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Gaming Broadband: All you need to know

Is lag holding you back? Does it take you days to download the latest releases? Maybe you want to become a Twitch star and aren't sure which broadband is best for streaming?

Whether you’re casual or hardcore, PC or console, fast broadband is an essential weapon for today’s gamers.

In this guide, we’ll explain why having fast broadband matters for gaming, what the jargon means, and what to look for when choosing a broadband package for gaming. Armed with a little knowledge, you can get a great value deal that will help you dominate the competition.

Key considerations when choosing gaming broadband

Most broadband deals are suitable for gaming and you don’t necessarily need to focus too much on the technical details. The majority of gamers can just choose the fastest unlimited broadband package at the best price.

Ready to buy? Here's a selection of some of the best deals currently available:

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But if you take gaming more seriously or have specific requirements, it’s worth spending some time considering the aspects of a broadband service which can affect gaming, such as speed, latency and jitter, packet loss, contention ratio, and traffic management.

Broadband speed

While you don’t generally need fast broadband for actually playing games, we would recommend fibre optic for any gamers because you’re going to be doing a lot of downloading, and some titles can be huge. The faster upload speed of fibre is also useful, especially if you plan on hosting multiplayer matches or streaming your gaming sessions.

Data limits

Always choose unlimited broadband. Broadband deals with data caps aren’t that much cheaper, and a single game download could hit the cap of a data-limited service.

Latency and jitter

Latency (or lag) is the response time of a connection (commonly referred to as the ping time), and it is essential to have low latency for playing online games as high latency can introduce delays that put you at a disadvantage.

Jitter is the variance in the latency, how much it changes from moment to moment, and like latency, an excessive amount of jitter can render an online game unplayable.

The good news is that you don’t need to worry about this when choosing a provider as any fixed line service will be fast enough. To learn more, read our dedicated guide to broadband latency.

Packet loss

When data is sent over a network, some of it can be lost. But error correction is built into the system so this is rarely a big problem. However, high levels of packet loss can be an issue for real-time communications like gaming and can result in jittery and laggy gameplay as you’d see with high latency. The good news is that just like latency, this doesn’t need to be a concern when choosing a provider - Ofcom’s broadband performance report shows very low levels of packet loss among all the providers studied.

Contention ratio

The contention ratio tells you how many other users in your area are sharing the same main broadband connection. For example, 50:1 means 50 homes are sharing one line. What this can mean is that when everyone is connected at once, the speed can drop. But this is another thing you don’t need to spend much time worrying about as the contention ratio is now less of a problem than it once was, especially for fibre optic broadband which has a much higher capacity. Few providers even bother to state a contention ratio nowadays, except for business broadband where low contention or uncontended lines are a selling point.

Traffic management

Traffic management, or traffic shaping, is used to ensure network stability for most people by slowing down (known as “throttling”) certain activities which can consume a lot of bandwidth. Traffic management is typically used to target file-sharing services such as BitTorrent and Usenet and as such gamers don’t generally have to be too concerned if their ISP has traffic management — though it’s worth reading the small print to find out if you may be affected. In any case, there are plenty of truly unlimited providers who don’t use traffic management; read our guide to traffic management to learn more.

  • Which ISP has the best latency?

    There is very little difference between ISPs when it comes to latency. The Ofcom home broadband study reported that ADSL broadband from BT, EE, KCOM, Plusnet, Sky and TalkTalk all had an average latency under 40ms. Fibre optic services were even quicker.

    But latency is affected by a wide variety of factors beyond your broadband connection. To get the best performance use the in-game server browser tools to select the best performing server for you. It is standard for game server browsers to display ping times (or at least a traffic light system) so players can identify the quickest connections. If that’s not available, choose the closest server to your location to minimise latency.

What broadband speed do you need for gaming?

We recommend that all gamers have, at minimum, a fibre optic broadband service with an average download speed of around 35Mb (which is the approximate speed of most entry-level fibre broadband deals).

But if you can afford a faster connection, it is worth upgrading.

When it comes to actually playing games online, very fast broadband is not essential (with the exception of cloud gaming — see below) because it does not require a huge amount of bandwidth, so even a cheap ADSL broadband connection would be sufficient.

But while faster connections do not necessarily confer any major advantages in an online match, it's still best to get the quickest unlimited broadband package you can find because it's now impossible to be a gamer without frequent large downloads. 

Affordable and ubiquitous internet access has changed the way in which we acquire and play games, making it easier for gamers to access new titles and developers to distribute their work. Many titles are only available online.

