Walking into a competitive Call of Duty tournament is an intimidating experience, even if you’re not the one playing.
After making it through security at the Call of Duty World League (CWL) event in Dallas this past December, players and spectators alike were greeted by a grand entranceway full of team banners, thunderous music, and a dazzling light show leading you to the championship trophy at the end of the hall. Through the far corner of the pump-up hallway, the convention center space opened up into a massive space full of vendor booths, game demos, areas for open competitive play, and right in the center of it all: a resplendent stage set up so two teams of four could kill each other in a video game set during World War II, all as a crowd looks on.
At CWL Dallas, more than 200 teams played more than 490 matches for a $200,000 prize pool, and that’s just the start of a season with more than $4.2 million on the line.
For more than 90 percent of all top pro players that come to events just like this — both within Call of Duty and in other pro gaming leagues on consoles — they couldn’t make this walk without a Scuf Gaming controller in their hand.
Handmade from scratch with a dizzying array of enhancements and alterations meant to fashion the perfect device, Scuf Gaming controllers have become a must-have in the pro scene. Chief among their innovations is a patented rear bumper system that allows gamers to do things like jump, melee, reload, or switch weapons without having to take their thumb off the right joystick.
The 90 percent figure seems like a lot — almost too much — so it’s easy to wonder if this might be some kind of monopoly in the industry, right? But ask almost any pro gamer, and they’ll have nothing but giddy love for the SCUF brand, which does directly sponsor perhaps more than 20 pro teams.
The relationship between Scuf Gaming and the esports industry is a symbiotic one. It’s less that the company has the market cornered and more that through their design innovations, customer support, and direct sponsorship of many pro teams, they’ve actually elevated the level of competition to places that might otherwise be impossible.
For those reasons and more, people seem to love SCUF. Having tried out some of their controllers for myself (I’m an avid competitive Overwatch player on PS4), I have to say, I’m convinced.
The Birth of SCUF
According to CEO Duncan Ironmonger, Scuf Gaming began in 2011 with a simple idea: “There has to be a better way to use more of a controller.”
As ergonomic and comfortable as most controllers were at the time, innovation had plateaued.
“So you were very limited as to how much of your hands you could use,” rationalized Ironmonger, “which was fine when consoles were much less complex. But as you look at games now, there are hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the studios to make these AAA titles really big with enormous functionality in the game.”
But Scuf Gaming wanted more from a controller. By now, Ironmonger can confidently say, “We’ve created equipment that allows the pros to play at a higher level.”
As competitive gaming, especially among shooters like Call of Duty, became more popular over the last decade, gamers struggled to find different tactics that might give them an edge.
What if you could avoid wasting the milliseconds it took to move your right thumb from the analog stick to the front-facing buttons that allow you to jump, melee, reload, or crouch?
SCUF eventually had a better option, but what came before that wasn’t pretty.
James “Clayster” Eubanks (currently on Team eUnited), who’s been a Call of Duty pro since 2007, remembers what it was like when players began using the “Claw” method of holding a controller, which mangled your wrist but gave you a slight edge on the competition by letting players jump and shoot at the same time. Otherwise, you’d have to waste a few hundred milliseconds moving your right thumb over to press the jump button. So if your opponent was willing to sacrifice their wrist, they might get the kill and ultimately, the win.
“Players using Claw could jump-shot around corners and do crazy stuff that nobody else could,” he explained. Anyone who could successfully pull off the painful-looking technique had an instant edge on the competition.
But SCUF’s chief innovation added rear bumpers to their controllers that allowed players to re-map the jump button to a place where other, typically unused fingers could reach. Not only could you get maximum efficiency, but you’d also get maximum comfort.
“At the very beginning of Black Ops II in 2013, SCUF really started picking up traction,” Clayster recalled. “Players started getting a controller to really compete because it was becoming a necessity.” Since then, they’ve worked to build a strong relationship with pro gamers and fellow companies like Major League Gaming (MLG).
“They’ve always been really involved and really well-connected with players,” said Clayster. “I know everybody from throughout the company, because they always come out to help the pro players.” Sponsorship and support augment a high-quality product nicely, but the most important thing SCUF did for pro gamers was empowering them to do something they couldn’t before — unless they were fine Clawing their way to victory.
“SCUF allowed everybody to do that same kind of movement and playstyle,” said Clayster, “even if you didn’t play Claw.” It didn’t take long for the pro gaming world to catch on, and SCUF’s many innovations only kept coming.
“In all honesty, it’s probably one of the biggest reasons that you’ve seen such level of competition in Call of Duty — SCUF controllers allow you to play how you want to play.”
What Makes SCUF So Special?
All in all, SCUF has 37 patents with another 65 pending — which is how and why they have virtually no competitors in their already niche market. They’ve legally made it so that their many innovations remain exclusively theirs. The rear paddle system, for instance, was licensed by Microsoft in the making of the Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller, which means that Scuf Gaming collects royalties on all Elite sales.
Arguably the next most valuable perk to a SCUF is the adjustable hair trigger, which can activate trigger stops — meaning you don’t have to move your trigger as far for the button press to translate to an in-game trigger pull.
