We have a long wait until Ivy Bridge-E hits the shelves, and until that point the dichotomy between the features and price of both Sandy Bridge-E and Ivy Bridge will continue to weigh on the minds of performance enthusiasts.  But does it weigh on the minds of gamers so much? Continuing debates rage on regarding how many cores are needed for game X, the low uptake of multi-GPU configurations, and the percentage of users with multi-monitor setups – are most gamers equipped with single screen and a single GPU?  There will always be niche categories for the über enthusiast, and the ASRock Fatal1ty X79 range is aiming in that direction.  Today’s review focuses on the Champion and Professional boards, both of which have had presence in the market for several months, but will continue to be ASRock’s high-end gaming offering until Ivy Bridge-E is released.

Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel – Who is he?

For anyone who has been involved in competitive gaming, Fatal1ty is a known name.  For everyone else, cast your minds back to the late 90s.  Gaming as a competitive competition was growing with the popularity of Doom and Quake, and eventually leagues were formed (such as the Cyberathlete Professional League) for the best players in the world to compete for cash prizes.  Over recent years these contests (with the latest games) are regularly broadcast live across the internet, with thousands of fans avidly watching with anticipation.

Fatal1ty was a perennial winner of these competitions in the early 2000s, with a total of $500,000+ in cash and prizes and twelve major championship titles over five different games: Doom 3, Alien vs. Predator 2, Unreal Tournament 2003, Quake III and Painkiller.  His life story has been presented by mainstream media in both print and television, such as in Time Magazine, The New York Times and MTV, as he has achieved a gamers ‘dream’ – international recognition with continued success.  He is often quoted regarding his training regimen, featuring over eight hours a day of training, including both physical and mental preparation, alongside other normal sports which also pique his interest like hockey and American football.    

Wendel has put aside actively competing, with his most recent accolades dating back to 2006.  What Wendel has been able to do is cash in on the marketability of his success, much like top sports personalities that endorse day-to-day products.  Fatal1ty Inc. is a brand licensing institution, with his name attributed to motherboards, power supplies, headsets, soundcards and even high energy ‘gamer food’, with a predicted income greater than that from his gaming exploits.

Come forward to 2013, and Wendel now manages his company, keeping abreast of his social media but also trying to develop competitive video gaming, and is often cited as the primary ambassador for e-Sports.  He still games regularly, with updates on what/where he is playing online through the social media which is often streamed to the public.  With the branding element of his business, we often see him promoting his various products at all the major technology and gaming events, such as CES, Computex and others.

From a hardware and technical standpoint, there are two ways to approach the Fatal1ty branding.  The first is just a name addition – company X will pay $$ to put the name on the product, no other changes made.  The other is that Wendel is comparable to a racing driver.  He knows how the equipment should feel, and he can relay the experiences back to the design teams – there may even be an element of technical knowledge involved.  But it is up to the engineers back at base to actually put pen to paper and design the equipment to respond as expected. 

The analogy breaks down on the basis that the drivers in a series like Formula 1 are still competing, and want the best all the time – if the drivers do not perform, the company is not advertised and there is emphasis to improve more.  Wendel is definitely not a test driver; he is a Schumacher – (semi)retired with respect to the greatest of the latest, but still a consultant.  While the knowledge is still there, and he could take-on any regular off the street and win easily, he is not still at the top of the game, using the latest hardware in the most recent of stressful situations.  Formula 1 is not sold by consultant branding.

The Dichotomy of the Brand

While Wendel has had success, the equipment that has his branding has two different responses depending on which side of the camp you are in.  On one side, most gamers are vastly competitive – they do not want to aid to Fatal1ty’s stardom, they want to beat it.  This means carving their own route, avoiding anything that has his name to strengthen his position.  The flip side of the coin is fandom – in order to be the best you have to be equipped like the best (in order to be Messi or a Tom Brady, you want the boots, the kit etc.).  If it has been endorsed by such an ambassador for competitive video gaming, it must be good, even if they have never used the latest versions to win in international competition?

