We’ve had online gaming of some sort over the last decade, but gaming has not been data-intensive activity for ISPs. Until recently, the brains for gaming has been provided by special gaming computers or game boxes run locally by each gamer. These devices and the game software supplied the intensive video and sound experience and the Internet was only used to exchange game commands between gamers. Command files are not large and contain the same information that is exchanged between a game controller and a gaming computer. In the past, gamers would exchange the command files across the Internet, and local software would interpret and activate the commends being exchanged.
But the nature of online gaming is changing rapidly. Already, before the pandemic, game platforms had been migrating online. Game companies are now running the core software for games in a data center and not on local PCs or game consoles. The bandwidth path required between the data center core and a gamer is much larger than the command files that used to be exchanged since the data path now carries the full video and music signals as well as 2-way communications between gamers.
There is a big benefit of online gaming for gamers, assuming they have enough bandwidth to participate. Putting the gaming brains in a data center reduces the latency, meaning that game commands can be activated more quickly. Latency is signal delay, and the majority of the delay in any internet transmission happens inside the wires and electronics of the local ISP network. With online gaming, a signal between a gamer only has to cross the gamer’s local ISP network. Before online gaming, that signal had to pass through the local ISP network of both gamers.
There are advantages for gaming companies to move online. They can release a new title instantly to the whole country. Game companies don’t have to manufacture and distribute copies of games. Games can now be sold to gamers who can’t afford the expensive game boxes or computers. Gamers benefit because gaming can now be played on any device and a gamer isn’t forced into buying an expensive gaming computer and then only playing in that one location. Game companies can now sell a gaming experience that can be played from anywhere, not just sitting at a gamer’s computer.
A gaming stream is far more demanding on the network than a video stream from Netflix. Netflix feeds out the video signal in advance of what a viewer is watching, and the local TV or PC stores video content for the next few minutes of viewing. This was a brilliant move by video streamers because streaming ahead of where what viewers are watching largely eliminated the delays and pixelation of video streams that were common when Netflix was new. By streaming in advance of what a viewer is watching, Netflix has time to resend any missed packets so that the video viewing experience has ideal quality by the time a viewer catches up to the stream.
Gaming doesn’t have this same luxury because gaming is played in real time. The gamers at both ends of a game need to experience the game at the same time. This greatly changes the demand on the broadband network. Online gaming means a simultaneous stream being sent from a data center to both gamers, and it’s vital that both gamers receive the signal at the same time. Gaming requires a higher quality of download path than Netflix because there isn’t time to resend missed data packets. A gamer needs a quality downstream path to receive a quality video transmission in real-time.
Gaming adds a second big demand in that latency becomes critical. A player that receives signal just a little faster than an opponent has an advantage. A friend of mine has symmetrical gigabit Verizon FiOS fiber broadband at his home which is capable of delivering the best possible gaming data stream. Yet his son is driving his mother crazy by running category 6 cables between the gaming display and the FiOS modem. He sears that bypassing the home WiFi lowers the latency and gives him an edge over other gamers. From a gamer perspective, network latency is becoming possibly more important than download speed. A gamer on fiber has an automatic advantage over a gamer on a cable company network.
At the same time as the gaming experience has gotten more demanding for network operators the volume of gaming has exploded during the pandemic as people stuck at home have turned to gaming. All of the major game companies are reporting record earnings. The NPD Group that tracks the gaming industry reports that spending on gaming was up 30% in the second quarter of this year compared to 2019.
ISPs are already well aware of gamers who are the harshest critics of broadband network performance. Gamers understand that little network glitches, hiccups, and burps that other uses may not even notice can cost them a game, and so gamers closely monitor network performance. Most ISPs know their gamers who are the first to complain loudly about network problems.