Gotta Go Fast: Speedrunning’s Incredible Growth in Popularity
What you see in the above video is — ostensibly — just a room full of guys playing old video games. The Internet is no stranger to a scenes like this, so what makes this room so special?
This is Awesome Games Done Quick 2013, a speedrunning marathon that raised over $448,000 dollars for the Prevent Cancer Foundation in just seven days. That makes it the most successful gaming marathon ever.
“If you told me before the marathon that we were going to raise $400,000, I would’ve said you’re absolutely crazy.” AGDQ Marathon Coordinator Mike Uyama said. “I thought this was going to be the first marathon where we wouldn’t raise double what we raised the previous year.”
AGDQ 2012 rasied $149,000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, by the way. It’s hard to imagine a context in which that amount of money seems like a lesser accomplishment, but here we are.
“Thank you, everyone, for proving me wrong,” Uyama said.
How did a room full of guys playing old video games do this? Well, for starters, they’re not just playing. They’re speedrunning, and the gaming community is starting to understand what a difference that is.
But let’s take a step back for a second. What is speedrunning in the first place? The name might have clued you in — it’s simply finishing a game as fast as you possibly can
“When you first gain control to when you lose control,” Uyama said.
In between, anything and everything you can do to cut your time is acceptable so long as it’s just you and the game (so no tool assists, special controllers etc). Glitches and exploits are not only allowed but encouraged, and that’s when speedrunning starts to get unreal.
Imagine a glitch that lets you skip a whole area of a game, but you have to hit the right inputs in a window that’s only a thirty milliseconds wide. Now imagine you have to do that thirty different times, back to back, without a single mistake for hours. That’s the caliber of play that goes into a typical speedrun.
But even though its popularity is starting to explode, speedrunning is nothing new, as Twitch TV’s Community Manager Jared Rea explains.
“It’s not like this is something new. Speedrunning has been around for ages,” Rea explained. “People have always done it. It’s just been this past year or two where the technology has been right and the community functions have been right. Everything has lined up really perfectly for them.”
Speedrunning started with the original Quake and a series called “Quake Done Quick.” Players would take advantage of glitches like rocket jumping and bunny hopping to finish the game as quickly as possible. Quake’s unique demo-recording feature allowed this to happen. Small “demo” files could be recorded and shared, allowing other speedrunners to watch and verify new records as well as share tips and glitches with the community.
This gave birth to Speed Demos Archive, which launched in 1998. This was the first community home for speedrunners, archiving Quake demo files and giving the community a chance to communicate, trade tips, and compete for the fastest times. Eventually the site expanded to include other games in 2004, and since then the community has quietly enjoyed this emergent hobby.
“For years, the speedrunning community has been very tight-knit. They’ve always just done their thing,” Rea said. “They all have the games they like to focus on, they work together and share secrets, they’re always trying to one-up each other. But they’ve always been content to be in the background, do their thing, and play whatever games they’re passionate about.”
So what caused a small but tight community to blow up into a monstrous force that can raise a near half-million dollars for charity in a single week? A combination of factors gave one speedrunner the opportunity to become the pastime’s ambassador.
“December 2011, when Siglemic started doing his Super Mario 64 marathons on Twitch,” Rea remembered. “I think that’s when a lot of people got introduced to speedruns at a greater level.”
It was the perfect storm: not only did the technology exist for speedrunners to share their talents with the world, but an extremely talented speedrunner just happened to be playing the one game that just about anybody could identify with.
And you know, the exact same thing happened to me. I just stumbled into a Siglemic stream thinking “Yeah I could watch some guy play Mario 64.” Little did I know he doesn’t play the game so much as annihilate it. It’s as though he’s playing a completely different game from the one I remember. Siglemic — and every speedrunner for that matter — has the amazing capability to peel back all the layers of a game and show its true core.
“When people saw what he was doing with Super Mario 64, the unbelievable level of skill that he’s putting on display, it just really blew people’s minds,” Rea said, “and it blew the doors off the speedrunning community.”
Once you get over the shock of just how damned skilled these speedrunners are, you might notice another unique trait about the speedrunning community. Unlike anywhere else on the Internet, these guys are really nice.
“I think it just has to do with the roots of how everything started out,” AGDQ Marathon Coordinator Mike Uyama said. “Even back in the Quake days, in the small Quake forum, people were still trading strategies and info. Even though, in a sense, it’s kind of competitive, at the same time we’re all helping each other achieve that goal.”
Now the scene has gotten so big that you can go to SpeedRunsLive any time, day or night, and find live world record attempts for hundreds of games. That constant connectivity is another secret to speedrunning’s success.
“You’re with them throughout the day, you’re seeing their trials, you’re seeing the effort they put into it,” Rea explained. “You see their success, you see their failures. You watch them discover new ways of doing things, you see that discovery happen. When you finally see that world record run, when they finally achieve what they’ve been working so hard for months… it means so much more knowing everything that they’ve put in to this. When you see it happen live, it’s a truly, unimaginably awesome thing.”
When you add it all up you can start to see why AGDQ pulled in the record numbers it did. Not only is the community extremely welcoming, constructive, and skilled, but the AGDQ event pulls together the biggest names for one huge marathon. Whether you follow several of the runners or are just getting interested in the scene, AGDQ is the event to watch. I’m fighting myself to not call it the Superbowl of Speedrunning, but I suppose I just did.
“It all comes down to being able to share that experience,” Rea said. “Whether it’s just your closest friends or a thousand people, you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.”
AGDQ 2013 is the latest and greatest milestone in the growth of speedrunning, but the unavoidable question in my mind is… what comes next? With viewership numbers as high as they are, I worry that sponsorships and monetization would barge in and change the tight, friendly nature of this community.
My imagined analogy starts with my discovery of a pastoral valley of unicorns and pixies just before a logging company moves through and levels the place. Think Avatar or Fern Gully, only with guys that play video games really fast.
“I do know at least a couple of people who want this to stay a hobby of theirs and not their job,” Uyama said. “It’s on a runner to runner basis. We’ve never been in it for the profit. That’s why all the donations are going to the Prevent Cancer Foundation.”
I’ve got to admit it makes me very happy to hear that. For me, watching speedruns is like going to a bar filled with happy old men. There’s lots of good cheer and happy memories.
If my years on this Earth have taught me anything, is that you have to get as much of that while you can.
If you’re interested in learning about speedrunning, check out the community website Speed Demos Archive. To watch speedrunners, visit SpeedRunsLive. Finally, for links to segments from AGDQ 2013, check these timestamp links on Reddit (Part 1) (Part 2).