Intel’s love affair with PC gaming

(Image credit: Future)

If you’ve been a PC gamer for as long as we have, there’s a very high chance that you’ll have at some point played on a PC that’s powered by one of Intel’s processors. For a long time Intel was the king of gaming processors, and while AMD has been putting up a brilliant fight recently, as you can see from our list of the best processors of 2019, Intel’s latest processors dominate the list.

With PC games becoming ever more graphic- and processor-intensive, while PC gamers require more from their gaming rigs, it’s meant that companies like Intel have had to rise to the challenge to keep on producing hardware that keeps up with our demands.

We sat down with Steve Shakespeare, EMEA Enterprise Solutions Director at Intel, to chat about Intel’s involvement in PC gaming, and what challenges – and rewards – there are when you build platforms for gamers and enthusiasts.

Image credit: Intel

Image credit: Intel

The war’s back on

One of the first things we wanted to chat about with Shakespeare was how, in the last 12 months, the processor wars between Intel and its rival AMD have been renewed, with a re-invigorated AMD winning over a lot of PC gamers and enthusiasts with its well-received Ryzen line of processors, which includes the brilliant 16-core Threadripper 1950X.

Not to be outdone, Intel fought back with some excellent processors of its own, including the Intel Core i7-8700K and the beastly 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE. Since then, we’ve seen a steady stream of excellent processors coming out of both camps. Intel's latest high-end processor, the Intel Core i9-9900K, is an octa-core beast, and one of the best processors money can buy for PC gamers who are serious about building the ultimate gaming rig.

"There’s an insatiable desire for computing power from this gaming audience."

Steve Shakespeare

It's certainly an exciting time for processors, and according to Shakespeare, Intel shares that enthusiasm. “I think the excitement is back and there is so much exciting stuff going on in the PC category right now. I think we’ve all seen the double-digit growth in the overall gaming enthusiast category. From our perspective we’re thrilled about that, we invest very heavily to get behind the products, behind the whole CPU family, and it feel like that is enabling the excitement that we’re seeing in the market.”

The increased expectations of what gamers expect their gaming PCs should be able to achieve has also appeared to invigorate Intel.

“We’re seeing increased demand for premium processors because there’s an insatiable desire for computing power from this gaming audience. It amazes me what people want to do, right? Not only do they want to play a great game, which in and of itself is intensive on the CPU, intensive on graphics as well, but they also maybe want to record that, they want to stream it onto Twitch, they want to have a real-time conversation with people, and watching other stuff at the same time. It just amazes me.”

The gaming gold rush

While there is often a lot of doom and gloom when it comes to the state of the desktop PC market, it appears that PC gamers are responsible for an increase in desktop and laptop sales. 

“We see gaming being a big growth-engine in the market, for desktops and notebooks. We’re seeing gaming grow in both areas. Interestingly, gaming is growing faster on notebooks, but it’s from a smaller base.” 

With mobile processors for laptops becoming ever more powerful, alongside thinner dedicated graphics cards which can fit inside thin and light notebooks, gaming laptops are becoming ever more viable. Just look at our list of the best gaming laptops, for example.

The Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX701 is one of the best gaming laptops on the market. Image Credit: TechRadar

The Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX701 is one of the best gaming laptops on the market. Image Credit: TechRadar

“There are some really great desktops that give you that infinite flexibility that some people want, but you also see some really super high-performance notebooks,” Shakespeare explains, and with Intel’s Coffee Lake S CPUs, that innovation for gamers and enthusiasts seems to be only improving.

“Coffee Lake S, which is the 8th generation desktop part… [has] up to 40% stronger performance, generation on generation. So versus that 7th generation CPU that is already really good for gaming, as [we’ve] put 40% headroom on it. We’re going to put up to six cores in the platform, and then when you marry that with a high-performance graphics card you’re going to get phenomenally powerful systems that are going to be able to play games at super-high settings, and offer that really immersive experience that gamers want.”

The six-core Coffee Lake processors, such as the Intel Core i7-8700K aren’t just making games even better, they are also allowing people to live stream while gaming, as well as creating and editing in-game footage on the fly. 

This sort of high-level multitasking is at the forefront of what Intel is doing, according to Shakespeare, and it’s that demand which is helping drive high-end processors.

“As I mentioned, the up to six cores in the 8th generation Coffee Lake desktop part, for example, gives you that many more cores, so you have lots of parallel processes running, and they’re all high-performance cores...that enables you to do lots of things. So, you might have some of the cores playing the game, some of the cores enabling your Twitch streaming, some of the cores maybe recording, some of the cores maybe doing other tasks, so that gives you that real performance.”

CPUs for all budgets

Of course, there are also the 16 and 18-core processors Intel released last year which offer up even more impressive multitasking performance. While these Core i9 beasts are aimed at enthusiasts who need the very cutting edge technology and performance, Intel is careful to make sure it has impressively-performing CPUs aimed at gamers and content creators no matter what their budgets.

