That paid off. Gamers have definitely been adopting mechanical keyboards and we've seen a steady rise in consumer preference towards mechanical keyboards."

"Honestly, competitive gamers have almost exclusively wanted mechanical keyboards."

- SteelSeries director of products Jeff Malhmeister

"There's always been an underlying need," added Razer's Mookerjee. "A good six or seven years ago is when we started doing it in earnest. We identified the need fairly early on. On gaming forums, people were buying keyboards on Ebay, Japanese keyboards, or ex-commercial keyboards and then re-purposing them for gaming. We got onto the trend fairly early and I believe the BlackWidow was one of the first widely-available mechanical keyboards designed specially for gamers rather than the reference design from switch manufacturers."

That was the beginnings of mechanical keyboards as a sustained product for gamers, but the market didn't go from 0 to 60 immediately. Malhmeister called the growth of SteelSeries' original offerings "slow and steady". For Logitech and Razer, real growth and a firm transition started around 3 to 4 years ago.

"The consumers were starting to indicate some interest or desire to upgrade from a rubberdome keyboard to a mechanical keyboard," said Logitech's Tucker. "That transition has happened very quickly. Over that time, the preponderance of gaming keyboards has really moved from rubberdome to mechanical, especially at the mid-tier and high-tier price points."

Mookerjee credited Razer's success with two technology trends meeting in the keyboard space: mechanical switches and backlighting. At the time, Razer had a number of keyboard offerings with backlighting and the BlackWidow line of mechanical gaming keyboards.

The 2010 Razer BlackWidow.

"Adding backlighting to what became the BlackWidow Ultimate I think was one of the key breakthroughs."

- Razer vice president and general manager of peripherals Ruben Mookerjee

"A lot of people simply weren't aware of mechanical keyboards until a few years ago. The real breakthrough happened around three or four years ago when we first added backlighting," he explained. "Before that, gamers had the choice of going for the original BlackWidow or one of our backlit keyboards. We know the backlighting resonates with gamers, because we tend to play in darkened environments. It does help usability quite a lot. Adding backlighting to what became the BlackWidow Ultimate I think was one of the key breakthroughs. That was the point where we really started to see the volumes of mechanical keyboards explode."

"One of the things that seems to align with gaming keyboards is lighting," agreed Tucker. "We talk to a lot of customers. There's a spectrum of desire when it comes to lighting. Some don't need the lighting. Some absolutely love it."

The three-to-four year window also aligns with the powerful growth in eSports. A decade ago, there were pro players, who used mechanical keyboards due to their own high actions-per-minute. Certain keyboards would "ghost" and miss keystrokes; mechanical keyboards have N-key rollver (NKRO), meaning every key you press is registered. Despite that preference, the viewership of such events was much smaller than today's major events like EVO, The International for Dota 2, or the League of Legends World Championship. These events are streamed to millions and in LoL's case, even televised on networks like ESPN3. Most of the players competing in these events are using mechanical keyboards.

"I attribute the growth of mechanical keyboards to market awareness, but honestly, competitive gamers have almost exclusively wanted mechanical keyboards. Esports is rising. It's huge and the awareness of people following it has caused the market to rise," said SteelSeries director. "It's definitely important. There's a certain type of consumer, just like for golf clubs. They will buy based on what they see the pros using. Sometimes it's down to a specific product, sometimes it's a general one: 'Oh, professional gamers are using closed-back headphones, because they isolate out noise' or 'They're all using mechanical keyboards, so I should consider that.' It has an influence for sure."

"It's not just keyboards, it's mice and headsets as well," said Mookerjee. "As with all sports, you've got the tastemakers who are your top athletes and then there's a trickle-down effect as people see the equipment they're using."

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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