Blizzard Entertainment has an Overwatch problem on home consoles. More specifically, the game is designed to be played on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with standard controllers. Overwatch is tuned and tweaked on console with controller aiming in mind. Things like aim assist, acceleration, and dead zones are taken into account on those platforms for a reason.
Blizzard's problem is that some players are using alternative input devices to use a mouse and keyboard on those platforms. These devices map mouse movement and keyboard inputs to the normal controller inputs. And they can also be used for any number of devices.
Using a keyboard and mouse gives players a distinct aiming advantage over those who are simply using a controller, which is part of the reason the home console platforms don't link up to the PC versions. Players on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have complained that the top players on those platforms are there purely because of mouse and keyboard use. This is especially important with characters like Widowmaker and Hanzo, who rely heavily on precise aim.
In response to that constant complaint, Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan said that Blizzard wants to either ban alternative input devices on home consoles altogether or offer up more options for mouse and keyboard use on consoles.
"The Overwatch team objects to the use of mouse and keyboard on console," said Kaplan in post on the official Overwatch forums. "We have contacted both first-party console manufacturers and expressed our concern about the use of mouse and keyboard and input conversion devices. We have lobbied and will continue to lobby for first-party console manufacturers to either: Disallow mouse and keyboard and input conversion devices or openly and easily support mouse and keyboard for all players. I encourage you to reach out to the hardware manufacturers and express your concerns."
On the surface, that's a fine statement in response to what many view as cheating. Many of the best players on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 Overwatch use devices like XIM to provide a distinct advantage. The problem is high-level Overwatch console players aren't the only ones who use alternative input devices. For many gamers, disabilities mean that alternative input devices are the only way they can play the game at all. There are a host of conditions that make normal console play an issue.
"You're talking everything from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, fatigue syndromes, etc. to repetitive stress injuries and normal every day comfort preference," says Steven Spohn.
Spohn is the COO of AbleGamers, a non-profit organization that's dedicated to improving the quality of life of gamers with disabilities around the world. AbleGamers is all about accessibility and more options for players. Given Kaplan's statement above, Spohn and AbleGamers would prefer the latter option, with easy alternative input support for everyone. Spohn himself has praise for Blizzard overall, but was a bit shocked by Kaplan's statement.
"It did surprise me. I have met Jeff and he is a spectacular person," Spohn tells me in an interview. "Blizzard overall is a very generous company, giving millions to charity every year. While they have not met every single accessibility suggestion AbleGamers has ever brought before them, they have done so much for accessibility. It's been an honor to work with them. The all or nothing nature of the post was very surprising to me. I'm used to hearing them be all for accessibility, whereas outright banning input devices would lock out gamers with disabilities."
It would be a lock out because it's not just mouse and keyboard we're talking about here. Gamers with various conditions use a wide variety of devices to play. XIM is a mouse and keyboard adapter, but it's also a gateway for a wide variety of other USB devices. There are a host of custom controllers out there, tailored specifically to the needs of specific gamers. Without alternative input, they can't play at all. Spohn himself uses eye-tracking devices to play Overwatch on PC and consoles.
"On PC, I use TrackIR and a very high DPI mouse. On console, I use an Adroit, a QuadStick, and sometimes XIM. I've even used eye tracking," he says.
A common argument in response to allowing alternative input on home consoles is that gamers who need those devices should be playing on PC. Spohn acknowledges that many do, but there are some for whom home console gaming is their only option.
"The majority of people with severe physical disabilities do play on PC. But that's not the kind of gamers that would be affected by such a ban," he says. "I'm talking about the person who gets fatigued using a controller for too long, so they would rather use a keyboard and mouse. Or the person who doesn't want or even can't afford a PC, but they did buy a used Xbox. These types of gamers are not people that we would push onto PC if they really love consoles. I think a lot of gamers can understand why some people would rather stay on consoles. Not to mention, maybe that's where their friends are."
For those who say the a keyboard and mouse impart advantages in Overwatch, Spohn counters that other games may allow for a competitive advantage when a controller is used. He points to Rocket League as one example. Spohn just wants more options for everyone.
"Here is the real stakes on the table: Currently, everyone can purchase a mouse and keyboard, XIM, or PlayStation equivalent, and play that way if they so choose. This includes people with disabilities who need to use assistive technology. Or we can ban alternative input devices altogether, which will completely lock out anyone who needs to use something other than a standard controller," Spohn explains.
"Seems to me that by allowing everyone to choose the way they game, you level the playing field and allow access to every gamer that might want to play your game. By banning technology that is widely and readily available to everyone at very low price points, you alienate some gamers and make other gamers upset."
Spohn's overall point is banning for competitive advantage opens up the door for some oddities. For example, mouse and keyboard may provide an aiming advantage, but those players are still bound to the home console aiming system. A similar advantage in aiming is provided by say the Xbox Elite Controller, a Scuf gamepad, or high-rise thumbsticks sold by companies like Kontrol Freek. A fight stick on a fighting game is a strong competitive advantage for many players.
"At the end of the day, if we do ban mouse and keyboard, what's next?" Spohn asks. "Someone on Twitter made the argument to me that allowing mouse and keyboard is the same as allowing steroids in competitive play. If anything it's like using antibiotics, it's a widely available miracle of science that helps keep people healthy while competing and everybody uses them when they need to."
"Cheating is using a substance or technology that is prohibited or not widely available and easy to obtain. We can all go by a mouse and a keyboard. But not everyone can play without them," he adds.
AbleGamers has been in consistent contact with developers, publishers, and platform holders when it comes to accessibility. Spohn says that Microsoft and Sony have been "very good accessibility partners" who are doing what they can to support the community. He also states that it's not about hurting one group of gamers at the expense of another, it's about allowing everyone to play.
"AbleGamers has been working with the videogame industry to make everything as accessible as possible while simultaneously making sure that the needs of gamers who don't need the accessibility are not harmed in any way," Spohn explains. "It's very rare that people who don't have disabilities get upset about features intended for people with disabilities. It happens. But it's very rare and you can usually explain to the people who are upset that if those features didn't exist, a fellow gamer wouldn't be able to game. And almost all gamers respect the importance of being able to game."
The question that remains is how Blizzard moves forward with its idea of alternative input. For gamers like Spohn, alternative input isn't just a boon, it's the only way they can play on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 at all. Blizzard's worry about competitive play makes sense, but banning it only locks out a number of players from a hobby they enjoy. For reasons that are similarly an issue when other devices are used.
"It's vital that the community stand up together and say 'Look, this isn't cheating. Some people need the ability to use alternative controllers to play the games that we love. And as a gamer I get that. Please don't ban alternative input devices.'" Spohn ends.