5G and gaming need each other. Wireless operators are betting on 5G for new revenue growth as 4G profitability declines due to increasing network usage, declining annual revenue and flat to increasing operational expenses.
So what are the 5G use cases that wireless network operators are exploring? The 4G business model of charging more per megabyte of data is not going to work. Network operators must be more creative as they look for a new 5G proposition. For some with the right assets, strategy and courage, gaming offers an interesting 5G avenue to explore.
Gaming is an attractive 5G use case for wireless operators because a number of factors line up in its favor. To an extent, video gaming is an existing video product. Consumers are already accustomed to paying for it. And as video games move to the cloud streaming model, they will require a level of low-latency responsiveness that can be delivered by 5G. So, while gaming is not suitable for all network operators, for those with the right assets, gaming offers a ready-made market that could be a new source of growth and driver of competitive agility.
5G, a critical enabler for gaming
Understanding how 5G network deployments will differ from 4G deployments will be critical to partnering with the gaming ecosystem. Mass, country-wide adoption of 5G networks will require a blend of high-band mmWave spectrum (traveling 300 feet to 1,000 feet), sub-6GHz mid-band spectrum and low-band spectrum (traveling 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet).
Initially, 5G networks in the US have been deployed in high-band mmWave to take full advantage of the enhanced mobile broadband bandwidth potential of 5G while other geographies are focusing on sub 6GHz mid-band spectrum for 5G deployments. As a result, the early 5G networks have been deployed in a surgical manner, focusing on high-density cities to start. Although 5G bandwidth in cities will enable high-quality gaming to mobile devices in select parts of the nation, 5G latency and network infrastructure location may accelerate the marriage of 5G and gaming.
Big money in gaming that network latency can unlock
The gaming industry is poised to experience the same type of streaming distribution plus subscription business model disruption that the music and video industries underwent as each evolved from packaged content (e.g., CDs or DVDs) to streaming subscriptions (e.g., Spotify or Netflix). However, streaming gamers can't live too far away from game servers for now because the current network lag makes games unplayable:
"I already had to deal with playing on 30 to 50 ping, but now it feels like I'm playing at 100. I've never felt at more of a disadvantage due to connection in my life. I can't even play certain types of competitive any more," Turner "TFue" Tenney, a professional gamer who qualified for the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, told dexerto.com esports recently.
Competitive gaming is big business: The winner of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup earned $3 million while the 2019 winner of the US Tennis Open, played in the same sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium, earned $3.85 million. With these kinds of high-stakes dollars involved, any advantage is worth exploring, including where the wireless operators could play a role, such as in 5G dedicated network slicing, edge compute infrastructure and anything to reduce latency and lag.
Placing new bets, more than just video games
The 5G gaming opportunity doesn't have to be restricted to video games played or streamed on PCs, consoles and/or smartphones. How about simply the "gamification" of existing experiences as another form of "gaming," sending virtual support currency to boost your favorite esports teams during a live event on a "0 ping" network, or real-time sports betting on an event between a four-person friend group where two people are in the stadium and two people are at home?
These additional forms of gaming may also benefit from the high-speed, low-latency that 5G offers. Real-time sports betting, for example, may require a low-latency 5G network. Today, the lag between the live experience of watching a game in-person and watching it through an HD feed at home is significant enough to preclude making a market between those at a venue and those watching at home. Thanks to low latency, 5G could reduce the time lag and make it possible to bet between friends in the stadium and in the living room.
Not just a market for the boys
As a whole, gaming is becoming more and more gender diverse. To increase the 5G gaming opportunity even more, nearly half of the US gaming audience, for example, is female. And that diversity was demonstrated by the recent streaming of the Fortnite World Cup. Forty-three percent of the viewers who tuned in were women or girls, and 44% of total viewers were over the age of 35.
But playing and watching games are just the start of gaming's potential. It also has the potential to become a go-to platform for social media and messaging. Already today, people who watch games on platforms like Twitch (more than 600 million) also use those platforms to communicate, message and interact with friends.
Where to play?
So where can 5G have the greatest impact here? In the industry value chain today, product/content and platform/hardware are dominated by a few large players such as Microsoft, Sony, EA and Nintendo; there are new game-streaming entrants as well with Amazon, Google and Apple. But it's in distribution where network operators have a real chance to play. By providing 5G connectivity in the home and mobile on the go, adding enablers on top of that 5G connectivity such as edge compute closer to the gamer and delivering analytics plus insights to the gaming value chain, network operators could help drive the gaming market by offering consumers an enhanced and seamless gaming experience wherever and whenever they want it.
The world of gaming offers 5G network operators a wide range of opportunities to insert themselves profitably as key players into a rapidly developing ecosystem. Of course, they need to pick their spot carefully -- and crucially understand that they can gain significant value from playing well in strategic parts of the value chain rather than trying to dominate end-to-end. Every wireless network generational leap offers the chance to reenter or change an existing value chain. Right now, gaming looks to be that opportunity for 5G network operators.
— Jefferson Wang, Global Communications Industry Strategy Lead and Global 5G Strategy Lead, Accenture