Virtually everyone who has played games online will have at some point experienced how annoying lag is, where players jump around on screen and can make gameplay impossible for fast paced games in particular. But what factors contribute towards lag and what can we do about it?
The main factors that cause lag in online gaming are geographical distance between gamers, router hardware and settings, the quality of connections between consoles and routers, and the quality of local internet infrastructure in general.
The good news is that most of the factors that contribute towards are actually under our control and there are things we can do to minimize lag.
Let’s look at all the factors that contribute towards lag one by one below.
Latency or lag, where gameplay can skip and jump back and forward in a disjointed manner is probably the most annoying thing for online gamers
1. Geographical Distance Between Gamers
This is the first and most crucial thing to consider, as distance from gamer to gamer is the most fundamental factor in latency simply because gaming traffic will take longer to get from person to person if they are further apart geographically.
Fiber optic cables can transmit data very quickly but latency will still increase if traffic has to be send hundreds or thousands of miles from point A to point B.
This is why it is important to play against players reasonably close to you geographically for any fast paced multiplayer online gamers where the relative position of players is important.
Racing games and first person shooters are good examples. Of course slower turn based games are less latency sensitive and a little bit of lag can be tolerated without hurting user experience too much.
How close is close enough is of course highly subjective. Preferably playing against people in the same country or continent as you is ideal but again this depends on the size of the country or continent!
The USA for example is so large that ping even from the west coast to the east coast can be surprisingly high when tested. The same is no doubt true for other large countries like Russia, Australia, Canada and so on.
Geographical distance between online gamers is a crucial factor in determining latency or lag.
So it all depends on where you are based but in general the closer the better. It is sometimes possible for gamers within Europe to play between countries without lag, but the more people you can get from the same country in a lobby the better.
How much this is under our control is debatable. Where we and our competitors live is pretty fixed, and lots of games now help us out by having regional filtering in their lobby matchmaking options to pair us up only with players close to us geographically.
Some advanced gaming routers also have Geo-Filter options to restrict the players we can connect to online by distance for best connections.
2. A Poor Connection Between Your Console and Your Router
This is a common mistake that people make; by using Wi-Fi to connect their console to their router, they often almost guarantee lag for online gaming, especially when they are a few rooms away from their router.
Wi-Fi does not deliver a solid or reliable enough connection for gaming in many cases; a wired ethernet connection is by far the most preferable connection for gaming.
There are a number of reasons for this that we go into in our article on why wired connections are better than wireless ones for online gaming. We will not go into massive detail here to avoid repeating ourselves, but we will summarize the main reasons why wired connections are more reliable than wireless ones:
- Wired connections can travel directly to the router with no or almost no signal loss or degradation; Wi-Fi signals always degrade the further they get from the router as per the inverse square law of physics and also by passing through walls, doors, furniture etc.
- Wired connections run on full duplex, meaning they can send and receive data simultaneously with no problems. Wi-Fi operates on half duplex, meaning devices on Wi-Fi can only send OR receive data at any point in time but not both simultaneously, making network congestion more likely with more devices connecting by Wi-Fi.
- Wired connections have a dedicated, un-congested communication channel to the router through whichever ethernet port they are plugged into; devices on Wi-Fi have to share the same network space or band.
See our article on the subject for a more thorough explanation of each point.
Plugging directly into your router with an ethernet cable is always better than using Wi-Fi if you want to avoid lag
The second point on Wi-Fi running on half duplex is a crucial point that many people don’t realize and puts Wi-Fi at a fundamental disadvantage to wired ethernet connections.
If all devices on Wi-Fi have to “queue up” and wait for the router to send and receive data from them one at a time, the potential for network congestion and therefore lag is massively increased, especially at peak times when lots of people are using the internet in the home.
Dual Band Wi-Fi has helped alleviate this somewhat by spreading out wireless traffic over two separate bands, and Quality of Service settings can also help to prioritize traffic on networks. We will cover QoS below.
But it is still true that wired connections deliver by far the most reliable and consistent connection to a router over Wi-Fi and are a must for online gamers who want to reduce latency.
But what if gamers are on Wi-Fi simply because they are too far away from their router to run an ethernet cable directly? They may be several rooms or floors away and don’t want to run cables through walls or down stairs. This is where the next best solution of a Powerline Adapter comes in.
A Powerline Adapter is an excellent home networking solution which allows for a wired connection to your router without having to use long ethernet cables.
They consist of a pair of adapters, one of which is connected to your router and the other to your device. The two adapters then communicate through you house’s existing electrical wiring to create a strong wired connection anywhere you want in the home.
Powerline Adapter 2 Minute Demo Video
TheTP Link Nano TL-PA4010 Kit model is an entry level, best selling no nonsense powerline adapter model with just one ethernet port and no passthrough. Click here to view on Amazon. It will provide a solid, wired ethernet connection to your router using the existing electrical wiring of your house. See our full review of the product and our Powerline Adapters page. Our Product Comparison Table compares all the wired and wireless powerline adapter models at a glance by feature and functionality.
