"I don't know if you've watched League of Legends much, but you know it's probably the number-one PC game in the world."
That's how Tom Petersen, distinguished engineer at Nvidia, began a presentation to Polygon last week, during which he introduced the company's latest graphics card: the GeForce GTX 960. The newest video card to use Nvidia's Maxwell architecture, the $199 GTX 960 follows the GTX 980 and GTX 970, both of which launched last September. And with the GTX 960 today, Nvidia is making a strong play for a particular (and particularly massive) market: players of MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2.
The mid-range GTX '60 GPUs are traditionally Nvidia's most important cards, because they're the ones that sell the most units. Petersen referred to them as hitting the "sweet spot" price point: The GTX 560, 660 and 760 all launched in the $200-$250 range, a price that has made those cards the most common GPUs for PC gamers on Steam, according to Petersen. They're the number-one GPUs for MOBA players, two-thirds of whom are playing on a GTX 660 or older.
Nvidia launched the GTX 660 in September 2012, and the company believes that now is a good time to appeal to the MOBA market — those players tend to upgrade graphics cards every two to three years, whereas enthusiast gamers are on a shorter cycle. Petersen said the GTX 960 offers a "giant [performance] upgrade" over the GTX 660, the kind of improvement that would be meaningful even to people playing less graphically intensive titles such as MOBAs.
The GTX 960 offers 2 GB of memory, with a base clock of 1127 MHz and a boost clock of 1178 MHz. It's twice as efficient as the GTX 660 in running modern games at 1080p, according to Nvidia. Petersen showed a chart comparing the GTX 660 to the GTX 960 using a weighted-average frame rate for titles such as Hitman: Absolution, Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed Unity and Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth.
While the GTX 660 averaged about 35 frames per second, the GTX 960 managed to hit 60 frames per second on average. Those measurements took into account Nvidia's multi-frame sampled anti-aliasing (MFAA) technology, which debuted alongside Maxwell to deliver anti-aliasing with a reduced hit to performance, and which is supported on the GTX 960 for "pretty much every [DirectX 10] and [DirectX 11] game," Petersen said. He also noted that the GTX 960 has a TDP of 120 watts, 20 watts below that of the GTX 660, Coupled with the frame rate improvement, the new card delivers about twice as much performance per watt as the one from 2013.
The GTX 960 makes use of another new Maxwell technology, Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR). It's a fancy name for downsampling: A graphics card renders a game at a higher resolution, and then scales the image down to the display's resolution. Petersen played an in-engine replay of a League of Legends game running at 1080p to show off the technology, and it works as advertised.
Along with DSR, Nvidia is touting the GTX 960's power efficiency for running low-intensity games like MOBAs. The card is capable of running League of Legends in 1080p at 60 fps on max settings with v-sync enabled, and even at that level, it consumes 30 watts of power for "silent operation," according to Nvidia. The GPU can simply turn off its fans for that use case.
Does It Matter for MOBA Players?
"There's almost no time that I'm aware of where people will upgrade because they just want to get a new graphics card. They're usually upgrading because they're looking to get an experience that they can't get with their current graphics card," said Petersen, responding to a question about the main reason gamers buy new video cards.
"the vast majority of Nvidia customers are playing [League of Legends], on Nvidia discrete cards"
Thus, the MOBA angle is a way for Nvidia to pitch the benefits of the GTX 960 to a specific audience. Petersen confirmed our suspicions that the company's presentation for the GTX 660 years ago was geared toward World of Warcraft's massive user base. It's League of Legends this time around. But do the players of that game care enough about how it looks, as long as it looks 'good enough,' to pay hundreds of dollars to upgrade their graphics card?
"The general casual experience of smooth, fluid, beautiful action is something that anybody that can afford a graphics card would want," said Petersen. "And I can tell you for sure that the vast majority of Nvidia customers are playing this game, on Nvidia discrete cards."
The way Petersen explained it, free-to-play games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and World of Tanks have such a massive following around the world that they flip the equation for a GPU manufacturer like Nvidia.
"If you compare it to the tier 1 titles," said Petersen, referring to core PC games like Far Cry 4, "the tier 1 titles are more of a targeted audience." In other words, players of free-to-play games aren't any less "hardcore" than traditional PC gamers, and not necessarily less interested in buying a new graphics card on a regular basis.
Update: Nvidia announced a $199 MSRP for the GeForce GTX 960. We've edited the article to note this.