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5G: The next big step in mobile gaming

Mobile gaming continues to transition into a more connected and service-based industry, and technological advancements offered by the next-generation 5G wireless standard are set to play a major role in this evolution.

New cloud gaming services, such as Google LLC's Stadia and Microsoft Corp.'s xCloud, and subscription services, such as Apple Inc.'s Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass, have helped transform mobile phones into legitimate gaming platforms in 2019. These services have also increased the need for stronger and more stable internet connections.

When fully implemented, 5G is capable of delivering download speeds many times faster than today's 4G LTE networks and significantly lower latency times, meaning the amount of time between data leaving a source and arriving at its destination. The improved download speeds allow games and their updates to be delivered to the device faster, while the lower latency makes gameplay smoother and more accurate.

Although 5G deployments are still in the very early stages, some gaming companies and wireless carriers are already capitalizing on the technology to get a head start on the competition.

Verizon's contest

Earlier this year, Verizon Communications Inc. partnered with the NFL to sponsor a contest inviting U.S.-based game developers to submit proposals for an NFL-centric mobile game that would take advantage of the carrier's 5G Ultra Wideband network. Playcrafting, a company that hosts and organizes "game jams," or events where game developers plan, design and create video games in a short span of time, ran the contest.

"The main requirement was that the games the developers pitched would only be possible with 5G," Playcrafting Founder and CEO Dan Butchko said in an interview.

In September, two New York-based developers won the challenge. Colorfiction, which pitched football maze game "Endzone," and Juncture Media, which pitched a multiplayer football throwing game "NFL Ultra Toss," were awarded $400,000 each to create their respective titles, which will debut during Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020.

"The whole point of the challenge was to leverage 5G as much as possible, and both Verizon and the NFL were looking for ideas that really harnessed the technology," said Juncture Media's founder Andrew Linde. "Our game will utilize 5G's superior bandwidth and low latency to handle the game's physics calculations as well as graphics rendering in the cloud, allowing for multiplayer gameplay at a scale that would not be possible without this technology."

Colorfiction founder Max Arocena confirmed that the graphics of the large mazes that are generated in "Endzone" are also rendered in real time using 5G networks.

"The seamless transmission of data that 5G allows opens up a realm of possibilities for developers looking to make ambitious mobile titles," Arocena said. "High-quality, console-like graphics can now be processed off the device itself, and we plan to take full advantage of this with our game."

Sprint's partnership

SNL ImageHatch cloud gaming on mobile
Source: Hatch

In August, Sprint Corp. launched unlimited mobile cloud gaming on its 5G network via a partnership with Hatch, a subsidiary of Finnish mobile game maker Rovio Entertainment Oyj. Under the partnership, Sprint 5G customers received a three-month complimentary subscription to Hatch Premium, which offers a curated portfolio of more than 100 mobile games, including exclusive titles original to Hatch. The service costs $7.99 per month after the promotional period.

Unlike Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass, Hatch does not allow subscribers to download the games directly onto their phones. Instead, the service functions more like Stadia and xCloud, streaming the games via the cloud onto phones and devices running Google's Android TV operating system. While streaming consumes significantly more data than downloading a game, Bryan Fries, vice president of 5G marketing strategy and global services at Sprint, said the company's 5G network has both the capacity and the technology to handle the increased burden.

In an interview, Fries said Sprint's "treasure trove of mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum nationwide" positions the carrier well for expanding its capacity to handle cloud gaming on its 5G network.

"Hatch's architecture is also unique in the sense that, unlike other cloud streaming services, the graphics are actually processed on the device, which in turn actually consumes less bandwidth," he said.

According to Fries, Sprint's 5G network also will soon include a feature that prioritizes data consumption, with general apps allocated to parts of the network that handle low-bandwidth tasks, while a layer of the network will be specifically set from a parameter standpoint for video or game streaming.

Joseph Knowles, communications director for Hatch, noted that the service consumes 2.5 megabits per second on average, which also is well within the range of 4G LTE connections.

"But with video games, it's not just about the bandwidth, but it's about the latency," Knowles said. "Lag in streaming music and video was resolved via buffering, and now lag in streaming games can be resolved with 5G's low latency."

Though the 5G gaming market is small now, Knowles thinks the initial deployment pains will be settled eventually and the addressable market will balloon at a faster rate than with 4G networks.

SNL Image