When I approached ASRock at Computex 2011 regarding their decision to license the Fatal1ty logo and Wendel’s services at events, the response came back that the branding has immense success in pan-Asia.  Without concrete numbers one could postulate that the ‘fan worship’ is more of an element in those areas, whereas the western gamer wants their own path. 

To put this into my personal perspective as an ex-clan gamer, no-one I knew had Fatal1ty branded products.  I currently own a Fatal1ty mouse pad, although that was a prize in a random draw.  My brother by comparison is a casual PC gamer, enjoying FPS gaming but nothing competitive; he has owned three pairs of Fatal1ty headphones, based on a particular feature of those headphones. He has fallen afoul multiple times of accidentally pulling the cable out of his PC while still wearing them, something I have done from time to time (or running over the cable on an office-type chair).

Relationship with ASRock

“The heart of any gaming system is the gaming motherboard, and that is why I teamed up with ASRock, one of the best gaming motherboard companies in the world. They had the engineering expertise to make my concepts for gaming motherboards a reality. Fatal1ty Gaming Motherboards are engineered to be the best performing and value in mobos available on the market.”  -Fatal1ty.

Generic marketing quotes aside, Fatal1ty initially pared up with Abit, a now defunct (but often praised in memoriam) motherboard manufacturer.  The Fatal1ty branded boards were ‘designed by Abit, but game-tested and approved by Fatal1ty’ up until socket 775 and FM2.  The first ASRock boards to bear the name come from the P67 and 990FX range, and subsequent Intel chipsets have enjoyed the naming.

The partnership offers ASRock a gaming range to market to consumers, with each product styled with the signature and colors of Fatal1ty Inc.  Given Wendel’s repeated showcasing at ASRock events around the world, I would not be surprised that they wheel him in in front of the ASRock R&D team from time to time to ask for suggested updates. 

Gamers prioritize responsiveness, performance, audio and connectivity, and thus over the generations of ASRock Fatal1ty boards we have seen IDE ports and Floppy ports ‘because some gamers want them’, but also high polling rate USB ports.  As I would expect, PS/2 ports and multi-GPU configurations are part of the standard on these boards, and we also get software to enhance the polling rate of the USB ports for decreased latency between movement and action.  One would also expect some form of network interface to reduce CPU consumption / prioritize gaming traffic, but rather than going the Atheros Killer route, ASRock use Broadcom NICs and software.  Audio solutions also differ, with the cheaper boards getting the best Realtek solution, and some of the more expensive models going for Creative Sound Core3D.

Gaming Motherboards are engineered to be the best performing and value

‘Best performing and value’ is an odd phrase with a motherboard aimed at gaming – a gaming motherboard needs low latency and a good feature set beyond the standard off-the-shelf, both of which cost money to design, engineer and implement.  This takes it away from the ‘value’ aspect, and the proof will be in the benchmarks as to whether they can take the heat.

In today’s review we are testing the X79 Champion and the X79 Professional, Fatal1ty boards aimed at the Sandy Bridge-E chipset.  To a large degree, value does not apply with Sandy Bridge-E – the entry point for the processors is currently $300 for the base quad core or $570 for the hex-core (prices as of 1/25).  The debate is still out as to whether having 6 Intel cores is better than 4 (and perhaps Z77) for gaming, but ASRock are aiming these boards at the gaming market where money is almost no object.

Both of these boards have been sitting in the office for a few months, gathering dust, but in that time we hope ASRock have been able to fix any initial release issues that have developed.  It also means that the price should be lower than at release – current prices for the X79 Champion and X79 Professional are $360 and $265 respectively, putting them in the path of the Rampage IV Formula ($370) and Rampage IV Gene ($280), both boards aimed at gamers. 

Ready? FIGHT!

ASRock X79 Champion Visual Inspection and Board Features
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  • dgz - Monday, February 11, 2013 - link

    Thresh is making big bucks in other areas. Their latest company provides quality product for big business.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    Warcraft 3 was bigger than Quake 3 ever was, and this is before we eve get into the massive DOTA scene. DOTA in China right now is bigger than Brood War, SC2, CS 1.6, and League Of Legends combined, and any of those individual games dwarf Quake 3 in popularity.

