SteelSeries Boss Kim Rom Talks New Products at CES 2013
Sean Gibson / Jan 15th, 2013 No Comments
[adsense250itp]SteelSeries is a well known manufacturer of gaming peripherals and accessories and is well known in pro gaming circles for sponsoring some of the best talent in the world. Their headsets, keyboards, mice and gaming surfaces are typically rated at various review sites (including this one) as some of the best in the industry. If you haven’t checked them out already be sure to read our review of the SteelSeries Kana Mouse as well as the SteelSeries Free bluetooth game controller.
At CES 2013 in Las Vegas, Gaming Illustrated sat down with SteelSeries Chief Gaming Officer Kim Rom to discuss some new products the company is set to release in 2013, as well as some very interesting insight into the company’s direction moving forward.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): We are here at the SteelSeries Suite at Palazzo for CES 2013. Could you please introduce yourself and your role with SteelSeries.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): My name is Kim Rom and I’m the Chief Gaming Officer.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): We’re here to see some products that you are debuting here at CES 2013. One was a new line of keyboards, the Apex. There’s two models, could you give us a quick run-down and I’ll also have to ask you the obligatory question, “How come they’re not mechanical keyboards?”.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Yes, there are two keyboards. They are sort of like the big brother and the little brother. The Apex is sort of like the bigger brother. It’s a relatively technologically advanced product that I think has a unique offering, in terms of it’s a very fast keyboard. We jokingly call it the world’s fastest keyboard. It has a lot of ‘programmability’ and a lot of accessibility. Everything from how you access the advanced functionality of the keyboard, to how fast it is to use, is something that has taken an excruciatingly long time thinking about and trying to perfect. It comes with a piece of software called SteelSeries Engine that makes setting up complex functions relatively easy and very accessible. The keyboard basically adjusts after you have set it up to the games that you set it up with to next time you launch them. It is a very automated process that is then visually told to you by the keyboard. It comes with the engine as I said that also helps not only set up the keyboard and make a profile that you can share with other people, but it also helps you learn from your mistakes and from the things that you do well by giving you a heat map overview of your keyboards and your commands. I wouldn’t say it’s an intelligent piece of software, but we’re getting close to something that will actually make you a better gamer.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): And again, it’s not mechanical for a specific reason. This is kind of for a new niche of SteelSeries. You are going after the hardcore gamer, not necessarily the pro gamer here, and you just had to hit certain price points to make that happen.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Yeah, absolutely. We can absolutely see the difference between us having a $129.00 keyboard and a $99.00 keyboard. The difference in the consumer that we are talking to and who is willing to spend that kind of money is very, very visible to us. By going to a lower price point $69.00 versus $99.00 for the two keyboards, it also means that we are capable of opening distribution. We are getting people interesting in this gaming thing that we take so dearly and so passionately and that will help make gaming better for everyone. For the next steps of what we want to do, this crowd sourced engine, will work with a lot of people, so the bigger the installed base, the more we get.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): One of the most important aspects to SteelSeries to consumers is the build quality of your products. Could you talk a bit about what goes into these keyboards, what you’ve learned perhaps in the last 24 months in improving that process making sure that SteelSeries is still synonymous with best made keyboards, even if you rage-quit, and pound the keyboard like I tend to do.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Yeah, I think one of the reasons was that they were one the few keyboard products that would give you access to many keys at the same time and a [crappy] membrane just wouldn’t do that. We have really solved that problem. From a build quality perspective one of the things that we have learned and that we did a lot of testing with is with anything in a keyboard that clicks or folds tends to be [crappy]. It’s a really bad product design. That’s also why if you look at our entire line of products we try to stay away from anything that clicks or snaps into place. That’s even the feet on the keyboard are like natural rubber you can exchange them and you can do varying degrees of ergonomics that way. Something that when you pound your fist on the keyboard, God forbid, it will probably withstand the punishment.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): We are talking about the new in-ear buds. What are the specific names of these products and would you talk about some of the most exciting features for you when it comes to the technology and who you are aiming to hit with these.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Yeah. The products are called the SteelSeries in-ear Flux Pro and SteelSeries Flux in-ear. Right now I would say that in-ear is a gaming category that doesn’t exist. There’s a justification for that for two reasons. One, we play games everywhere now not just in front of our PC but we also use our tablets and phones. And two, a lot of our best (pro gamer) athletes that go in to win a tremendous amount of money will be sitting in environments that are so noisy that they simply have to wear helicopter headsets or major super big headsets and they use ear buds under that. That’s actually why we started looking at this. The features that really excite me the most about them is it’s a balanced headset that has a remarkable distortion-free reproduction of sound. That means a spatial awareness or just like high frequency noises that could be difficult to hear for the normal ear becomes solid, like incredibly clear, game changing clear. It has a flat non-tangle chord and by that I really mean a flat non-tangle chord. It’s not a ball of chord that you would normally have. We have all known that frustration. Another feature that I really like is the design of the product where we specifically didn’t try to make something that was gorgeous. We tried to make something that would be comfortable, something that fits and rests in your ear, it’s something that you can use for a prolonged period of time. For our normal big headsets that are typically very light weight compared to how bulky they look we have something that we call the eight-hour test. If we can’t sit ourselves at the office and use them for eight hours, they suck.