Speculation has run far and wide as to how the impending repeal of net neutrality laws will affect the average person’s online experience.
Already removing some of that guesswork is the gaming industry and more specifically eSports, a subsect of gaming that relies on fast and reliable connection speeds more than most others.
In the past two years competitive gaming has given us a preview of what the net-biased future could look like, for both eSports players and the rest of the internet-using population.
The Age of Throttling
While there’s no way to know exactly how gaming and eSports will be affected once NN is officially repealed, the recent behavior of some internet service providers (ISPs) has given some clues of what to expect.
In 2013, it became apparent that provider Spectrum-Time Warner Cable was delivering connection speeds much slower than advertised to its customers, making it difficult if not impossible to maintain a connection strong enough to play online games.
After League of Legends developer Riot Games agreed to pay for ‘access to [Spectrum’s] customers’, the connection issues were miraculously solved.
If this sounds borderline illegal and like what many have been fervently warning could happen, it is.
The State of New York filed a lawsuit against Spectrum and its charter company, alleging that “Spectrum-TWC deliberately took advantage over port capacity where its network connected to online content providers to extract more revenue for the company” and, “Spectrum-TCW lined its pockets by intentionally creating bottlenecks in its connections which online content providers, despite knowing that these negotiating tactics would create problems for its subscribers in accessing online content.”
A New Market Emerges
While the lawsuit wages on, Riot’s solution was to establish Riot Direct, a service that essentially struck deals with ISPs around the country to ensure that LoL players were connecting to their game along the most optimal routes possible.
Similarly, other services not specific to just one game have been cropping up as a solution to the possible issues eSports players may face under the no-net neutrality era.
Gamers can subscribe to these services, such as Thalonet’s Haste and Golden Frog’s Outfox, to experience lower latency, less lag, and a more reliable connection than their service provider might offer. To some degree, they are what all those infographics going around depicted could be the case if NN were to actually be repealed.
Of course, connection issues have always been an enemy of eSports players, and not necessarily due to providers trying to squeeze their customers for more money. As Outfox’s Chief Technology Officer Phillip Molter told Vice, ISPs’ goals are often naturally at odds with gamers’ demands.
“ISPs want to run their traffic in the most cost-effective way. They’re happy with ‘good enough’ performance,” he said. “We’re aggressively capitalist here and those [ISPs] that have locked in control of their users because [the users] can’t switch to other providers will basically degrade certain kinds of traffic.”
Secondary Internet Services
How services like Haste and Outfox work is by first establishing their own network infrastructures, be it through owning or renting. On top of that structure is placed proprietary network software in which game traffic routes are optimized, monitored, and managed.
This setup allows for the best possible connection times based on players’ location and network traffic while reducing ping, lag, and jitters. For Haste at least, this groundwork will also allow for anti-denial of service attack features to be implemented in the future.
These services run as software downloaded and executed on your game machine. As you play more and more, the software calculates the best way to get the quickest connection speeds to you consistently. Right now these services are supported with around 10 popular games a piece, including League of Legends, Dota2, StarCraft II, CS:GO, and PubG.
Most of these games’ developers are U.S.-based, however should throttling become common place, it probably won’t be these major titles that are affected the most—seeing other well-established game companies strike deals with ISPs or launching their own versions of Riot Direct isn’t inconceivable.
Instead it will likely harm smaller developers and titles, effectively creating an eSports environment where only games from major developers are being contested.
Counting the Cost
Building your own internet ‘backbone’ isn’t cheap of course, and these types of systems have to lean on players to help foot the bill. A Haste subscription runs players $50/year, and while about $4/month is probably worth it to most serious eSports competitors, it’s yet another factor that could limit the sports’ growth and reach if ISP throttling becomes common practice for gaming.
If it does and the need for services like these surges, seeing them jack up prices by adding ‘features’ and tiered packages could further alienate gamers on a budget. On top of paying for a console, internet, and the games themselves, an extra connection service on top only makes the hobby even pricier.
“In a neutral internet there is no way around increasing network capacity as demand increases,” says Thomas Lohinger, the executive director of Epicenter.works, a Germany-based organization that advocates for internet users’ rights and privacy. “But instead ISPs are monetizing the scarcity of their network capacity and new, weird business models like this one emerge, where in effect a hidden cost is passed onto consumers, who must pay for an additional service in order to get the connectivity they want from their ISPs.”
Whatever ISPs end up trying to do, eSports could serve as a bellwether of sorts for the rest of the world’s internet-based industries (in addition to an opportunity for new ones to emerge).
As long as there’s some way for gamers to get solid enough connection speeds, eSports will persist in some fashion, even if it means its already higher-income demographic becomes more isolated. The sport won’t die but its community could shrink, game innovation could stagnate, and customers could be excluded if the price to play the same games against a shrinking pool of players continues to increase.
And for those that want to make a career out of eSports, the question might no longer be, ‘Am I good enough?’, but ‘Can I afford it?’