Connectivity, cloud and next-gen gaming

On 01-06-2021
Reading time : 2 minutes

Online gaming is a massive growth industry. But it’s perhaps been taken for granted that any connectivity would do: gaming end-users are surely much the same whether they’re playing online casinos or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft. Not really. Online gaming puts its own distinct types of pressure on networks, requires the right connectivity to support it effectively, and can be a significant growth opportunity for ISPs and content providers.

Online gaming can be dated back to 1940 when Nimtron was introduced to the world, an allegedly fun game that used mathematics. Since then, the concept of online gaming has evolved past all recognition. Gaming is no longer just a solo pursuit. It can be a massive, interactive experience among thousands of people all playing simultaneously. There are thousands of online games to choose from. The world’s 2.5 billion active gamers come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. Gaming is a market all of its own, and it is in excellent health: it’s estimated that the global gaming market will amount to $269 billion annually by 2025, up from $178 billion in 2021. It’s a fast-evolving sector and one that must be addressed in its own right.

Gaming revolution, device evolution 

Over time, the gaming market has evolved in the types of games available, and the devices end-users play them on. For a long time, the perception of online gaming was that gamers played on their PC. Next came connected consoles like Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox. Then came online games like Fortnite which crossed the PC/console boundary, and let players on either device share the same server space.

Gaming on smartphones, or mobile gaming, is gaining momentum. Some smartphone manufacturers have seen this coming and committed to it: Lenovo introduced the Lenovo Legion Phone Duel, and Asus the Asus Rog Phone 3. And while mobile gaming remains a more casual gaming experience – according to the GSMA 64% of mobile gamers only play free-to-play games, versus 80% of console gamers who pay for game subscriptions – it’s a fast-changing area. 

New partnerships like Samsung and Microsoft working together to offer the Xbox Ultimate Game Pass on new Samsung devices could see more gamers being willing to pay to play. The shift in internet traffic could indicate a movement towards mobile gaming too, as since the end of 2016, internet traffic comes primarily from smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, cloud gaming subscriptions are forecast to reach close to 66 million worldwide by 2026, and there is good reason to believe that mobile gaming could be among the first solid 5G use cases.

Next-gen gaming software delivery: the potential of the cloud

Cloud is the next great enabler in gaming. It allows games to be run on remote servers and delivered directly to user devices. Cloud processing also lets less powerful devices enjoy processing power similar to that of a high-end remote PC, without the need for expensive local hardware. It also makes gaming possible on devices that previously couldn’t support it, like smart TVs, smartphones, and tablets.

At the same time, cloud gaming even has the potential to make consoles obsolete. According to research from Omdia, the cloud gaming market will grow markedly in the next few years, from 1% of global consumer spend on games in 2020 to 7.5% in 2024, at a CAGR of 54%. It’s a shifting market, and one which may well reflect changes in consumer budgets: as household entertainment budgets are squeezed, cloud gaming and game subscription services may prove an attractive way to access premium titles for consumers with less disposable income, and an alternative to buying the latest console or upgrading a PC.

New kinds of gaming, new demands on connectivity

Gaming represents a different type of content delivery. Operators are now very used to delivering streamed video to consumers, which requires fluid, continuous, fast distribution of data. For streaming, data flows go from servers to end-users. In gaming, there is constant interaction between players and online gaming servers, in both directions. The actions gamers take must be received by gaming servers, processed, and reflected back onto users’ screens in milliseconds.

And while streaming quality of experience (QoE) can be enhanced using Content Delivery Networks (CDN) that cache content near end-users and distribute it an uninterrupted way, gaming cannot offer this.

What does this mean for connectivity? Gaming requires a very responsive flavor of connectivity that has extremely low latency and high speeds to ensure a high QoE for the gamer. Many factors impact the performance a given player gets: physical distance from the server, networking equipment connected to the internet, number of devices sharing the connection, and traffic loads from other users on the network.

For live TV or video services, ideal latency is between four and 15 seconds. For cloud gaming, maximum latency should be between 80ms and 100ms for a good gaming experience. More serious gamers and competitive multiplayer gamers require latencies of 10ms to 20ms, or even less.

In terms of speed, 35Mbps at the end-user side is generally considered to be the minimum required to support high-resolution games. The internet remains a best-effort connectivity solution, and major key performance indicators (KPIs) like round-trip delay (RTD), packet loss and jitter tend to vary at peak utilization times. So, it is very difficult to give gamers the QoE they demand using standard internet connectivity.

Operators find themselves at the center of the cloud gaming supply chain, being providers of connectivity to consumers and having existing billing relationships with consumers. The former enables the possibility of gamers potentially paying for superior connectivity; the latter makes telcos an attractive partner for cloud gaming operators.

Gaming-specific QoS – what are the challenges?

ISPs and Telcos may attract new customer segments and revenues by proposing specific packages with gaming-specific quality of service commitments to their retail customers. However, doing so requires solving other challenges:

Identifying the gaming traffic

Today it is very challenging to identify and separate gaming traffic from the other flows without interrupting the game itself. One potential solution is to eliminate the other traffic such as voice, video, and internet. Gaming will be part of what’s left, alongside some other types of traffic.

Defining homogeneous traffic treatment rules

An additional complexity stems from the fact that each game may have different technical characteristics. In addition, not all supporting infrastructure is equal: while some game software providers use their own server infrastructure, many rely on public cloud services like Amazon Web services. With so many different technical characteristics, it is extremely difficult to define a unique way to manage gaming traffic so that the experience is similar whatever the game, and KPIs applicable to all situations.

Choosing between local Vs end-to-end KPIs and commitments

It may be an easier approach to limit KPIs and commitment to the household network, as it is where the highest risk of congestion is. However, a more valuable guarantee would consider the end-to-end connection from the end-user to the actual game server. It will require that the quality of service commitment promised by the local ISP to its household’s network is also guaranteed by the ISP domestic backbone, the international wholesale IP Transit provider and even the cloud infrastructure provider.

How can new technologies help?

Technologies that are impacting the mobile world will find a role in the mobile gaming space too: 


Edge computing infrastructure can enable high-quality, lag-free cloud gaming experiences. It will distribute processing power closer to end-users and shorten the distance data has to travel between gaming device and server. However, it may not solve all issues, as major games may still require huge processing capabilities that can only be delivered via large, undistributed server farms.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

AI has the potential to provide new ways to optimize network performance to support cloud gaming. Existing networks weren’t designed to support unpredictable services like mobile gaming, so CSPs aren’t able to make rapid changes to the network to address demand. To power low-latency, smooth, cloud gaming experiences, networks need to deploy AI, analytics and intent-based policies that can scale rapidly, self-configure, and self-optimize the network to meet user demands.

5G and slicing

The next great leap forward in mobile connectivity will deliver the bandwidth and speed needed for mobile gaming, and 5G’s low latencies of under 5ms will be ideally-suited to even the most demanding games. And when standalone 5G (SA 5G) becomes mainstream, it will also be possible to utilize network slicing to create dedicated slices in which latency, jitter and other factors are managed specifically with the needs of the mobile gaming industry and its end-users in mind.

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