With over 27 million players a day, League of Legends is arguably the most popular game in the world, and it's extremely competitive. If it takes a player more than 60 milliseconds (ms) to send and receive packets of data from developer Riot's servers, you can see on screen that his desired actions weren't performed at the right time. If your connection's not hitting the right speed, you might as well not play.
Riot didn't want its game and players to live at the mercy of ISPs, transit networks, and the shifting business relationships that dictate how precious packets find their way home, so Riot's building its own network, dedicated to League of Legends traffic.
So far, the investment has paid off, but the size of this network and the partners Riot has to work with in order build it may also explain why it stayed quiet on the issue of net neutrality.
Since the company started on the project late last year, after reaching agreements to connect directly and exchange traffic (called "peering") with only 30 percent of the top 20 ISPs in North America, latency and packet loss were reduced by over 50 percent. Peyton Maynard-Koran, Riot's technical director, told me that another 40-50 percent of remaining top 20 already signed up to work with Riot. By finding and buying fiber between Atlanta and Chicago, for example, Riot was able to achieve 8ms, compared to the 25ms other carriers get.
If you care about net neutrality, learning that a company is buying fiber and routers and negotiating in private with ISPs in order to make a very specific set of bytes travel across the internet much faster might make you a little uneasy, but don't worry.
In a sense, yes, Riot is working with internet companies to create what may sound like a League of Legends "fast lane," but it's not at a cost to common traffic, nor is Riot paying ISPs so its data receives preferential treatment over other data.
Anti-net neutrality companies like Comcast want to have the option to throttle or tier existing traffic, making customers pay more for certain types of internet activity. The fight for net neutrality is the fight to have all bytes on the internet treated equally. Riot's network only impacts how packets travel once they leave your ISP. In fact, if anything, by removing its data from the internet, Riot is only freeing up room for everyone else.
On the other hand, when I asked about Riot's position on net neutrality, I could almost hear the public relations team's collective assholes clench shut. I went out of my way to make sure I correctly understood its position on the issue, which ultimately is that it doesn't have one.
Riot Games: "The network we're building doesn't really factor into Net Neutrality. The new network mentioned above is focused on replacing inefficient paths with new, more efficient paths for League data to travel, not getting ISPs to prioritize our traffic over (or at the cost of) other online services."
Fair enough! So what's the big deal? Why not just tell us what you really think about net neutrality?
We can't know for certain since Riot won't say, but as the company itself will admit, it "takes a fair amount of lawyering back and forth" to set up peering deals with ISPs. Taking a position opposite of Comcast's in public can't make all that lawyering any easier.
"If they say the wrong thing they can just be locked out of the conversation," said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future, an organization that fights for the internet's transformative power for good and a partner in Battle for the Net. "If they're in negotiations with Comcast and they say [executive vice president of Comcast] David Cohen is an asshole, and Comcast is screwing over all its customers and we need net neutrality, that conversation is going to be over."
Or, as John Oliver puts it, Riot says the wrong thing and they could experience a "mob shakedown."
According to Wilson, ideally the FCC would ban peering fees outright. At the moment, it looks like it will only regulate them, allowing companies to go through a lengthy and expensive complaint process.
If you want to be kind, which I do, you can say that the company is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's trying to build this amazing infrastructure for its players in order to improve their League of Legends experience, which doesn't negatively impact net neutrality, but taking a stand for net neutrality puts that project at risk.
Maynard-Koran wouldn't put a dollar amount on what this investment will cost Riot, but he did say it's spending "a hefty amount of money." The company spent the last year just thinking about the endeavor and taking measurements, and now the team responsible for it has already grown to "about 16 personnel."
"Without an infrastructure, without a backbone in place, you can never control how packets are received," Maynard-Koran told me. "You can be in San Francisco, just a 14ms lightspeed drive down from our data centers, and the ISP that you buy service from can actually send your packets down to LA, then Denver, Seattle, and only then to our data centers, more than tripling the amount of time it takes to get there."
League players in Northern Michigan, for example, were having a great time, swimming along at 60ms and low packet loss, but then a local ISP, Charter Communications, decided to end its transit agreement with another network, AboveNet, completely re-routing the way packets traveled from players to Riot. Suddenly, speeds in Northern Michigan slowed down from 60ms to 150ms, making League of Legends practically unplayable.
Think of it like buying bargain airline tickets. Riot and its players want packets to take the shortest, most direct path, but your ISP might take them to several connections all over the country first because it's cheaper.
Riot's initiative will grab the packets as soon as they leave your ISP, then shepherd them along the optimized routes it's currently working with other internet companies to secure. Riot announced its plans to build these "backbones" in the US, Europe, and Latin America. It's going to do some work in South Korea too, but it won't be as big of a task since the player base is more densely populated there, and the country's internet infrastructure is much better than ours.
"We're renting fiber between certain locations in the United States. We're peering, we're putting routers and hardware with more interfaces in each one of the major peering locations, so anywhere where Verizon Fios, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, or Charter come together, anywhere they introduce their traffic to the other internet services, we're putting routers there. And we're adding bandwidth because we're renting fiber from services like Level 3 and CenturyLink, to bring those connections back to our servers."
The existing internet infrastructure is also optimized to deliver large packets of data in seconds, which is what works best for watching Netflix. League of Legends traffic is much more like high frequency financial trading, which needs to handle a much greater number of much smaller packets in milliseconds. Riot's network is custom-built to accommodate the latter.
It's just a little sad that 1,000 technology companies have signed a letter in support of net neutrality, and that the most notable games company on the list is
Zynga, which I can't put enough tildes around to sufficiently express my disdain.
Holmes also told me that mobilizing Riot's 67 million monthly players would be incredibly helpful to the fight for net neutrality. Sadly, even with that huge player base, Riot and its network endeavor is still newer and more fragile compared to the big bullies operating in this space.