What the Hell is Speedrunning? An Introduction for the Rest of Us.
It’s Saturday night in the summer and I’m staying in.
Instead of meeting friends downtown, I’m at home watching an adult man named Cheese05 in a Pikachu hat play Super Mario in front of a thousand cheering fans. They’re seated behind his couch, where he sits clutching his controller; a commentator’s voice can be heard reading out donations.
In addition to his Pikachu hat, Cheese05 is wearing an expression of intense concentration. His body barely moves as he lines Mario up to jump into the castle walls; it looks like everybody’s favorite plumber is about to get a concussion.
But when the man presses ‘jump,’ Mario passes harmlessly through the stone wall. The chatroom embedded in the video feed starts refreshing at an alarming rate; in the bottom right corner of the screen, a ticker jumps up to “$3,000,000.” The crowd goes berserk; another ticker informs me that I am one of 150,000 people tuned in online.
What the hell is going on here?
Twice a year, thousands of people cram themselves into tightly packed rows at a convention center to spend a week watching professional gamers race to beat their favorite games as fast as possible, for charity. This is Games Done Quick (aka GDQ), a biennial speedrunning marathon.
Millions of viewers around the world join in throughout the week via the Amazon-owned ESPN of video games, Twitch.tv. These viewers come to spectate the races, chat with each other, and contribute money. Last year, the Summer Games Done Quick marathon raised a whopping $3,039,596 for the international aid group Doctors Without Borders.
In a week.
The event is wholesome and wonderful and very, very weird. It’s a grand coming together of the global gaming community in support of charity and yet most people have no idea it exists. When I try to explain the appeal to parents, friends, professors, and strangers I tend to receive the blankest of blank looks followed by the same question:
“Why would anyone want to watch someone else playing video games?”
It’s always the same question put the same way, with the emphasis on ‘watch someone else,’ as if the idea of spectating another person doing something instead of doing it yourself is as repulsive as slurping down a 10-pack of raw hot dogs. When I get this response, I think of the skepticism faced by early jazz musicians, Cubists, Beatniks, and other misunderstood innovators, but I might be being a tad defensive.
For the last ten years, I’ve been rehashing the same arguments about the validity, value, and cultural importance of video games. Several years ago I became so fed up with not having the right words or authority to express my arguments that I enrolled in a graduate program where I could research video games as art and culture. I will admit that I may have done this so that I could beat my father in an argument, but it’s become more than that.
I’ve made a conscious effort to help people better understand the cultural phenomena of video games, often for the sake of their students, children, siblings, spouses, and friends. I’ve met with parents and spoken at schools, but nothing prepared me for trying to explain speedrunning because, seriously y’all: Why would anyone want to watch someone else play a video game?
Surface-level answers are easy to find. Even beyond the rise of Instagram, Facebook Live, and YouTube unboxings — each of which offer ample evidence that humans enjoy watching other humans do things — centuries of spectator sports ranging from gladiatorial combat to the NFL provide a straightforward parallel. Still, we’ve had hundreds of years as a species — millennia, really — to figure out that we like watching sports whereas video games have only been around for about fifty years, and only in the last fifteen or so have they become subjects of live spectacle. For many, the idea of playing video games remains odd enough on its own; watching another person play sounds downright bizarre. Speedrunning, then, is a niche within a niche. Despite being esoteric, it turns out that learning a little bit about Speedrunning can be a better introduction to understanding gaming as a trend than almost anything else. So: what the hell is going on here?
What is speedrunning?
Let’s start with the basics.
Speedrunning is a competitive form of gaming centered around individual players attempting to complete specific games in the smallest amount of time.
Unlike other forms of competitive gaming like those in Call of Duty, League of Legends, and Fortnite, speedrunning isn’t specific to a single game and has more in common with rock climbing than team sports like basketball: the magic of both stem from watching a single expert tackle seemingly insurmountable obstacles in exciting ways.
Why is it fun to watch?
Whether watching professional sports or appreciating masterpieces at a museum, a certain degree of fluency — that is, familiarity with a field’s rules and expectations — provides viewers with an added sense of satisfaction when they watch. And just as the perfect tilt of an actor’s head might satisfy an amateur thespian or the perfect hail-Mary pass in the Super Bowl might light up a backyard quarterback, so too do I gasp when I watch a speedrunner dash their avatar across a narrow stone bridge over a spike-lined chasm, avoiding swinging blades and oncoming fireballs as they go, leaping at precisely the right time and colliding with the exact pixel to execute a glitch that sends his character hurtling through a wall clean into a secret, unrendered, ghostly space beneath the ‘real’ parts of the game.
In this limbo, where the game’s developer’s never intended anyone to go, the runner can fly their avatar in a straight line, whizzing by a dungeon’s worth of labyrinthine rooms, monstrous enemies, and deadly traps only to resurface within the final villain’s chamber.
With a single cheaty trick, this guy bypassed whole sections of a game I remember desperately trying to beat myself; only I did them the ‘right’ way, the ‘intended’ way, the ‘twenty-five-hours-of-trial-and-error-and-screaming-and-hair-tearing-this-game-is-too-hard-way.” I am stunned by this runner’s performance; he has outdone me in every possible way, and, in the process, changed my expectations and understanding of what one of my favorite games could be and what it really means to ‘play.’
When I offered this comparison as explanation of speedrunning’s merits to my girlfriend, who does not play video games, she replied with a perfect question that I, a lifelong fan of games, had never considered:
“Why is skipping a bunch of challenges more satisfying than beating them the intended way, albeit quickly?”
Just like that, I realize I have more explaining to do.
Where’s the fun in skipping everything?
Isn’t the point to play the game?
To get at why ‘skipping’ can be as fun as ‘playing’, it’s useful to start on this common ground: almost all video games are about finding solutions to obstacles in order to achieve goals.
Sure, individual goals, obstacles, and solutions may vary from game to game, but the structure is shared: Pac-Man must dodge ghosts if he wants to eat all the dots; Mario must leap over hazards to save the princess; Tetris players must rotate falling blocks to keep them from filling up the screen. This underlying similarity means that it’s possible to make some pretty broad generalizations about what makes playing — or watching — video games fun. With that in mind, let’s move on.
1. People love solutions, the big “Aha!”
As it happens, my girlfriend is a professional carpenter. I am not. I am afraid of saws.
Once upon a time, though, a family friend offered me his woodshop and his help in order to make a fancy cutting board for a mother’s day gift. I wanted to make her one of those craft-fair types that alternate strips of different colored wood. I figured it would be an agonizing process; that I’d need to cut each strip of wood to size first, then sand it down, being careful to keep the dimensions perfect-perfect-perfect, and then do that twenty more times before gluing it all together individually. I was terrified. When our family friend noticed my fear, he told me hang back and watch. I suspect he didn’t want a nervous teen using his table saw. (Thanks, Dave — I need these thumbs for video games.)
Then he grabbed two long planks — one light, one dark — and sawed them into twenty rough strips before gluing them together. The result was the ugliest hunk of wood I’d ever seen: sure, there were my evenly-spaced stripes of color, but everything else was wrong. The height of each strip varied wildly and none of the ends lined up. How was I going to get everything even? Wouldn’t it have been easier to have fashion each strip to size before putting them together? Well, no.
As it turns out, there’s a tool called a “wood planer” which is basically a big box with a rectangular opening and a conveyor belt running through it. A big hunk of wood can be run through that conveyor belt and a series of blades shave one entire face of the block in one go. Two passes through that machine and the height of my cutting board was uniform.
The ends were still messy, so my friend’s father simply ran each of the sides over the table saw, which carved off the uneven parts in a clean line. In five minutes and four cuts, I was holding a finished cutting board, and my mind was blown. I had just experienced what humanity calls an “Aha moment.”
Something that had been familiar and difficult became unfamiliar for a moment and then became easy and beautiful all at once. That’s what I feel when I watch a speedrunner demonstrate that a series of locked doors, solid walls, and enemies are actually as unnecessary and time-consuming to deal with as trying to walk everywhere backwards. But there’s more to speedrunning than that.
2. Speedrunners give viewers new ways of looking at their favorite games.
Speedrunners aren’t interested in playing by the normal rules. They are interested in going fast and they are willing to spend months pouring over the raw code of a game just to find new rules to break in order to shave a few seconds off their time.
Speedrunners look at games like Neo looks at the Matrix.
Where normal players might pause to appreciate a beautiful in-game sunset, a speedrunner wonders whether the game’s developers might have botched enough of the code to let them skip it. Atmosphere is a delay. Plot is a delay. Pacing is a delay. Any and all characters, scenery, and items are delays. Don’t even bring up ‘side-quests.’ If it can be skipped at all, gameplay itself — no matter how epic — becomes a delay.
In other words, a speedrunner is the type of person who breaks into an asbestos-lined service elevator if it would get them to the right floor a half-second faster than a personal elevator equipped with champagne and a hot tub.
3. Speedrunning is as much about community and collaboration as it is about going fast.
The development of a speedrunning route is a rigorous undertaking. Beyond the hours of practice, it often requires an encyclopedic knowledge of a game’s mechanics as well as exhaustive testing to find new viable strategies. Runners share notes about what works and what doesn’t. This communication has led to the formation of tight-knit online communities devoted to unpacking the potential of their favorite games — not over the course of a single playthrough, but through decades of collaborative iteration, exploration, and discovery.
By working together and redefining what it means to win, speedrunning communities can breathe new life into games far past their prime.
Take Super Mario 64 as an example. Released in 1996, it was one of the first successful 3D games, defined the childhood of a generation of gamers, and launched Mario into mega-stardom. No new content was ever added by its developers and yet, more than two decades after release, speedrunners are still playing it, discovering new secrets and entertaining a global audience as they compete to set new records. That’s wild.
If video games are about finding solutions and confronting obstacles in order to reach a goal, speedrunning is about redefining those obstacles, discovering new solutions, and working together to push the limits of what is possible in a video game.
Watching a good speedrun can be a bit like listening to a great pianist playing a Mozart concerto. A concert is not just about the performer, the composer, or the composition, it’s a conversation between all three plus the audience. And even though great pianists continue playing the same source material, audiences keep showing up because they know they will still be surprised and entertained by each artist’s own interpretation. At its best, speedrunning is the same: a master class in strategy, understanding, technique, and execution within the field of games.
So, why would anyone want to watch another person playing a video game?
Because watching speedrunning is fundamentally different from playing a game normally. Speedrunning is more than just a gameplay sing-a-long or guided tour. It’s a whole new spectator experience that merges countless aspects of different competitive and artistic forms with collaborative research and practice. It’s avant-garde. It’s experimental. It’s a way for communities to come together for charity. It’s a treasure hunt that never ends and a celebration of the games we love. It’s a million viewers and a thousand screaming fans and one guy in a Pikachu hat playing Super Mario very wrong and very fast. It’s a commitment to pushing the limits of an entire form of media.
Is it weird? Yes. Is it niche? Absolutely. But it’s also pretty freakin’ neat.
That’s what the hell is going on.
Header image courtesy of SYFY.
Authors Note: The event recounted at the beginning of this article is a portmanteau of several different moments from within speedrunning, but as far as I know Cheese05 was neither playing when SGDQ 2019 hit $3,000,000, nor wearing a Pikachu hat — though runners have sported all sorts of zany costumes throughout GDQ’s history.