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System Latency and NVIDIA Reflex: When Esports and Science Meet

NVIDIA announced the RTX 30 series last week and together with that announcement was also the introduction of NVIDIA Reflex and NVIDIA Reflex Latency analyzer. Both these technologies will be found on the upcoming 360Hz display with NVIDIA Reflex Latency Analyzer built-in like the new 360Hz monitors from ROG. Meanwhile, NVIDIA Reflex is a set of technologies that reduces system latency in competitive games (Fortnite, Valorant, Apex LegendsCall of Duty: Black Ops Cold WarCall of Duty: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Destiny 2.)

Related: NVIDIA Reflex Option in Valorant

These technologies play a big role in the new RTX 30 series card release but what is system latency and how does it play into competitive gaming?

NVIDIA has actually published a great video highlighting specifically what system latency is and in even greater detail how it affects certain aspects of games particularly the following:

  • Hit Registration
  • Peeker’s Advantage
  • Flick shot accuracy

System Latency Defined

To define system latency, we have to define what latency is. Think of latency as the amount of time it takes for an action to receive a reaction. Clicking your mouse is an action and the reaction is, in FPS games, is firing your weapon.

In games, we’re familiar with network latency which is the ping, or the time it takes for data to make it back to your PC. High network latency can cause a poor sense of the game scenario leading to poor hit registration, interactions and most evidently, delayed positions.

Network latency is always present, whether a network is good or bad. Lower is always better, of course. Network instability though is when the ping is already bad and its also unstable. Network instability leads to rubber banding where you’re moving in-game then your character snaps back to a previous location, leading to missed shots and terribly angry noises on the mic. Everyone refer to this, simply as lag.

System latency on the other hand is the latency between your mouse (or any input device) to the screen or monitor. As mentioned, a good example and perhaps the most important is the left mouse click and the firing of your gun in FPS games. System latency can adversely affect gaming performance and while not as visible as network latency, under the expanded view of a high-speed camera, this gets pictured more clearly:

As the video shows, everything was done perfectly: the aim, the shot and any hitscan shot would’ve connected but system latency proved to be a barrier in making that shot connect. The player reacted and made a click on time but system latency caused a delay which made the shot miss. We’ll go back to this clip in a bit but let’s break down system latency.

Much like network latency has to travel from your PC and across countries through your internet connection, the same is happening to your mouse click but it has pass by other processes in your PC to register:

  • Peripheral Latency: The time it takes your input device to process your mechanical input and send those input events to the PC
  • Game Latency: The time it takes for the CPU to process input or changes to the world and submit a new frame to the GPU to be rendered
  • Render Latency: The time from when the frame gets in line to be rendered to when the GPU completely renders the frame
  • PC Latency: The time it takes a frame to travel through the PC. This includes both Game and Render Latency
  • Display Latency: The time it takes for the display to present a new image after the GPU has finished rendering the frame
  • System Latency: The time encompassing the whole end-to-end measurement – from the start of peripheral latency to the end of display latency

The details above a simple, topical detailing of what a click-to-photon, click-to-display, button-to-action or however you wanna call it. That time is measured in total as system latency. All of this is happening in milliseconds, faster than a blink of an eye. A study suggests a blink on eye ranges from 100-400ms, a good ping time is usually below 20ms, great at >9ms. The same can be said for your system latency but since system latency costs thousands of dollars to measure, the research put into this has been quite limited.

FPS vs System Latency

FPS (frames-per-second) usually correlates to lower system latency due to the faster frametimes of each frame. FPS is the measure of throughput of the graphics card and shows much it can render a specific game, system latency doesn’t normally equate parallel  to high FPS. With a high FPS, this means your system’s render latency is very, very good but as they breakdown above shows, there’s still a lot of factor to put into consideration.

System Latency and Effect on Gaming

We showed this video earlier, and we it used as one the most glaring example of system latency affecting gaming performance. In the video, we can see the target crossing an opening. In normal circumstances, we’ll just dismiss it as a missed shot. But under the eye of a high-speed camera, we can see that’s not the case. High-level players have a sense of when a shot has missed or not we never really knew other than account it to lag or bad netcode but NVIDIA shows us that’s not the case.

This is a delayed hit register and despite how accurate and how perfectly-timed the shot was, the shooter still missed as the target has crossed the shot window. Breaking this down further, the game is reporting that the crosshair is already behind the target due to the processing involved in the game. To put it simply, the game world is not operating at a 1:1 speed with the real world. System latency is causing a delay and not even 1000FPS can make that shot connect if the system latency is still greater than 1ms.

Peeker’s advantage is the phenomenon wherein an attacking player has an advantage over a defending player holding an angle. This is due to the game’s latency of sending positional info being over the network for the defending player, the split-second advantage of the attacker is peeker’s advantage. Players offset this jiggling on the corners, heavily emphasized in Rainbow Six Siege but is present in most FPS. This can be attributed to network latency but system latency also affects it as the video above shows.

With lower system latency and a good network, it is possible for the system with latency to spot the attacking character and make the first shot, reducing the impact of peeker’s advantage. In a LAN tournament, this potentially mitigates it to the point of no impact when equally skilled players are matched up.

Last up, we have the flick shot. A skill that has become synonymous to high skill level, many players practice it with games like Aim Lab and KovaaK, hoping to nail it. A flick shot is described as acquiring the target, flicking to the target and then connecting the shot, all done with high-precision. Simply put, its swinging your mouse and stopping at a dime, right over the target (preferably the head) to make the frag.

The video above shows how lower system latency helps in improving flick shots. At a 55ms system latency, the spread is not too tight which equates to more misses. Lowering that latency improves grouping and with around 15ms system latency we can see shot groupings concentrated more on the the target area now.

System Latency Going Forward

As of right now, NVIDIA and its monitor and mouse partners will probably be using the term system latency. Going forward as more eyes are directed towards the metric and more tests re done, input latency, display latency and system latency will be more  frequently used, and may lead to more insights into how it affects gaming performance.

As NVIDIA pushes cinematic gaming to an 8K dimension, the company is also pushing esports into a low-latency direction. An industry in agreement will allow us to see monitors and keyboards/mice that promote the lowest possible latency in-game so players get the utmost performance in-game.