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Fairness vs. latency: what really matters for eSports?

Jul 17, 2020

With prize pools in the millions, tournament organizers have been tasked creating a reliable online environment for professional players to compete. Will there be a pushback from players if studios can’t guarantee low latency, high fairness experience in these high-stakes online matches?

Many esports competitions have recently moved online due to the current pandemic, with varying degrees of success. The 24h Le Mans Virtual comes to mind as a mixed bag of high profile, high viewership event that was unfortunately troubled by technical issues. Time will tell what to make of the recently launched PUBG Mobile World League and the upcoming Call of Duty League Playoffs online competitions. We have seen many cancellations, the major being the EVO Championship Series, the biggest fighting game tournament of the year. They canceled their EVO Virtual after many personalities and game studios pulled out due to allegations of sexual misconduct against the championship’s co-founder and president.

Against this backdrop of successes and failures, the state of the network connection between players and game servers has been a point of contention between tournament organizers and players. What are the issues at play and what can be done to improve the state of these competitions?

Why low latency isn’t king

Low latency is excellent, but a one-sided difference in latency can create an insurmountable advantage for one participant. Consider a 1v1 player scenario where the average latency of the two players is 60ms. It sounds good in theory; 60ms of latency is quite manageable for most online competitive game genres. But taking into consideration only the average latency doesn’t tell the whole story; both players could have 60ms of latency, or one could have 20ms while the other is 100ms. A difference of 80ms between players makes for a match that is “unfair” by most standards since the player with the lower latency will have a huge advantage in reaction time.

This can create issues like the one experienced during the Call of Duty League back in April, where Crimsix, one of the game’s most accomplished players, complained that the servers were “unplayable” because his team had to play on “neutral” servers. A neutral server, in this case, means a server that would not give an unfair advantage to one team over the other. Since his team is geographically close to one of the CoD game server locations, it was deemed that it would confer an unfair advantage against the other groups. They had to play on a different location, giving them a much higher latency. This trade-off is a typical example of the problem of latency vs. fairness. Without understanding how these two interact, studios and tournament organizations are bound to receive complaints from their most valuable and vocal ambassadors, professional players.

The fairness score

So how do we measure fairness from a network perspective? The simplest way to define the fairness of a match is to take the difference in round-trip time between 2 players in a 1v1 scenario. In the case of team-based matchmaking, a team is considered a single entity, so the average latency of the group can be compared to the other group(s).

If the difference in latency is low, it means the match is fair since there is only a tiny gap between each player’s latency. If it is high, the game becomes unfair from a network perspective, as the gap in latency between players means one of them has a sizable advantage. For example, for a player with 100ms of latency and another with 20ms, the fairness factor is high at 80ms, and the match is skewed towards the player with lower latency. As such, a low fairness score signifies a fair match-up.

Through the looking-glass

Look behind the scenes with a concrete example from an actual game. Through our work at Edgegap, we had the privilege to work on a case study in collaboration with a leading game studio to look into what can be done to create a better online experience for their players. Providing a lower latency is a significant step forward, but it cannot be the only variable considered. Compromises must ensure each match is fair from both sides, enhancing the overall experience.

Let’s look at a specific match played between a player in New York and another in Ivory Coast. Although it is an “edge case” scenario, it gives insight into what can be done to improve fairness when the latency is in play:

We can see that Player 1 had a low latency of 39ms at first and a higher latency of 93ms after moving the game server location. However, for Player 2, his latency went from 176 to 106, and as such, the fairness factor went from a hefty 137 to a meager 13, creating a much fairer environment. Making sure the game server is situated halfway between both players makes the most sense. That is why having a large global infrastructure footprint is vital to provide lower latency and a fairest environment for all players, as each available location can improve the quality of every match.

Taking fairness into account

There is no one-size-fits-all in video games, and what might be great for one type of genre makes no sense in another one. Every game, every match, and every player is unique and requires a decision based on the unique parameters of the game. Policy-based decision-making is the best tool available to create a fair experience.

A policy-based system is quite simple in theory. Please take all the parameters that help create a fair experience for the players involved (level, ranking, latency, jitter, fairness, etc.) and weigh them against one another to determine which one has priority. Is latency more important than the level of the players? Is fairness more important than the player ranking? It all depends on the game; at first, the game designers are the best to answer these essential questions. In the long term, however, machine learning will provide a better insight into creating a fairer and more fun experience for all players involved.

Fairness is a fundamental principle in every competitive title, yet it is rarely considered in a game’s matchmaker from the network perspective. Beyond simply comparing latency between players, a holistic view of the match is needed to provide the best conditions for the opposing players. Fairness becomes critical to provide a healthy competitive scene when considering the meteoric rise of esports betting during the pandemic.

What gets measured gets managed

Starting a match in a state of fairness does not mean it will stay fair for the whole duration. That’s why it’s important to track the network for each player during a match and react when a player’s online experience degrades. Different actions can now be taken: pausing the game, sending a QoS improvement request, or even increasing lag artificially for the low latency player to ensure a fair, competitive environment.

Once data has been accumulated for thousands of matches, we can see patterns emerge and use machine learning to make better decisions in the matchmaker. These can be about specific sites not being able to guarantee a good experience throughout a match, players coming from different ISPs that creates a degrading experience once a game is launched, etc. The decision-making can then be adjusted to provide a better gameplay experience with the whole duration of the match in mind.


When creating an esports title, there are many things to consider, and networking has to be a priority for game studios that aspire to release such a title. The online competitive scene is taking off under the restrictions brought by the current pandemic, but many issues remain to be solved. Studios will have to find solutions to reduce latency, improve fairness, and have visibility over the network issues their players are experiencing, professional and casual players so that they do not move to the next best game that manages to get things right.

The team at Edgegap is focused on providing solutions for game studios to lower latency, improve fairness and increase the reach of game titles through the help of edge computing and machine learning. They have developed solutions specifically for esports titles, such as a policy-based decision-maker solution, player network monitoring and control technologies, and network visibility tools to ensure players a fun and fair online experience. 


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