Digital game stores such as Steam, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live are now the standard way to purchase games. But game downloads can be massive, requiring hours to install even on rapid cable and fibre connections. That's problematic if your connection is slower than average, somewhat unstable, or has a data usage cap. And there's often no alternative to downloading; you’d expect that going for a disc would save the time and bandwidth of a downloaded copy, except now it’s common for a physical purchase to involve a hefty download too.

  • How long does it take to download games?

    This table shows how long it might take to download games on different types of broadband connections. But it’s important to note that this does assume you’re getting the full download speed of the connection; in practice, it’s likely to be slower so the download time could be significantly longer.

    Game

    ADSL 10Mbps

    Fibre 35Mbps

    Virgin Media 213Mbps

    Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PC, 46GB) 10 hours 3 hours 28 mins
    Rage 2 (Xbox, 30GB) 7 hours 2 hours 18 mins
    Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, 89GB) 20 hours 6 hours 1 hour

The fact is that no matter how you like to buy games you will need to download some big files at some point, whether it’s for a patch, mod, DLC, or just to complete a boxed installation. This is why we would always recommend that gamers opt for the fastest unlimited service they can afford.

The unlimited part is particularly important as one single game download can exceed the monthly usage allowance of some cheap broadband packages.

What broadband speed do you need for cloud gaming?

Cloud gaming eliminates the need to download or purchase a game before playing by streaming them from a remote server.

One big advantage of cloud gaming services like Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, and NVIDIA Geforce Now is that you no longer need expensive hardware to play the latest games.

However, it does heavily rely on fast broadband. 

If your broadband speed is too slow you'll find that the visual quality and latency of cloud gaming will be far below the experience you would get with a console or computer.

If cloud gaming is something you’re interested in, fibre optic broadband is highly recommended; ideally the fastest fibre you can afford. For example, Google Stadia recommends a download speed of at least 35Mb for 4K resolution. And remember that if your connection is shared with other people then you’ll want enough overhead to accommodate their traffic as well as the cloud gaming service.

Upload speed and gaming broadband

If you’re interested in simply playing games, upload speed is not a priority. It has no bearing on single-player titles, and for online gaming, an ADSL broadband service with upload speed up to 512Kb or 1Mb can handle the small amount of data sent during play. If you’ve chosen fibre broadband because you want quick downloads, the faster upload speed it provides will be more than enough.

But for some gamers upload speed is really important, perhaps even more than download rates. If you have any plans to host online matches from home or stream your games on Twitch or YouTube then you’ll want to get the fastest upload speed possible.

Ready to serve: hosting online games

Hosting online matches puts a lot more strain on the upstream connection compared to standard online play, though how much it matters varies with the type of game and number of clients. ADSL broadband can manage a small handful of players in an online shooter, or a larger group if a game is not reliant on very low latency. But for bigger crowds in fast-paced games or hosting heavily modded private servers, fibre optic broadband is recommended.

It may also be worth considering whether you want to get a broadband service with a static IP address. Most deals will include a dynamic IP, which means the IP address can change from time to time. But hosting a server is easier when you have a fixed IP address so it may be worth hunting down a provider that offers static IP addresses. For more help, we have a guide to static IP addresses and providers.

Twitch and beyond: streaming your games

Another good reason to get broadband with fast upload is if you're interested in live streaming games to Twitch and YouTube. This is an extremely demanding use of the upstream connection, and fibre optic broadband is significantly better suited to streaming than ADSL. 

With Openreach (BT) fibre you can get upload speeds up to 20Mb, and Virgin Media offers up to 52Mb, allowing you to stream HD quality video. That’s compared to a theoretical maximum of just 1Mb (likely to be much less in practice) on ADSL, which is going to struggle with anything other than relatively low-quality video.

Broadcasting 720p resolution video will need a connection that can achieve a stable minimum of 1.8-2.5Mb, and for 1080p the starting point is 3-3.5Mb. Streaming on ADSL is possible, but video quality will be heavily compromised. And if you’re trying to play online at the same time you have to remember to leave enough upload bandwidth for the game as well.

  • PC, console and mobile gaming: what’s the difference?

    Your requirements may vary slightly depending on your preferred gaming platform. But what’s the difference between the consoles, mobile devices and PC, and does it affect what kind of broadband you choose?

    PC

    PC gamers are likely to place more demands on their broadband than anyone else. It’s often the platform of choice for streaming, and if you want to host online games PC has the most flexible tools and widest choice of games. There’s also a very active mod scene with loads of free addons available to download.

    Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch

    All the consoles have their own online stores packed full of great games. This contains both major releases and smaller titles you won’t find anywhere else, so you’re going to be doing quite a bit of downloading. 

