When Usain Bolt lined up for the Rio Olympics 100m final, he was wearing Puma spikes. Other athletes in the final were also relying on Puma, but also Nike, Adidas and New Balance, with no single brand dominating the field – either through commercial clout or superior technology.
Compare that to the 2016 Call of Duty Championship. There, the top four teams, and all 16 players on those teams, relied upon a single brand of controller. That brand was Scuf Gaming.
Scuf has no effective competition when it comes to console eSports, having been established as the brand of choice by the vast majority of professional players; players who win 97 per cent of all major competitions, according to Scuf.
Oh, and before you bring up Microsoft’s Xbox One Elite Controller, that’s also built upon intellectual property licensed from Scuf.
To find out how the company became so dominant in its field, we talked to CEO, chairman and co-founder at Scuf Gaming, Duncan Ironmonger. A brit who’s now based in the US.
BUILDING A BETTER CONTROLLER
The history of Scuf is closely related to a technique known as ‘the claw’, which was key to succeeding at a pro level. The claw involves wrapping your right index finger up and over the top of the controller; it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but it lets you press the face buttons without taking your thumb off the right analogue stick. That gives you a distinct advantage in a sport where milliseconds matter.
“When we started six years ago, we came up with a way of utilising more of your hands – we invented the paddles,” explains Ironmonger.
The paddles replicate the face buttons, but are positioned under the controller, where your fingers naturally sit. You can then jump, reload, crouch or switch weapons quickly, and without any undue strain on your hands.
“At Scuf, we were meeting a demand for people who understood that using more of your hand makes sense. Consider a keyboard. Using two thumbs and two fingers is nowhere near as efficient as touch typing,” Ironmonger argues persuasively. “There’s some pretty complex games out there [now] with twenty plus functions. It’s ineffective to just use two fingers and two thumbs,” he states.
"We created a new market space for customised, professional controllers"
But the paddles were just the beginning for Scuf, which has continued to innovate. Hair triggers and trigger stops for faster shooting, analogue sticks in varying heights and finishes, grip designs and reshaping the controllers for greater comfort.
“If you look at what we did over the last six years, we effectively created a new market space, for what we call customised, professional-grade games controllers. From a functional level, that’s where we really put our focus – how can you improve hand use, reduce latency in different controls, improve comfort, but just really make the experience richer and bring the controller up to modern day requirements of playing video games.”
Scuf was started back in 2011 when Ironmonger, along with co-founder Simon Burgess (now retired from the company) tried to get the fledgling idea off the ground.
“Those paddles were effectively the very beginning, we had no funding or anything, just my money and Simon’s. We made this thing from nothing, a true grassroots business that started from the back of a garage,” Ironmonger recalls. Today, a product such as Scuf would likely be crowdfunded, but the concept wasn’t widespread back in 2011, so they went it alone.
“We basically bootlegged it at the beginning, we’d take the controller apart, drill a few holes in it, put some microswitches in and then put the paddles on, put some bolts in the triggers to give you the trigger stop. We did rudimentary things, but they were functionally very rich and they worked. And that was the business.”
“Scuf has been a critical part of the growth of eSports.”
There was a problem, though, the controllers were (and still are) hand-built modifications of the platform-holder’s original. More a car that has been stripped out and heavily modified for racing, rather than simply a sportier model straight from the dealer. That meant buying the controller and throwing a lot of it away before replacing those bits with upgraded parts based on the customer’s specific needs. And that made it expensive. Very expensive.
“We have to buy the standard controller, because that’s our starting point. We were able to buy the controllers at a preferential rate compared to someone buying them in a shop. But as the internet’s evolved, that margin has been totally cut out and now there’s a very small margin on consumer electronics within the retail space.
“Then I’ve got labour and the materials and I’ve got to make a margin to make the business worthwhile for all
the other things we’ve spent. The price point that we charged was kind of double to treble what a normal controller was, purely to the fact that we’re hand-making these, to specification.”
With the complexity and price of controllers having steadily risen over the years, that meant a customised Xbox 360 Scuf controller could set you back £120. In a market where third-party controllers only ever undercut the platform holder’s device, that was revolutionary, at least on console.
