Sennheiser Gaming Boss: “We do tools, not toys”

Michal Tempczyk, Sennheiser Gaming's business manager, tells #GNTECH why e-sports are finally being taken seriously, audio's place in VR, and why his brand's headsets are pricier than the rest – and worth the dirhams

Sennheiser
Michal Tempczyk, Gaming Head, Sennheiser Communications

Last year, we had the chance to play with Sennheiser’s 373D PC gaming headset. Our reviewer was impressed by the gear, praising the brand’s “brilliant engineering and very impressive understanding of gamers’ needs”.

Last week, #GNTECH sat down with Michal Tempczyk, Business Manager at Sennheiser Gaming, to talk e-sports, PC vs console vs smartphones, product design, VR and more. 

Here are the highlights.

What are your thoughts on the latest gaming trends across the world?

“When you look at global revenues in general, you can see that PC is still the strongest platform. This is also where we’re focusing the bulk of our products. We only have wired products at the moment, mostly for competitive players. PC is the strongest category, with consoles after that, but mobile is taking a lot of share, especially from consoles. Another interesting thing is that handheld consoles are losing a lot of market share, probably due to mobile. Of course, it’s interesting to see Nintendo pushing the Switch. But yeah, when it comes to platforms, these are the trends we see.”

What do you like playing yourself?

“I’m a PC gamer and have been so for many years. I have a PlayStation, but’s it’s primarily PC for me. I play everything from RPGs to MMO games and a lot of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) at the moment.”

How about e-sport? It’s gone from a casual hobby to football clubs hiring pro gamers to represent them…

“When I look at what is happening in the world of e-sports, I get chills, because as a gamer myself I think it’s a really beautiful thing. It’s becoming a serious thing now, to be a gamer. You don’t have a stereotype anymore that it’s a guy hiding a basement. It’s professional players and gamers who are proud to be gamers. It’s not just an underground community anymore – it’s a lifestyle to be a gamer and e-sports is a big part of that. From LAN events, stadiums are now being filled out with thousands of people watching an international championship (45,000 watched the League of Legends 2014 World Finals in Seoul’s Sang-am world Cup stadium). You not only have gaming-relevant companies sponsoring the tournaments but also regular FMCG companies, not just Red Bull or Coca-Cola. Look at Astralis, which is one of the top-tier Danish CS:GO teams. It’s won the last two biggest e-sports championships. One of their main sponsors now is Audi. So it’s really great to see a lot of business working around the space and it’s getting more professional. The fact that people are actually talking about implementing e-sports as a regular sport in the Olympics, is also proof of the outer world really acknowledging this as a serious sport now. I think it’s a really great thing. No matter how much you read and talk about it, every single day you can get surprised about the development of this and how fast it’s going. It’s really a fascinating world.”

Sennheiser Twitch
Pundits streaming their analysis on Twitch during the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2017. This is a serious sport now

Are there any particularly high-profile e-sports players that Sennheiser is collaborating with? What kind of things do you hear from them?

“We’re currently sponsoring a team called Mousesports, which is a top-tier German e-sports CS:GO team participating in the majors. We also have been sponsoring other top teams. We’ll continue to do so in the future because we see there’s a very big match between our products, what we have to offer and what their requirements are. The specific requirements are that you have a really good set-up for communication, the microphone needs to be of good quality and we have broadcast-quality mics in all our products. Whether it’s a first-person shooter or MOBA game, communication is key.

“You also need to be able to hear what your team-mates are saying in a clear way. The audio itself, of course. For positional orientation, when it comes to something like CS:GO or Overwatch, you need to hear where the opponent is. Comfort is also extremely important for these guys as they’re playing and training for many hours a day. So [you need] to be able to have something on your head for so many hours without it hurting, being too warm and of the right ear cup size.”

Sennheiser
The 373D headset: “When a professional gamer trains for hours a day, comfort is so important”

Why did you decide to ditch certain features in your products that other brands have incorporated, such as customisable lighting?

