The launch and uptake of 5G has been somewhat underwhelming, but as Will Guyatt explains as part of our deep dive into all things gaming, the mobile game space could prove to be where the tech really takes hold.
The Drum is a safe place, so I think it’s time to finally admit what many of us already realize – the launch of 5G networks in the UK was an absolute dog’s breakfast.
For some reason, a little dribble of 5G just trickled out. Where were the hordes of punters queuing for a new device that embraced the benefits of our ultra-fast future? They weren’t there on day one and arguably haven’t turned up still.
Today, 5G is better known in the UK for its suggested mind control benefits, as across the country swivel-eyed councilors consign their communities to the dark ages and high-five each other about making their towns or cities ‘5G free’ – despite there being no actual proof to their claims, just lots of Facebook posts and YouTube videos.
Society peacefully coexisted with mobile networks for 20 years or so before the fools took to the streets and 5G became public enemy number one, with folk torching mobile towers. Frustratingly, so many of the myths propagated by smartphone-wielding truthsayers/turbo nutters are being enabled by the very 5G they tell us will destroy society.
In previous missives for The Drum, I’ve suggested the industry consider dumping 5G and move straight to 6G, but I’ve upgraded my take. Something needs to be done quickly because even those who don’t believe 5G is going to kill them simply aren’t upgrading – and unless you’re Lemmy from Motorhead, speed isn’t everything. But there is another group for whom extra G really matters – gamers.
In 2020, the UK games industry was estimated to be worth £7bn, and it’s transforming rapidly. Mobile gaming is no longer all about Snake or Candy Crush. Today, we’re seeing mobile versions of big gaming brands such as Call of Duty and Fifa and, thankfully, gamers no longer need to put up with the kind of low-rent homages that would make a discount supermarket proud. The experience on smartphones is closer to home consoles than ever before.
The mobile gaming space is also increasingly big business – we recently heard in US courts that Fortnite developer Epic Games made around $700m revenue in two years from its Apple iOS version, while Nintendo – known for the fierce protection of its own brands – has now made respectable $1.5bn from mobile games.
With mobile gaming growing, sponsorship interest and prize pools are also rocketing and 5G finally allows esports gaming to be possible on mobiles, because without it, it’s like having a hand tied behind your back.
Gamers rely on network response times to be truly professional, and while you might not give a stuff about waiting an extra 0.5 seconds to download the latest Bridgerton on 4G, the choice to go 5G makes all the difference for a gamer where in-game action has to be buttery smooth to be in with the chance of winning £10k in a Call of Duty tournament, rather than being the first to exit in a digital bodybag.
And it’s not just the mobile games themselves that are heating up thanks to 5G. We’ve also seen an unexpected sub-category of gaming mobiles vying for sales alongside traditional favorites like Apple, One Plus, Samsung and Sony. These gaming handsets rarely get a look in here or in glitzy press ads, but when you hear PC hardware giant Asus has just launched the fifth generation of its ROG phone, something is clearly performing well.
These smartphones don’t follow the refined style of the mainstream. They tear a leaf out of the gaming PC design book, complete with garish LED lighting, water cooling and the like. I got my hands on a Lenovo Legion Duel 2 recently and despite sounding like a straight-to-DVD film, it impressed as an Android device, rich in features for those into gaming and resplendent with two big-ass cooling fans.
5G also finally makes it possible for gamers to play their favorite home titles on the go, delivering on the long-teased vision of cloud gaming for the first time. In simple terms, your smartphone becomes the screen for a game played remotely and, because of the improved responsiveness of 5G, it no longer feels like you’re perpetually in delay, like a laggy tie up to Estonia in Eurovision.
EE is one network certainly leaning into the perfect storm of conditions that 5G can offer to gamers. It’s currently offering Microsoft’s bloody amazing Game Pass Ultimate for free as part of its bundles with a number of Samsung smartphones.
Currently, Microsoft’s service offers around 100 or so Xbox titles available to play anywhere you like for a monthly subscription – you can play at home on your console or over the cloud. For ‘research’, I played the Xbox game Streets of Rage 4, a reboot of a classic 90s beat ‘em up, over 5G. And the best thing I can say about it is it just worked. I got a couple of tiny video glitches, but the fast-moving game felt just like it did at home.
It’s possible 5G might be even more attractive in the future thanks to new developments coming down the line. The exciting world of augmented reality has been teased since idiots started walking into the sea at Weston-Super-Mare to catch some rare beasts in Pokemon Go, but if long-rumored AR glasses tech from companies like Apple and game developers Niantic come to fruition, gamers are going to need ultra-fast internet connections in order to benefit from the experience of chasing a Pikachu around Clevedon’s Junior Poon (a fine Chinese restaurant if you’re wondering).
It feels like EE is really on to something here, but if it all goes wrong with gamers, maybe the industry just needs to take a leaf out of Microsoft’s marketing playbook when it jumped from stinky Windows 8 to Windows 10. The UK could have the world’s first 7G networks and the industry could get itself in order to really control how the science bits land keep the lies under control.
Will Guyatt is a comms consultant and tech journalist.