It’s Thursday night—what in COVID world has become an almost sacred observance of gaming with my squad. And I have a big announcement to make.
“Alright. I don’t want to intimidate anyone,” I say into my headset. “But I thought you should know, I’m sitting in the world’s most powerful gaming chair right now.”
As expected, all sorts of booze-brave heckling ensues. But my perfectly aligned spine absorbs the criticism without a flinch.
I’m sitting in the Herman Miller/Logitech G gaming chair. It’s the first time the storied American furniture company—known for mid century classics like the Eames lounger and molded shell chair, and building the quintessential ’90s dotcom status symbol with the ergonomic Aeron—has set its sights on the growing esports, streaming, and video game market. Alongside the computer accessories company Logitech, it’s releasing a $1,500 chair branded specifically around making you play video games better, and with less discomfort. In addition to the chair, the team is launching gamer-friendly matte black updates to a sit-stand desk and an adjustable monitor arm, along with more unannounced products to come.
“What we’re really excited to do is bring the thinking of ergonomics to gaming,” Ben Yu, product marketing lead at Logitech G (Logitech’s core gaming brand). “Not just ergonomic furniture, but ergonomic thinking. There’s such a need here from professional esports athletes to content creators. . . this is their livelihood. They sit 10 to 12 hours a day.”
It sounds eerily similar to what happened in Silicon Valley in the ’90s with all those coders stuck to their desks, which means there’s a business opportunity here for Herman Miller to apply what it knows about furniture to gamers. Alongside Logitech, Herman Miller is looking at designing performance furniture for the esport athlete much like Nike designs shoes for Olympians and NBA players. Companies design for peak performance, then they let the product trickle down for aspirational players. The goal is be the high-end chair of the $1 billion esports industry, the $10 billion-plus streaming market, and the $159 billion video game industry at large.
The history of design for gamers
Gaming is begging for a high-design makeover, and it has been for well over a decade. But gamers are a different breed from Herman Miller’s normal customer who appreciates good design and is willing to pay a premium for it. Gamers still live in an industrial design aesthetic born in the mid aughts—and frankly, it can be pretty tacky. They build PCs with acrylic cases and rainbow colored glowing lights to show off the processors inside and make them glimmer. They opt for headsets that are chunky and superfluously mechanical.
As for the chairs they sit in: Google “gaming chair” right now, and you’ll see a plethora of options that are all some variation on “race car seats on legs.” Hop onto Twitch streams, where gamers broadcast their play for hours on end, and you’ll spot race chair after race chair—and no, these streamers aren’t (usually) even playing racing simulations like Forza or Gran Turismo.
There’s nothing wrong with race car seats. In actual race cars, seats are designed to hug the sides of your body, like a big egg carton, so that as you turn at a high velocity, your physique stays put. But when you play video games at a desk or in front of a television, your body isn’t turning. So where did these seats even come from?
In 2001, a Michigan-based company called DXRacer opened to create seats for luxury sports cars. By 2006, the company began to modify those seats with armrests and sliding coasters so they could be sold to gamers. While the race car business didn’t take off, the video game business did. Today, DXRacer is still a leader in the market. It sells dozens of models of its racing office chairs, which have been cloned by companies across the industry.
“I think they did a great job putting the word ‘gamer’ in front of ‘chair’ and getting people to see that as a cool element in their setup. I think they invested a lot in the market . . . early on no one gave this market much investment,” says Jon Campbell, the business lead of gaming at Herman Miller. “But now what you’ll see from [us] is we’re trying to advance that further . . . people believe in their mice and keyboard and monitor as performance gear, so we’re trying to bring this same concept to the chair as well.”
Meeting gamers where they are
To break into the market, Herman Miller began interviewing pro players, studying how they played to see how this world differed from typical office work. What they found was gamers do sit at a desk differently from office workers. While business professionals sit casually at their desks, gamers tended to lean forward, almost in an attack stance of their computer. But the racing chair, which puts you into a lower recline, doesn’t match up. “The reason you sit like that [in cars] is your vantage point is a quarter mile ahead. You’re anticipating that next turn,” says Campbell. “As a player, you’re sitting upright, leaned forward slightly, and your vantage point is [aiming] down a bit. The screen is 12 to 18 inches from your nose. How you position your body is totally different than a race car style chair.”
Over our Zoom call, the team pointed to pictures demonstrating how pro players adapted to their racing chairs, leaning forward and losing the support of the chair’s back, and sometimes sitting on their feet to get proper leverage. Once you’re looking for it, this poor posture is easy to spot across the publicity photos of any pro gaming site.
Herman Miller decided that the best approach for its first gaming chair—”first” because more dedicated gaming furniture is coming in the future—was to make an ergonomically robust chair tuned to the needs of players.
Herman Miller started with the base of Embody, a high-backed task chair the company released in 2008 to conform with the natural bend in your spine. Then the designers modified it. They added a new adjustment that allows you to tweak and lock the lean back mechanism to support the lean forward posture. Such an adjustment also means that a player isn’t fighting their chair so much when trying to get the leverage to make mouse movements with millisecond accuracy. Knowing professional gamers are seated for hours on end, even sweating under the bright lights of a stage, they added copper-infused cooling foam to keep the chair frosty. And finally, Herman Miller added what the company calls “pixelated support,” or 100 mattress-like coils to the seat bottom, to distribute your weight across the seat. Herman Miller also claims these pixels encourage blood flow. The pixels near your sit bones are harder to support the pressure your bottom, but toward your legs, they’re softer, as to not compress arteries.
The final touch was to make the chair black–except for its back, which glows in Logitech G’s branded blue. It’s not a subtle color by any means that will blend in with a living room, but it’s not meant to be for the audience. It’s electric to your eye in a way that tacitly hints at a race car chic.
How it performs
Setting up the chair is intimidating. It arrives at your door fully assembled—all you need to do is roll it out of the box—but the adjustments you need to make are by no means obvious just by looking at the various wheels, levers, and buttons in the design.
Viewing a tutorial on the site, I quickly learned the language. I lift the seat so my feet rest flat on the floor. Then, I unfurl the seat bottom under my legs, almost like unrolling a carpet, so that my calves weren’t absorbing too much weight. Last, I adjust the backrest, turning a crank until it fits flush to my back. Once properly configured, the sensation is halfway between sitting and floating—the exact opposite of being crammed into a race car.
During my Thursday night gaming session, I cannot say the chair makes me any better at sneaking through warehouses or shredding my enemies with the blades of a helicopter. But five hours later, as I call it a night, I lift my perfectly aligned spine out of the seat, and my neck lacks that weird pinch that’s become all too familiar when I play from my low-backed couch.
“One of the lead designers on this chair removed his couch from the living room, and they have two Embody chairs instead,” says Campbell. After my own experience, I believe it.
The Embody Gaming Chair is available now on Herman Miller’s site for $1,500—roughly the same price as the standard Embody.