Motion Controls Could Disrupt Pro Gaming — If Anyone’s Bold Enough to Try

‘Overwatch’ on Switch might literally change the game

Illustration: Timo Lenzen

In a few weeks, Blizzard will release its billion-dollar team-based shooter Overwatch on the Nintendo Switch. Unlike versions on other platforms, the Switch port will make use of motion controls to aim, allowing players to move their controllers to line up shots with much better accuracy. As esports grow into an ever larger industry, it’s an innovation that could have a huge impact on how competitive games are played.

There’s a long-running conflict between console and PC gamers over which platform is superior for playing competitive games, including first-person shooters like Overwatch. Analog sticks on a controller don’t offer quite as much fine control over aiming at targets as you get with a mouse and keyboard. While you have the space to move your arm across a desk to do a 180-degree turn, your control stick can only turn your character so quickly. It’s also harder to line up a distant target in your crosshairs with your thumb, versus your entire hand clutching a mouse. Console games typically offer extra features like aim assist, which helps you hit a target as long as you’re firing in the right direction, to compensate for these more cumbersome controls.

The Switch, however, isn’t a typical console. Its Joy-Con controllers contain hypersensitive gyroscopes and sensors built around the same kind of motion controls that made the Wii one of the bestselling consoles of all time. Nintendo used a combo of analog sticks and motion controls in its flagship game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to allow players to aim their bow or camera by moving their controllers in physical space. Third-party games like Doom have taken a similar approach, allowing console players much more accuracy and control than they’re used to.

Could this same tech be applied to competitive games like Overwatch and give professional players an edge? Maybe, but don’t expect to see pros try it any time soon.

Professional esports players have a lot more on the line than the average player. To buy a franchise slot in Blizzard’s Overwatch League, owners had to invest up to a reported $60 million. This weekend, two such teams will compete for a million-dollar final prize, on top of their assorted sponsorships and merch deals. In other esports, the prize pools are even higher, with both Dota 2 and Fortnite reaching up to $30 million. Such high stakes mean players have to reach for every edge they can get. Usually that means learning to play on a keyboard and mouse, as a controller is just too handicapped to perform well.

Motion controls could change the calculus on that decision for pros and make learning the skill set more appealing. In fact, a player who can go toe-to-toe with the best players using an unconventional method could potentially make that player stand out to recruiters and earn unique sponsorships (themselves potentially more valuable even than the prize pools). But in a competitive environment, all players would need to be on a level playing field. In most games today, they’re not.

I would love to see a tournament where pro players… were forced to play on the Switch using motion controls.

The console version of Overwatch currently has aim assist features that are unavailable to PC players. When your crosshair is near an enemy player, the game can snap your gun onto the target to help you line up the shot. This feature isn’t without controversy — for instance, it can make your aim worse for characters who rely on leading a shot — but it helps out players who can’t be as precise. If a player were to use a controller in a competitive environment, should they still get aim assist? And if so, should PC players get some assistance as well? Where do you draw the line?

“The best place to look is Fortnite,” suggests Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson, one of the desk analysts for Blizzard’s official Overwatch League. Currently, Fortnite allows cross-platform play between consoles, PC, and even mobile platforms. “The way that Fortnite makes up for it is that they have an auto aim feature for the players that are playing on mobile or controllers.” Notably, Fortnite still allows you to enable aim assist when using motion controls.

When it comes to things like getting headshots, motion control could be a huge improvement for a pro player. According to Wilkinson, motion controls could help when it comes to aiming at a small, distant target. “I could imagine people getting good at using motion controls for, like, small precise movements like Widowmaker,” he says, referring to one of Overwatch’s several sniper characters. “For example, if you use the controller to be able to get in the general area, and then use the motion controls just to adjust the small amount afterwards.”

But motion controls can’t do everything. “If you want to make very quick 180 movements or track somebody that’s moving really quickly around you, you’d have to be spinning in your chair. You’d be all over the place,” says Wilkinson. Combining a thumb stick with motion controls could be viable, but it’s a skill set not many pros have. “I think it would take a huge amount of work to be able to get to a position where you’d be very good at that. It’s a skill that you would have never had to learn anywhere else.”

Of course, spending huge amounts of work to get good at something is sort of what pros do. The question, then, isn’t whether anyone will ever do it, but whether it’s worth doing in the first place. Given the choice, would any pro choose to invest the effort into learning a controller — with or without motion controls — over a keyboard and mouse?

So far, no player has. In fact, Wilkinson says controller usage is so unheard of that when host Malik Forté asked to use one during the 2018 All-Star Talent Takedown show match, the tech team couldn’t make it work. “Malik didn’t play with the controller at the all-star event,” says Wilkinson. “They don’t actually have an interface ready to go for the controller, because nobody’s ever asked for it before… It’s something that they could do in the future, but they actually don’t have the infrastructure there at the moment.”

Currently, controllers aren’t banned from Overwatch League games for the same reason playing with a blindfold isn’t banned. No reasonable player would handicap themselves that way. But if they ever got better, more accurate, and intuitive enough to surpass a traditional mouse and keyboard, could they constitute an unfair advantage if a player asked for them?

The question assumes motion controls would be better. Wilkinson doesn’t believe that’s the case. “What a good controller is aiming to do is map the thoughts of the player to the movement of the character,” he says. “If we were able to wield a sword with that amount of precision, aim a bow incredibly well, fire with incredible accuracy with a rifle, then being able to execute those skills in a virtual world might not carry the same kind of magic.”

As if to prove the point, one fan modded Overwatch to control a character named Moira by “Naruto-running” in front of a Kinect. The setup is immersive and maps almost perfectly to the in-game character. It’s also exhausting. The player ends up winded after only a couple games. Watching someone who is the best at playing Overwatch this way would certainly be entertaining, but it would be a very different game than we’re used to seeing.

In that way, motion controls could eventually lead to new kinds of competitive gameplay. In Splatoon 2, a Switch-exclusive game where you win not by killing your enemies but by spraying the playing field in your team’s color of paint, motion controls have already become the norm. And the motion-controlled classic Wii Sports spawned a niche competitive speedrunning scene.

Traditional shooters may still favor a keyboard and mouse, but as motion controls get better, seeing them in a competitive environment will only become a more entertaining prospect. If for no other reason than the novelty. “I would love to see a tournament where pro players… were forced to play on the Switch using motion controls,” says Wilkinson. “I think it would be a hilarious tournament.”

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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