VPNs, or virtual private networks, are versatile privacy tools that can improve multiple aspects of your online experience, especially when it comes to streaming TV, sports and movies. But can they level up your gaming experience, too? Given the rise of multiplayer genres like MOBAs, battle royales and competitive shooters, video games are increasingly online. But check this tutorial before you jump into the VPN fray: Some VPNs claim to be an easy fix for your online gaming needs, but many gamers will be better off without one.
CNET has tested the major VPN services, including running thousands of speed tests across multiple devices and comparing key features to help you find the best VPN. We'll also walk through the benefits and drawbacks of a VPN for gaming so you can weigh whether your wallet would be better served elsewhere. If you decide you need one, we've broken down the best VPNs for gaming to help you find the service that fits your needs.
Most gamers can enjoy their games without a VPN, but there are a couple of key questions to ask yourself if you're wondering about getting one:
If your answer to any of those questions is "yes," there's a good chance you could benefit from using a VPN. ExpressVPN is CNET's editors' choice for best overall VPN, but check out our VPN coverage below to find the provider that best suits your needs.
The main reason to connect to a VPN when gaming online is the ability to choose your own servers. That flexibility has a few benefits, including the potential to lower your all-important ping, aka latency. Ping measures how quickly your device can get information from a game's servers. For competitive online games like Overwatch, Valorant, League of Legends and anything else with online matchmaking, faster ping gives you an advantage by allowing you to respond faster to what's happening in the game.
The key consideration here is the word "potentially." There's no guarantee a VPN will actually improve your ping. For people in commonly served regions like the US, Europe and eastern Asia, most games do a good enough job of routing you to the appropriate server for the fastest ping. Some even allow you to choose your servers in the game itself. The people who would benefit most from a VPN are the people outside of those regions who are dealing with higher ping -- think 100 milliseconds or more. In those cases, you're probably pretty far away from the server, and a VPN could allow you to find a more direct route to the closest servers, thus lowering the amount of time it takes your device to receive their information. But if you connect to a server that's farther away from the game's data centers, you'll actually increase your ping and make latency worse. Unless you know exactly where the nearest data center is, you might have to hunt around.
And if you're not playing competitive games, you probably don't need to manually change your servers unless you're suffering truly unbearable ping spikes.
Playing games with strangers online can be thrilling, but it can also bring out the worst in people. Some gamers can take things much too seriously and look for revenge against opponents or even teammates. In extreme cases, those acts of revenge can include doxxing, where a player looks up your personal information and posts it online, potentially exposing you to any number of unwanted experiences from bad actors, including threatening messages outside of the game client.
A VPN protects you from doxxing by hiding your IP address, making it much harder for bad actors to look up personal info like your email or physical address. If you're particularly worried about targeted harassment, a VPN is worth considering.
If you use a lot of data in your online activity, you might discover that your internet service provider is throttling your connection and giving you slower speeds than you're paying for. Gaming isn't a huge contributor to data usage, but downloading lots of games can add up quickly, especially if you download behemoths like Baldur's Gate 3 or the upcoming Starfield, which involve hefty 100GB downloads. Slower speeds can make it longer to download games and sometimes worsen the quality of your online gaming experience if your internet can't upload and download data fast enough.
VPNs are one of the most effective weapons against internet throttling because they have a variety of tools to fight it, mostly revolving around hiding your IP address. Without a VPN, your ISP will see that you're gaming and may throttle your speeds based on your online activity. But with a VPN, your ISP won't know what you're doing online, so it won't be able to employ activity-based throttling.
Unless your ISP is throttling your connection to lower your connection speed, a VPN is going to slow down your connection speed. While raw connection speed is not generally as important for gaming as ping is, a slow enough speed will start to detract from your ability to download and play games. The fastest VPNs might knock your speeds by about 10%, but most VPNs will slow things down by much larger margins, even up to half.
The most important factor here is your internet connection speed without a VPN. Single-digit megabits per second can be sufficient for gaming, although 10-25Mbps will yield the best results, according to CNET's sister site, Allconnect. If your connection speeds are significantly higher than that (roughly 50Mbps or higher), a VPN probably won't slow you down enough to make a difference. But if your connection speed is any lower, and you're not actively being throttled, a VPN might lead to a worse gaming experience, especially if you have a lot of other devices connected to your network and eating into your bandwidth.
This is a common consideration when using a VPN, but be sure to check the terms of any services you're using, including the games themselves as well as any storefronts and launchers. For example, the popular app Steam prohibits users from using VPNs to disguise their place of residence, as stated in its subscriber agreement:
"You agree that you will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to order or purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose. If you do this, Valve may terminate your access to your Account."
Playing a game through a VPN doesn't appear to constitute a breach of those terms, but forgetting that you're connected to a different server when you buy a game could constitute a bannable offense. Make sure to check the ToS for your favorite games and platforms before using a VPN and look for language like the Steam example above.
The most worthwhile VPNs cost money, and while you can try to control costs by subscribing to a cheap VPN, you're still paying for a service. For users with specific needs that VPNs can accommodate, they're well worth the cost, but not every gamer ultimately needs a VPN. If you don't play games with online multiplayer, you have good speed and ping or you aren't worried about IP leaks, you won't get your money's worth from a VPN.