Is Sound in Esports Really That Important, Or Is It Just Another Myth?

by in General | Mar, 5th 2019

Video games are there to stimulate our senses, captivate our attention, challenge our minds, and test our reflexes. They do so by creating a highly interactive experience based on imaginary worlds and either deep storylines or highly competitive in-game mechanics.

Visual and auditory stimuli are the basis of video games and play a key role in building that captivating experience. Tactile stimuli can go in the same basket as well, especially if you’re playing with controllers equipped with haptic feedback motors.

And that brings us to the focal point of this article — the importance of stimuli in games. More precisely, the importance of sound in competitive video games!

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that there’s a huge difference between single-player and multiplayer games, more so today than ever before. The former is often poised with deep, interactive storylines, detailed characters, and an immersive world in which the game takes place.

The latter, on the other hand, is based on addictive, often easy-to-learn but hard-to-master mechanics that make them incredibly competitive. In the past, all multiplayer games had single-player campaigns: offline game modes in which people could hone their skills without being exposed to other players in online matchmaking.

That’s not the case anymore, at least for the most part. Single-player games are one, and multiplayer games are another. There are no real similarities between the two anymore. In other words, multiplayer games of today are all (more or less) competitive esports franchises that have only a few similarities to their single-player counterparts. These similarities are their auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on the auditory aspect of competitive video games. But, before that, we must assess their contribution to the level of immersion in single-player games before we can further dissect their importance at the competitive level. So, without further ado, let’s kick it off!

Contributing to the Level of Immersion

Immersion is one of the most common words you’ll hear people use to describe their favorite video games. It basically represents the overall “feel” of the game, the so-called spatial presence that comes with every title.

It’s a mixture of many in-game factors that, together, create a realistic experience for the players and make for a fundamentally satisfying gaming experience.

We’re talking audio, video, and tactile factors. Their mutualism is able to effectively portray lively and incredibly well-detailed worlds filled with different characters, all being merely small parts of the in-game universe that pulls the players in like a magnet.

Obviously, the main part of this spectrum is visual perception — the “setting” in which the game takes place, the level design choices that put you “in” the game.

But we shouldn’t forget about the auditory factors here. Sound design is often as important as the gameplay and graphical elements, especially in atmospherical games such as Firewatch, Limbo, Inside, and similar. We’re talking everything from the game’s soundtrack to level-to-level ambient sounds that bring you closer to the game’s atmosphere.

However, when it comes to multiplayer games, sounds are often used in a much different manner. Instead of immersing players into the world (sure, that’s still true to a certain extent), sounds in competitive games are used for determining the enemies around you, be it players or other NPCs.

That said, stereo (or surround) headsets are of crucial importance in competitive games, but that’s something we’ll cover in a more detailed manner later down the line. For now, let’s start digging into how sound is used in competitive video games and why it matters


The Importance of Sound in Competitive Video Games

As explained earlier, single-player and multiplayer games use sound in completely different ways, especially the most popular esports titles of today such as Rainbow Six: Siege and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

However, there’s one thing that has to be stated right off the bat — sounds bear the greatest importance in FPS games because they indicate enemy positioning. Sure, ambient sounds can go a long way in these titles, but the emphasis is still on the competitive advantage that they bring to the table. Let’s talk about that!

Viable Only in FPS Games

The importance of sound in competitive video games should not be underestimated. We’re talking FPS games here, mind you. Thanks to stereo headsets (or even stereo speakers), you can easily determine from which direction the enemies are coming.

That’s what makes FPS games so competitive in the first place! They combine the in-game mechanics alongside both visual and auditory stimuli to create an optimal environment in which the competitive nature of the game manages to thrive.

Sure, this sort of mechanism works in third-person shooters, too, but due to constant camera movement, it’s tricky to properly align the incoming sounds to the level of them being accurate enough for movement prediction.

