Fighting the good fight as fast as their thumbs will let them.
Two One-Hundreths of a Second
The air is electric. The lights are dim. For over 24 consecutive hours the best competitors have cycled through the challenge in this hot, hotel ballroom. They all want the same prize: The 100m dash world record on Track and Field 2000 for the Nintendo 64.
There’s nothing but the noise of over 100 people talking at once until a shout comes from near the back, “They started!” Four young men begin madly pounding the A and B buttons on their controllers and their avatars sprint across the screen. A chorus of sporadic cheers pop across the room. The crowd favorite, 0xwas, pushes ahead of the pack and across the finish line. The in-game clock reads 9.41, two one-hundredths of a second faster than the world record.
Queue a stoic victor giving a peace sign as dozens of people explode into a screaming flurry with their hands on their heads.
This is speedrunning.
Games Done Quick is a series of video game marathons. One is held in the Summer, Summer Games Done Quick, and another in the Winter, Awesome Games Done Quick. This bit of footage is from the latter.
“Awesome Games Done Quick is a charity fundraiser that is broadcast[ed] live on Twitch.tv and showcases speedruns for 150 consecutive hours.”Event Director, Andrew Schroeder, explains. “Various prizes are given throughout the broadcast as an incentive to donate, along with different challenges that are exciting enough to be incentives (such as beating Ocarina of Time blindfolded).”
“Speedrunning is beating video games as fast as you can without any outside resources. So no GameSharks, no Action Replays, just the game itself and your controller.”
The Games Done Quick (GDQ) events have been running since 2010 when their first marathon generated over $10,000 for the humanitarian agency CARE. The momentum has been building at a staggering pace ever since. How staggering? January’s AGDQ and April’s SGDQ raised a grand total of $2,606,655 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
Even though AGDQ has been running for over three years, this was my first time rubbing noses with the beast. I had always known that “speedrunners” had existed, and that they lived to beat games as quickly as possible, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It was time to dig more deeply into who these people were and what GDQ was all about.
Against the Game
Michael “Goldfish” Mescheder is a speedrunner and world record holder for beating 2014’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze in 1:31:43. I asked him what it takes to be a speedrunner. He was adamant that it was less arcane that you might think.
Mescheder began speedrunning two years ago largely on a whim. Now he holds a world record and headlined a feature at AGDQ last January. This kind of progress is fascinating. The interesting thing here, though, is that Mescheder is not some kind of prodigy. I asked Mescheder what his first experience with speedrunning was like. He told me he had been watching a stream of speedrunners racing each other and noticed people in the chat trashtalking the winner. That was the lightbulb moment. “It was like, ‘Hey, this is something I could actually do.’ It’s not like you need to be some sort of God or anything to do it. So I just put in my game and I started doing it.” And with a little bit of practice, he eventually hit the top three fastest times.
This attitude is endemic of the speedrunning culture. When put next to the attitudes prevalent in other competitive communities (see: Call of Duty, League of Legends), this is downright foreign. Speedrunners are consistently supportive of one another, even when they are in direct competition. “It’s competitive, but also very friendly, because rather than everyone against each other, it’s everyone against the game. It’s a collaborative effort to lower the times as much as we can.” This is the key standout in the speedrunning world.
The premium put on winning in games like League of Legends and Call of Duty has ingrained vitriolic rage toward new players into their communities. The new guy makes new guy mistakes and costs your team the victory, ergo, new people are the scum of the Earth. That isn’t present among speedrunners. “It’s [about] setting personal goals rather than being against other people.” This attitude also points toward a sense of unity among these people. Like Mescheder said, it’s not about being against each other, it’s about being against the game.
When the speedrunners come together to do their thing, they need a rally point. That is where Andrew Schroeder, Event Director of Games Done Quick, comes in. Schroeder is a speedrunner himself, so it isn’t necessarily a grind to plan and coordinate just about every dimension of the live events. Securing venues, organizing registration for attendees, selecting and scheduling who will be featured live, coordinating with the charity, these are just some of the onus that falls on him.
