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Relax, bingeing on Fortnite and other games during quarantine won't break the internet

Concerns about online gaming taxing the internet are overblown. But streaming video is another matter.

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Feel free to jump on the party bus.

Charlie Wagner/CNET

As Netflix and Disney Plus scale down the quality of their video streams in Europe, and YouTube does the same globally, a growing concern has popped up around video games. The potential issue: As the coronavirus causes people to stay at home, online gaming from the likes of Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus or PCs will put even more strain on internet providers leading to a slow down for all.

Is the concern warranted? Not really. 

Although online gaming is growing, with millions around the world playing games like Fortnite, Call of Duty and NBA 2K at all hours, the bandwidth being taxed when playing these games using an Xbox, PlayStation, PC or mobile device is limited. That's especially true when compared to traditional video streaming from Netflix, Disney Plus or YouTube in HD or 4K.  

Last year I monitored data usage when testing Sprint's HTC 5G Hub in New York. Playing a full game of Madden 20 online over Xbox Live used less than half a gigabyte of data while streaming a 16-minute episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee from Netflix to a 4K Samsung TV took up over 2.2GB.

Whereas a 4K video stream uses 25 megabits-per-second (Mbps) and an HD video stream uses 5 Mbps, online gaming uses 1 Mbps, Roger Entner, founder and analyst with Recon Analytics, told CNET. "Video is the network killer, not gaming." 

Streaming video and playing a game online are fundamentally different. When you play a game today, the service you use isn't redownloading or rerendering the entire game, field or characters to each player's system. Instead, Entner says, it's merely relaying location data back to a main server. The games themselves are already often downloaded and installed onto computers, PlayStations, Xboxes or other gaming devices

What does take a lot of bandwidth is downloading new games or big updates. Games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare require well over 100GB of space and players downloading them for the first time as they look for new ways to entertain themselves while at home may momentarily tax their networks. 

But even this isn't much of a cause for concern. 

"It's a one-time event," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, adding that most of the people playing these games downloaded them "well before the pandemic forced them to stay home."

That said, gaming companies are aware that this might be a problem. Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony's PlayStation division, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that his company is working with European internet provider to "manage download traffic to help preserve access for the entire internet community." 

So far we've only been discussing standard games played online, not new game streaming services like Google Stadia, Microsoft's xCloud and Nvidia GeForce Now. As opposed to traditional PC or console games, these services stream the whole game to your device in real-time, which uses a lot of bandwidth. GeForce now requires a consistent connection of 15 to 25 Mbps and Stadia requires 10 Mbps, similar to high-quality and 4K video streams.

Microsoft's service is still in beta, while Pachter says that "almost nobody has bothered to subscribe to the Google Stadia service." GeForce Now, on the other hand, says it has a million subscribers and has been selling out subscriptions during the coronavirus outbreak. While game streaming may become an issue in the future, those numbers are still tiny compared to the spike in people streaming video.

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