13 Best Linux distros for gaming in 2021

If you are a hardcore PC gamer, Linux might not be your first choice. That’s fair because Linux isn’t treated as a first-class citizen when it comes to gaming.

You won’t find the most awaited games of the year available on Linux natively. Not to forget that all the essential software tools and drivers needed for your shiny gaming hardware configuration may not be available on Linux desktop.

I am not discouraging you. Gaming on Linux has improved a lot in the last few years. There are more native Linux games, even if they are not in the same league as the mainstream games like Watchdogs.

Valve’s announcement of their own Linux gaming distro proved to be a turning point, which made gaming publishers stand up and acknowledge the presence of the open source platform.

The titles soon began trickling in, and now even major gaming studios are proudly showing off the penguin compatibility of their marquee titles.

Thanks to initiatives such as Proton, Linux users get decent game play even on titles that were designed only for Windows.

Even before Valve got into the act, the flag bearers of gaming on Linux have been evergreen open source initiatives such as the WINE compatibility layer, gaming platforms like Lutris that rely on its strong community to power hundreds of gaming titles on Linux, and high-quality open source drivers from vendors such as AMD.

Thanks to all these initiatives the open source operating system has not only proved itself as a very capable gaming platform, it can even sometimes outperform Windows.

Companies like Feral Interactive port Windows games to Linux regularly and you can get titles like Tomb Raiders on Linux with a few months of delay.

The biggest improvement to Linux gaming has come from Steam’s Proton project. With this new Wine-based project, you can play many of the Windows-only games on Linux desktop. The best thing is that you can use Steam on any Linux distributions.

Yes, there are hundreds of Linux distributions. And for gaming, you should be okay with any mainstream distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora with Steam Play installed on it.

So, what’s the difference then? Are all distributions equal when it comes to gaming? To an extent, yes but not entirely.

You see, the latest graphics drivers and supporting gaming libraries support is a crucial part of gaming. Some distributions either provide that out of the box or they provide an easier way to install or enable them.

In this article, I’ll share with you the most gaming-friendly Linux distributions. I’ll also share some of the distributions that have been specifically crafted for gaming purpose.

1. Lakka

Lakka OS – Image Credit: lakka.tv

This is a lightweight Linux distro that transforms a computer into full-blown game console.

Lakka OS is able to emulate a wide variety of consoles. It brings all these console emulators under the gorgeous front end of RetroArch.

All the emulators are compiled with the best optimizations possible and so Lakka OS runs the games more smoothly than the normal emulators. Most games will require very few hardware resource, except for the Playstation or Xbox games.

The key features of Lakka OS are multiplayer, savestates, shaders, netplay, rewind, and support for wireless joypads.

2. SparkyLinux

SparkyLinux – Image Credit: wepc.com

If you’re a gamer who’s into playing games on emulators, SparkyLinux – Gameover Edition is for you.

They already have a ton of pre-installed games that you could play with but the APTus Gamer program offers you with even more options to play.

This contains a list of emulators that you could install on your system. However, if you wish to play games on Steam, PlayOnLinux, or Wine, you need to have them manually installed since they don’t come pre-installed.

Overall, if you’re an avid gamer inclined towards playing games on an emulator, it’s a game over once you install the SparkyLinux – Gameover edition.

3. Ubuntu GamePack

Ubuntu GamePack – Image Credit: ualinux.com

Ubuntu GamePack comes from Ukrainian developers UALinux, and is very similar to Drauger OS.

Both distros are based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, though Ubuntu GamePack uses a customized Gnome desktop environment.

Furthermore, in addition to proprietary codecs and drivers, Ubuntu GamePack also provides multiple gaming platforms and tools including Steam, Lutris, PlayOnLinux, and more.

However, with Ubuntu GamePack you also get a time-limited trial version of CrossOver, which is a proprietary compatibility app based on WINE that you can use to run Windows games (and apps). The distro also includes the DOSBox emulator to run DOS games as well as ScummVM to run classic adventure and role-playing games.

The highlight of the distro is a set of optimizations known as GameMode that tweaks the installation to make it more suitable for gaming.

The distro also includes a whole set of regular desktop productivity apps to pitch itself as a very capable desktop distro for gamers.

It also scores over Drauger for using a customized instance of the intuitive Ubuntu Ubiquity installer.

4. Manjaro Linux

Manjaro Linux – Image Credit: reddit.com

If you like to have the latest and greatest driver support along with a kernel upgrade, a rolling release distribution like Manjaro Linux would be a good pick.

I wouldn’t recommend this to new Linux users, but if you think you can handle troubleshooting your system if something goes wrong, you can give it a try.

I know that a rolling release distribution is not ideally a “reliable” option for Linux gamers. But, if you are someone with AMD graphics card and you need the latest Mesa graphics driver (for instance, to play Cyberpunk on Linux), Manjaro can be an option.

5. Drauger OS

Drauger OS – Image Credit: draugeros.org

Drauger OS describes itself as a Linux Desktop Gaming OS. The distro is based off Ubuntu LTS releases and the current 7.5.1 release sits atop Ubuntu 20.04 LTS.

However instead of opting for the kernel from Ubuntu, Drauger uses the mainline Linux kernel.

The developers have compiled the kernel with low latency enabled and have also changed the scheduling frequency from 250Hz to 1000Hz.

Thanks to these changes, gamers should experience higher frame rates, reduced screen tearing, and generally better performance in the game play.

The distro installs Steam Client straight on the start of the Live environment.

The distro uses a customized Xfce desktop environment and new users will appreciate the tutorial in the welcome app that’ll take them through a whistle stop tour of the new environment.