    Grubby hasn't won anything in Starcraft 2 so far, but he's been placing higher with almost every new tournament he competes in and he is a very well liked and respected player. His name on a product would easily help to sell it.
  • dgz - Monday, February 11, 2013 - link

    While WC3 was indeed big, it was all dota after 2004-2005. You guys know it's true.

    Quake 3 community never consisted millions of players but it remained the ultimate duel shooter for how many years now? How many people drive F1 again?
  • dawp - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    [qouote]The Fatal1ty branded boards were ‘designed by Abit, but game-tested and approved by Fatal1ty’ up until socket 775 and FM2.[/quote]

    don't you mean AM2 there since FM2 wasn't around when Abit was?
  • TeXWiller - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    and ECC support. One might be able to forge workstations out of these.
  • yzkbug - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    Is this you, Johnathan 'Fatal1ty" Wendel?
  • JeBarr - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    Like many high end gaming boards, these two cram on the extra features that almost no gamer would ever use.

    Does anyone think that Johnny Wendel would use even half of the USB 3.0 and Sata III 6.0GB/s ports?

    I don't.

    Would even the most competitive gamer and power-user require such an amount of extra features for their at-home system?

    Probably not.

    I can see the need for extra PCIe x16 slots, for obvious reasons.....but legacy PCI slots on the Pro model is just ridiculous. Give me an extra PCIe 2.0 x1 or x4 slot instead. Get with the times, geez.

    And how about these high end gaming boards with creative audio chip on-board? Right, because everyone knows it's such a great idea to have an audio amplifier mixed in with all the traces. I mean, seriously, just get rid of the extra unused PCI slots and put PCIe slots instead so I can add my own sound card....geez.
  • Tech-Curious - Sunday, February 10, 2013 - link

    Yeah, I would expect a motherboard aimed particularly at gamers to be stripped down on features, with extremely high-quality components supplying the features that are important.

    The review sorta makes that very point, when it compares the Fatal1ty mobos to their Asus analogues -- quality over quantity of features.

    That said, motherboards in general seem to be over-featured, and there is a segment of the market that would (understandably) balk at paying high-premium prices for a motherboard without all possible bells and whistles. But perhaps those two points only tend to suggest that motherboards are a bad fit for a pro-racer-style marketing campaign: motherboards don't tend to contribute all that much to the overall performance of a computer system, beyond a relatively low threshold of quality. Whatever difference motherboards do make tends to be overwhelmed by the performance attributes of other components, and so motherboard manufacturers feel compelled to add features to motherboards to differentiate their products from their competitors'.

    Don't get me wrong: the motherboards reviewed in this article are high-end, performance-oriented parts, but they fit that description in large part because they use a socket-2011 chipset (and therefore they must be paired with a top-of-the-line CPU). That in itself is a bit of a head scratcher, IMO, because there's no compelling evidence to suggest that the LGA-2011 CPUs are noticeably better than the i7 3770k in a gaming context. Where the 2011 platform shines is in heavy-duty high-threaded workloads.

    The long and the short of it is that ASRock's branding an LGA 2011 motherboard around a pro gamer is a little like a car company branding a luxury sedan around Jeff Gordon.
  • dgz - Monday, February 11, 2013 - link

    Who the hell is this Jeff Gordon guy? Never heard of him. Quite a few F1 and rally guys are used to promote regular cars.
  • JlHADJOE - Monday, February 11, 2013 - link

    Which regular cars? Almost every car I know that has a racing driver's name on it has been pretty sporty.

    Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce Niki Lauda
    Ford Mustang McLaren
    Caterham JPE (Jonathan Palmer Edition)
    Acura/Honda NSX Zanardi Edition
    McLaren Mercedes SLR Stirling Moss

    Subaru Imprezas in Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Peter Solberg editions
    Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6.5 Tommi Makinen Edition

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