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I’m an Avid Gamer: Here’s Why I Turn Off My VPN When I Play Online

For competitive online gamers, your internet connection can make all the difference between winning and losing a match.

Tyler Graham Associate Writer
Tyler Graham is an associate writer for CNET covering home energy and solar power. A Jersey boy at heart, he stayed in his home state for college and graduated from Seton Hall University with a bachelor's degree in journalism. When he's not busy asking questions or doing research for his next assignment, Tyler's probably kicking back with an action flick or a new video game.
Tyler Graham
7 min read
Tyler in front of his gaming setup with glowing wi-fi symbols floating against a purple colorized room.
Tyler Graham/Viva Tung/CNET

I play a lot of competitive online games. From Rainbow Six Siege to Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, may it rest in peace, I've played them for thousands of hours. And of the many foes I've faced in those games, the worst may be one that doesn't show up on the leaderboard: lag.

Getting stuck in a match where you're operating 300 milliseconds behind the competition is no fun. Dealing with high ping when 20 minutes of your time and your competitive rank are on the line feels downright hellish.

Let’s take a second to talk about ping

You've probably heard of ping if you're an avid online gamer. Even if you haven't, I'm willing to bet that you've seen a little red flashing speedometer symbol in the corner of your screen in a multiplayer game -- probably right before wondering why you've seemingly dropped to zero health out of nowhere.

Locating local internet providers

Also known as latency, ping measures the time it takes for data to move across the network. It tells you how many milliseconds between inputting a command and the server receiving it.

High ping leads to discrepancies between what you think should be happening in-game and what’s actually happening. This is why you’ll hear about gamers absolutely enraged with “lag.” It makes you feel like you’re lagging behind everyone else and will ruin any chance of having a good time.

Locating local internet providers

Your ping is a product of two things: the quality of your internet service and your location relative to where the server is hosted. For the most part, you can only really improve the quality of your internet service. Gaming companies decide where a game’s dedicated servers will be set up, and you simply need to deal with your distance from them.

If you’re looking to get an edge with your home broadband, there are many ways to do that, including upgrading your internet service, switching from a wireless to a wired connection or ensuring you have the best modem and router for the job. 

But what if your connection is masking your location, making it seem farther away than you actually are? It turned out my problem was simple, and the solution to speed up my connection was just as simple: It's all about the VPN.

What is a VPN and what does it do to your internet connection?

A virtual private network, or VPN, is software that encrypts your internet traffic. This allows you to browse with much more privacy and disguise your browsing to look like it’s happening from anywhere in the world.

There are many reasons to use a VPN. If you live in a country where the press is regulated and suppressed, a VPN allows you to get an unfiltered view of what’s really going on.

I use a VPN for something far less important: Digging into the movies and shows in Netflix’s catalog that aren’t available in the United States.

Effectively tricking your broadband provider into letting you access the internet from different geographic locations can be a great way to educate and entertain yourself. There’s one time when you usually want to make sure you don’t have the VPN running, though, and that's playing online games.

Your home broadband could still make the difference. Do you need to upgrade?

While turning off your VPN might reduce the latency you experience while playing games online, your home broadband still matters.

I have a Verizon G3100 Wi-Fi 6 router at home, and I generally fluctuate between 200 and 400Mbps upload and download speeds, depending on how many devices are eating up bandwidth. At the end of the day, while those numbers might be important for downloading new games, they aren’t that important for playing games online.

Speedtest.net reported that the median American household’s download speed in April 2024 was 250Mbps and its median upload speed was 33Mbps. These speeds are more than sufficient for online gaming, so most American households should be good to go.

Your upload and download speeds will affect your latency up to a certain point, but your distance from the server is what really matters. Check out these speed tests I ran at home to see what I’m talking about.

Below, you’ll see the results of a speed test conducted with a connection to a server in Secaucus, New Jersey. This server is the closest one to my home, and I get a smooth 26-millisecond upload latency when connected to it. A 50- to 60-millisecond latency is really good for online gaming, so it’s smooth sailing for me when I’m connected to dedicated servers here in the northeast US.