6. Garuda Linux

Garuda Linux – Image Credit: garudalinux.org

Garuda Linux is rather less known distribution but could be a good fit for general purpose desktop computing and gaming.

It is based on Arch Linux and provides several GUI applications to easily manage the system. The one thing that you would like here is the Garuda Gamer application.

It’s basically a GUI tool that lets you easily install gaming related tools from one place. You can use it to install Itch, Wine, Play on Linux, Steam Proton, GOG and many more such packages.

7. Fedora Games Spin

Fedora Game Spin – Image Credit: fedoraproject.org

Fedora Games Spin is a Fedora Spins OS with a GNOME desktop environment.

What makes Fedora Games Spin a solid choice for gaming is its extensive list of preinstalled free games. Over 100 free Linux games come preinstalled on this OS, letting users start gaming as soon as the OS is installed.

The library covers everything from racing games to turn-based strategy games. Don’t expect AAA games, though. Despite coming with a wide selection of games, they are still open-source and free, with their graphics reflecting as much.

In addition, it’s user-friendly, which will satisfy new Linux users. Although Fedora Games Spin has an easy-to-use interface, it doesn’t come with much of the default system software users need.

Thanks to its easy-to-use Gnome desktop environment, users won’t have trouble downloading the other games and applications they need.

8. Kubuntu

Kubuntu – Image Credit: kubuntu.org

Before publishing this article, I asked around for some suggestions for favorite Linux distributions for gaming.

Not just limited to our forums (itsfoss.community) but also some Reddit threads pointed at Kubuntu as their preferred choice just because they feel KDE desktop environment is easy on their system resources which improves their gaming experience.

Fret not, I’m not the only one saying this, but Jason Evangelho from Forbes also revealed the fact that KDE is probably the best lightweight desktop environment.

Of course, with updates to KDE, this might change in the near-future. But, it is definitely lighter on system resources when compared to GNOME.

So, if you’re worried about your old gaming rig, you should give Kubuntu a try.

9. Solus

Solus – Image Credit: getsol.us

This is a unique type of Linux distro because compared to the rest of the distros, this isn’t based on Arch Linux, Ubuntu, and Debian. Instead, this is a Linux OS that’s made from scratch.

What makes this great is the fact that you get to choose from the 3 desktop environments you’re already comfortable with:

  • GNOME
  • Mate
  • Budgie

There’s no difference between the three and you could choose whichever environment works out for you.

It has a modern touch to it compared to the rest of it’s Linux distro brethren. It almost has everything you need right out of the box and this comes pre-installed with programs you could use for general home use, browsing, and gaming.

To top that off, you get the latest versions of drivers and software with Solus.

But like the Steam OS, you need a more powerful rig to run this OS.

10. Pop!_OS

Pop!_OS – Image Credit: reddit.com

The Pop!_OS distro by hardware vendor System76 is one of the best options for gamers who want to assemble their own gaming installation.

Pop!OS is based on the Ubuntu LTS release and sports its own user interface over Gnome, dubbed Pop Shell. The distro has all the necessary plumbing to give its users to mould it as per their requirements.

For gamers that includes getting hybrid graphics to work on Linux and giving you the option to launch games on the GPU in the context menu.

While the distro doesn’t ship with any gaming platforms, unlike the other options in this guide, you can easily pull the likes of Steam, Lutris, and GameHub from its app store without much effort.

Furthermore the distro is available in a couple of flavors; a standard image and one that comes with the proprietary Nvidia driver pre-installed.

11. Linux Mint

Linux Mint – Image Credit: linuxmint.com

If you do not like your experience with Ubuntu, you can try Linux Mint. Technically, it does a few things better than Ubuntu.

Linux Mint also offers LTS releases similar to Ubuntu.

Unlike some Ubuntu flavors (like Kubuntu & Lubuntu), which provides 3 years of system updates, Linux Mint offers 5 years of updates no matter what desktop environment you go for.

You get the option to choose Xfce, MATE, or Cinnamon edition.

Overall, Linux Mint is easy to use, compatible with a wide range of hardware, and lets you install/remove software without any hassle using its software manager app.

12. GamerOS (ChimeraOS)

GamerOS – Image Credit: chimeraos.org

GamerOS, as you can probably make out from its name, is a distro designed for gaming. But unlike some of its peers that support multiple gaming platforms, GamerOS only focuses on Steam.

The distro in fact boots straight into Steam’s new Big Picture mode, which is an interface that’s designed especially for use with TVs.

The new mode is meant to be navigated by controllers, which is why GamerOS defaults to being operated with controllers, though you can still use the mouse and keyboard if you prefer.

GamerOS supports Xbox 360, Xbox One, DualShock 3 & 4, Switch Pro, Steam controllers and several others.

It also includes its home-brewed set of tools called Steam Tweaks that help simplify the configuration of your gaming environment.

Another highlight of the distro is its support for non-Steam games thanks to a custom web-based service called Steam Buddy.

GamerOS is based on Arch Linux and is designed to be the only OS on a machine, so you can’t dual-boot it.

This greatly simplifies installation, which requires no user intervention besides pointing it to the hard disk you want to install it to.

GamerOS will download a fresh image of the distro during installation, so make sure you have an active connection to the Internet.

13. batocera.linux

batocera.linux – Image Credit: batocera.org

batocera.linux is a Linux distro for retro game lovers. You can play retro games from Atari, Super Nintendo, SEGA, Dreamcast, some GameBoy Advance games, and a lot more.

However, you need to own the games in order to play them.

You do not need to install the OS by partitioning your hard drive, you just need a USB stick and you can boot directly from it to play the games you own.

It also comes with Kodi Media Center integrated, so that you can switch to watching movies when you get bored of games.

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