From teaming up with friends to take on all manner of challenges to facing down random players from around the world in competitive modes, online play is a massive part of the gaming experience for many people. Speed isn't actually as important as you might think – as anyone who played the likes of Quake, Counter-Strike and Phantasy Star Online on dial-up connections back in the day will know, online gaming can work perfectly fine on a relatively modest data budget.
There are advantages to having faster speeds, but you're unlikely to notice much practical difference between, say, a 50Mbps connection and a 350Mbps one, especially when everyone else's speeds will affect overall performance as well.
More important things to look at are details that aren't typically so widely advertised as general speeds, such as packet loss, latency, and jitter. Ofcom reported almost universally low latency levels from all major providers tested; between 5 and 25 milliseconds. BT scored the best at between 6.4ms and 6.9ms.
Packet loss – where some data may not reach its destination, possibly manifesting in lag or other glitchy movement – is a somewhat different story, with much more variable results across the board and notable differences between general and peak time performance. BT also scored the best with an impressively low packet loss rate of just 0.0001%.
Virgin's faster packages come in at the weaker end of the spectrum and rising as high as just shy of 0.0005% – still not terrible, but statistically up to five times more likely than the stablest competitors to suffer data hiccups. Jitter too sees Virgin come out in last place, although there's little to choose from between the rest as they're all reassuringly low.
While superfast options like Virgin's VIVID bundles might seem like the best match for online gaming on paper, they actually came out among the weakest in tests across fields more important than pure speed. More casual players might not notice much practical difference, but enthusiast users will likely see slightly >better overall performance from BT and Sky.
Games are getting bigger all the time. Massive patches are commonplace, while games themselves have even started to break the 100GB mark. If getting digital games downloaded to your device or seeing them updated as promptly as possible is your main gaming concern, then download speed will be more or less the only factor that really matters.
With this in mind, the clear front runners are Virgin and BT, whose high-speed packages outspeed the competition several times over. A file download of around 10GB would take over three minutes on an average broadband line (50.4Mbps according to Ofcom), compared to around ten seconds on BT’s fastest 900Mbps and Virgin Media’s 1Gbps plans.
You're unlikely to ever really get those top advertised speeds based on both provider traffic and that of services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, but faster options will typically still outperform others. You'll also need an unlimited package to accommodate all those huge downloads – most services now offer uncapped data as standard.
If you're mainly concerned about getting your games fast, the best logical choice is an ultrafast line, so that means going with either BT or Virgin Media – the former appears to perform slightly better in other aspects of gaming while the latter offers faster raw speeds for quicker downloads, so weigh up the two based on your own needs.
If those options aren't available to you, most top-end fibre options will offer roughly comparable speeds to help keep you in your favourite games, with that same Ofcom report suggesting that BT and Sky are most likely to provide maximum speeds closest to those advertised.
Letting game fans around the globe watch you play has become popular to the point where the biggest names can make a great living from streaming, so naturally a whole generation of aspiring streamers wants a piece of that pie. If you're into live-streaming your gameplay, good upload speeds will be your main requirement – the faster the better, as you'll want to prevent your stream stuttering or struggling when speeds inevitably dip a little.
A stable 1080p broadcast requires a rough upload speed of 6Mbps or so, so you'll want to come in a fair bit higher than that. Bear in mind that using any online gaming functionality will also require some of your available bandwidth, so it's a good idea to give yourself as much headroom as possible.
Most entry-level fibre packages on the market offer upload speeds of 9-10Mbps, so any of those should meet the bare minimum requirements for streaming. Step up to the top-end fibre packages and those upload speeds top 100Mbps, making them the best for budding streamers. For example, Virgin's Gig1 fibre broadband offers an average upload speed of 52Mbps, and BT's Full fibre 900 plan offers an average upload speed of 100Mbps.
Upload speeds across providers using the Openreach network are pretty uniform, so there's not a lot to choose between the various top-end fibre options available – all major operators offer upload speeds here that comfortably offer the bandwidth necessary for streaming with plenty of room to spare. Note, however, that Virgin's upload-to-download speed ratio is significantly lower than other providers, meaning you'll need to take its most expensive packages to see upload speeds of up to 50Mbps.
This emerging sector of gaming is only likely to grow as digital infrastructures improve, and it's a real test of both upload and download performance. At its simplest, this uses remote hardware to run gaming content, sending pictures and audio to the user while relaying their inputs back to the host machine in order to action their commands. Sony's PlayStation Now service is a good example of this kind of streaming, with a stated minimum requirement of 5Mbps meaning that it's really only viable on a fibre line if you're looking for half-decent performance.
Once again, the majority of major providers using the Openreach network means there's little in the way of difference between them for this kind of gaming usage – in fact, latency becomes a more important thing to factor in as there's an inherent latency to this kind of remote gaming solution, so layering too much extra on top of that can make some games pretty much unplayable. And so we refer back to those factors covered in the online gaming section earlier, as these will all affect the quality of streamed play.
Another factor to consider when picking a provider for gaming is the quality of the router provided. BT's Smart Hub is regarded as one of the best out there in terms of wireless performance, but it has been known to not play nice with some gaming devices – including the Xbox One – without some fiddling. It's also worth noting that gamers looking to use their own hardware might not be able to do so with all providers – they each provide compatible hardware to new users, but not all existing routers will be compatible with all services, so do your research beforehand.
Reliability is also important, as there's little more frustrating than losing connection mid-game, especially since some competitive games will treat this as an early disconnection and punish it accordingly.
Every individual case will be different, based on the quality of your line, the distance from your local cabinet and numerous other small factors. As a result, it's impossible to draw a full conclusion as to which will be best for you and your individual gaming needs, so you'll also need to do a little research of your own if you're after something specific.
Strong performance in most fields means that BT and Sky come out as the best overall providers for general gaming purposes. If, however, quick access to content is most important to you, Virgin's faster speeds will get you your games faster than any other provider, but bear in mind that its performance for most other aspects of gaming tracks weaker than its competitors.