How Much Speed Do I Need for Online Gaming?
Online gaming can push your internet connection to its limits, but unlike most online activities, the limiting factor usually isn’t download speed. No amount of speed is going to stop your game from lagging if you’ve got latency that’s ranging into the hundreds of milliseconds.
But wait! Isn’t a “good” internet connection and a “fast” internet connection the exact same thing? It turns out that there’s a lot more to a good internet connection than just a fast download speed, even if that’s all you normally see advertised by internet service providers (ISPs).
If you’re cringing at the thought of going through the fine print of every high-speed internet plan in your area, don’t worry. We’ve boiled down the most important points of internet speed for online gaming so you know exactly what kind of connection to look for.
Download speed and upload speed
To many people’s surprise, online gaming isn’t the most bandwidth-intensive activity. That’s because unlike an online video, which is streamed directly over your internet connection, the picture in a video game is rendered by the graphics card in your PC or game console.
The only information that has to go back and forth over your internet connection are the keys and buttons that players press. This means that even many modern games with high-definition graphics need a download speed of only about 3 Mbps to play online.1,2,3
Since games are interactive, you also have to consider upload speed, or the speed at which information from your computer travels to a remote server. Again, the amount of upload speed you need is actually very small, about 1–2 Mbps.1,2,3 Even a poor connection can usually meet these speeds, which is why upload speed often takes a backseat to more important factors.
|System||Min. download speed||Min. upload speed||Max latency|
|Nintendo Switch1||3 Mbps||1 Mbps||N/A|
|Xbox One2||3 Mbps||0.5 Mbps||150 ms|
|PlayStation 43,4||2 Mbps||2 Mbps||N/A|
As long as your internet connection meets these requirements, you can play games online. However, if you want to have a consistent online experience, we suggest having a slightly better connection.
|System||Download speed||Upload speed||Latency|
|HSI Recommendation||5+ Mbps||3+ Mbps||50–100 ms|
Since the actual speed requirements are so low, games and game systems often don’t give specific recommendations, instead simply requiring a “broadband internet connection.” The FCC defines a broadband connection as having a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps—more than enough for you to have several consoles playing online simultaneously.5
If you’re not sure you have a broadband connection, you can take a speed test to make certain. Unfortunately, speed requirements don’t touch on the critical question for online gaming: latency.
Low latency gives you a smooth gaming experience
Latency measures how long it takes a signal from your device to reach a remote server and come back. This is measured by sending a single “ping” of information back and forth, so it’s also referred to as “ping rate.” If your latency gets too high when you’re playing an online game, you start to experience lag.
There are a number of factors that impact latency, such as the physical distance between you and the server (which is why online games have regional servers). Your latency also ties to the number of routers your signal passes through and the type of connection that your signal is transmitted through. For example, fiber-optic cables transmit data much faster than copper phone lines.
The speed at which your signals travel back and forth is different than your download speed or bandwidth. For example, it takes much longer to download a movie over a 5 Mbps DSL connection than it does over a 50 Mbps satellite connection. When playing online games, however, the DSL connection would be much more responsive, while the high latency of the satellite connection would cause so much lag that most fast-paced games wouldn’t even be playable.
These factors mean certain types of internet connections inherently have more latency than others. Satellite internet has the highest latency because it’s a wireless transmission that also has to travel to space and back to reach a remote server. Insulated cable connections have lower latency than uninsulated phone lines, while fiber optic cables have lower latency than both.
The best connections for online gaming
The best connection for playing online games is a fiber optic connection like Google Fiber or Verizon Fios. Cable internet comes in at a close second, with some 5G networks also providing stable connections with low latency. This is followed by other wired connections, which generally introduce more latency but are still better for gaming than wireless connections.
|Connection Type||Download Speeds||Latency7||Providers|
|Fiber||50–2,000 Mbps (2 Gbps)||11–14 ms||Google Fiber, Verizon, AT&T|
|Cable||15–1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps)||15–35 ms||Xfinity, Cox, Spectrum|
|DSL||1–100 Mbps||25–43 ms||CenturyLink, Frontier, Verizon|
|5G||25–1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps)||-||Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile|
|4G LTE||4–100 Mbps||-||Verizon, T-Mobile|
|Fixed Wireless||10–1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps)||-||Rise, Windstream, AT&T|
|Satellite||12–100 Mbps||594–624 ms||Viasat, HughesNet|
Consistent and reliable latency data is difficult to come by. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was a source for some of the most comprehensive studies of internet latency; however, the agency has since stopped including latency in its annual broadband reports, so newer technologies like 5G and home 4G LTE are not included.
