Abstract Objective Dental implants anchor in bone through a tight fit and osseo-integratable properties of the implant surfaces, while a protective soft tissue seal around the implants neck is needed to prevent bacterial destruction of the bone-implant interface. This tissue seal needs to form in the unsterile, oral environment. We aim to identify surface properties of dental implant materials (titanium, titanium-zirconium alloy and zirconium-oxides) that determine the outcome of this “race-for-the-surface” between human-gingival-fibroblasts and different supra-gingival bacterial strains. Methods Biofilms of three streptococcal species or a Staphylococcus aureus strain were grown in mono-cultures on the different implant materials in a parallel-plate-flow-chamber and their biovolume evaluated using confocal-scanning-laser-microscopy. Similarly, adhesion, spreading and growth of human-gingival-fibroblasts were evaluated. Co-culture experiments with bacteria and human-gingival-fibroblasts were carried out to evaluate tissue interaction with bacterially contaminated implant surfaces. Implant surfaces were characterized by their hydrophobicity, roughness and elemental composition. Results Biofilm formation occurred on all implant materials, and neither roughness nor hydrophobicity had a decisive influence on biofilm formation. Zirconium-oxide attracted most biofilm. All implant materials were covered by human-gingival-fibroblasts for 80–90% of their surface areas. Human-gingival-fibroblasts lost the race-for-the-surface against all bacterial strains on nearly all implant materials, except on the smoothest titanium variants. Significance Smooth titanium implant surfaces provide the best opportunities for a soft tissue seal to form on bacterially contaminated implant surfaces. This conclusion could only be reached in co-culture studies and coincides with the results from the few clinical studies carried out to this end.