In an effort to address network issues, particularly ping issues on the East Coast of the US, Riot is in the process of building a dedicated direct network for League of Legends players.
The work is already underway and is something Riot has been talking about for a while but it's come back on our radar now as Riot brand strategist Charlie Hauser did a little forum Q&A to explain more about how the process is going and the current timeline.
The first part of the North American server overhaul process involved setting up new NA server infrastructure for the end of November 2014. The current project is all about optimising the connection players have to this network and means working directly with ISPs in the US and Canada. The final part would be finding a new location for the servers.
As per Hauser:
Currently, ISPs focus primarily on moving large volumes of data in seconds or minutes, which is good for buffered applications like YouTube or Netflix but not so good for real-time games, which need to move very small amounts of data in milliseconds. On top of that, your internet connection might bounce all over the country instead of running directly to where it needs to go, which can impact your network quality and ping whether the game server is across the country or right down the street.
This is why we’re in the process of creating our own direct network for League traffic and working with ISPs across the US and Canada to connect players to this network.
What he describes sounds like a prioritisation system whereby Riot sets up deals with ISPs so it can connect game traffic more directly between Riot servers and players using those ISPs' networks. The goals are to increase stability of connections, decrease packet loss and decrease ping, in that order and to have the hardware and the contracts in place by the end of March.
In terms of things players are being asked to do, Riot are asking them to fill out a survey with their location, ISP and whether their network experience has improved or worsened. In terms of general effect, there's potential for the setup to have a wider impact on gaming. There are also related issues which have been raised in the comments.
Riot note in one of their responses that "Every game's architecture is different, however we are working with other gaming companies to try and improve stability and make playing games more fun. I hope that helps." Without knowing more about the details there it's impossible to work out what this might mean in real terms at the moment.
The subject of net neutrality comes up briefly and elicits this response from Riot: "So we are forced to do this because of the way the Internet is architected, not because the ISPs are forcing us to. Net Neutrality is not in play here, this is just the way any network would have to be built to achieve our goals." How I read that comment is that is that Riot is seeking to improve the experience of its gamers relative to their ISP's default LoL experience, and because it's a Riot creation it's not being considered in that way.
The thing is, that doesn't negate a potential problematic result. Riot and League of Legends are big enough that they can engage a continent's major ISPs in discussions of this type. What about smaller multiplayer games from tiny studios or startups? My concern when reading about this (and not being in any way an engineer or telecomms specialist) is that bigger game studios and brands could benefit their players in this way – which is lovely for them – but that smaller companies could be forced out simply due to lack of clout.