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COMMENTARY

Popularity of online gaming and esports highlights growing need for speed and security

ONE might think that the World Cup would be the capstone sports event that has viewers around the world riveted to their screens, but there is a new contender on the horizon.

Last year's League of Legends (LoL) Worlds Championship final, held in Incheon, South Korea, peaked at over 200 million viewers - double the previous high in 2017 when the final was held in Beijing. It was easily the most viewed esports event in the year. Esports viewership has already eclipsed previous flagship sporting events like the NBA Finals, which garnered a comparatively low 17.7 million TV viewers in 2018.

The appetite for esports is only growing in the region, with Asia-Pacific accounting for 57 per cent of regular viewership globally. In fact, gaming consultancy Newzoo predicts that the global esports economy will grow 26 per cent annually, reaching US$1.8 billion by 2022 - and as the industry swells in size and revenue, companies are starting to take note. In Singapore, local telco Singtel announced in February 2019 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea's SK Telecom to cooperate and leverage each other's assets and capabilities to grow gaming and esports in Asia. This collaboration comes even as esports breaks into the mainstream sporting arena, with the 2022 Asian Games set to see esports as a medal event for the first time.

Online gaming will only continue its growth from here on - Cisco's 2018 Visual Networking Index predicts that it will grow nine-fold from 2017 to 2022, totalling 4 per cent of the global IP traffic by 2022 and representing 15 exabytes (EB) per month of global consumer traffic. As more and more eyes train themselves on screens to watch pixels battle it out across a virtual arena, the boom in more interactive, experiential gaming continues to gain ground worldwide. Coupled with an increasingly global audience, this will dramatically increase the need for online gaming network bandwidth.

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THE GROWING NEED FOR SPEED

Online gaming and esports require high-speed, low-latency interconnection between gaming systems and cloud computing to keep pace with the advances in processing/ graphics power and the AI/ML and VR/AR systems that power users' real-time gaming experience. The reaction speed of the player, the gaming system and supporting networks and clouds can result in milliseconds of lag time - which in turn, can mean the difference between winning millions of dollars in prize money and getting knocked out of the leader boards.

Latency is essential in an environment where any lag in response time leaves a player at a competitive disadvantage. Perceived latency must be non-existent, which is challenging enough in day-to-day play, but becomes exponentially tougher during event-driven surges, where up to 10 times as many players (to the tune of hundreds of millions) are playing at the same time. Individual gaming customers are twice as likely to abandon a game when they experience a 500-millisecond network delay, demonstrating the high impact of poor network and cloud performance on game playing and revenues. As a result, online gaming providers are increasingly lobbying cloud hyperscalers, such as AWS and Microsoft Azure, to help them scale gaming platforms more effectively and increase their global reach, as well as make cloud-based analytics available to collect and analyse huge quantities of in-game player data.

BEST WAY TO SLASH LATENCY

With the global and increasingly mobile popularity of online gaming, the best way to slash latency is to push gaming servers and access nodes to the digital edge in data centres that are close to major global urban gaming centres where gaming providers and players congregate. Direct, private interconnection with gaming networks, gaming ecosystems, and network and cloud providers at the edge can slash latency and network costs dramatically, as well as stream gaming services to a large number of users in the region. An Interconnection Oriented Architecture™ (IOA™) strategy, which distributes ecosystems of gaming providers, partners and players at the edge, will become even more critical as games begin to incorporate advanced, bandwidth-hungry technologies such as VR/AR, as well as become increasingly mobile.

Another advancement that would greatly boost online gaming, especially mobile gaming, is the advancement of 5G. With 5G expected to be as much as 100 times faster than the present 4G systems, it is expected to decrease latency by up to 25 times, with as many as one million devices supported within one square kilometre. Fortunately for gamers here, Singapore plans to roll out 5G technology by 2020, with a 5G pilot network on trial in the one-north district since 2018. The advancement and spread of 5G, too, will be a big boost to mobile gaming, and 5G relies on interconnection at the digital edge to reach its full potential.

Security is another reason for direct and private interconnection. In online gaming, there is a lot more at stake than just money or credit card information - with tokens, weapons and other game pieces representing not just real world money but hours and weeks of hard work in the gaming community. With cybercriminals potentially posing as gamers and gaining access to the computers and personal data of trusting players, incorporating security into gaming hardware and networks at the edge where most gamers reside can place controls in closer proximity to cyber attack entry points.

  • The writer is global solutions architect at Equinix.