How Halo Infinite is bringing back the battle of keyboard versus controller
CoolCheese, playing MNK at HCS Raleigh in 2021
CoolCheese, playing MNK at HCS Raleigh in 2021 | Photo provided by Nathan "CoolCheese" Williams.

How Halo Infinite is bringing back the battle of keyboard versus controller

A long-time controller only esport evolves into crossplay

Nearly every single Halo championship – from Combat Evolved in 2001 to Halo 5 in 2015 – has been won with a controller. But now, as Halo Infinite brings a new wave of excitement to the franchise, competitors new and old are getting a chance to play Halo with a mouse and keyboard for the first time.

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Unlike other entries in the franchise, 343 Industries brought Infinite to PC with MNK compatibility at launch. Players have played with MNK before, but never did much besides kill some Brutes in the single-player campaign.

“I remember players on Halo Reach playing MNK on PC, trying to play competitively and that was probably the first time,” said former Halo competitor Alex ‘Knighty Knight’ Irwin. “Along with Halo 4, 5 and the MCC, there were some who did so due to disability and it was almost cheating since the controller aim assist would add onto your mouse aiming.”

Infinite brings competitive MNK to Halo

To put it lightly, the launch of Infinite heralded the start of serious MNK play in Halo esports. When Halo Infinite first launched, it only took until Jan. 25 of 2022 for it to break 20 million players total. That is the biggest launch in Halo history, mainly due to a free multiplayer mode as well as the addition of a PC version.

In those first couple of weeks, a lot of players from all over PC esports played Halo Infinite. They wanted to see if their future could be in Halo, something they couldn’t do originally after experience in games like CS:GO and Overwatch.

One of those players was former Overwatch League player Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman, who decided to stick with MNK on Infinite. After grinding on ranked, he helped form an HCS team dubbed ‘Mouse Handicap,’ consisting of only MNK players. After competing in two HCS open brackets, he took a break from competitive Halo due to the lack MNK balance.

Dogman HCS Raleigh
Dogman co-streaming and casting HCS Raleigh matches. | Screenshot by Michael Czar.

“I don’t feel there is a big gap talent-wise between MNK and controller players,” said Dogman. “People say there is, but they’re both talented in their own right. The gap is becoming more extreme now since the game isn’t balanced for MNK players, as much as this is a cross-play game.”

The community for MNK started out big as competitors and casual fans jumped into Infinite, but it’s begun to thin out. The population difference between MNK players and controller players is starting to get drastic.

“There are around 1200 Onix-ranked players in the MNK playlist, but around 100,000 in crossplay,” said Jimmy “Cerridius” Larsen. “For me, they’re taking a bit too long to balance out the game for MNK players, and I’m worried that they might be moving on already.”

Cerridius, who competed at two HCS Open tournaments on MNK only teams, pointed out that Halo’s focus on shields doesn’t lend itself to MNK play.

Cerridius MNK Halo
Cerridius playing ranked MNK on stream. | Screenshot by Michael Czar.

“The big thing about Halo is that it has a much higher time to kill,” said Cerridius. “It’s usually around 1.6-1.7 seconds, whereas other games are under a second. Because of that time, the MNK difficulty is hard because of consistent tracking, which controllers have with aim assist. Plus, headshots don’t matter in Halo until they lose shields, which take a while to break.”

Balance issues stifle crossplay rivalry

In making Halo Infinite crossplay, 343 Industries has more aspects of the game to balance. Players are still waiting for MNK balance changes within Infinite. Players hope that aim assist, a mechanic that gives a bigger buff to controller players, is adjusted.

“It isn’t an easier time per se,” said Dogman, “but as soon as you learn how the aim assist works as a controller player, it’s around a 10% aim increase over MNK players. I have 400 hours in the game now, and while movement is better for MNK, it doesn’t overtake the aim bonus they have.”

CoolCheese proudly lifting his mouse at HCS Raleigh
CoolCheese proudly lifting his mouse at HCS Raleigh. | Photo provided by CoolCheese.

A lot of the best controller players also have another advantage: time. The best HCS players are experienced pros who have thousands of hours playing older Halo games.

MNK does grant players some advantages, though: Quick spins, better grenades and more movement. A lot of the top MNK players on Halo feel like they can compete, even with the challenges they have to face.

“I played a lot of PUBG on MNK, a ton of hours and got high on the rankings,” said Max “XLEK” Stengel. “I played Apex Legends, Overwatch on Widowmaker, and once I knew I was good on MNK I stuck to it. It’s going to be the future and I’ll stick with that statement.”

Possible solutions for MNK’s future in Halo

XLEK, who competed at HCS Raleigh on MNK, is one of the best players on the ranked MNK playlist. As someone separate from the Mouse Handicap roster, his viewpoints on the MNK/controller debate are very similar.

“Removing the Mangler would be helpful for MNK players and balance the game in general,” said XLEK. “If it is in, make it rarer and have less ammo. In the future, I just hope we get more maps with snipers on them. Having one sniper map for players, in general, isn’t great for competitive play. Plus, as an MNK sniper, I know I can hit consistent shots and flicks, no scopes or aimed in.”

The consensus for these Halo esports pros is to adjust how much aim assist controller players receive.

“The risk for nerfing aim assist is doing it too much, making it too hard for controllers,” said Dogman. “But that’s the better change because making the game easier would make it boring. The difficulty on MNK is what makes it fun, so give the controller players the same feeling.”

It’s no surprise that Halo Infinite has lost a lot of momentum that it got from its launch hype. However, it still remains the only mainline Halo game to have a passionate MNK competitive scene. From recently transferred esports players to general dedicated MNK players on PC, the potential to grow Halo as a true crossplay esport exists. Yet, there are still plenty of steps before we see teams of MNK players win championships in the HCS.

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Author
Michael Czar
Polish-Canadian game enthusiast. I've been entrenched in gaming for as long as I can remember, with my first game being Pokemon Yellow and my most played games being Borderlands 2 and Overwatch. I have a degree in Film Studies, but writing about esports just makes my job all the better.