By Meelad Sadat

Late last year, Plantronics rolled out a series of headsets branded with popular Valve games.  It was a clear indication that the long-standing audio equipment maker is turning its focus back to the game industry.  The Valve line represents the first game-licensed products Plantronics has put out since 2004, when it released a Halo 2 branded headset.  The Santa Cruz, California-based company is looking to broaden that effort.

“Some of the things we’re doing right now is we’re in conversations and reaching out to [game] IP and developers and trying to integrate a lot deeper into games.  It’s one of our goals,” says Plantronics’ product marketer Kyle Bokariza.

“With IP, right now we’ve partnered with Valve in terms of becoming a license partner.  One of the things we did is partner with them on four games, DOTA 2, Counterstrike [Global Offensive], Team Fortress 2 and Portal 2.  The DOTA 2 one is the more successful one in terms of sales.  Valve has been gracious and has given us an in-game exclusive item through the headset.  It’s a weapons skin for DOTA 2.  It’s doing great.  We’re looking forward to doing more of those things with other developers.”

Plantronics is trying to carve out a space in the increasingly competitive gaming headset field as not just a pair of high-end headphones for audiophiles, but rather military-quality communicators for online gaming.

“What we think we can bring to the table is communications, something that we’ve done for a long time,” says Bokariza.  “We’ve been around for 50 years in mission critical communications.  It’s what we do, and it’s one of our strong corners that we try to work up into our messaging.”

“We just came out with the Commander, a very militarized headset.  It’s actually from our military side of the company.  We put in stereo speakers to give it left-right audio, or directional audio for first-person shooters.  The headset has passive noise isolation so it can block out around 80 percent of background noise, which is around I think 18 decibel levels.”

Targeting online gamers who are serious about communications is what Plantronics tried with the Halo 2 headset, which looked like something Master Chief might wear.  The headset was based on a patented Plantronics design melding an ear piece together with a microphone on a flexible arm, the kind still favored by space and military command centers.

Neil Armstrong wearing “Snoopy” cap with Plantronics (SPENCOM) headsets. (Photo and caption courtesy of Plantronics Wikipedia)

In reality, Plantronics has come closer to equipping a space marine than any other video game headset maker.  The company’s roots are in air and space flight.  It was founded when it introduced the world’s first lightweight headset for commercial pilots in 1961.  Eight years later it soared a lot higher, equipping NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong and his crew on their trip to the moon.  That distinction of being good enough to communicate in space might translate well to convincing gamers this is the communicator for their hardcore online gaming.  Bokariza doesn’t see it becoming part of their key messaging.

“We won’t probably play it up too much.  It’s one of those things that people think, ‘hey that’s a cool tidbit,’ but maybe not the main messaging platform,” says Bokariza.  “It’s just something to let people know that we’ve been around for a while and we know what we’re doing.  It’s a conversational piece more so than the marketing platform that we’d move forward with.”

Plantronics is also looking to its own history in eSports, a part of gaming culture that has recently made strides in growing out of its hardcore niche to appeal to mainstream fans.  The company hopes that growing interest in competetive gaming and how its products are well suited for it will help put Plantronics headsets on more players’ radars.

“We sponsored a couple of teams in our history,” says Bokariza.  “We partnered with the ESWC (Electronics Sports World Cup) France.  We’ve been partners with them since I think 2004.  What we did was we held the North American qualifier at PAX Prime last year.  We had CS GO (Counterstrike: Global Offensive), DOTA 2 and Starcraft 2.  We flew out the top American teams who won our tournament to the ESWC to compete.  We had our headsets on stage there, because it was a loud environment because they had more than 10,000 people watching.

Electronics Sports World Cup 2012

Bokariza adds, “[eSports] is definitely a focus, so we’re reaching out and we definitely have our eye out on leagues and teams because they’re the top of the class and they need the best of the best in both audio quality and communications.  Those team sports really come down to minor hits or misses, and we really feel like we can succeed in that space.”