Couches don’t feature in most people’s visions for their PC gaming setup: a glowing battlestation fashioned around a chair and a desk, optimized for vertical gaming. But eight months into the pandemic, with many office workers still WFH, unwinding with some Apex Legends in the same chair at the same desk isn’t quite as appealing. The couch is calling.
Couch gaming is synonymous with consoles, you and your wireless controller melting into some well-kept sectional facing a TV mounted on a wall or situated on a media table. Microsoft and Sony are releasing shiny new boxes with tempting specs, aimed at maximizing that immersive couch experience. But if you own a PC, you have a lot more options than you might think.
While next-gen consoles are hugely powerful, at the end of the day they’re kind of just mini-PCs with software-specific perks. “Other than people whipping out a keyboard and mouse and composing an email, a lot of what happens on our console is similar to what happens on a PC,” Xbox head Phil Spencer told WIRED in a June interview. You could spend $300 to $500 on a next-gen console for the premium couch gaming experience. Or, if you already have a gaming PC, you could just buy a super long HDMI cable. This isn’t tongue-in-cheek; PC gaming from your couch may be the most versatile, comfy, and high-powered way to play games today.
No Standard Way to Game
There’s no couch PC gaming standard in the way that you can just put a console on a TV stand and use a wireless controller. In 2013, Valve began rolling out a grand plan to replace gaming consoles with PCs, which would include its so-called Steam Machine device. It was a console-lite that ran Valve’s proprietary, Linux-based SteamOS. When that petered out, Valve launched Steam Link, a bit of hardware that streamed PC games to televisions. It received rave reviews for its versatility and dependability, but was discontinued in 2018. (The device, and its software iteration, are still supported.)
Think of that lack of standardization, though, as an opportunity: You get to cobble together your own setup, something PC gamers are already accustomed to.
Which is why my chair-to-couch transition began with a $16, 25-foot HDMI cable. It connects my gaming PC—which is also my work setup—to a nearby, wall-mounted Sony television that sits across from my ugly but irresistibly comfy couch. The cable is clunky, but it also means latency is not an issue.
If your favored television is in a room where an HDMI hookup isn’t feasible, you might have to go wireless. Some couch PC gamers I’ve spoken with have purchased used Steam Links off eBay or used the software incarnation. Others have dabbled with Nvidia’s GameStream, which lets you stream games from your PC to your TV if you have an Nvidia Shield TV device. The setup is largely the same regardless of which route you take: Plug a dongle into your TV, download the software onto your PC, and they’ll establish a connection.
I’d like to say that the resulting latency from the wireless connection is only a big deal if you’re playing twitchy shooters, not if you’re playing simulation or strategy games. But even a little latency can be frustrating when you’re used to gaming on a jacked-in PC.
Getting your PC to play nice with your television is just step one. Next, decisions must be made. Will you purchase a new mouse, keyboard, or controller for the auxiliary PC setup that you keep by the sofa? Or will you plop a cheap wireless mouse onto an old college textbook and call it a day? Star Saltzman, 38, says that in the aughts he put an 8-foot wooden sailboat seat across his couch to hold his mouse and keyboard. Now, he uses a meal tray and a USB extension with a wireless dongle to boost his wireless mouse and keyboard’s range. Other couch PC gamers I’ve spoken with simply use cheap Logitech wireless keyboards with trackpads to navigate menus, but game with an old Xbox One or 360 controller hooked up to a USB hub.
Dedicated mouse-and-keyboard gamers who don’t want to sacrifice latency have another option: the lapboard—a gloriously large, cushioned lap desk with an embedded keyboard and mouse pad. Asked what inspired its K63 model, Corsair says it aimed to “create something with the feel and performance of a desktop keyboard and mouse setup, in a form factor that could be used on the couch,” adding that “for fast-paced or complex PC games, in the living room, the benefit of a desktop-standard mechanical keyboard and mouse is palpable.”
Lapboards are difficult to track down today. Corsair says the K63 is out of stock in a number of countries because of high demand. For my setup, I managed to snag a used Roccat Sova, substantial with its built-in mechanical keyboard and huge, plastic mousepad. It’s an incredible device, checking all the boxes: ergonomic, low-latency, and high-quality. With a USB extender, I plugged the Roccat Sova into the back of my PC tower, wrapped its cable around the room, and placed it on the console table. A plugged-in Xbox One controller sits to the left of the couch for games that recommend controllers.
Comfort plus sheer game variety—including League of Legends or World of Warcraft, which you can’t find on other platforms—plus potential computing power is the easiest argument for couch PC gaming. But don’t forget about party games. How many times can you really play Mario Party without resorting to violence?
You can build a tiny gaming PC for $500 to $1,500, ideally with Bluetooth support for controllers. It’s the least cost-effective console replacement; you could easily buy two Xbox Series Xs for the price of a very good, very small PC. On the other hand, it might last you a little longer if you’re comfortable changing out components.
Compact computer cases exist for this very reason. Connect your itty bitty PC to a television or projector that you can use to play indie party games (the very best kind) like Crawl, Stick Fight, Overcooked 2, or TowerFall. And then you can tab out to watch your favorite K-Pop group’s latest music video. Situate it behind your couch, hiding the wire labyrinth, and connect it to a USB hub for controllers. Just make sure to dust a lot.
Pick one: cable management or latency. Choosing as many wireless peripherals as possible means fewer visible cables. Choosing low latency can mean ethernet, USB, controller, HDMI and sound system cables. I chose latency. This is what lives behind the living room couch:
Also under the “plugged-in” category: psychologically, you’re still probably on your work device. Unlike console gaming, an email notification might pop up. You might get the sudden, ill-advised urge to check your Twitter feed. You lose the ability to separate fully from the daily grind.
Physically, though, shifting from a desk to a couch is healing. There is a loosening-up that happens when you’re on the couch, drink in hand, grabbing fistfuls of candy and marathoning some long, long video game. It’s obtainable on a PC. Or at the very least, it’s worth a try.