“If you look at top-tier headsets, such as Astro, they’re charging £200 for a high-end headset. This is a high-end controller, so we have to create a market where people accept that the value of the functionality is worth paying the extra money for, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Modern thinking, especially in the games space, says you can launch your product from your bedroom via social media. But the Scuf controller isn’t a digital product. You have to use one in order to appreciate the difference.
“The first thing was get the word out there, let people know that Scuf exists, and that was through piercing that top level of the pro community.” So Ironmonger did this the traditional way, by putting in the miles: “So I went to pretty much every gaming event all over the world, putting the controllers in the hands of the pros.
“I went to the first Call of Duty XP $1m tournament in 2011. I remember talking to some of the guys who now use the controller, some of them just weren’t interested, because they didn’t get it, but a couple of them were and they became big advocates of Scuf, because it helped improve their game. The ones that weren’t, about a year later they were knocking on my door begging for one. That was one of the key milestones.”
Scuf was up-and-running and word of mouth was spreading online, which was a good thing, as the company didn’t have much of a budget to market the product traditionally.
"We had to get into the hands of the pros ... people listen to them because they’re the best"
“Frankly, there were no other choices. When you’re a start-up and you’re greengrass, you’ve got to grind and get out there and talk to people. You’ve got to try and do things on a shoestring, and make it work. It was about getting cost effective marketing. We had to get into the hands of the pros, because they’re the people who can take best advantage of it and let everyone knows it does make a difference. People listen to them because they’re the best.”
Of course, Scuf had ambitions beyond just a handful of the world’s top professionals: “eSports is just the tip of the iceberg, everything below the water is competitive gaming. eSports is a very small part of that competitive community, but ultimately it’s the pinnacle bit, like the premiership in football.”
It had the pro-gamers, but Scuf needed to spread the message even further, and the timing was perfect. “From there, how do we talk to a bigger section of the community? YouTubers were getting huge, and they could get the message out, even when we didn’t have money for traditional press,” Ironmonger continues.
The explosion in gaming on YouTube and the first professional influencers came right on time for Scuf. But even the company didn’t quite expect the explosion in eSports that came next.
“Scuf has been a critical part of the growth of eSports,” Ironmonger says, and with good reason.
“We’ve enabled gamers to have an enhanced experience gaming on console. And it actually means you can display more dexterity, which I’d argue is better for the game, and adds more skill.”
The company also saw the benefits of investing back into the sport early on: “We helped grow that eSports scene. A lot of the money we made through selling products, we threw it back into the pro scene so they could travel, to sponsor teams, we really helped them get to the places they wanted to go in order to compete.
“It’s authentic, we call ourselves a community company, we’re building products to improve the user experience, we’re sharing revenue with people through our affiliate code, which then gives consumers 5 per cent off. But then we also share revenue through sponsorships and affiliate commission. It works really well in today’s world of social media and that’s how we’ve evolved.”
That community is also key to the evolution of the products themselves, Ironmonger explains: “Because we have so many people using the controller now, we naturally get a lot of feedback, which allows us to understand the areas that do and don’t work. Obviously products do occasionally break, we’ve got people playing eight hours a day on it, but we now know why it breaks. The robustness and the improvements we can make based on the feedback is essential to the evolution of our product and our company.”
MAKING IT REAL
The company is evolving quickly, too, despite sticking to the same model that made it successful in the first place.
“We handcraft all controllers in the US in our Atlanta office, about 150 people, and then in the UK, with around 50 people. You’ll put an order in as a customer, you’ll choose exactly how you want it to look, from colour to functionality, to design, everything. And then we’ll custom build that to your specification and then we’ll ship it out a week later from our facility.”
We’re surprised that production hasn’t yet been offshored to China or Taiwan. “[This] business model works well doing on-shore production, because it’s customised, and so naturally one size doesn’t fit all.”
But where do all the parts come from? Surely they’re made elsewhere? “Correct,” Ironmonger says. “We’ve got thousands of different pieces of inventory that we create. We manufacture some parts in the US, Taiwan, other parts of Asia, even in England. It’s a mix and match, depending on where’s the best place to do it.”
