How Much Speed Do I Need for Gaming?


Nothing pushes computers and internet connections to their limits like gaming, although certain games certainly push harder than others. If you want to play the newest games, you need good internet speed, right? Online multiplayer gaming requires a good internet connection but, surprisingly, doesn’t actually require that much speed.

Wait, there’s more to a good internet connection than just speed?

Why yes, there is, and nothing shows how important these other factors can be like online gaming. We’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about internet for video games, from download speeds to latency to data caps.

Civilization VI Screenshot

Screenshot from Civilization VI

What internet speed do you need for gaming?

Most games need a download speed of only about 3 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps to play online.1 This applies to both console and PC games.

This speed is quite a bit less than you need for streaming video like Netflix or Hulu. That’s because most of the heavy lifting for video games is done by the CPU and graphics card, so the only information that needs to be transmitted across the internet are which keys and buttons the players are pressing.

Remember that if you have multiple people playing online on different systems, you’ll need at least 3 Mbps for each player. Also, since these are the minimum requirements, it’s best to have some extra bandwidth, especially if you have issues with stability.

Stability

The stability of your connection is usually more important for online gaming than your actual speed. A 5 Mbps connection is more than enough speed for most games, but if it fluctuates by 3 Mbps, you’re probably not going to get through an entire game without running into some serious issues.

Wired connections like fiber and cable are usually more stable than wireless connections like satellite and 4G home internet, although cable can slow down considerably during peak hours.

If you don’t have access to wired connections in your area, you can compensate for less stable connections by having more speed. A connection speed that goes up and down by 3 Mbps might crash your game if your average speed is only 5 Mbps, but if you’ve got a 50 Mbps connection, those fluctuations aren’t going to slow you down enough to cause a problem.

Latency

The biggest challenge for maintaining smooth online gameplay is minimizing latency. Latency is the time it takes for a signal to travel from your device to another location, usually a remote server. This is also sometimes referred to as ping rate, since you test your latency by sending a “ping” of information and timing how long it takes to return. You can check your latency by running a speed test on your connection.

If you have high latency on your connection, this can cause lag when playing a game. If your button presses are reaching the server just a fraction of a second later than the other players’, the game can become choppy or you might be disconnected from the game completely.

Actual latency varies depending on where you and the server you’re playing on are located geographically, but your internet connection can have a big impact. For example, since satellite internet has to travel all the way into orbit and back, it adds a lot of time to your latency.

Connecting to your network over Wi-Fi instead of using a network cable also adds a bit of additional time to your latency. Again, it’s not your Wi-Fi speed that’s the issue. It’s just another step that adds a few milliseconds of delay.

Unlike stability issues, latency problems can’t simply be solved with a faster download speed. Fortunately, there are a lot of new technologies that could bring low-latency connections, especially to rural areas.

5G home internet has just a fifth the latency time of 4G.2 This puts it ahead of even wired technologies like DSL and cable. SpaceX’s Starlink internet also promises to have much lower latency when compared with other satellite providers, which could make online multiplayer games accessible to even the most remote areas of the United States.

Data and downloads

While online multiplayer games are the most demanding on an internet connection, games can strain your internet connection in other ways. For instance, many modern games take up between 20–90 GB of data which, when downloaded from a digital distributor like Steam, can fill up monthly data caps really quickly.

It’s hard to get around downloading games on PCs. Even games you buy on a physical disc often don’t actually install the game but just set up your download from a remote server. Most large console games avoid this problem by keeping the actual game data on a disk or card, but even these games have patches and updates that you have to keep an eye on.

If data caps are an issue for you, the best thing to do is disable automatic updates and manage them manually. You might prefer to spend your data on downloading a new game, rather than updating ones you haven’t played in a while.

Cloud gaming

Cloud gaming is a new technology that takes everything we’ve just said about games and turns it on its head. Cloud gaming services, like Google’s Stadia, run games on a remote server and then stream the video to the players. That means that instead of requiring a powerful computer or console but running on a slow internet connection, Stadia requires a fast internet connection but needs only a Chromecast to play on a TV.

If you already have a fast connection, this might be worth checking out. Stadia offers a free trial, then operates on a monthly subscription. If you have a slower connection or low data caps, you’re probably better off sticking to downloading games to your own device.

Can you play games online with a satellite connection?

If you have a satellite connection or another kind of internet with high latency, there are still some kinds of games that you can play online with friends. Games that allow you to interact asynchronously instead of in real-time work great, even if you have high latency. Games like Civilization VI and Stellaris are good choices that aren’t impacted by a few milliseconds of delay.

For more game suggestions, check out our guide to gaming on satellite internet.

How to play online games in rural areas

But what if you want to play more action-oriented online games? What alternatives to satellite internet are there in rural areas that can give you a connection stable enough to play League of Legends or Mario Kart 8?

Internet for gaming in rural areas

Swipe left to see all →
Connection TypeDSL4G LTEFixed WirelessSatellite
Download Speeds1–100 Mbps4–100 Mbps10–1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps)12–100 Mbps
Latency325–43 msN/A*N/A*594–624 ms
ProvidersCenturyLink, Frontier, VerizonVerizon, T-MobileWindstream, Rise, AT&T Viasat, HughesNet

*Not included in FCC Broadband Report, though both 4G LTE and fixed wireless usually have low enough latency for online games.

The best choice for good stability and low latency is DSL. DSL isn’t as fast or reliable as cable or fiber, but DSL networks reach much further into rural areas. DSL is getting harder to come by, however, as providers are moving toward other technologies. So while your local DSL provider might get you online in a pinch, DSL might be more of a stopgap than a long-term solution.

4G LTE home internet is also a better alternative for online gaming than satellite internet. 4G LTE uses traditional cell towers to transmit its signal, which means it’s available almost anywhere you can get phone reception.

4G LTE connections tend to be much less stable than DSL, but you can minimize this by finding the spot in your house with the best signal. If you’re connecting from an RV, it might be worth it to drive around for a bit to find the strongest signal before trying to log on.

Fixed wireless connections are among the fastest wireless connections because the signal is directed straight at your receiver from a nearby transmitter. The extra speed is certainly nice for downloading games, but the latency is still on par with other wireless technologies like 4G. Although emerging technologies like 5G reduce latency even further, Fixed Wireless is currently the best connection you can get without a wired connection.

The last bastion of dial-up

Most modern games require a broadband connection, which explicitly disqualifies dial-up connections. Dial-up connections are incredibly slow and have higher latency than any connection other than satellite, so they’re not ideal for gaming.

However, since online games require so little actual speed, it is technically possible to play many games over a dial-up connection, though we wouldn’t recommend it. Check out our guide to gaming on satellite internet to find out more about games you can play with high latency.

If you still have a dial-up connection but aren’t crazy about it, it might be time to upgrade. Check out the high-speed internet providers available in your area.

The bottom line: Online games need low latency

Download speeds may not matter much for fast-paced online games, but latency is a big concern. If you want to play Overwatch or Fortnite, a satellite connection probably isn’t going to cut it.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of games that will work on a high-latency connection without crashing from lag. There are also a lot of new developments on the horizon, like 5G, that might bring better connections to areas that need them.

Sources

  1. Nintendo Customer Support, “Issues with Latency While Playing Online (e.g. Characters Jump Around, Slow Response, Lag),” Accessed November 13, 2020.
  2. Verizon, “We’re Building Our Network to Deliver the Full Potential of 5g. Are You Ready?,” Accessed November 13, 2020.
  3. Federal Communications Commission, “Seventh Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report: Appendix F-1,” May 20, 2011, Accessed December 16, 2020.
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