When playing a game of pickup basketball between friends many of the traditional rules are ignored for the sake of fun, but when money, dinner or even just pride is on the line this sort of thinking changes. All of a sudden rules meant to ensure competitive integrity begin to appear. Time limits are introduced, the ball must be a certain size, and there are restrictions on what players can do while in possession of the ball.
In this regard, competitive video games are no different. The official rule set of Capcom’s Pro Tour for Street Fighter V, for example, is roughly 50 pages long. There are rules regulating player eligibility, custom keybindings and even what cosmetics a player is allowed to use. It’s clear that competitive integrity is valued just as highly in esports as it is in traditional sports.
However, competitive shooters such as Apex Legends have another layer of complications to consider when compared to fighting games. The variety of input methods deemed viable for shooters is much greater than that of fighting games. It’s incredibly rare for a person to play Tekken with a keyboard rather than a controller, and completely unheard of for a player to use a mouse. But the same isn’t true for the first-person shooter genre, which has utilized both input methods since the inception of home console gaming.
Many of the genre’s most popular games could be played with either a mouse and keyboard or a controller depending on what platform players had. And indeed there were major differences for players on different platforms.
Differences Between a Mouse and Keyboard and a Controller
Video game controllers were designed to be versatile. They needed to be able to function well for a variety of genres including fighting games, shooters, platformers and racing games. This was not the case with the mouse and keyboard which excelled at shooter games but struggled with other genres such as platformers or racing games. To compensate for this, most first-person shooter games include some form of aim assist for controller players; it’s otherwise generally considered more difficult to aim consistently with a controller than with a mouse.
Aim Assist for Controllers
There are a few different ways that aim assist has been implemented throughout the history of video games. The two most common forms of aim assist used in player vs player games are rotational aim assist and crosshair slowdown. These are also the two forms of aim assist that currently exist in Apex Legends.
Rotational aim assist is the more complex of the two. There are three criteria that a situation must meet in order for rotational aim assist to activate: the player receiving aim assist must be aiming down the weapon’s sights, the opponent must be within a certain range, and the player receiving the aim assist must be strafing. If all of these criteria are met then rotational aim assist will kick in, resulting in a controller player’s crosshair to begin tracking the opponent without them touching the right stick usually responsible for such rotations. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this form of aim assist typically only activates in closer ranges and will not help players who keep their distance. Think of the general effective range of shotguns, and SMGs; these are the ranges where rotational aim assist is actually effective.
Rotational aim assist also tends to be the more controversial form of aim assist. Matthew Kelly, a former esports competitor who has played on both mouse and keyboard and controller, believes this is because the rotational component of aim assist responds faster than any human could.
“Quake players, for example, will avidly practice Lightning Gun fights, in order to increase their reaction time to rapid dodging. This can be in the tune of 100-150ms for experienced players. The rotation component of aim assist, however, tends to respond to directional changes instantaneously. So long as the left thumbstick is engaged (in any direction) the aim assist will auto-rotate to the strafe changes of enemy players (faster than any trained human can),” Kelly said. “It is a matter of man vs machine, when properly analyzed.”
The second form of aim assist present in most player vs player shooter games is crosshair slowdown. This form of aim assist is simpler than rotational aim assist but is undoubtedly just as useful. Essentially, crosshair slowdown is activated when a controller player aims down a weapon’s sights and moves their crosshair across an enemy. If crosshair slowdown is active then the player’s crosshair will move at their normal sensitivity before finding a player, but slow down as the crosshair approaches an opponent or when pulling away from an opponent. This makes it easier for controller players to make the fine adjustments needed for consistent tracking of targets. This form of aim assist does not have a distance limit.
The “Advantages” of a PC
To be fair to controller players, there are certain inherent advantages when playing on PC. In general, PCs enjoy the freedom of a more customizable platform. A mouse and keyboard offer far more options when rebinding controls even when compared to a controller equipped with accessories. But this customizability doesn’t just end with in-game options.
Unlike PCs, the hardware of a console is fixed. The only part of a home gaming console that can be upgraded is the storage. If a console gamer wishes to take their gaming experience to the next level they must buy the newest console. The performance of a PC however, is only limited by the owner’s budget. While it isn’t fair to assume that the average PC player has a machine capable of outperforming the newest gaming consoles, it is worth recognizing that they do exist - especially in the competitive scene. There are PCs out there capable of pushing out well over the 120 frames per second that the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are limited to. This will make any game run smoother and feel like it responds to inputs faster.
Another common grievance of controller players, which argues in favor of a strong aim assist, is the ability for mouse and keyboard players to hit flick-shots. Although, there is solid evidence that flick-shots are not enough to overcome aim assist. Most notably, flick-shots are done entirely by a human hand, meaning it will never be as consistent as computer assisted aim.
“This [misunderstanding] lies in the inability to separate highlights from averages,” said Matthew Kelly. “Meaning, yes, we can hit flick-shots. And yes, they look pretty darn cool. However, the ability to perform inconsistent open-loop movements, that are eye-catching, does not trump per-bullet consistency. Controllers win the engagements that matter in professional play.”
This reasoning supports the opinion held by one of Apex Legends’ best controller players, Eric “Snip3down” Wrona.
