Pia Habel


Victory or defeat: ping decides

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Game Over

Sold out! It is weeks since the organizers of gamescom in Cologne announced that there are no more standard tickets available.

Last year, the world's biggest games fair welcomed 350,000 visitors through its doors. Just for comparison: 200,000 came to CeBIT, 245,000 to the IFA. The community is huge: 18 million people in Germany alone play games on their cell phones and browsers. And according to a recent Bitkom survey (German) almost one quarter of the population can see e-sports being made into an Olympic discipline. 

I myself am a complete amateur when it comes to computer games. I played the odd game of Pong way back then, of course, and I have also heard about Pokémon Go. But I do know someone who knows what it's all about. You can find almost anything at Deutsche Telekom, so we were certain to have colleagues who know their way around the gaming scene. They explained to me what it's all about.

The ping of gamers

We're talking about games like Counter-Strike, League of Legends, or World of Warcraft. And "equipment" is the most important thing of all. Ping is to gaming as tires are to race cars. Latency is the magic word that will clinch the victory for me if it goes to the wire. Latencies, aka ping, basically refer to the time it takes for the network to respond.

As a gamer, slow response times can put me at a disadvantage, especially with games like Call of Duty or Halo. If I can respond in real time, I have more chance of winning.

It's logical that my own fast reactions are only of any use when they are communicated to the game at lightning speed. So how long does it take until the game server receives my reaction? In purely technical terms, it's the time it takes for the data to travel from my computer over the network to the game server. From a practical perspective, latencies mean for example that a shot is only fired in the game after the data has completed its journey.

And the stakes can be high: Just recently, the winning team at the biggest Dota 2 tournament walked away with almost nine million U.S. dollars in prize money. Even the team in 16th place took home 90,000 euros (German). So e-sports can be very lucrative.

Poor latency can lead to loneliness

The general rule is therefore the lower the ping, the better. My experts tell me that 20 to 40 milliseconds is good. Upwards of 100 milliseconds is "stupid" – it gets slow and jumpy and the enjoyment factor drops just as fast as the chances of winning. What's even worse is that latencies like this can drag my entire team down with them.  Ping of 50 milliseconds and above is just too slow for some groups. If my entire team can't get back on its feet because I'm the only one with high latency, then I'm out. And – worse – I won't be invited to play again. I can't even hide it, because ping is displayed during every game so everyone can see how good my "equipment" is.

Interestingly, the shortest length of time it takes for a car driver to respond in a dangerous situation is around 200 to 300 milliseconds. Well-trained individuals like jet pilots or professional athletes can get this time down further. But a human response time of under 100 milliseconds is very rare.

High latency lands you in the gutter

Obviously, in the gaming world genre plays a big role. A racing game definitely needs low ping; otherwise players would be constantly crashing into the gutter. First-person shooters like Counter-Strike, where every second counts, are the same. And League of Legends fans know that delays in playing their abilities will more than likely result in a character's death, sooner or later. But even in turn-based strategy games, latencies of more than 80 milliseconds can be annoying. That's because more things happen in-game with every move so more has to be updated every time. In really bad cases, like 100 ms and over, synchronization can take up to two minutes, which is a lot of time and waiting around.

I must admit, I was really surprised by what I learned from our gamers at Telekom.  I would never have thought that online gaming is such a serious business, and one that requires so much physical fitness in order to be able to commit fully to the game, both physically and mentally.

The days of LAN are numbered

The issue of latency is becoming increasingly important. Gaming sessions used to take place almost exclusively at LAN parties. People would gather together, eat pizza, drink coke and play over the same local area network. The chances of winning were the same for everyone. But now, anyone can play against anyone else online, regardless of where they are in the world. It's a game-changer and gamers might even look for somewhere that has the best conditions for winning.

I wanted to know if one network is better than another. The people who use it on a daily basis say not really.  In terms of latency, there's not much to choose between the fixed network, Wi-Fi or the mobile network. But of course everyone is excited about 5G, which will converge the mobile and fixed networks even more and promises substantially lower latencies. It's the great white hope for the gamer community.

Ping and Pokémon?

But I thought these days everyone just plays Pokémon? Of course, says my expert. But just wait and see – even Pokémon Go will undergo further development. Right now, game development stands at around just 10 percent. When the monster hunt begins to turn into a live battle, latencies could play an ever greater role for this game, too. So we'll have to wait and see. Until then, I wish you low ping and hope you have an exciting time at gamescom.