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League of Legends was too slow, so Riot built a private internet to make it go faster

Chicago: Stormy, husky, brawling, city of the Big Datacenter

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The internet as we know it was not made for games, certainly not real time games like Riot's League of Legends. Problems with "ping" and "packet loss" aren't just issues for individual players sitting at home. They're serious business concerns for developers and publishers. And, at the scale at which a company like Riot operates, small improvements in customer experience can result in big changes to the bottom line.

To smash more people into their game, to get more players to spend time and treasure on their champions, Riot needed more bandwidth. The big guys like AT&T and Comcast were unable (or unwilling) to play ball, so Riot built their own private internet, literally cobbling together their own high-speed network from unlit fiber optic cables sitting in the ground. They claim to have created "one of the fastest networks on the continent" just so people have a better experience playing their game.

That, coupled with the hard work of moving their game servers across the country to a new datacenter in Chicago, Riot says increased the number of players with 80 millisecond pings "from 50 percent to 80 percent overnight."

Riot claims to have made "one of the fastest networks on the continent"

If their self-reported figures are to be believed, it's an incredible technical achievement. And the story behind it — told in two parts on the Riot Games Engineering blog — is a great read ... if you're into that kind of thing.

I realize that you may not be into that kind of thing, so let me try and break it down for you in layman's terms.

This time last year when you connected to a game of LoL you were connecting through your home router, then through your rented internet gateway and then across a bewildering collection of routers to dozens of different datacenters all the way to Riot's game servers in San Jose, California.

Imagine flying from your house to San Jose on a flight that has 13 connections and four layovers. It would take a while to get where you're going, and you might not be in the best shape once you got there.

So, what Riot did was cut out as many legs of that trip as it could. The collection of routers in dozens of different datacenters? The 13 connections and four layovers? Gone.

They did it by lighting up so-called "dark fiber" that's been buried in the ground, unused for years and supplementing that new, private network with a set of leased connections to fill in the gaps and provide redundancy.

So now, when you want to fly out to San Jose for some LoL, you've got a direct flight.

But then Riot went a step further and actually moved San Jose closer to your house.

Well, not really. They moved their game servers to a new facility in Chicago, right in the sweet spot for the new network they'd just designed. As you can see from their chart below, the day they made the cut-over to the new facility the percentage of their users with the kind of low-latency connections needed for a quality multiplayer online experience jumped dramatically.

In a previous life I used to do a bit of the salesmanship for this kind of dark fiber and colocation... thing. I have an incredible level of respect for the amount of technical acumen — and the sheer amount of labor — involved in making something like this happen. For a single game company to go to such lengths for a single game product is remarkable, and a real testament to how much Riot values their community.

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