Broadband for Gamers: fast, minimal latency, and strong WiFi
For most people, the speed of their broadband is no more important than water pressure. Higher figures are preferable, but apart from waiting a little longer, there’s not much to worry about.
Among gamers, a good deal on fast broadband is critical to the prospect of enjoyable free time.
The intricate graphical rendering and complex calculations required by many of today’s online games demand split-second response times.
A delay of even one fiftieth of a second begins to damage the immersive nature of certain games, causing responses to stutter and pixel-perfect instructions to miss their intended targets.
Below, we consider how to choose the right broadband deals for gamers, explaining some of the issues they may face. But first, why is gaming different from other online services?
In the late 20th century, gaming was carried out in splendid isolation.
You might have friends taking turns or offering ‘constructive’ advice, or even competing against you through a second controller.
But from the Sinclair Spectrum to the Sony PlayStation, gaming didn’t really tax the internet.
Then came the advent of online titles like Lineage, Call of Duty and Worms Armageddon, closely followed by Gaming as a Service cloud providers including Steam and Stadia.
Suddenly, it was possible to pit your wits against gamers around the world, with horizons expanding far beyond your lounge or bedroom.
This relies on data being transmitted over the internet. And it’s immediately obvious that Player One has an advantage if their broadband is ten times faster than Player Two.
Player One will be seeing changes in real time, whereas Player Two may be seeing things that have already happened. Their attempts to influence the game will therefore also fail.
The delay between issuing an instruction and receiving a response is known as latency. And when it comes to broadband for gamers, latency is a killer – in-game and also in reality.
It’s typically the biggest gaming-related challenge caused by home broadband connections, notwithstanding having to download a 150GB FPS title in the first place…
What causes latency?
Every instruction, graphic and user input has to be distributed from your terminal to a host server, with responses being returned along equally congested network paths.
Along the way, the individual data packets containing this data pass through numerous nodes (including routers and servers), each adding a fractional delay.
The fibre-optic cabling used to distribute data isn’t quite as fast as the speed of light, with refraction inside the cables also slowing data’s journey from server to screen.
High traffic volumes further bog down data transfers, both server-side and in the cables themselves.
Client devices may be hindered by malware, a lack of hard drive space, too many open applications or technical specifications which struggle to power the software.
Why are online games particularly susceptible?
When you stream video content, the host provider uses various tricks to ensure a seamless viewing experience.
Variable bitrates deliver the highest picture quality the connection can stand at that moment, and a buffer of content ensures a brief loss of connectivity won’t cause any stuttering.
These tricks aren’t really possible with gaming, which relies on real-time decision-making and split-second responses.
A two-second gap in connectivity while playing Forza Horizon 4 would probably see your McLaren Senna embedded in a highly realistic-looking tree.
There’s also the presence of other participants and combatants to consider.
The Shadowlands expansion to World of Warcraft last autumn saw seven million players active at one time. That’s a phenomenal amount of activity taking place at any given instant.
A sluggish connection won’t be able to display all those changes quickly enough. Unless you’re casting a self spell like Mass Dispel, you’ll always be behind the action.
And even if an online game is a standalone experience, the suitability of home broadband for gamers is affected by what other people on your connection are doing simultaneously.
If three people are attempting to play FIFA 21, stream BritBox and chat over Skype at the same time, it’ll take more than an ADSL connection to support these activities.
We recently explained the difference between line speeds in one of our consumer guides.
Tips for improving home broadband for gamers
Other steps could also help to ensure better broadband for gamers:
Other steps which will improve broadband for gamers
Gaming is hugely data-intensive, so only a data-unlimited broadband subscription will be suitable for downloading and participating in cloud-based gaming services.
Because you might be switching between different devices, strong WiFi performance is important, too.
If your supplied router isn’t up to the job, you can usually replace it with a third-party router offering external aerials and superior throughput speeds. Virgin Media is one exception here.
BT offers dedicated fibre packages for gamers, while hyperfast cable of FTTP broadband (anything over 300Mbps) should be fine, especially if it has symmetrical upload and download speeds.
If your current provider isn’t delivering suitable broadband for gamers’ requirements, you might wish to consider switching ISP.
Homes cabled with full fibre services available from the likes of Hyperoptic offer an alternative to slower Fibre to the Cabinet connections dependent on the Openreach network.
Some ISPs are limited in the speeds they can offer by hardware or network issues, while others have more powerful routers or superior infrastructure.
Pay particular attention to upload speeds. These can be less than a tenth of downloads, despite the fact online gaming involves updates being constantly dispatched to host servers.