“We consider gaming to be a serious thing now. Of course, it depends on the target group. We do have competitors, but our target groups are different. We see that our target group is mainly pro, hardcore gamers and for these guys the more gimmicky things maybe don’t matter that much. I’m a PC gamer and I do have a RGB mechanical keyboard so I do have the lighting and I think it’s a cool thing to look at. But when we do focus groups with gamers and ask them to give us feedback on the products and about whether we should include features such as lighting or other effects, they actually ask us what the functional purpose of these things is. We say, ‘There is no purpose, it’s just for show.’ Then they say, ‘Well, don’t include it then.’ The PC gamers who like the kind of products that we do don’t really need these extra things. We try to say – and I don’t want to sound arrogant – we do tools, not toys, just to break it down into one sentence.”

Your tools are fair bit pricier than some of your competitors. The Razer Chroma is hundreds of dirhams less than the 373D, despite both having 7.1 surround audio. Is the higher price reflective of Sennheiser’s hallmark as a high-end audio brand – you price that high because you can?

“We’re not putting it at that level because we can. I wouldn’t expect that we do higher margins than our competitors. It’s just the cost of a high-quality product. We have Sennheiser transducers, so it’s our own transducers with our own recipes, so to speak. It’s high-quality materials so the product is going through a super high-quality testing process and we really take the time to tweak the product as much as possible to it’s really ready for gamers and the market when it releases. We don’t shoot out products every second month so it’s a very long development when we do a product. It’s the cost of a product. The durability is proof of that, though we also do offer a two-year warranty on a global level. That’s also one of the reasons behind the price. It’s the audio quality. We do have Sennheiser’s 72-year heritage, background and know-how that we can put in the product.”

One of the first things a visitor sees on the Sennheiser gaming microsite is that the brand works with developers to record the audio used in games, and that’s one of its USPs – you say that we, as gamers, hear sound that you recorded, played through your own hardware. Can you expand upon this?

“We’re trying to give end users an understanding from the very back end, studio-level production of the game. We want to say that we’re actually able to provide you with products that can give you the sound as it’s intended to be heard. This again relates to this heritage that Sennheiser has for many years been providing equipment to studios in the music and movie industries, and also for game studios that are producing AAA titles, so they use Sennheiser headphones and microphones to record the audio for video games. This is something we, from the gaming side, have been trying to communicate to gamers. They do get Sennheiser transducers with our headsets so we argue that of course they get the best possible front-end solution with our headsets.

Sennheiser Doom
A still from Doom, an arena FPS where players are often surrounded by enemies and surround sound audio clarity can be the difference between life and death

“But it’s more of a storytelling thing where we show that audio is also a very important ingredient of the gaming experience in general, whether it’s the communication part where you need a good microphone to be able to communicate with your team-mates but also on the more immersive side like if you’re playing an RPG such as The Witcher 3, you want to be able to stand in the woods and hear every critter around you. It’s part of giving you this immersive experience that you as a gamer want to achieve, whether you’re playing competitive or at home to get a break from everyday life.”

Let’s look a bit ahead. What are your thoughts on VR and audio recording/playback will be impacted by that technology, which is primarily about the visual?

“VR is a very big topic in general. I’ve tried the major ones – the PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It’s something that’s still very new, I would say, content-wise. You do have ready products in the market but it’s still something that’s being processed. When it comes to the audio relation, of course it matters. But it also depends on what kind of VR you’re focusing on. When it comes to Oculus Rift, Facebook’s ambition is a social thing. It wants people to socialise and do things together with the headset on. Maybe in that sense audio is not as important as with, for instance, the HTC Vive where we have extremely immersive gaming experiences, and the PlayStation of course. So there I would say that audio becomes very important to make everything more real. To hear 3D virtual surround sound is also important to give you that 360-degree feeling that you get with VR. I think audio’s a very big part of VR and it’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on.”

Where do you foresee the next breakthrough in audio tech coming from?

“Maybe it can be something like customised 7.1? One thing is to have a fixed solution – something ready in the box when you take it out – but it could be something that allows you to customise and tweak the 7.1 system’s algorithms. For instance, our new audio amplifier has an in-house developed 3D algorithm. When you’re making virtual 3D for headsets, it’s [about] understanding how the brain works in terms of receiving all these inputs, and understanding the mathematics of it. Maybe we can do a customised version of this for each end user?”

Prosumer is an interesting word and one we’ve heard increasingly since 2010. From what you’ve been saying – and given the price, feature selection and professional endorsements – it feels like Sennheiser is very much targeting the prosumer…

“From a gaming perspective, prosumers or influencers are certainly one of our core target groups. As a gaming brand, if you look at different spheres where Sennheiser is being recognised, where the equipment is being used, it is mostly within e-sports. If you open up your Twitch channels, you will see a lot of Sennheiser – not only gaming headsets but also headphones. You have some streamers using an HD 800 for instance. We see a win-win situation in targeting prosumers and they’re also very strong ambassadors for our brand. It’s also becoming more common to stream on Twitch for people who don’t necessarily have ambitions for a channel with 100,000 followers but just to do it as a hobby. We also categorise those as prosumers because they are using pretty good equipment to get content out of it at the end of the day.”

Why do you think people like watching other people play?

“I’ve asked myself that question many times. Over the past six months, I’ve actually stopped watching football, which I did a lot in the past. Now, I watch a CS:GO major. I plug Twitch into the TV and actually watch championships. My wife is shaking her head as I do it but I think this is something you can really relate to as a gamer, no matter what age you are. You don’t need to be able to run around, but you can relate to it. If you spend many hours a day playing a game like DOTA 2 or CS:GO and then you see these guys and how they actually perform… there’s something fascinating about it.

“[Between ] the single streamer and those watching them – I think there’s a community and loyalty that comes into play. You have these fans following the channel who pay maybe $5 (Dh18) a month to subscribe to the channel. They’re paying $1 to put a specific emoji into the chat. So they’re really supporting these guys who aren’t necessarily their idols, but they’re playing the same game. They’re really proud about it and showing it to the world. So again it’s the rise of the gamer as a lifestyle. It’s very connected to that I think.”

“It’s a good question: why is it interesting to watch other people play video games, even on an amateur level? I think it’s the relationship between streamer and player. And you can communicate with them directly – that’s another important aspect that both Twitch and YouTube allow you to do. You’re interacting with these guys, asking them questions, making suggestions and benefiting them directly with subscriptions or donations.

“There’s also a reference of inspiration for your own game. You can go and sit by your computer and try things you see for yourself. That’s another cool thing – you can actually learn something, strategy-wise or in the smaller things.”

I recently met Keith Stuart, The Guardian’s Games Editor. He said an interesting thing about games, particularly multiplayer titles: A lot of men like to play these because they see it as a safe space, and this relates to issues of expectation in a patriarchal society, where men may have trouble communicating about their problems. Over the course of shared experience, they open up about their lives. What are your thoughts on this?

“I totally agree with that. In everyday life, we are role playing. We’re always put into boxes and situations where you’re expected to… I mean, right now, you’re supposed to ask questions and I’m supposed to answer them. There’s the patient, there’s the doctor and these kind of things. When it comes to games and something that’s more virtual, you’re maybe allowed to be more open to some extent. If you’re playing with your fellow alphas in a game of CS:GO or whatever, you’re allowed and get the chance to give that tap on the shoulder you maybe wouldn’t be able to in person – small bits of encouragement like ‘Good game, bro’. So yeah, I think maybe it relieves some of that on a social level.

“From a Sennheiser perspective, it’s not something we have exclusively focused on except that on our team. Most of us are gamers so we try to relate this to the product somehow. Of course the communication part is one of the most important when it comes to multiplayer games.”