Speed is critical in League of Legends, one of the world’s most-popular online video games and a leading e-sports event.
But when Riot Games, the game developer, wanted to improve player speeds, it realized it was at odds with the telecommunications companies that run the internet.
The telcos didn’t build the internet for real-time applications like online games, according to blog posts by Riot engineer Peyton Maynard-Koran. It’s comprised of a complex series of fiber-optic cables “built next to train tracks that zigzag across the country,” he explained in his posts. Internet service providers, such as Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon, prioritize cost over latency—the time it takes to process network data—so they route traffic through the cheapest possible paths. Those typically aren’t the fastest.
A majority of internet users won’t notice the extra second they have to wait for an email to send or a video to load on Netflix. But real-time responses are crucial in online gaming. An extra second can mean the difference between virtual life and death, or in, e-sports, winning or losing a boatload of cash.
So Riot decided to built its own internet, or rather, a part of the internet that would put latency before costs.
It took Riot more than a year to complete and required the company to buy routers, lease space in data centers, find services that could connect those routers, and peer with existing internet-service providers. Riot can now essentially pick up traffic from as close to players as possible, and then put that traffic in its own network, which has fewer routers that could delay gameplay. Maynard-Koran chronicled the technical details in his second of three blog posts.
And it works. Riot found that the number of people who play League of Legends at under 80 ms ping—a typical latency period between the east and west coasts of the US—increased from 31% to 80% since it began operating its own network, called Riot Direct. In plan English: A large group of players saw a big jump in their connection speed to the game.
“League of Legends is not a game of seconds, but of milliseconds,” Maynard-Koran said in blog posts. “We believe that games deserve their own network, and that old technologies… just don’t scale for games.”
Riot’s efforts could have implications for other technologies. Latency is also an issue in virtual reality because wireless systems don’t respond as quickly to stimuli as humans do. That’s partly what causes motion sickness among virtual-reality users.
When asked by commenters on the blog post whether Riot would offer its service to other gaming companies, Maynard-Koran said the company was thinking about it, but did not offer details. The company declined to comment to Quartz.