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): I don’t know of any, and I have tried using some as a poker player at the tables.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Yeah.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): All poker players use in-ears because we have to remove them really quick, or only use one bud at a time and we can’t use something too big because we’ve got to understand at a moment’s notice what’s going on at the table and there’s that eight-hour or even twelve-hour sessions that we put in either as gamers, poker players, whatever, even athletes at the gym. If it’s not comfortable there’s no point in buying it. You’re not gonna’ use it.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): No, no, no. Any product that you are aware of the fact that you are using… is failing you. If you are looking at the dashboard of your car as you’re driving and you are thinking, “Where was that thing?”, that doesn’t work. You don’t have time for that. If you are looking for that key that you needed to press on the keyboard, then you are absolutely not a master of that keyboard or it’s not doing you good. It has to be a natural extension of just you. You have to forget that you’re using a product.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): I’m gonna’ go ahead and nominate a third favorite feature of yours and that’s they fact that the Flux Pro has a break away little feature so that I don’t destroy these as soon as I buy them which I do when I tend to get up and forget they are plugged in, right? And a lot of these ear buds tend to snag and snap off at certain points and so you’ve kind of thought that one through.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): It was actually something we learned when we did our first headset in 2004. We saw a lot of returns on them. When people return an electronic product because they broke it, they’re never honest. Honest people don’t exist during an RMA process period. (Laughter) So it was never like, “Oh yeah, I got a tangle into like the wheel in my office chair and I just yanked it because I’m an idiot.” It’s like, “Oh yeah, I touched it and then it broke.” (Laughter) So we started using double reinforced copper wires and double reinforced rubber around that even like a full centimeter of natural rubber in the ear cup where it would go into the ear so when people would stand up it wouldn’t break on them. We did all these things to make our products durable and that became a stigma for us. An industry average today is that you have around a 3% return rate on consumers returning products. That happens for things that are outside of our control like the people shipped it from China dropped it on the dock or something. Things just move and they break. We have a considerably lower RMA return percentage and we are very proud of that. It also means that we don’t ask a lot of questions. If we have people coming to us and they’ve broken a product we usually just take it back.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): E-sports is obviously where SteelSeries has made most of their fame. It’s almost an approach that Nike took back in the early 80’s where they sponsored pro athletes. They were really the first proactive company to go out there and say, “Wear my shoe. I’ll throw you some money. Wear my shirt.” And it seems that SteelSeries is taking a bit of the same marketing technique with pro gamers. I’d like to really get the sense of how you think the American e-sports market is shaping up over the next five years as opposed to what we are seeing in South Korea where it’s at a completely different atmosphere. Where do you think it’s gonna’ go?
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): Five years is a long time for a sport that didn’t exist 10 years ago (laughs). Let me put it this way, five years ago when we started moving into the US everyone told us we were absolutely moronic by focusing on this space. Last year a gaming tournament that was held in the US had twice as many viewers as the NBA draft. That’s a top four sports discipline in the US that’s been groomed for 80-100 years and we beat that. Now that’s a global audience meeting. I think e-sports in the US is gonna’ be big and I think it’s going to get a lot bigger than all of us think it is. I think it’s going to get bigger. Technology changes things. Technology and gaming today have changed a lot of things. It has changed how we consume entertainment. I no longer watch television. I stream things on my timeline on my agenda. I think there is a whole generation of young adults that are not going to watch television anymore. There will be a lot of unemployed television execs relatively shortly and they will watch interactive entertainment that they have some kind of control over.
Gaming will be one of those forms of entertainment. There will be new distribution methods. Right now, three, four, five years ago you would go to Best Buy and Game Stop to buy games. Who does that anymore? I’m sure it happens, but I’m also sure that people download games instead because it’s faster and easier. With the next generation of consoles do we really think they’re gonna’ have a big retail presence? I don’t think so. Riot Games has a completely free game to play and then you can buy a dollar and you buy some skins and some stuff and people spend a tremendous amount of money, they make millions every day. Technology is changing all these things and all these things converge into something that’s called e-sports it would really be the entertainment center of what you do. E-sports will be get a lot bigger than it is right now for one simple thing, the next wave next generation of e-sports will have one thing in common that they don’t have right now which is that you don’t have to play the game to understand the game. That’s how accessible they will be for a completely new generation of a gamer.
I can sit down and watch soccer, and NFL and NBA and whatever, and I kind of get it. I’m too fat and too lazy to go out and play those games but I can look at them and I get them. To get Counter-Strike you have had to play Counter-Strike. The next generation of games you can look at them and it will be immediately obvious who’s winning and why they are winning and where the skill is and that will change e-sports and that’s where I see it going in the next five years.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): That was a great way to wrap this up. I appreciate your time and your sage wisdom and vision that you’ve bestowed upon us and giving us a preview of all the great products coming soon. We really look forward to 2013 with SteelSeries.
Kim Rom (SteelSeries): We take these products very seriously.
Sean Gibson (Gaming Illustrated): Yeah, I believe you.
We’d like to thank Kim Rom, Tori Pugliese and the rest of the SteelSeries team for their hospitality at CES 2013.
tags: 2013ces , apex , ces 2013 , earbuds , flux pro , headset , interview , keyboards , steelseries