Tyler Graham/CNET

Next, you’ll see the results of a speed test conducted with a connection to a server in Tokyo. This server is in a region I like to connect to with my VPN, and I get a whopping 187-millisecond upload latency here, even though my upload speed is still excellent.

A 100-millisecond latency is considered bad for online gaming, and a 187-millisecond latency will probably feel nearly unplayable. If I were connected to a Japanese dedicated server, I’d probably be walking off maps and getting stuck behind walls.

Tyler Graham/CNET

Your broadband connection might be the best it can be -- you could even have a wired ethernet setup --  and connecting to a server halfway across the world will still cause you issues. There’s no way the data packets can communicate with the server as quickly as you need them to. Your upload latency is going to be a real thorn in your side.

Why could turning off your VPN solve connection problems?

When you route your connection through a VPN, you broadcast that you’re somewhere completely different from your current location. This throws a real curveball at the matchmakers for online games.

Almost all competitive online games use dedicated servers to host their matches. That means several servers are set up specifically for that game and spread worldwide.

Many games have separate servers for North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. I’m an American, so I join North American servers, and I generally have 20- to 30-millisecond latency when I play games.

When I have Proton VPN on and set to Japan, the matchmaker sees me as playing in Asia and will place me into servers hosted in Asia. In these servers, my ping sits somewhere up in the three-digit territory. For all intents and purposes, I’m screwed.

Routing your connection through a VPN will most likely slow down your internet connection, even if you’re connecting to a server from your own region. 

Even if you’re using a VPN to bounce your requests off a server located close to your physical location, your network request still needs to take another detour before finishing its charted course and communicating with the game.

One of CNET’s resident VPN experts, Moe Long, explained that routing your broadband connection through a VPN is like ordering food through DoorDash. The more stops a driver has to make, the longer it will take for your food to get where it needs to go.

There are rare cases where a VPN might help you find lobbies with better connections in online games. If you live in places that unfortunately don’t get dedicated servers that host matches for your favorite game, a VPN might be able to find you the closest possible connection. Even still, there are no guarantees this will work. Treat the VPN as a privacy tool, not a means to improve your online gaming connection.

It’s important to keep in mind that the slight increase in connection times due to VPN usage likely won’t tangibly affect you if you’re not playing an online game. If you’re seeing substantially slower speeds, there are steps you can take to fix that

There are other reasons to consider your VPN while gaming. You want to be vigilant about something like a storefront’s terms of service. Leaving your VPN on while buying a game on Steam, for example, could be a bannable offense. But at the end of the day, a VPN has many benefits outside of improving your broadband experience.

My final thoughts: The risks and drawbacks of gaming without a VPN

VPNs provide you with security and privacy as you browse the internet. They help make sure you don’t expose your personal information online. While it’s possible to be doxxed through online games, your safety depends on the game you’re playing.

As I mentioned, most modern online games will route you to a dedicated server, a third-party lobby everyone joins to play a match. These are pretty secure, and you’re generally safe to have your VPN turned off while playing on dedicated servers to ensure the most competitive experience.

Older games, on the other hand, sometimes use peer-to-peer connections to facilitate multiplayer matches. With no dedicated server to route your packets through, your data is essentially streamed directly to the other participants in a multiplayer session. Peer-to-peer connections are susceptible to IP grabbing, which can lead to doxxing or other exposure of personal information.

If you’re playing a game that uses peer-to-peer connection for multiplayer, it’s better to keep your VPN turned on to stay safe and secure. You might be unlikely to boot up a game using a peer-to-peer connection, but some massive titles, such as Grand Theft Auto Online, still use this type of server hosting.

Most competitive ranked games use dedicated servers. But outside those situations, it’s not worth sacrificing your privacy for a higher rank in a video game.