The US remains the key market for competitive gaming on console, but the company was still hit by Brexit.
“[The exchange rate] definitely caused us some issues,” Ironmonger says. “You’re talking about a 15 per cent change, and most of our business is in the US and UK. I’m out in the US, and a lot of what we do from the corporate structure and the decisions we make come out of the US, because corporate and the board are all over here. With that being the case, the dominant part of the business is dollar-based, in terms of the American market being far bigger than the European market.
So when the pound depreciated so aggressively after Brexit, it did have an impact on some of our costs. With that devaluation, you have to make the product more expensive. We were hesitant to do it, but we marginally increased our product prices in the UK, though we’ve actually taken quite a big hit in the business.”
ALL PROPER TEA IS THEFT
Scuf has carefully protected its inventions. “We filed a lot of patents very early on, which is what’s kept a lot of people out of the market. We have 29 granted patents and another 65 pending.
“The IP is what is preventing other people from just ripping us off. And some people are still trying to. We aggressively defend our IP if we believe it’s being infringed, because we’ve invested so much money in it, and we need to protect the work we’ve done.”
That brings us back to Microsoft and its Elite Controller, to which Ironmonger responds: “The IP is what stopped Microsoft being able to create the Elite and not pay us any money.”
A GAME OF LEAPFROG
In the early years, Scuf’s business was mainly centred around the Xbox. However, nothing stays still for long in gaming, and PS4 is top dog for now.
“PlayStation were very smart in doing a deal with Activision on Call of Duty. The franchise is so powerful in the top level of eSports, that it naturally brings with it a lot of gravitas and, ultimately, customers. We saw a switch from a lot of our pros from using Xbox to using PlayStation,” he explains.
He points out this isn’t necessarily a personal choice from the players, but rather that the deal means all official competitions are then played on PlayStation: “There’s no choice, you can’t say you’re competing on Xbox, you are competing on PlayStation, that is the console of choice for Activision with Call of Duty.”
Of course, there’s more to pro-gaming than Call of Duty: “A lot of other games are doing well – Halo, Gears of War, and FIFA are making a really big play.
“It’s like every industry, Sony will leapfrog Microsoft and then Microsoft will leapfrog Sony, it will continue like that backwards and forwards. That’s good, because that competition creates an improved customer experience,” opines Ironmonger.
Speaking of leapfrogging, the upcoming Project Scorpio could be next big move in that tit-for-tat war. Indeed, Scuf’s efforts have arguably been a brilliant test case for the viability of Project Scorpio itself, with the success of the company’s own Elite Controller showing that some will pay considerably more money for a better product.
“Microsoft tracked what we did, we had meetings with them, and it got to the point where they clearly saw there was a market to put these into retail. As the manufacturer of the actual console, that put them in a good place to produce what I call a one-size-fits-all controller,” says Ironmonger, placing a clear line between Microsoft’s effort and his own built-to-demand devices.
“We bedded the market, so when Microsoft came in with the Elite, all the hard work had been done. People were used to the prices, because Scuf had created that market.” And that looks to have whetted Microsoft’s appetite for a higher-end gaming device, too.
Regardless, Ironmonger is upbeat about the new consoles: “I think it’s an important part of the evolution of the console providers, because otherwise they’d get left behind. It’s going to be a really interesting few years.
A PERFECT SHOT
As long as we play games with controllers and want a competitive edge, then Scuf has a very bright future. It’s built a high-end brand around product design in a sector where no one thought to outplay the platform holders, and it’s won handsomely.
Ironmonger admitting that a lot of its early wins were from “luck and timing,” but Scuf Gaming also saw the rise of competitive gaming before anyone else. It was an early-adopter of influencer marketing with both pros and YouTubers, and it created high-end hardware before the platform holders had even conceived of the mid-gen upgrade or the Elite Controller.
Now any casual gamer can land the odd lucky shot, but to get consistent accuracy like a top-end competition pro, you’re probably going to need a Scuf controller.
Head to the company's website for more details on SCUF Gaming.