Some SCUF designs, like the Infinity 4PS Pro, have the same shape and size as the standard PlayStation 4 controller, which almost makes it feel like a heavily modified default controller. But no. “We rip the thing apart and get rid of everything except the internal circuit board,” Ironmonger said. From there, every piece of the device is crafted with great detail. You can even select the button colors.
My personal favorite SCUF customization option is the optional military-grade grip on the back, which, admittedly, looks a little strange, like heated plastic that bubbles. But it makes for a comfortable grip that the military uses on weapons to maximize comfort.
“This customization model we have is that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ model,” Ironmonger explained. “You can go on and customize anything to your preference whether that’s functionality, comfort, the finish, or indeed the design. You can make that truly personalized to your own preferences.” As such, perhaps the cheapest controllers run around $129.95, with the more expensive peaking above $200 — and that’s all before custom modifications begin.
“Different thumbstick lengths can improve your accuracy,” assured Ironmonger. “For instance, if you’re a sniper, your right thumbstick can get tooled down, which allows your aim to be more accurate just because it’s a smaller movement that translates to faster movements and more accuracy.”
But the thumbsticks also come in different shapes. Bryan “Apathy” Zhelyazkov, a pro playing for Evil Geniuses, has a rare preference for circular “dome sticks.” Sure enough, SCUF accommodates that seemingly random preference.
“I used them at an event by accident once. My controller broke, and I had to borrow a friend’s,” Apathy explained to Inverse. “I ended up performing really well. With the way I grip it, after many hours my fingers usually hurt, but with the dome it’s way more comfortable.”
For most pros, it’s all about efficiency and comfort — especially when you’re usually playing video games 10 hours a day — but SCUF also allows gamers to outfit their custom controller with different color schemes and designs.
Many models bear the logo of favorite pro teams, and a number of pro gamers and streamers themselves have unique designs available for purchase. Clayster himself has a partnership with a unique design bearing his personal logo.
“In all honesty, it’s probably one of the biggest reasons that you’ve seen such level of competition in Call of Duty,” Clayster told Inverse. “SCUF controllers allow you to play how you want to play. … You can basically tune your controller to your hands.”
Ironmonger nostalgically remembers a time long before this, when the term “esports” hadn’t yet been invented: “If you went to a LAN competition when it was only $5,000 up for prize money, that was a decent competition. These days, nobody would really go because they shoot for the hundreds of thousands, or millions.”
“The landscape’s changed and gotten a lot bigger, but we were one of the grandfathers of the growth of esports over the last seven years. We supported a lot of pros through the years when they couldn’t afford to travel and go to competitions. A lot of our revenue was put back into that community in the equipment we’ve provided and the sponsorship. We’ve reinvested in that community and grown over time.”
Now, Scuf has a huge presence at high-profile competitive gaming events just like CWL Dallas, where they set up a huge vendor booth where attendees could buy controllers.
SCUF At CWL Dallas
The swelling success since Call of Duty first released in 2003 has ballooned alongside esports itself, and right along for the ride has been Scuf Gaming, which carved out its spot in the industry as a partner, supporter, sponsor, and retailer since 2011. Scuf is an official partner with Call of Duty World League and Major League Gaming on events like CWL Dallas.
When Clayster showed up to CWL Dallas — and walked through the same awesomely intimidating entranceway as everyone else — sure enough he brought a SCUF with him. Inverse caught up with him shortly after a victory on the first day of competition.
There Clayster revealed some of his secrets and superstitions. He consumes what he calls the “holy trinity” every morning before competition: banana, yogurt, and apple juice. But another key part of his routine? At least a week before every competition, he likes to get a new SCUF controller to break it in, like a professional ice skater breaking in a new pair of skates before competing.
His latest controller was one prominently displayed by Scuf just for the event, decked out in military-style camouflage that matched the jerseys that he and the rest of eUnited wore.
“Just to know that when we put 12 hours into a controller per day,” Clayster said, “to have a company like Scuf support our endeavors across the scene as a whole is really nice.”
At CWL Dallas, Clayster’s team, eUnited, tied for fifth place, and Team Kaliber took home the trophy, but he’s already gearing up for CWL New Orleans in January. At this level of competition, however, fifth place still gets the team almost $10,000.
“When people ask me, ‘What do I buy first: a monitor, headset, or SCUF?’ — I always say SCUF first. You need that in your hands to even be able to try and compete.”
So Who Are SCUF Controllers For?
Any gamer who wants to do better at the games they play, they ought to at least consider getting a SCUF.
“SCUF can be used for any game,” Ironmonger assured Inverse, “but most typically shooters and sports games — that’s where our biggest audiences are.” Ironmonger is fond of saying he hopes that his controllers improve your K/D; a player’s kill-death ratio is the statistical measure of success in first-person shooters like Call of Duty. But logic tells us that a high-quality tool will yield better results in any capacity, so you do the math.
Rear paddles aside, the many other perks on the controller offer up a slight edge against the competition whether you’re racing, shooting, or competing in some other capacity.
For gamers who might want to turn pro one day, Clayster has some words of advice: “When people ask me, ‘What do I buy first: a monitor, headset, or SCUF?’ — I always say SCUF first. You need that in your hands to even be able to try and compete.”
So if you ever want to play me in Overwatch or Call of Duty: WWII on PlayStation 4, you can find me at PowerPlante515, but be forewarned, I’ll be using a SCUF.
Check out another pro gamer that swears by SCUF: