Nobody needed a gaming mic in the late 90s. Hell, webcams barely existed yet – if you were attending QuakeCon and wanted to inspire wild envy among your fellow PC elitists, your best bet was a garish, chrome-plated case. You know what I’m talking about: the crystalline chassis, the glittering water-cooling kits, the monolithic fans that looked like a spaceship taking off. It was the threshold that every budding geek should aspire to. No peripherals, no bells and whistles, just a big machine and a big monitor, pumping out Counter-Strike headshots all night long. You can take this PC to your local LAN party and show everyone who’s boss.
In those wonderful times, the only people who owned computer microphones used them for their daily work.
Decades have passed since then. Today if you scroll through the conceited posts on r/Battlestations (opens in a new tab), you’ll notice a new ubiquitous trend: massive, studio-ready microphones perched on everyone’s desks, like owners are about to record a podcast or play 10 hours of Apex Legends for one. live audience. Microphones are everywhere. They are now stylistic orthodoxy, like wearing a pocket square to a wedding.
There have certainly been other innovations in gamer aesthetics: few people pack a 30-inch CRT screen these days, and we don’t buy graphics cards sporting horrible low-res aliens. But the biggest sea change in the community is this insidious desire to broadcast your voice with the sonic depth of a millionaire Twitch streamer, even if it’s to an audience of three on Discord.
Microphones have gone from a marginal boutique curiosity to an absolute necessity. Our battle stations look dull and malnourished without them.
“A great audio setup is definitely going to make someone jealous,” says Andrew, a 15-year-old Floridian who showed off his rig in a top r/Battlestations article earlier this month. Take a peek and you’ll find a scarlet PC chassis, a starchy computer chair, and yes, a mesh-tipped dangling microphone. “It’s the same when I see someone with a nice keyboard or whatever. Anything you have will make someone jealous.”
As a zoomer, Andrew is at the forefront of generational turnover within PC contingency. He wanted a microphone superior to the chintzy plastic headsets that remained standard among matchmaking lineups throughout the 2000s and 2010s. But as gamers rose to stardom in the second half of the decade – so that the stereotype changed from grumbling living in the basement to Kool Aid-dyed teenager in an LA mansion – the men and women in their wake did the same.
There’s really nothing wrong with my headset. My friends can hear me very well and I rarely need to record professional sound. But after internalizing Twitch standards and seeing all the fancy HyperX mics flowing through the timeline, I too began to feel a primal gamer inadequacy that takes me back to my teenage years. If you want to know how vulnerable you are to the vagaries of consumer movements, even at the supposed age of 31, spend a day staring at PC furniture until your own desk appears bare and skinny without an amplifier.
“I think all kids want a ‘complete’ streaming setup the way they see their favorite streamers online. So whether or not they’re using it for streaming or just casually, it’s now part of a complete setup,” says another poster on r/Battlestations, who opted for a $99 Blue Yeti. “I think it has everything to do with wanting to look like the streamers they look up to.”
It is difficult to know when, exactly, this revolution began. Live broadcasting is older than anyone thinks – kids were broadcasting live broadcasts on local access TV in the early 1990s. I was watching Stickam in high school, 15 years ago now. Laptops don’t even have have built-in mics at the time, so outboard gear was a requirement, not a hose. (Example: some of my happiest gaming memories occurred during vanilla raids on World of Warcraft, where I coordinated healing rotations using a small beige microphone borrowed from my parents. ) Xbox Live certainly helped bring voice chat beyond the hardcore PC Ventrilo servers and into mainstream gaming, but tinny inexpensive headsets have remained a go-to for years.
My best guess is that dedicated mics were more widely adopted when youngsters started getting most of their gaming information from YouTube, as Ninja, Shroud, and Pokimane spend much of their public lives with their faces partially obscured by a fuzzy black mass.
“Why are microphones so popular in Battlestations?” reads the title of a Reddit thread posted in the summer of 2018, which I believe represented the absolute zenith of gamer-celebrity ascendancy. (That was the year Drake played Fortnite on Twitch — I stand by my case.) Theories spill over into the replies, all orbiting around the same basic premise: everyone imagines themselves as a YouTuber.
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“Streaming has exploded as a form of entertainment,” says Adam, a 26-year-old Canadian and fellow Blue Yeti owner, in an interview with PC Gamer. “So every stream advertises a ‘battle station,’ so to speak.” The number of viewers continues to increase year after year.
Personally, I harbor no illusions about social media stardom. The idea of managing a community full of kids during lunch break sounds totally emotional, as does the idea of playing exactly one video game for thousands of hours. I doubt I’m alone in this, and I imagine many of you reading this story feel the same way. That said, longtime journalist and PC Gamer contributor Leif Johnson, Is highlighting a way that microphone craving seeps into each of us, aging gray beards. He recalls a recent Valorant session with his usual group of friends. One had switched from using his external mic to a headset, which crackled with unfavorable fidelity compared to the resonant warmth he was used to.
“I admit I did some subtle digging to try and get him back to [the other mic,]said Johnson. “In games like that, I like to be able to hear the person as clearly as possible, so I like when they have a quality mic.”
This is the future we’re heading towards, man. As microphones become more popular and we get used to our friends talking with the pristine clarity of podcasters, we’re slowly going to become less patient with anyone who still relies on crappy old headphones. Yes, it was satisfying at the start of Xbox Live, when we called MechWarrior Strategies on a poverty bitrate.
But in 2022, gamers are weaned from the textual depth of Twitch streamers and YouTube scammers. If you join the party with a microphone that makes you look like Leeroy Jenkins, expect to be laughed out of the room. And everyone who’s somebody knows you need this Rode mic arm, not a $15 copycat on Amazon.
Don’t expect this trend to reverse anytime soon. We will all eventually become external mics, for both aesthetic and utilitarian reasons. It’s yet another thing to buy into a hobby that continually moves the goalposts. (The RAM, the graphics cards, the chiseled decals on the case, the utterly useless water-cooling system, and so on forever.) The kids make the rules and we rush to catch up, which I guess is how every subculture is supposed to work.
I just hate knowing I’m about to drop $150 to feel a little less inadequate. But hey, at least my voice will sound fabulous.