MOBA games are a tricky bunch, too. With them, certain sound bubbles can help distinguish enemy players from neutral creeps, but you won’t be getting much of a competitive advantage with your stereo headset/speakers.

Headsets vs. Speakers

We can’t discuss the importance of sound in competitive video games without touching the age-old question — which is better, headsets or speakers?

Well, I’m sure the majority of you will agree with me on this one: if you’re playing a casual game with an immersive and well-constructed sound design that drags you into the game’s world, there’s really no difference between a good set of speakers or a headset.

In fact, it’s just a matter of personal preference, especially if we’re talking about high-quality sound devices which are able to convey the game’s sound in an orderly fashion.

On the other hand, when it comes to competitive games, be it CS:GO or R6:S or virtually anything else, I’m sure most of you prefer to use your headsets.

But why is that the case? Well, for one, the headset’s audio drivers are sitting right next to your ears, allowing you to hear every whit of sound coming from the game, be it footsteps, reloading sounds, or weapon holstering.

The gaming community is still debating on whether or not headsets give a direct competitive advantage over speakers in FPS games.

I, for one, can testify that they do, at least when it comes to my personal experience. Headsets, at least for me, offer a much higher level of spatial awareness, especially in CS:GO. I’m not sure if that’s because of Valve’s HRTF sound settings or something else, but I just can’t get the hang of my enemies’ positioning when using my good old Logitech 2.1 speaker setup.

With my trusty SteelSeries Arctis 7 headset, my sense of immersion and spatial awareness are much more noticeable. With or without the virtual surround settings, I have to say this headset changed the way I play competitive video games.

I’m not just using it for my daily dose of competitive FPS action but for sports simulations (NBA 2K and FIFA) and other random/casual games, too.

To top it all off, we can’t forget about the fact that headsets have microphones, which have become an irreplaceable part of competitive gamers’ arsenals. Aiding your teammates, giving callouts, and discussing strategies are basically impossible without microphones.

Sure, you can get standalone microphones, too, but gaming headsets have become readily available (and quite cheap), so there’s really no need to purchase standalone headphones and microphones anymore.

Alongside all of the above, there is one more factor that comes into play here, one that often sparks debates on Steam community forums and Reddit. It’s the ever-present battle between stereo, surround, and virtual surround sound devices.

Well, today, once and for all, let’s see which of these three contributes the most to creating a competitive advantage in online video games!

True Surround vs. Virtual Surround

The importance of sound in competitive video games cannot be overstated, and the way that sound is experienced can be fundamentally divided into three categories: stereo, true surround, and virtual surround.

We won’t be focusing on stereo in this section. Here, we’re only taking true surround and virtual surround into account. For those of you not in the know, here’s the basic difference between the two most popular surround types of today:

  • True surround headsets feature several audio drivers in each earcup, allowing users to feel a superior level of spatial awareness in games that support true surround sound. These headsets are quite rare, mostly because of increasingly high manufacturing costs. As a result, they’re much more expensive than their virtual counterparts and aren’t used by your average gamer Joe.
  • Virtual surround headsets come at a much cheaper price level. However, instead of having multiple audio drivers per earcup, virtual surround headsets only come with one. So where does their surround capability come from? It’s all in the software! Surround software such as Razer Synapse, Dolby Atmos, and similar are all there to give you a superior sense of direction with virtual surround headsets.


So, what have we covered today? What makes the importance of sound in competitive video games a burning factor in today’s gaming community? There’s a whole bunch of things to understand here, and this article has touched just the tip of the iceberg that is sound design in games.

The most important conclusion we can make here is that sound indeed is important and can give players a solid competitive advantage, much more today than, let’s say, ten years ago.

So, if you’re looking for a competitive edge in your favorite esports title, make sure you don’t just invest a lot of money in your mouse and keyboard but into your sound device of choice as well. Be it stereo, true surround, or virtual surround, investing in a proper gaming headset can be a game changer!


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