Can the cloud defeat video game lag?

By | 4 minute read | May 8, 2018

Competitors get ready to play during Ninja Vegas 18 at Esports Arena Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Strip is no stranger to curious spectacles. But even by the Strip’s standards, the event that unfolded at the Luxor Hotel & Casino one day last month was unusual. The attraction wasn’t a pop star or a magician or a circus but a celebrity in the eSports world: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a 26-year-old former fast food worker who now makes more than $500,000 a month playing the massively popular game Fortnite and streaming it on Twitch.

The 232 gamers who flocked to the brand new Esports Arena Las Vegas at the Luxor last month didn’t come simply to watch Ninja play Fortnite–they came to compete against him. If the chance to meet their favorite gamer wasn’t enough of a draw, the event also carried the carrot of $50,000 worth of prize money.

The event, dubbed Ninja Vegas ’18, wasn’t just a hit at the venue. It was also a sensation online. Over the course of more than six hours, 2.38 million viewers around the world tuned in to watch the proceedings on Ninja’s Twitch stream. At one point, 660,000 viewers watched the stream simultaneously—a new record.

Tyler Ninja Blevins addresses the audience during from the Esports Arena Las Vegas stage at Ninja Vegas ’18.

Ninja Vegas ’18 is emblematic of the explosive growth of esports, a global entertainment format with a unique capacity to seize the interest and eyeballs of a generation of young consumers. In its annual report, the marketing researcher Newzoo recently predicted that esports revenues would hit $905 million in 2018, a 38 percent increase from 2017’s $655 million.

“The fact we’ve been able to give esports a home on the Las Vegas Strip speaks volumes to the industry’s growth as a whole and how far it’s come. I truly believe that we’re nowhere near the peak from a potential standpoint,” said Jud Hannigan, the CEO of Allied Esports, which operates Esports Arena Las Vegas and other venues in North America, Europe and China.

Gaming content is already contributing considerably to the demand for streaming video. Fortnite content received 2.4 billion views on YouTube in the month of February alone. On Twitch, people have watched Fortnite streams for more than 128 million hours in just the last 30 days. To keep up with the huge increase in video traffic, content providers are virtualizing and automating their networks with AI and cloud technologies.

But cloud technology isn’t just improving the experience for viewers of online gaming; it’s also contributing to a better experience for players. The key, said Janet Snowdon, IBM’s Global Director of M&E Industry Solutions, is reducing lag—the delay between the action of players and the reaction of a server.

“Performance is key when you play a game. You can’t have jitter. When you want Mario to jump he’s got to jump,” Snowdon said.

Making a character jump when you want him to jump gets more difficult the more players are trying to jump at the same time, and the more  distance there is between players and the servers hosting a game. It follows, then, that the massively multiplayer online role-playing games favored by eSports competitors are among the trickiest games to operate seamlessly. In Fortnite, for example, up to 100 gamers play together on the same map, and at any given time, millions of people might be playing the game concurrently around the world.

Traditionally, developers have used their own dedicated servers to host online games. But in an field where demand for a game can rise to stratospheric heights unexpectedly, developers are increasingly turning to the cloud to scale up services quickly. Last year, for example, the Spanish esports developer Pixel Cream Studio reported reducing latency by 15 percent after it began hosting its game Ways of Redemption on the cloud.

“Ask any player of a competitive online video game what his biggest obstacle is, and aside from leveling up or defeating so-and-so, he’ll probably say lag or latency. And he won’t just say it; he’ll spit it out with contempt,” wrote Pixel Cream Studio’s David Garcia and Jacobo Coello.

Eliminating that obstacle is particularly important at an esports event, where prize money is on the line and hundreds of thousands of viewers may be  watching at home. At Ninja Vegas ’18, Harington said, competitors used dedicated machines linked on the same private network in order to “level the playing field.” As games change, he said, Esports Arena Las Vegas will continue to update its technological capabilities in tandem—ensuring a lag-free, seamless experience for fans and competitors wherever they are.

“The hottest game today you could argue is Fortnite and four to five months ago nobody was talking about Fortnite. What’s it going to be four or five months from now? That’s exciting. The industry keeps rejuvenating itself,” Hannigan told IBM.