“What we have is a ladder, and you can work your way up,” explains Shakespeare. “So, whether you want a Core i3 or a Core i5 or a Core i7 or a Core i9, they’re all there. [We’ve got] 8th gen obviously...on desktops… [as well as] 8th gen on the H-series mobile parts, giving you up to 40% improvement on gaming on laptops. Then we’ve also got i9 [on laptops] as well.”

Intel having a wide range of cutting edge CPUs for all manner of budgets isn’t a surprise, and, as Shakespeare says, “we’re responding to what the market’s demanding, and you know we also absolutely believe we’ve got the leadership technology at all the levels”.

"We’re really excited about virtual reality and how that’s extending the experiences that people can have with gaming.”

Intel is also particularly proud of its Core i9 offerings. “That 18-core Core i9 product, that is our first teraflop PC, can you imagine that? You remember when teraflop computing was super-computing that occupied a room, that kind of controlled a city? Well, now you can get it on your desktop and run that. So, I think that’s really fascinating.”

These high-end CPUs aren’t just allowing PC gamers to multitask, they also offer new experiences in Virtual Reality as well.

“We’re really excited about virtual reality and how that’s extending the experiences that people can have with gaming,” Shakespeare explains. “And, what’s really exciting for esports is that we are starting to see virtual reality esports games come in, and the enthusiasm for that is fantastic. So, one of the things that we are doing with our processors is making sure that we can enable the best virtual reality gaming experience as well.”

PC Gaming Week 2018

Virtual reality gaming is placing new demands on gamer's hardware. Image credit: HTC

So, how vital is the processor to virtual reality? For Shakespeare and Intel, it is an essential part of the puzzle.

“A lot of people say ‘Hey virtual reality, isn’t that a graphics card thing? Don’t you just need a good graphics card for that?’ The answer is you need both; you need a great graphics card and you need a great CPU. And here’s the reason why: in order to do virtual reality well, there’s a whole bunch of artificial intelligence that has to take place, there’s a whole bunch of logic that has to operate to support the game. So, the graphic card does the rendering, the CPU does the AI, as well as the physics.”

That’s the key to immersion. When in a virtual reality world, you want it to behave realistically. Shakespeare has an example.

“When I shoot that bullet and it hits that wall, what’s going the happen? Well, it’s going to make a hole, and some bits are going to fly in the air somewhere, right? So, the CPU works out what’s going to happen mathematically, then the graphics card presents that on the screen. If you get that in balance you get the best experience for your platform.”

Taking gaming seriously

One of the biggest drivers of the PC gaming renaissance has been the growing popularity of esports, where players and teams play PC games competitively to a huge – and expanding – audience. It’s also something that Intel has been very involved with.

“So, esports has got this massive following, about 385 million people worldwide are following esports, and for Intel this is a really important endeavour. We work with the electronic sport league, with the ESL, and we have the Intel Extreme Masters competition. So, we’re investing really heavily in esports to make sure that we understand what that audience needs, and we can bring them the best computing platforms to deliver those games.“

For Shakespeare, it was attending the Intel Extreme Masters final in Poland that really opened his eyes to the excitement of esports. 

“I was at the final, and 170,000 people turn up at a stadium for a weekend to watch this. And you suddenly appreciate it. You say, ‘Wow, I get it’. This is like a sporting event, it’s like going to see a soccer match or a rugby match. People are in the audience, they’re supporting their team, they’re cheering excitedly, and I love that.”

"We’re investing really heavily in esports to make sure that we understand what that audience needs."

Shakespeare also has a vision for the future of esports, and it’s one Intel shares. “I think the next level that we’re now seeing is around VR. And, we want to help enable that. Not only do you have powerful hardware to play VR games on, which is what we’re doing with our Intel products, you also need to be able to broadcast that so the audience can see it. So, they’re in a stadium but also online.”

So, if you thought broadcasting normal games while also playing them was stressful enough for your hardware, playing and broadcasting in virtual reality will be even more demanding. 

“I think at IEM, for example, there was something like 45 million streaming viewers of the event. That’s just monumental, and a worldwide audience. But, if you think about it, to make that interesting to the viewers, you’ve got to be able to broadcast what’s going on. So, if you’re in a VR game, at the same time your PC has got to take that information, package it all up and then it’s got to be able to stream it out onto Twitch. So again, you need a strong platform to do that. So, that’s kind of what we’re trying to support.”

The future of PC gaming is bright

So, with a steady stream of amazing games, esports and virtual reality, it’s never been a more exciting time to be a PC gamer, and Intel seems enthused as well, enjoying the challenges posed by gamers who expect ever more from their gaming rigs. 

“Innovation is alive and well, not just with gaming enthusiasts, it’s this whole new industry and this whole new sporting industry with esports that’s coming to life. I love it when I see so many people excited about it.”

Welcome to TechRadar's PC Gaming Week 2019. We're celebrating the most powerful gaming platform on Earth with in-depth articles, exclusive interviews and essential buying guides that showcase everything PC gaming has to offer. Visit our PC Gaming Week 2019 page to see all our coverage in one place.

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. Ever since he got an Amiga A500+ for Christmas in 1991, he's loved using (and playing on) computers, and will talk endlessly about how The Secret of Monkey Island is the best game ever made.