“Just because mouse and keyboard players can hit zipline bounces and hit sick flicks does not make up the difference for the fact that controller has literal aim assist that helps your aim in up-close and medium range fights,” Snip3down said during a livestream in early September. “This whole game is based around winning your individual fights and if you have aim assist, which is a way to have an unnatural form of aim, it’s better.”
For the majority of esports history the difference between the two peripherals wasn’t such a heated topic because there was a separation between controller and mouse and keyboard players. Those who played on Xbox competed against other Xbox players and those who played on PC competed against other PC players. Even when a game saw success on both PC and console the two kinds of players literally could not be pitted against each other. But eventually all of that would change.
Introducing Cross-platform Play
The introduction of cross-platform play brought PC and console players closer together than ever in casual communities, but splintered many games’ esports scenes. The most common reason for this fragmentation is aim assist. Controller players feel it is necessary for them to be able to keep up with someone using a mouse and keyboard, whereas mouse and keyboard users feel it is an unfair crutch that controller players can exploit to win.
In a livestream earlier this year Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, one of the largest names on Twitch, expressed the sentiment that cross-play is the future of gaming, but also makes game balance more challenging.
“Cross-play really is the future, but no matter what it’ll never be balanced,” Shroud said. “You get rid of aim assist, then controller sucks. You have aim assist, then controller is too strong. Like there’s no perfect balance there.”
The split in opinion on aim assist in esports has even begun to force some titles to make controversial decisions for their competitive communities. Call of Duty League has announced that it is a controller only esport despite being available to play on PC, and in contrast Rainbow 6 Siege has stood firm against implementing any sort of aim assist for multiplayer on any platform.
Apex Legends’ Unique Position in Esports
As it stands, Apex Legends has two different flavors of aim assist. Console players have a stronger version of aim assist than players who plug that same controller into their PC. This isn’t really an issue until a console player runs into a PC player using either a mouse and keyboard or a controller. It’s these situations that become controversial.
This year’s Apex Legends Global Series will be open to all platforms and will allow controller players to compete both against and alongside their mouse and keyboard wielding peers. However, console controllers will have their aim assist capped at PC controller levels. This means that Xbox and PlayStation players who may have become accustomed to a stronger level of aim assist (0.6) will have to compete with the weaker form of aim assist (0.4) that players who use a controller on PC are already used to.
This action could support any number of implications from the perspective of Respawn Entertainment. It’s possible that the developers feel that the aim assist in Apex Legends is stronger than what is necessary to bridge the technical gap between top competitors, but is the proper strength for more casual players.
That’s how top competitive mouse and keyboard player Mac “Albralelie” Beckwith feels about the current state of aim assist.
“Aim assist for the casual player base isn’t a problem. But when you give that level of aim assist to a god-tier controller player… that’s when it becomes a problem. Because they don’t need that,” Albralelie said in a livestream in August.
The majority of the Apex Legends player base is not incredibly skilled at the game, which is understandable. Apex Legends is a difficult game. Personally, I have over 700 hours invested in Apex Legends and the only time I’ve ever been in Diamond rank is when I was playing with my friends who are much, much better at the game than I am.
When all of these factors are considered Respawn seem caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to balance the game in such a way that competitors feel they aren’t being slighted, newer players can still enjoy the game, viewers are entertained and the game maintains marketability to its sponsors. It’s a delicate balance to strike to say the least.
Some esports veterans are beginning to feel as though there is no perfect way to balance the fight between controller and mouse and keyboard players.
“As someone who has competed at LANs as both a controller and mouse and keyboard competitor, and as someone who deeply studies aim through the field of Human-Computer Interaction, I can assure you that these inputs are not meant to mix,” said Matthew Kelly. “At a professional level, they are oil and water.”
But Respawn’s actions have made it clear this isn’t the vision they have for the future of Apex Legends. They do not intend to separate players based on their choice in peripheral, even at exclusive events where competitive integrity is paramount. This isn’t necessarily a dangerous viewpoint to hold, but it is fair that this worries players about the future of the game.
Fortunately, Apex Legends’ Associate Live Balance Designer John Larson has stated on Twitter that they are listening to their players.
“As Apex and its players evolve, it’s only prudent for us to continue to evaluate whether or not aim assist is ‘too good.’ When I see top-level controller players saying they would be alright with nerfing aim assist, I definitely take note,” Larson said in September.
Compromise is inherently part of balance. If one side of the player base were completely happy then the other side would likely be completely dissatisfied. It’s idealistic thinking at best to expect everyone to be entirely content with the balance of the game. To Respawn’s credit, Apex Legends is walking down a path that no other esport has dared to venture.
And though there will be mistakes made along this journey, it’s clear that they’re doing something right. Apex Legends enjoys one of the largest and most dedicated communities in the video game industry, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Respawn’s decision to limit aim assist in the 2021-2022 ALGS makes it obvious that the mechanic isn’t perfectly balanced for competitive play, but that may not be their goal. From Respawn’s perspective, Apex Legends is more than a fierce competition between the game’s top players. The game also has to be accessible to more inexperienced players.
However, Respawn also needs to recognize the frustrations players face when a single mechanic varies so dramatically on different platforms in a cross-play enabled game. Nearly every time Apex players argue with each other it's over aim assist and its impact on the game's competitive integrity. Overall, it seems to have been a good decision to protect the competitive integrity of Apex Legends by limiting the power of aim assist to a reasonable and consistent level in ALGS.