Although 5G is still an emerging technology that has yet to be many large-scale studies of its implementation, it promises to have lower latency than any other wireless technology. 4G and 4G LTE connections generally have much more lag than wired connections but are cable of reaching our recommended latency of below 100 ms.
How to reduce lag
If your latency is high enough that you’re starting to experience lag when playing online games, you can take a few steps to try to reduce your latency and keep your system running smoothly.
Don’t use Wi-Fi
Wireless connections, even fast wireless connections, will add a bit more delay to your connection. Physically plugging into your router with an ethernet cable will bypass this delay, making your connection that much more responsive.
If you have to use Wi-Fi, make sure that your computer or game system is as close to your Wi-Fi router as possible and that you have a clear line of sight with as few obstructions as possible.
Reset network devices
Resetting your router and modem can sometimes improve their performance. Since very small differences in latency can make a big difference in the amount of lag you experience in a game, it’s worth restarting your equipment.
Hardware manufacturers are constantly trying to improve the performance of their products, so updating your devices regularly will guarantee the best performance possible. Updates can also fix bugs and incompatibility issues that could be interrupting your connection.
Turn off unnecessary applications and devices
If your connection is still struggling while playing online games, try to reduce the amount of traffic on your home network. Make sure that someone isn’t streaming 4K video in the next room over when you’re about to start a new match.
You can also prevent other devices from bogging down the network by turning off smart devices and pausing software and OS updates while you’re playing—just remember to reactivate everything when you’re done.
Use the closest server
Distance is one of the biggest factors in latency. Even if every device on your connection is running at peak efficiency, it still takes time for a signal to travel to a remote location and back. Games almost always connect you to the nearest server, but if you’re experiencing unexplained latency issues, double-check that you’re not connecting to the European server when you’re playing in North America.
Avoid peak hours
Cable internet connections can experience slowdown based on the amount of traffic in your neighborhood. This means that download speeds can be significantly lower than normal during peak hours, which can also increase latency. If you experience more lag while playing games right after work than you do late at night, local internet traffic might be to blame.
Upgrade your internet
If you’ve tried all these steps and are still experiencing more lag than you can tolerate, it might be time to upgrade to a better internet connection.
Downloads can also strain your connection
Playing online games pushes the limits of your internet connection more than any other online activity, but it’s not the only way that games can put a strain on your connection. Many modern games take up a lot of hard drive space. This means that downloading games from an online distributor like Steam can take a long time. It can also eat through monthly data caps in no time flat.
Latency should still be your number one priority in choosing an internet plan for online gaming, but choosing a plan with unlimited data will save you a lot of headaches. Fast download speeds also help out with those big new games. Having to start downloading them a day before you actually want to play them isn’t much fun.
Your internet needs become a bit more complicated if you stream your games on Twitch or YouTube. Streaming has all the normal requirements for a low-latency connection for playing online games, plus the additional upload speed you need to keep a steady bitrate on your livestream.
For more information on what to look for in an internet connection for livestreaming, check out our guide to internet speed for live video game streaming.
One final development in online games that turns everything on its head is cloud gaming. Cloud gaming services like Stadia and Playstation Now run the games you play on a remote server, rather than on your system. The advantage to this setup is that you don’t need an expensive console or a fast gaming computer to get great performance, since the server does all the heavy lifting. The downside is that since the picture isn’t being rendered by the graphics card in your machine, all that high-def video has to be sent over your internet connection.
Cloud gaming services require the same low-latency you need for online games, plus the download speeds you’d need for HD video. Stadia, for instance, requires a minimum connection speed of 10 Mbps and 35 Mbps if you want 4K video quality.6
- Nintendo Customer Support, “Troubleshooting Slow Download and Upload Speeds,” Accessed December 3, 2020.
- Xbox Support, “Troubleshoot your network connection speed,” Accessed December 4, 2020.
- PlayStation Help & Support, “PS4 Error Code NP-37667-9,” Accessed December 4, 2020.
- PlayStation Help & Support, “PS4 Error Code NP-38497-1,” Accessed December 4, 2020.
- Federal Communications Commission, “2015 Broadband Progress Report,” February 4, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2020.
- Stadia Help, “Bandwidth, data usage, and stream quality,” Accessed December 5, 2020.
- Federal Communications Commission, “Seventh Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report: Appendix F-1,” May 20, 2011, Accessed December 16, 2020.
Author - Peter Christiansen
Peter Christiansen holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years, working as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.
Editor - Aaron Gates