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Esports levels up with 5G

How the next generation of 5G connectivity promises to change how — and where — esports athletes play.

Pro gamer EMUHLEET holding a trophy. The image also contains abstract photos of fans in a stadium, and wavy lines to loosely represent 5G technology.
Pro gamer EMUHLEET
Illustration by Alex Cheung
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Emmalee Garrido remembers where she fell in love with her first video game as a kid. It was in her family’s living room, where their only TV was linked up to a Nintendo 64 console. The professional gamer who now goes by EMUHLEET remembers fighting with her brother over ownership of the system’s controllers to play GoldenEye 007, the classic James Bond first-person shooter. “I had such a competitive drive when I was playing that game, and it inspired my love for FPS games,” Garrido says. “It’s one of my earliest gaming memories, and I treasure it.”

Memories like Garrido’s are inextricably linked with place. Place and emotion have such an intractable connection that there’s an entire branch of psychology devoted to the study. And with video games, it’s no different. Certain gamers will prefer to play certain titles in specific places, or use games to get prepared for a competition or to decompress following a tournament. Where we play can be as vital a question as how we play, but the boundaries of that question — where we can game — are beginning to shift with emerging advances in 5G tech.

“As the 5G network continues to roll out and 5G device adoption grows, we’ll be entering a world where high-fidelity mobile gaming will be able to happen in ways and places we never imagined,” says Eric Nagy, director of technology and sports partnerships at Verizon. Next-level 5G networks will allow gamers to stream multiplayer games in crystal-clear fidelity with virtually no lag, opening up the door for radically different experiences in mobile gaming. “The network will enable new, immersive in-game experiences that will transform the way we think about playing video games wherever we’re playing them.” In short: pro gamers are about to see a world of possibilities open up before their eyes.

A game room of your own

When Garrido decided to go pro in 2014, she was working a full-time nursing job in Riverside, California, in addition to honing her skills on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). She had seen ads for a gaming world cup taking place that year in Paris and gathered an all-female squad to register. They called themselves Team Karma, and Garrido felt like they were among the scrappiest teams there, having crowdfunded the money to get to the tournament and wearing jerseys they made by hand. “Everyone thought we would get dead last, and we shocked everyone by making it to the finals and getting second place,” says Garrido. “It was this euphoric moment — time froze. It was like the movies. I looked at all my teammates and the crowd cheering for us and realized, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

Garrido’s hard-fought place on the tournament podium caught the eyes of Dignitas, one of the world’s most successful esports teams, which boasts partnerships with technology leaders like Verizon. Her 2018 move from scrappy self-starter to sponsored star also transformed how Garrido prepares for her competition. She’s able to treat tournament prep in the way a pro basketball or baseball player would, and as a team leader for Dignitas’s Valorant and CS:GO teams, she brings a competitive intensity to every practice session.

Garrido is no longer a practicing nurse, but her background means she’s constantly looking out for her team’s physical and mental health, and she schedules regular check-ins with the team’s sports-science resources. They also normally go through a proper bootcamp either in Philadelphia or at the Dignitas Verizon 5G Gaming Center in Los Angeles, where they do team workouts, have a team nutritionist, and watch tape of their opponent’s performances to sniff out weaknesses.

Verizon built a 5G-ready esports facility with an eye toward the future of gaming, including how 5G will create more immersive mobile gaming experiences through low-latency networks and technology like VR/AR. “[The Gaming Center] allows Verizon to further develop 5G to enhance the way gamers compete,” says Nagy. “And it also provides the Dignitas team with cutting-edge technology and access to resources that can give them a leg up as they train.” That means better practice sessions, where every moment counts.

5G is powering a new generation of gamers

The chance for Dignitas to sit together and train in the same physical place isn’t available year-round, which is what makes access to Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband connectivity so appealing to Garrido. Before the pandemic, her team often would have to travel to tournaments, where they were hampered by laggy airport and hotel WiFi and 4G cellular networks. The most vital impact of next-generation capabilities, for pro gamers like Garrido, is in the Verizon infrastructure’s latency. Looking forward, 5G is poised to cut latencies to many times faster than the blink of an eye, which means that gamers will have access to real-time multiplayer experiences whenever they tap into 5G Ultra Wideband.

“At its core, 5G will enable ultra-low latency gameplay, which means gamers on the network will get in-game movement with much less lag,” says Nagy. That’s because Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband operates on the millimeter wave spectrum, which allows massive amounts of data to be passed back and forth at extremely high speeds. This type of network isn’t subject to the same speed and bandwidth limitations of previous generations of cellular networks, which have struggled with latency and lag when data traffic is congested. Verizon holds the most amount of mmWave spectrum among its competitors, and the velocity and capacity of its 5G network will be able to help facilitate everything from mobile VR/AR gaming to real-time multiplayer mobile gaming. That’s a transformative edge that has the potential to help professional squad’s like Garrido’s.

“We’re pro players. We have to prepare for a tournament. So every possible minute connected is super-important for us,” says Garrido. “So if we can use 5G connectivity when we’re traveling, we can use our time more wisely, we can be extra prepared.”

According to Nagy, there might even be a chance for Garrido’s team to compete in a professional tournament powered by a 5G network. He points to an activation Verizon created for a football game in Miami earlier this year, where they deployed 5G infrastructure at the city’s Bayfront Park and provided high-speed, low-latency connections to Verizon users with 5G-ready phones. “That’s a place where, if you wanted to have a tournament, you can conceivably host a tournament because 5G speeds will be competitive with home broadband,” Nagy says. “You can just play over a cellular network.”

Gaming to connect

The evolution of esports into a pursuit that rivals traditional pro sports in its preparation has created whole new areas of research, focused on sports psychology and human-computer interactions. Kaitlyn Roose, director of esports at Michigan Technological University, who’s competed in college and amateur leagues for Overwatch, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm, has been investigating how competitive gamers make snap decisions and how coaches can help them improve those critical decision-making skills. Roose, also a former collegiate softball and rugby player, asks esports athletes about crucial moments that might have tilted the balance of a match or why they made a specific decision at an important juncture based on the information available — much in the same way coaches talk to football or basketball stars.

“It’s the same reason a baseball player watches tape of themselves hitting,” Roose says. “Esports players have very little time to make a crucial decision, so they need to see how they’re reacting and adapt. People think gaming is very brain-off, that it’s just hands and fingers going. But it’s quite the opposite.” Needless to say, ultra-low latency can make all the difference.

Gaming is both a cerebral and emotional equation for Roose, which is why she says a certain generation of gamers has such strong place associations with certain games. For many who are starting to game now, though, that association has become more fluid and mobile-driven. Roose believes that the mobile gaming revolution thanks to high-quality 5G has the chance to democratize gaming through increasing access to low-latency, high-speed networks. “If someone has access to a 5G connection, they’re able to still get involved and be a part of that gaming community,” Roose says. “It’s all about saying that if you want to be part of this sphere or want this experience, you can have it.”

Community has been on Garrido’s mind, as well. She’s discovered that livestreaming her gaming sessions has been something of a de-stressor during her downtime — whenever and wherever she can find it. “Sometimes I livestream while waiting at an airport or at my hotels,” she says. “It’s like a comfort food for me. I’m able to just relax and connect with my fans.” With 5G, Garrido can take that community to more places with her, whether she’s traveling to a professional tournament with her Dignitas crew or booting up an old copy of GoldenEye, ready to relive her memories.

Learn more about Verizon 5G here.

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