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17 January 2023

Gaming gains appeal beyond dedicated users as 5G cuts latency

Gaming announcements were more prominent at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) than at any of the show’s predecessors and the main reason was 5G. A common theme was accessibility, to reach users who through handicap or lack of dedicated hardware had not so far indulged in gaming or eSports.

There was a plethora of devices for dedicated gamers from the established players such as Sony and Microsoft, but also smartphones, screens with gaming performance and laptops. These are not necessarily dedicated just to gaming but are at more affordable prices than previous systems that were. Examples included Dell’s redesigned laptops, its G15 and G16 models, still primarily for gamers incorporating high speed graphics chips from Nvidia, at starting prices of $849 and $1,499, respectively, significantly lower than before.

The mood was summed up at the event by Min-Liang Tang, co-founder and CEO of American/Singaporean hardware vendor Razer, which specializes in gaming. 5G mobile Internet will “bring PC gaming to the masses”, Tang insisted, adding that the increased data rates, but more especially the ultra-low latency of 5G, would help expand the market significantly beyond the twin gaming heavyweights of Sony and Microsoft with their respective PlayStation and Xbox platforms.

This meant that games hitherto confined to those dedicated platforms would quickly become ubiquitous on smartphones, with the benefit of greater mobility through lack of dependence on fixed fiber connections. It would usher in the era of ubiquitous cloud gaming.

It is worth pondering the details here to assess these claims. Multiplayer gaming is indeed particularly dependent on low latency because it involves fast-moving interactions between two or more combatants, transmiited between participants by short two-way data pulses. Even 50ms latency can be detectable and detract from the experience, or make a player less competitive than another who is able to access a faster connection.

A relevant measure for gaming then is the ping time, defined as delay between sending the smallest measurable amount of data and receiving the acknowledgement. On this count, a recent survey by Rootmetrics, subsidiary of Seattle-based Internet performance analysis firm Ookla, reported that Three UK’s 5G network had an average ping of 17ms in Central London, compared with 50ms on 4G networks. Both these figures are ahead of many services and compare with typical values of 20ms to 30ms over fiber-to-the-home, although those offer higher data capacity and bit-rate for bulk transmissions.

A key point is that those ping measurements were made over relatively local connections and would not have been obtained over long-distance links across or even between countries. The ultimate physical constraint is the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum but slowed down by about 50% through fiber.

Therefore, even over a direct point-to-point fiber connection without any active signal regeneration, this would equate to an additional delay of about 9ms per 1,000 miles. In practice the delay would be at least double that when switching and routing of data in transit are taken into account, never mind overheads such as encryption, firewall traversal or queuing.

Therefore, the promise of 5G’s ultra-reliable low-latency communinications (URLLC) use case, to bring latencies down ultimately to 1ms, refers only to the radio link and so only be achievable over quite short distances, where critical computation performed at the network edge. It could not be done over links of 50 miles or certainly 100 miles.

Fortunately, gaming does not need latencies as low as 1ms and cases that do, such as UAV control, can usually be implemented locally with edge compute. It is true, though, that latencies deemed acceptable to gamers are coming down all the time, just as expectations over broadband data bit rates continue to rise. Currently around 50ms or less is considered acceptable, above which the experience is impacted for fast moving games.

Latency is also an issue for real-time sports betting during events when odds offered can change by the second. Anyone with a lower latency connection can gain an advantage, although best is actually to be at the event, which some punters have exploited in the phenomenon known as court siding.

People at the venue may observe an event such as a goal, or conclusion of a game of tennis, seconds before that registers on a sports’ web site or reaches a TV screen. Clearly online sports betting can never be implemented with absolute fairness as a global service, because the speed of light prohibits that. In practice though it can work, at least more locally, with the lower latencies coming with 5G.