As unlimited gigabit internet plans continue to roll out across New Zealand people are finding intriguing new ways of gobbling up this bandwidth. One group is especially adept at putting these shiny new fibre connections to good use — gamers.

These power users with their hungry consoles have always had close ties to the internet. The likes of instant messaging and, now infamous, abbreviations such as ‘LOL’ were all staples of the gaming world long before Facebook and the general population co-opted them.

However, when it comes to the internet, the ways in which gamers consume bandwidth isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Online gaming itself — that is to say, the act of playing games with others over the internet — uses only a small portion of overall traffic. It’s the rest of the burgeoning gaming ecosystem that’s driving bandwidth heavy internet usage by gamers. The real bandwidth hogs of the gaming sector are what gamers do to support their passion… not actually playing the games. It’s 4K video streaming, live video broadcasting and the incredibly large size of modern game downloads that eat up bandwidth. Recognising this appetite, Microsoft has gone so far as to engineer in the ability to watch YouTube or Netflix on the Xbox One console at the same time as a gamer is playing.

The upshot of all this is that for gamers looking for an ISP there are two distinct aspects of the connection they look for: low latency, to help with actual online game play; and sheer bandwidth, to pull down as much data as possible in as short a time as possible.

Josh Drummond, of ISP Bigpipe, explains what this means from the internet service providers’ point of view.

“Online gaming traffic isn’t a huge proportion of our overall traffic for very good reasons – online gaming doesn’t actually require all that much data in going back and forth between the customer and the server. Most of the processing is happening client-side, on the customer’s machine. What’s going back and forth to the server is quite minimal.”

What Drummond is referring to is the latency part of the equation. No matter how graphically intensive a game might look on screen, it’s only the tiny packets of data travelling back and forth between the computers involved in the game that matter (we’re calling game consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation computers here). But gamers demand very low latency connections — the less time it takes those tiny packets of data to make their round trip the more accurate the in-game experience will be. For Kiwi gamers, latency is difficult to avoid.

“New Zealand gamers have had to put up with high latency for a long time because, no matter what sort of network wizardry you’ve got going, distance is always going to create latency. We’re very far away from the rest of the world,” says Drummond.

While gigabit fibre certainly helps create low latency gaming conditions, Drummond says the single best way to fix this issue is to deploy game servers locally, or, from Australia at the very least. Gaming is now being taken more seriously by the general population and so more companies (game publishers, ISPs and game console manufacturers such as Microsoft and Sony) are investing in deploying local game servers, he says. Most New Zealand gamers will likely soon be connecting to servers in Australia and New Zealand.

One area, Drummond says, where fibre really comes into its own for gaming is in outright download speed.

 

“We see tons of traffic from video-game downloads, which are getting more and more common. Games are huge these days, with AAA games [AAA games being the big budget, Hollywood-style blockbuster titles] on consoles and PCs clocking in at hundreds of gigabytes. Even a lot of popular mobile games are heavy on data. It’s common to see spikes on the network when a big game comes out and everyone grabs it at once.”

In a nod toward these demanding users, Bigpipe is one of several ISPs specifically targeting gaming consumers. The ISP, which is wholly owned by Spark, is making a play for the internet-savvy gaming market. One way the company is doing this is via an app that allows users to set, at the touch of a button, various parameters that suit specific usage scenarios, be they gaming or Netflix.

“What fibre is really good at is making room for you to do a bunch of stuff on your connection at once,” says Drummond. “But of course not everyone can get fibre yet – so for customers who have ADSL or VDSL, we’ve made the Bigpipe app. It allows you to prioritise certain activities on your internet connection. So, if you want to game, just tap ‘prioritise’ in gaming mode in the app and it will devote 90 percent of your pipe to gaming traffic, leaving the remaining 10 percent for all other kinds of traffic.” 

Who are gamers?

The New Zealand Game Developers Association (NZGDA) says that in 2015 alone Kiwis spent $347 million on games. Virtually all new-release games allow you to play against other people over the internet, using services such as Xbox Live (48 million free and paying users), PlayStation Network (20 million paying users, with many more free users) or Steam (65 million users).

34

Average age of NZ gamer


88

Minutes played per day on average


48%

Of gamers are female


US$20.3 billion

Forecast size of global games industry by 2020


Internet becomes huge gaming arena

Another, high profile aspect of the gaming world fast broadband has helped nurture is the emergence of competitive gaming or eSports.

