- Strategy games and those with wider perspectives typically need more powerful CPUs.
- Shooters and third-person games are more limited by GPUs.
- It’s more important to avoid bottlenecks when pairing a CPU with a GPU.
The CPU or processor has always been a major consideration when building a computer or purchasing a pre-built model. After all, it’s the so-called brain of the computer, but just how important is the CPU for gaming?
Gaming or running games is, after all, one of the most advanced and most demanding tasks you can ask a computer to perform. So you might be thinking that a CPU for gaming should be a top-of-the-line model and needs to keep up with the GPU or graphics card; so the initial reaction would be to overspend on the CPU.
Well, to a certain extent, the CPU also gets to dictate just how well the computer performs when running video games. However, it’s still the GPU that handles the bulk of the workload, especially when processing demanding graphics and visuals.
Still, we’re not saying that it’s okay to pair an RTX 4090 with an Intel i3 or a Ryzen 3 processor. Nothing is stopping you from doing that, it’s just not going to produce some smooth results. There’s a minimum to the model of the CPU for gaming and there’s also a certain model or tier limit to where that excess CPU power starts going to waste.
That’s what we’re here to discuss. Just how much CPU power do you need for gaming?
Games Are Built Different
The most straightforward answer would be, it depends on the games you want to play.
Certain games are more demanding on the CPU than others. The most notable types of games that do tend to require beefy CPUs (and also GPUs) would be strategy games– typically in the real-time gameplay format.
That’s because such kinds of games have no shortage of AI and programming scripts that need to be processed every second. And these processes are also shown simultaneously on-screen; busier scenes with more AI interactions tend to hog the CPU even more.
You’ll notice this a lot in games like Total War, Anno, Cities: Skylines, or other complex combinations of simulation and strategy. For those kinds of games, even if you have beefy or powerful GPUs running such games, certain scenes will have their framerate limited by the CPU and how fast it can process numerous scripts and instructions to visual movement or behavior.
Meanwhile, games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Hogwarts Legacy, etc. have simpler instructions for the CPU and thus, performance is more GPU-limited. More action-packed game genres like shooters and adventure games rely less on the CPU and running monitoring tools like MSI Afterburner or Riva Tuner will let you see a usage of 99 percent for the GPU and maybe just 10 percent for the CPU in these kinds of games.
So you could also say how well you need a powerful CPU for gaming depends on the game genres you enjoy. If you find yourself playing more arcade or action-based games, then you could get away with pairing an i5 or a Ryzen 5 with a high-end GPU starting with an RTX 3070 or RTX 4070 (and it’s AMD Radeon equivalent).
But it’s also important to consider that there might also be third-person or first-person games that still require a powerful CPU, like Microsoft Flight Simulator. Games like that perform the complex physics and calculations needed for a faithful simulation of flight. The GPU is for visuals, of course.
So it’s still best to follow the game’s system requirements as a baseline for what kind of hardware you need; depending on certain games’ system requirements, you’ll also want to have some kind of overhead or buffer just to be safe.
Which CPU Is Safe?
With that said, certain CPU models are safer than others and will allow you to rest assured since your computer can run the most demanding games in a span of at least five years (starting from the CPU’s purchase or release year).
Since CPUs keep getting upgraded every 2 years or so, don’t expect this baseline to be relevant in the near future. But for now, having at least a 12th-Gen i5 or a Ryzen 5 from the Ryzen 5000 series will allow you to comfortably run all games (though more complex strategy games might encounter a hiccup if things get too busy) without bottlenecking a mid-range, current-gen GPU at the very least.
Older GPU models are safe to be paired with older CPU models, and vice versa.
If you play mostly strategy games, then you’ll surely benefit more from more cores or more powerful CPU models. In that case, something like a 12th-Gen i7 or a Ryzen 7 from the Ryzen 5000 series will still go a long way and will surely produce a more comfortable framerate compared to a setup with the same GPU but is running an i5 or Ryzen 5.
Make Sure To Avoid Bottlenecks
We’ve mentioned it before and you’ve probably heard of it before online or in computer stores. What exactly is bottlenecking or bottlenecks? It’s a simple phenomenon or handicap for a computer where the more powerful component (such as a beefy gaming GPU) is being held back by a weaker component like an old CPU with only a few cores.
A good example would be pairing an NVIDIA RTX 4090 with an Intel i3 CPU. The CPU won’t be able to feed the GPU data fast enough for the GPU to reach its full potential.
But the rule of thumb for this is to not pair a really old hardware with a newer hardware (lest the newer hardware is wasted). There are also tools or sites you can use to calculate the severity of a bottleneck; very useful when picking components for a PC.
The general consensus is that most computer hardware go outdated five years after their release; so purchasing all-around upgrades instead of just one focused upgrade on a gaming component (usually the GPU) is often the smarter move, that means pairing a powerful GPU with a good CPU or RAM. Those three components typically dictate the framerate.
For more definitive advice, if you’re just gaming, then it’s better to give more budget to the GPU rather than the CPU, but don’t neglect the CPU or cheap out too much on it; make it your number two priority component for a gaming PC.