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The best internet service & setup for serious gamers

You’re broadcasting a League of Legends marathon on Twitch and everything is going great: chat flowing in the sidebar; crystal-clear graphics on the stream.

But then your Internet starts acting wonky. Everything feels delayed, like a long-distance phone call. Before you know it, you’re looking at this:

Twitch buffering screen of death.

Your enemy: the spinning wheel of death.

Some Internet connections are better than others when it comes to gaming, and figuring out which you need and how to set it up isn’t exactly straightforward.

In this post we’ll walk you through the factors to consider while choosing an Internet plan for serious gaming, and some tips for optimizing your network to get the most bang for your buck.

Understand your Internet needs

Gaming is a highly variable beast compared with other Internet habits like streaming video or surfing Facebook. We’ll break down gaming bandwidth use into three categories to make the discussion more manageable:

Understand what matters for gaming: ping vs speed

When it comes to gaming, ping is king and low latency is everything — much more so than bandwidth.

What are ping and latency exactly? Latency is the time it takes for data packets to reach your device from a server. Ping is the time it takes a data packet to leave your device, reach a server, and return (as measured in milliseconds). Basically, they both measure “lag.”

Latency and ping are hugely important for gaming because of the real-time communication aspect. Especially if you’re racing against other players to accomplish a goal, being a half-second out of sync can completely ruin your game.

Gamer

“Ping is king” for online gaming.

Even a relatively slow DSL connection can provide a great gaming experience so long as you have low latency to cut down lag.

Unfortunately, ISPs advertise plans by bandwidth with nary a mention of ping or latency. And to be fair, quoting latency is tricky business since it can vary so widely from area to area. The only way to make sure a plan offers consistently low latency is to either test your neighbor’s setup or be prepared to call in for a refund after installation, if it doesn’t live up to what your ISP rep can quote. That’s obviously a huge drag, but it’s worth it if you’re serious about gaming.

Once you’ve got a connection, testing your ping, latency, and etc. is easy: just run a few tests at speedtest.net. Be sure to check during peak times as well (7pm–9pm), especially on a shared cable connection.

How much data do I need for gaming?

gamer

Data needs vary widely.

As a rule of thumb, any true broadband connection should provide good enough service for casual gaming, but on the low-end it’s a less than perfect experience. If you’re a serious gamer you probably want the closest to 1gbps and unlimited data as you can get.

That said, even if you can provide an hourly rundown of your gaming and internet habits usage can vary wildly depending on games played, devices connected, family or roommates on shared connection, etc.

Estimated minimum internet requirements for gaming

Here are some estimated minimums:

  • Minimum data for gamers: 50–100GB (With any limited plan you should monitor your data use to avoid overage fees)
  • Minimum speed for gamers: 1–2mbps up/down
  • Maximum ping for gamers: 75–100ms

When in doubt, measure

The only way to really estimate how much data you’ll need monthly is to measure your usage habits. Some ISPs provide usage readings online or over the phone, but your best bet for accuracy is to run your own. Software like Glasswire can be useful if you primarily play PC games, but for more complex setups and devices like PS3s you’ll have to do the monitoring via your router.

Strangely enough, most routers don’t come with network monitoring built in, making third-party firmware a necessity. Skip below for more tips on configuring your router and picking a firmware with monitoring capability.

Gameplay considerations

When you envision a serious gaming setup, you probably envision sleek gear hooked up to cutting-edge fiber Internet with ping so low you don’t even know it’s there.

…And while a million-dollar setup sounds fun, the bandwidth needs for gaming are actually pretty minimal. Since the graphics and logic is mostly on your local machine, the data needed to connect to a multi-player universe is often on-par with the data your Grandma needs to leave awkward messages on Facebook.

So long as you aren’t on dial-up, you’re probably looking at a workable situation. Any connection over 2 mbps with less than 75ms ping should work well for 99% of games.

Beyond bandwidth, the main factors affecting your gameplay are:

  • Efficiency of your network
  • Distance to other players in multiplayer games

There’s not much you can do about the second one (except be sure to connect to nearby servers if that’s an option in a particular game).

Optimizing your network, on the other hand, is totally doable. The most important element of your network is your router — jump below for some how-to about routers and networking.

Streaming & Communication considerations

While much of the gaming experience can operate on low bandwidth and low ping, streaming (mainly thinking about Twitch here) is more like streaming video for entertainment (e.g. YouTube, Netflix), where bandwidth and ping are equally important.

Like any video streaming setup, the trick to success is avoiding interruptions and lag by finding the “sweet spot” between stream quality and connection consistency.

Unlike YouTube or Netflix, however, the quality of stream relies on your upload bandwidth, which is significantly lower than download bandwidth for most consumer connections. So keep in mind that an Internet plan offering “50gbps” is probably referring to the download speeds, and the upload speed could be as low as 1gbps.

If you’re using Twitch, the broadcasting software you’re using is probably OBS (Open Broadcasting Software). With YouTube you have plenty of options for video quality: 360p, 480p, 720p, and 1080p. With Twitch, most of the time you’re looking at 720p unless you’re a partner. (Automatic transcoding is available for partners.)

OBS has a calculator where you can plug in your upload speed, CPU, game name, and graphics card stats to get an idea of how you can further tweak the settings to find your sweet spot.