Freddie Tressider is tournament director for Let’s Play Live! and has been working closely with competitive gaming teams across both New Zealand and Australia since 2010. He was part of the team that brought live coverage of the New Zealand Gaming Championships’ finals to Sky Sport in 2016. This somewhat ironic twist saw games appearing on traditional television and happened because of the massive surge in popularity of gamers wanting to watch other people play games live over the internet.

“People love to watch games like they love to watch sports. You can view them the same way,” says Tressider. He points out that, in addition to bringing gaming to traditional broadcast television this past year, the rise of competitive gaming has created its own set of superstars.

The emergence of online stars, who’ve found fame by live streaming their game play to the world, has been driven by the ease with which anyone with a fast internet connection can set themselves up as a streamer at little cost. Perhaps the most famous streamer, Felix Kjellberg — who goes by the name PewDiePie online — has millions of viewers every day and makes plenty of money from streaming. Parents of Minecraft-playing children may already be familiar with the distinctive laughter of YouTube star Joseph Garrett, otherwise known as Stampylongnose, who has eight million subscribers on YouTube alone. The point here is that these home-made superstars are plying a trade made possible by game-loving fans and fast internet.

Tressider points out that New Zealand has its own array of internet stars.

“We actually have content creators with huge followings coming out of New Zealand now. The most popular streamer in the Oceania region is a guy called ‘Quin’, based in Whanganui. Streaming live games is his full-time job. There’s also LoriiPops, who streams daily from Napier.”

LoriiPops, whose real name is Lorien, is a 24-year-old gamer who has amassed some 83,000 followers on Twitch.tv alone. And Quin — real name Quintin — has 187,000 followers on Twitch.tv. Stars like LoriiPops and Quin make money by selling monthly subscriptions to their Twitch.tv channels, by accepting donations from appreciative fans and, increasingly, through corporate sponsorships.

Gamers broadcast to the world

Dedicated video-streaming networks such as Twitch.tv, along with YouTube and Beam (recently acquired by Microsoft) mean anyone can broadcast their gaming antics to the world. The most popular can make a living from it. Xbox, PlayStation and today’s PCs all have live streaming functions built in. What’s more, in October 2016 Microsoft announced new embedded enhancements coming to Windows 10, enabling every gamer to become a broadcaster. Local PC system builders now bundle streaming kits that offer a step up in quality from built-in mics and webcams.

Why latency matters

Also referred to as ‘ping’, latency is the amount of time, measured in milliseconds, that it takes a packet of data to make a round trip from one computer, across the internet to another and back to the originating computer. The data packet carries basic information regarding player location, direction and so on, and is crucial to any online game played with others. How susceptible a game is to latency depends on the genre of the game. Fast-paced action and racing games require very low latency of less than 100ms (ideally, less than 30ms) to be playable, since they rely heavily on reflexive movements by the gamers. Slower turn-based games will play well at higher latency levels.

The arrival of fast broadband has had other, less positive, effects on the gaming industry. According to Craig Nimmo, who used to run large-scale organised gaming meetups called LAN (Local Area Network) parties, this once popular part of gaming culture — it saw gamers hauling their PCs and consoles around just to play with others over a fast, dedicated network — has all but died thanks to fast broadband. One of the largest LANs — xLAN, which Nimmo organised for several years — reached its zenith in 2010 when about 1,000 gamers packed out the Pacific Events Centre in Manukau, Auckland. Nimmo says from this high point numbers dwindled to about 650 participants in 2012, before petering out altogether. He lays the blame for the demise of large-scale LANs squarely at the feet of fast broadband.

“As technology and internet speeds increased, suddenly these gamers could do things online that had been more difficult to do before,” he says. 

Talking to Nimmo, who still makes a living from his gaming passion, it’s obvious he doesn’t see this as a bad thing, more a natural progression. He waxes lyrically about the growing world of competitive gaming and new era of online stars such as PewDiePie and LoriiPops.

While fast internet may have signalled the death knell for events such as xLAN, Nimmo agrees with Freddie Tressider that a whole new internet-powered world of gaming-related activity has sprung up in place of events like xLAN. You only need look at the crowds attending live eSports finals, and the thronging masses at the Armageddon Expo to see that none of that enthusiasm has gone, only been re-channeled.

But if you really want to see how fast broadband has helped the gaming world evolve, just point your controller at Twitch.tv.