Cloud Gaming Is a Myth

Apple iPhone SE 2022 attached to a Backbone gaming controller playing Rocket League
The rise in cloud gaming was supposed to be accompanied by a 5G revolution. But 5G doesn’t live up to the hype, and “cloud gaming” is more like “on-demand gaming.”

Cloud gaming was supposed to be the future. But here we are, nearly five years after the launch of Stadia, and cloud gaming is still as niche and unfulfilling as ever. You can’t experience AAA titles on the go, and if you want to play a lot of games, your best option is still a traditional console.

Table of Contents

The 5G Hype Led to Nothing
“Cloud Gaming” Is More Like “On-Demand Gaming”
This Business May Not Be Sustainable
Things Could Change, Eventually

The 5G Hype Led to Nothing

Telecom and tech giants promised that 5G would revolutionize our world. They insisted that this technology would provide lightning-fast gigabit internet across the United States, opening the door to more complex cloud-based applications.

The tech sector, for its part, decided that 5G could make cloud gaming a viable replacement for console gaming. Up until 2018 or 2019, cloud gaming had been an incredibly niche idea. Companies like OnLive pursued this technology in the early 2010s, but average home internet speeds were (and still are) too slow for high-quality, low-latency cloud gaming.

Several cloud gaming services materialized during the initial rollout of 5G. And most of these services, particularly Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming, heavily relied on “play anywhere” marketing. The idea was simple and appealing—with a 5G connection, you could play a AAA console game on your phone regardless of your location or home internet speed.

Playing the Logitech G Cloud.

These companies made a very smart assumption. They figured that while 5G phones will become commonplace, gigabit home internet will remain somewhat rare. Focusing on a “play anywhere” mentality gives hardcore gamers something to be excited about, but more importantly, it provides an entry point for customers who lack a solid broadband connection.

Unfortunately, the promise of 5G didn’t really pan out. This is due to several technological and economic limitations. For one, high-frequency radiation is easily obstructed by objects, including the air. Even if you have a 5G connection, the signal probably isn’t strong enough to provide a notable improvement over LTE. (This kind of weak and intermittent signal is also terrible for cloud gaming.)

And at an economic level, carriers simply can’t build the 5G future they promised. Lightning-fast mmWave 5G has an incredibly short range, so carriers put most of their money into the slower sub-6 or “mid-band” 5G spectrum. This version of 5G operates at lower frequencies than mmWave, which improves coverage and reduces the amount of infrastructure required for a 5G rollout.

“Cloud Gaming” Is More Like “On-Demand Gaming”

Loading Xbox Cloud Gaming on a very large computer monitor.

The failure of the “5G revolution” is readily apparent. And, unfortunately, it’s pushed cloud gaming services into a sticky situation. Cloud gaming is relegated to the home, just as it always was, and it still requires a fast and reliable broadband connection.

For this reason, many people are calling the concept of cloud gaming into question. The benefits of this technology are somewhat limited—yeah, cloud gaming can eliminate the need for a dedicated game console, but if you can afford speedy internet and play enough games to justify a $15 to $20 monthly subscription, the $300 Xbox Series S probably won’t plunge you into debt.

The main benefit of cloud gaming technology, it seems, is on-demand gaming. This is something Review Geek has discussed several times in the past. Cloud gaming lets you try a game before you download it or buy a physical copy. And if your PC isn’t powerful enough for modern AAA games, cloud gaming can help you overcome that hurdle without a hardware upgrade (which costs a lot more than a new game console).

And, as I learned while testing the Logitech G Cloud, services like Xbox Cloud Gaming or NVIDIA GeForce Now allow you to play your favorite games while a family member is using the TV. But in most situations, you’d be better off using Remote Play, which streams games directly from your Xbox, PlayStation, or PC to other devices on your network.

Until high-speed internet becomes more common in the United States, cloud gaming is trapped in this strange space where it can’t reach a broader audience. And for that reason, the leading companies in cloud gaming may be looking for a way out.

This Business May Not Be Sustainable

A photo of a phone awkwardly attached to a Stadia controller.

The people who could benefit most from cloud gaming are low-income families. Those who can’t afford the initial investment of a console could pay $15 or $20 for a cloud gaming subscription, which turns any laptop, phone, or table into a “game console.”

Of course, internet speeds are the limiting factor here. And spending $15 to $20 a month on top of a premium internet plan (with unlimited data) is an expensive gambit. Cloud gaming services banked on the “5G revolution” to solve this problem, but things didn’t go as planned.

So, who’s left to embrace cloud gaming? If you own a game console, the benefits of this technology are marginal at best—you’ll have a better experience if you just download your games. And if your internet is fast and reliable, there’s a pretty decent chance that you already own or can afford a game console, reducing your personal need for cloud gaming.

This may explain why cloud gaming services are losing their momentum. Google tossed Stadia in the trash, Amazon is slowly culling its Luna library, and Microsoft now seems uninterested in affordable cloud gaming hardware (such as its canceled Keystone TV dongle). I assume that Xbox Cloud Gaming will stick around, as Microsoft seems keen on keeping its foot in the door, but the service doesn’t appear to be gaining any significant popularity.

Things Could Change, Eventually

Xbox Cloud Gaming on a phone with an attached gamepad.

The concept of cloud gaming is exciting. In theory, it could reduce the cost of entry for gaming by reducing the need for dedicated consoles or PCs. Additionally, cloud gaming could allow you to play AAA titles from anywhere, even outside your home.

But these concepts won’t come to life without major technological developments. Back in 2018 or 2019, such developments seemed like they were right around the corner—5G was supposed to change everything! Today, we’re looking at a longer and murkier timetable.

Maybe fiber-optic internet will be the saving grace. Or, maybe carriers will invest in mmWave 5G, bolstering the coverage and reliability of this standard. Unfortunately, these tasks cannot be done overnight. They require an incredible amount of labor, resources, and money.

So, don’t hold your breath. For the time being, “cloud gaming” is a myth, and we’re stuck with something that’s more like “on-demand gaming.”

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