They are an under-utilized and most often preferable option to Wi-Fi and the next best solution if you can’t run ethernet directly to your router. They do effectively the same thing as a direct ethernet connection but using your house’s existing electrical circuitry and allow you all the benefits of wired connection over Wi-Fi that we listed above.
3. Router Settings Which Are Not Optimized for Gaming
Another crucial contributing factor to lag for gaming is not taking advantage of certain router settings which can open up and improve connectivity to the internet for games consoles and reduce delays or barriers to traffic being sent and received.
More specifically we are talking about implementing some kind of port forwarding and Open NAT type for your games consoles. These sound like scary terms but they basically mean just allowing your console to “talk” more freely and openly with other consoles to improve connectivity and therefore hopefully reduce latency.
One of the easiest and most beneficial settings changes you can make it to place your games console in the DMZ section of you router.
This basically fully opens it up to the internet and allows all traffic coming in to bypass the router firewall and go straight to your console for the best connection possible.
Here are the very quick steps to configure DMZ Settings:
- Get the MAC address of your games console (Connection Settings/Status).
- Log into your router by typing it’s IP address in any browser (often 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1) and the password.
- Find DMZ Settings under Security or Advanced or similar.
- Enter or select your console’s MAC address and to place it in the DMZ.
- Save settings and close.
- See our full article on DMZ for more detailed steps
Using DMZ also automatically places it on Open NAT Type which also allows for best connectivity with other games consoles and avoids many of the lobby and party chat issues which can arise with gamers on different NAT types.
There are some safety concerns with placing devices in the DMZ, as it basically removes all firewall security measures, but these concerns do not apply to games consoles so we always recommend using DMZ for consoles (not other devices though) to get a good connection to other gamers.
See these articles for more on each of the router settings changes we can make to affect ping:
- Use DMZ For Best Connection For Gaming
- Best NAT Type For Gaming
- Use Quality of Service Settings To Reduce Lag for Gaming
Another router setting which can help is Quality of Service or QoS settings. QoS helps to manage home network traffic by prioritizing certain devices like your games console over other devices so that your gaming traffic is dealt with first.
QoS settings are not available on all routers but are a must if available for gamers in high internet use households where different people are trying to stream or download at the same time as they are gaming.
Configuring QoS can instruct your router to handle your game console’s traffic first to keep latency down. Without QoS gamers can often find they lag when others are using the internet at the same time.
See our full article linked above on how to use QoS settings on your router if available. When configured correctly QoS settings will not hurt other user’s experience; they just tell the router to process traffic in a specific order so that the game console’s small bandwidth demands are dealt with first. See below for a demonstration of QoS settings in action.
A Demonstration of Quality of Service Settings in Action
If QoS settings are not available then you will have to combine the other steps we mentioned instead – being on a wired connection for example always helps with getting priority on a home network. QoS settings are also always available on all specialized gaming routers – see our article on gaming routers for more information.
4. A Poor ISP or Poor Internet Infrastructure
If you try all of the above steps and still find your connection lagging a lot then it may simply be external factors like disruptions in your ISPs service or network faults which are causing the lag.
Servers and infrastructure or equipment can sometimes develop faults or may just be poor to begin with for some ISPs, in which case you should consider switching providers.
There can also be temporary faults in the lines which can cause poor connections, but these should be fixed in relatively quick time by ISPs. If you have persistent problems with lag and you are confident that you have done everything you can optimize connections and settings on your home network then consider contacting your ISP to raise the issue of poor connections with them.
The type of broadband can also have an impact on connectivity. Cable broadband is the most basic type of broadband, but tends to be the slowest as it sends traffic mostly over copper.
Standard fiber optic internet is faster as it transmits mostly over fiber with only a small amount of copper. This can help to reduce latency as fiber optic networks require less “hops” or intermediary devices to amplify and boost signals.
So if you are still on a cable broadband package then it may be worth seeing if a fiber optic package is available in your area. Availability of fiber broadband is now very high in most developed countries; UK readers can see our article summarizing entry level and faster fiber optic packages from the main UK providers.
For US readers Verizon, AT&T and Mediacom are your main fiber providers. See the table below for a quick comparison of packages.
|Provider||Package 1 Download Speed (mbps)||Package 2 Download Speed (mbps)||Package 3 Download Speed (mbps)||Population Covered (Millions) 2018|
|Comcast Xfinity||100||150||250||100 million*|
|Verizon Fios||100||300||940||34 million*|
|AT&T Fibre||100||300||1000||15 million*|
|Century Link||40||100||1000||11 million*|
Summary of Steps to Reduce Lag For Gaming
Let’s quickly run through a bulleted list of the main things to do to reduce lag for online gaming:
- Only play against players reasonably close to you geographically.
- Use wired connections instead of Wi-Fi. Use a powerline adapter as a next best solution if you can’t run ethernet directly.
- Make sure your router is optimized for gaming:
- Configure QoS if available to prioritize your games console on the home network.
- Place your console in the DMZ section of your router to get it on Open NAT type and open it fully up to the internet.
- If you prefer you can manually implement port forwarding, but DMZ settings are usually simpler and achieve the same end result.
- Change your internet provider if you take all these steps and are still lagging a lot when gaming.