    The PS4 and Xbox include streaming and video sharing features, so a faster upload speed is recommended if you want to take advantage of those. The Nintendo Switch does not presently have support for Twitch or YouTube streaming; while it is possible to stream from a Switch it is more complicated and expensive. If the Switch is your only gaming device then upload speed is not as important.

    Mobile gaming

    Gaming on a mobile phone or tablet puts less strain on a broadband connection. Downloads tend to be much smaller, and you’re a lot less likely to be hosting or streaming. Perhaps most important is ensuring you have good Wi-Fi signal at home and a fast mobile broadband connection for gaming on the go.

What is the best broadband for gaming?

You’d have to go out of your way to choose a broadband deal that’s really bad for gaming, but some services do stand out from the pack.

Here’s a broad overview of the performance of some recommended providers for gaming. This includes approximate latency and packet loss data from Ofcom, but keep in mind that the differences between providers are very small and in many cases, Ofcom does not think they are statistically significant.

Plusnet

 

ADSL

Fibre optic

Average download speed 10Mb 36Mb / 66Mb
Upload speed 1Mb 9.5Mb / 19.5Mb
Latency 20ms 13ms (36Mb) / 12ms (66Mb)
Packet loss 0.2% 0.2%

Plusnet is truly unlimited, has reasonable speeds, affordable deals, and award-winning customer service. A great choice for casual and hardcore gamers alike.

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Sky

 

ADSL

Fibre optic

Average download speed 11Mb 59Mb
Upload speed 1Mb 19Mb
Latency 22ms 14ms (36Mb) / 15ms (59Mb)
Packet loss 0.2% 0.2% (36Mb) / 0.1% (59Mb)

While not as cheap as Plusnet, Sky has some good value deals, and it’s truly unlimited with no data caps or traffic management. 

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BT

 

ADSL

Fibre optic

Average download speed 10Mb 36Mb / 50Mb / 67Mb
Upload speed 1Mb 9.5Mb / 19.5Mb
Latency 21ms 11ms (67Mb)
Packet loss 0.2% 0.1% (67Mb)

BT can be quite expensive, but it's truly unlimited and comes with a good quality free router. It also offers a fast 50Mb fibre package for a reasonable price that's not available anywhere else.

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Virgin Media

 

Fibre optic

Average download speed 54Mb / 108Mb / 213Mb / 362Mb / 516Mb / 630Mb / 1.1Gb
Upload speed 3Mb / 6Mb / 12Mb / 21Mb / 36Mb / 45Mb / 52Mb
Latency 18ms (54Mb) / 17ms (108Mb+)
Packet loss 0.4% (108Mb) / 0.2% (213Mb) / 0.1% (362Mb)

Virgin is the fastest broadband available to many homes, with speeds up to 1.1Gb making short work of even the biggest game downloads. However, it should be noted that upload speeds are underwhelming relative to the download performance, and to get an upload rate that matches Openreach fibre services you will need to sign up for a faster (and more expensive) package.

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Frequently Asked Questions about gaming broadband

  • What is the best router for gaming?

    The free router supplied by your ISP will be enough for most people, but if you are interested in buying your own router with more features, PCMag suggests the following are top picks for gamers in 2021:

    • Asus RT-AC68U
    • Linksys WRT32X
    • Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC5300
    • TP-Link Archer C5400X

    When buying a new router ensure it supports either the 802.11ac or 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard, and gigabit ethernet. A good gaming router will also offer Quality of Service (QoS) settings to give gaming traffic priority. And when you’ve selected a model, do some online research to find out if it suffers from “bufferbloat”, a phenomenon which can cause high latency and jitter.

  • Do I need a gaming broadband deal?

    Some ISPs are geared toward gamers and market “gaming broadband” deals, and if gaming is your passion it might be tempting to go for something that caters specifically to your hobby. But don’t be fooled; they are all selling the same basic connections as any other network, and their packages rarely offer anything that makes them stand out from a regular deal. This isn’t to say a particular gaming broadband service is bad but you should judge it on the same criteria as any other service, and don't disregard other providers just because they haven't promised to help you get better K:D ratios.

  • Is it better to use a wired or Wi-Fi connection for gaming?

    If you’re trying to get the fastest possible speed and lowest latency, a wired network connection is best. Otherwise, Wi-Fi will be fine for most people - assuming you can get a strong wireless signal. The further you are from the router and the weaker the signal, the more you’ll notice a reduction in speed and stability.

  • Can mobile broadband be used for gaming?

    Mobile broadband (especially 4G and 5G) can be fast enough for gaming, but data caps are going to be an issue. Mobile contract data limits can be fairly small and are not suitable for frequent large downloads. If you’re going to be playing on mobile broadband try to do all your big downloads on another connection first.

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