For years gamers have been targeted with products that promise to give them a unique edge in online competition—provided they’re willing to pony up the extra cash. Whether it’s pricey, overdesigned routers that promise a speed and latency advantage, or a service that promises “priority routing” over the internet, these services often aren’t worth the added cost. Broadband provider Cox Communications has quietly jumped into this longstanding market this week with the company’s new “Elite Gamer” service.
According to the company’s FAQ, the new $15 per month service will reduce latency, disconnections, and “lag spikes” by “finding the fastest path to your game server across the internet,” improving game performance “in situations with lots of players like big raids.” In short, the service calculates your route to the gaming server you’re connected to, then attempts to optimize that route to avoid unnecessary or congested “hops.” “If you care about your connection and want the best online experience possible, then you NEED to be a Cox Elite Gamer!” the FAQ shouts at would-be customers. A Cox representative told Motherboard that the service was quietly launched this week in Phoenix, Arizona as part of a limited trial. Only available to Cox customers on connections of 100 Mbps or faster, the $15 per month subscription provides licenses for two gamers in a household, with each additional license costing an added $5 more per month. Elite Gamer appears to be a rebranded version of WTFast, an “optimized” network service that’s been offered for some time in numerous countries including Taiwan and Singapore. Reviews of that service have been decidedly mixed, with some users noting a subtle improvement in latency, and others finding their connectivity actually getting worse. Similar services have been on the market for several years. Some have attempted to cash in on the worries surrounding net neutrality by promising to improve lousy ISP performance. ISPs themselves have generally steered clear of the practice given the controversy surrounding forcing users to pay for prioritized “fast lanes.” Clearly aware of those concerns, Cox told Motherboard that such an offering would “be permissible regardless of regulatory environment as it does not alter speed in any way nor does it prioritize any traffic over others on our network.” The company added that “no customer’s experience is degraded as a result of any customers purchasing Cox Elite Gamer service.”
Some users at Reddit were a touch skeptical of Cox’s new offering.
“As a network engineer, this service is complete bullshit,” one user wrote. “Once the traffic leaves Cox's network, it will be just like any other traffic on the Internet. I guarantee you the majority of your game servers will not be hosted on their network. As soon as your packets leave what equipment they manage, they become just like everything else.”
Historically, similar offerings haven’t always fared well in the market. Roughly a decade ago a company by the name of Gamerail promised advantages to gamers in the form of a $12 per month service delivering “optimized” routing and better game performance. But after many users complained of little meaningful difference, the service shuttered from disinterest.
One problem is that such services can only do so much. While they can shorten your trip to a game server by avoiding problematic hops on the journey, they can’t magically solve congestion at the heart of the internet. Similarly, speed and latency improvements may sometimes only be possible by switching ISPs, something that’s not always an option given the lack of meaningful broadband competition in the US. Quite often, gamers looking for an online advantage are better off embracing more practical steps, such as buying a better router that supports the latest Wi-Fi standards, switching to a more reliable domain name server (DNS) provider, or skipping Wi-Fi entirely and connecting their PC or console directly to the router via Ethernet for a slight latency advantage. Such services may also quickly lose their relevance in the face of new streaming platforms like Google Stadia, which eliminates the local PC and game console entirely, with all of the processing power occurring in the cloud. Such services will invariably have route optimization factored into their design by default in a bid to offer the lowest latency possible.
For now, many of these products remain exclusively reserved for users with disposable income and a certain resilience to disappointment. It’s unclear if Cox’s trial on this front will see much interest, given the already high costs of American broadband. Many users believe that top-shelf network performance is something they already pay a pretty penny for.
“Following the consumer trial, we’ll evaluate results and determine next steps,” Cox told Motherboard.