Gamepads have come a long, long way. In the early days of home console gaming, joysticks pretty much ruled the roost. Inspired by the arcade, which almost exclusively used sticks, early home console controllers used a joystick design. Atari’s iconic controller consisted of a clicky stick and a single button – a perfect companion to the simple games of its day.

The modern gamepad’s most direct ancestor is the the NES pad. This gamepad saw the debut of the cross-shaped dpad for home consoles. Invented by the late, great Gunpei Yokoi for handheld systems, the dpad quickly became the gold standard. The NES pad featured one dpad, a start and select button and two face buttons. Its square shape was not the most ergonomic – just ask my aching childhood hands! However, later gamepads simply built on this base. The SNES featured rounder shoulder and, indeed, shoulder buttons, as well as the diamond pattern of four face buttons that’s now pretty much standard.

The final primary evolution of the gamepad happened with the release of the original Playstation DualShock controller. It had comfortable grips, four shoulder buttons, and two analog sticks. All modern gamepads follow this pattern, with the main variation being the offset analog sticks of the Xbox, which many people prefer.

Looking at the standard controllers for both the Xbox One and PS4, it’s easy to think that the gamepad has finally been perfected. The PS3 controller in particular was rather cheap and nasty, with most third-party alternatives providing superior feel. Holding a PS4 control in my hands, however, leaves me a little lost as to how you’d improve it. Well, it turns out that both console OEMs and third parties have their own ideas about how you can improve on perfection, although it turns out the main ingredient is a lot more money!

What Exactly is an Elite Controller?

I’m using the term “elite” controller here mainly because Microsoft got the ball rolling with the release of the Xbox Elite Pad. This is a pad favored by “harcore” and professional gamers, and it inspired other makers of gaming hardware to enter this new market.

The Elite Pad is set apart in two main areas. First of all, it takes the compromises made with the standard Xbox One controller and largely does away with them. This involves using better components and materials to improve the base controller in every way. The second area these controllers target is actual performance in games. Yes, gamepads are being used for competitive purposes. Whether it’s people looking for an edge in online multiplayer or actual, for-money tournaments, there’s clearly a market for these uprated pads. However, does that mean you should buy one? Let’s looks at what this deal is really about.

Price

OEM gamepads are actually pretty expensive. Depending on where in the world you live, a PS4 or Xbox One original pad might cost as much as $100 or as “little” as $50. It’s understandable, though. These modern controllers are absolutely packed with tech. Lights, speakers, sound hardware, sophisticated rumble, and much more. Taking apart a PS3 controller and a PS4 controller clearly shows a massive leap in tech. The designs, heft, and materials are also all much better.

Elite and Pro controllers make these OEM pads look dirt cheap in comparison. Typically you’ll pay triple for the privilege of owning one. A starting price of $150 is pretty standard in this segment. That’s a lot of money for a gamepad no matter which way you look at it. So where does that money really go?

Customizability

If you look at your standard gamepad, there’s nothing really you can do to change it. There are plenty of doohickeys you can buy to bolt onto it, such as stick extensions or covers, but at its core you’re still using the same basic equipment.

This is very much not the case with professional controllers. More often than not they are designed so you can easily swap out parts quickly. You may want to swap in a different kind of thumbstick for a particular type of game, or simply change a broken one out quickly during a competition. Many pro controllers let you do some really crazy stuff such as reversing the positions of the dpad and left thumb stick!

It goes beyond mechanical modification as well. Many of these elite gamepads let you assign buttons as you see fit. So you aren’t limited by what the software allows. Some games don’t let you remap controls, which can be an issue for competition and for accessibility. Of course, this sort of customization probably has a bigger impact on consoles, whereas PC gamers can often achieve the same result with a software solution, even with standard pads.

c40 controller

Performance

This is where things get tricky. What determines how well you perform in a game? How does your current OEM controller hold you back?

There are a couple of fronts on which pro controllers can improve how well you can control your game. First of all, the electromechanical components that take your feedback and translate them into commands are improved. They provide better, more precise feedback and respond in a much sharper way. So, for example, you may be able to line up a headshot in your favorite FPS much better than with the standard controller.

Latency is another issue. That is, how long it takes the controller to send the command and for the console or PC to respond. Generally, the only way to minimize latency has been to use a wired connection, but modern wireless technology can be just as good as an actual wire these days and in elite gamepads you get those enhancements. So more accurate, sensitive controls with less lag. What’s not to like?

Durability

How much do you game? My household PS4 gets a pretty typical amount of use, I’d say, and the sticks on the DS4 controllers needed replacement after two years. If you’re a really hardcore console gamer or gamepad user, you might wear out OEM gamepads after just a few months.

Elite professional controllers are designed to be much tougher than this. Not only that, they can be repaired much more easily. For example, the Astro C40 controller for the PS4 lets you change sticks in a minute or two. It’s not just the stick caps either – the entire pot and all the electronics are replaced as well, since the electronics themselves are modular.

Apart from simple repair and replacement, materials in use here are generally better. More metal, more rubber for comfort, and stronger plastics. All those incremental improvements make these controls last longer and feel better.

So, Who Should Buy These Controls?

That brings us to the bottom line of the entire argument – who should buy these?

I think there are three groups of people who need apply.

First, if you want to play competitively, these pads are for you. There’s little doubt that all their features and improvements put those using standard pads at a disadvantage, all other things being equal. They won’t make you a better player, but if you and the competition are equally talented, this could be the deciding factor. Think of it as your race car. Two F1 drivers both need competitive cars, regardless of their driving talent.

The second group of people are those who game heavily and are likely to replace their standard controllers multiple times. Here it makes financial sense to get the controller that’s easy to fix without needing to replace it, and which will last longer before you even have to worry about the issue.

The third group of people are gamers who can really make use of those customization options and simply appreciate a more refined gaming experience. Sure, you might not be gunning for an eSports prize, but that doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself. If you have the money to burn, it’s a tangible return.

We also have an article on Elite Consoles on this website.