Quick note about buffering on Twitch: buffering within your dashboard doesn’t always translate to buffering for users. You can pause your dashboard stream without affecting the quality your viewers receive.

Downloading games

Gaming doesn’t eat up much more data than cruising Facebook. Downloading games? Different story.

Assuming your games are coming over the Internet to your gaming device or PC, you’re looking at files sizes around 50GB or more. That’s more than the average internet user consumes in a month just downloading one game — and when you pile on video streaming and other bandwidth-intensive activities it’s surprisingly easy to max out your data plan.

So, consider how often you’ll be downloading new games when you pick a data tier. If you’re a devotee of one or two games with infrequent updates, you don’t have much to worry about. If you like to sample lots of different titles and anticipate trying out limited trials of new games on a regular basis, you’ll be better off with a bigger plan in the 500GB–unlimited range.

Important features for gaming routers

Operating with a high-quality router makes the gaming experience much easier. While there are some gaming-specific routers on the market, any high-end router can provide the same quality of connection so long as you know what features to look for.

Here are the factors that matter for gaming:

1. Gigabit ethernet ports

Ethernet generally trumps wireless connections when it comes to fighting latency — but that doesn’t do you any good if your router’s ethernet ports can’t handle the bandwidth you’re paying for. Gigabit ethernet ports are future-proof and ensure high performance when you wire in.

2. QoS / network prioritization

QoS and network prioritization might not matter much for the average Internet user, but for gamers it can make a big difference in network lag.

Even if you’re the only person using your network, multiple devices can quickly bog down your bandwidth. Every smartphone, laptop, and streaming device has a footprint. Without QoS, routers don’t have a way to determine which device deserves priority and treat each equally. That spells bad news for game quality when your roommate leaves a laptop torrenting for hours on end.

QoS comes in two flavors: manual and automated. Automated is ideal and a common feature on high-end 802.11ac routers. Manual QoS usually has a less noticeable effect on network performance; it’s more a question of tinkering with the settings for various devices on the network yourself, which is better than nothing.

3. Dual-band

If you can’t just hook up your PS3 via ethernet for some reason, dual-band routers can boost network speed for gaming devices with 802.11ac Wi-Fi capability by moving slower devices onto a separate channel to free up bandwidth. Even if you do plug in, dual-band can take a load off your network as a whole and make your newer devices run faster. It also tends to cut interference in apartment buildings and dorms, where you’re likely competing for bandwidth with a dozen other Wi-Fi networks on the same frequency.

Optimize your router

router

A quality router doesn’t do much good unless it’s properly configured. Details vary from model to model, but here are some universal tips to boost your router’s performance:

1. Always wire when possible

Wi-Fi connections are by nature fickle and prone to interference. Ethernet cables, by contrast, are cheap and effective at maintaining stable low-latency connections. Even if you don’t have gigabit ethernet ports on your router, wiring in can solve problems like latency and signal loss that suck the fun out of your gaming experience.

2. Position properly

If you’re gaming on Wi-Fi, a quick fix for latency issues is to make sure you’re close enough to the router to get a strong signal. Also make sure there isn’t anything next to the router (walls, microwaves, etc.) that could be interfering with the signal.

Routers function best when positioned in the center of a room — ideally near the center of the broadcast area, away from corners, closets, and thick walls.

If positioning your router properly isn’t an option, external directional antennas attached to the router can offset the problem.

3. Monitor your usage with firmware

Unless you have unlimited data, keeping an eye on how much bandwidth you’re burning is important to avoid overage fees and throttling.

Unfortunately, most routers and Internet plans don’t come with any sort of automatic data use reader. The best way to measure your use is through the router (as opposed to meter software on individual devices), since all the traffic has to go through the router anyway. The best way to accomplish this is by installing third-party firmware.

Routers come pre-installed with small packets of software, called firmware, that oversee the distribution of your home network. DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato are the popular options. We can personally vouch for DD-WRT, but all of them provide the same basic functionality: fine-tuned control of your network and a reliable meter for data use.

How data caps affect gamers

ISPs have been rolling out data caps on home broadband the past couple years, leaving a lot of gamers scratching their heads when they receive huge bills — or worse, get their service cut off completely for binge streaming.

Data caps are highly controversial and are largely replacing the informal “throttling” system ISPs previously used to regulate their networks.

What this means for gamers: make sure your “unlimited” plan doesn’t have a ceiling (we have a full list of caps here).

Data caps also come in two varieties: “hard” and “soft” caps. Hard caps result in service disconnection and fees if you go over. Soft caps simply charge you per GB “a la carte” after you max out. The price for data is higher above a soft cap, but you don’t risk losing service.

Assuming the service you choose has caps, make sure you know how they handle power users like yourself who are likely to go over the limit occasionally.

Game on

To recap, just remember:

  • Ping is king.
  • Get true broadband
  • Wire devices with ethernet when you can
  • Know your data caps

gaming

Gaming and streaming are a world of fun — you don’t need a cutting-edge connection to join in.

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Figuring out the exact broadband plan that’s perfect for your gaming habits isn’t straightforward, but it’s worth walking through these steps to make sure you don’t pay more than you need to.

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