The breadth of the GDQ events are considerably wider than what a normal enthusiast watching the live stream would expect. “[This is a] fundraiser that is broadcast live on Twitch.tv and showceses speedruns for 150 consecutive hours,” Schroeder told me, “The events are mostly giant gaming parties, and the broadcast actually makes up only small portion of it.”
Only one runner in one ballroom can be streamed at a time, so it follows that the thousands in attendance would make their own fun in the other auditoriums. “For perhaps the first time, happenings off-stream were documented online,” Schroeder told me in regard to the record setting run of the 100m dash on Track and Field 2000. “0xwas breaking the Track and Field [world record] in the casual gaming room with a big audience really captures what kinds of things happen outside of the main broadcast. [It shows] that there is a lot of other goofy stuff that happens at the event.”
For Schroeder it isn’t always parties and terrible/goofy/awesome N64 games,though. Summer Games Done Quick is just around the corner, and the event director’s job has started all over again. “There is a lot of long process needed to make SGDQ happen.” At the top of the docket: Finding a space. “I traveled and toured potential hotels in January and February, worked out a contract with them before March.”
In order to make it onto the main broadcast, speedrunners submit applications, which all need to be sifted through. The final schedule made its way up onto the GDQ website recently, and now registration, voluneer signups and prize donations have opened. On July 26th the doors to Summer Games Done Quick will open in my own St. Paul, Minnesota at the Crowne Plaza!
Coordinating sponsorships are an important part of GDQ events, and another of Schroeder’s responsibilities. Of the several sponsors that were involved with Awesome Games Done Quick last Winter, one of the most involved companies was tinyBuild Games. tinyBuild is the publisher responsible for No Time to Explain, Lovely Planet, and appropriately enough, Speedrunners. Luke Burtis, production director at tinyBuild, told me about how they first rubbed noses with charity events and came to know GDQ.
“It all started with a DLC pack for SpeedRunners with Let’s Players as characters. Then the idea was we were going to donate the money from that to Cancer Research.” I asked him why cancer research. “Because screw cancer, mainly.”
Luke got into contact with their friend company, Humble Bundle, and asked who a good charity partner would be. “They suggested the preventcancer.org charity. And the AGDQ even was supporting preventcencer.org this year. So it just so happened that the 20k that we donated to the Prevent Cancer Foundation got us involved with AGDQ. And thus, we were a sponsor.”
“‘The idea was we were going to donate the money from that to Cancer Research.’ I asked him why cancer research. ‘Because screw cancer, mainly.'”
Co-marketing was the name of the game for tinyBuild and AGDQ. “It turned out that we got [a] crazy amount of visibility via Twitch. Like 100k viewers at all times.” In return, AGDQ had their name bolstered by tinyBuild. And maybe more importantly, the two companies were unified in their combined front against cancer.
A strong sense of community runs through every aspect of GDQ, down to the way the business itself runs. Even the indie video game community has a tightly knit culture. Speaking to Burtis, there was a sense that tinyBuild spoke with Humble Bundle who spoke with the Prevent Cancer Foundation and Games Done Quick and they were all on the same level. There was more of a feeling that this was all done by people talking over Twitter, not businessmen planning in a boardroom.
Michael Mescheder said that even when you’re around speedrunners that are more widely known or more skilled than you, there isn’t a feeling that they think they’re better than you. People are still friendly even if they are popular. The parallel between them and the companies at play are impossible to ignore, and it is beautiful.
People are what make niches special, no matter what they’re into. Video games, films, cycling, it doesn’t matter. If they care about each other and love what they do, then they will accomplish so much more than their heavily regimented counterparts. A community is a built in support network and safety net in the hard times and a driving force in the good. It reaches across lines from business networks to speedrunning networks and they’re all able to funnel their energy and dedication to an excellent cause.
As my conversation with Schroeder winded down, he pontificated momentarily on what it was like when the speedrunning world was united. A speedrunner himself and the GDQ Events Director, Schroeder has a foot in speedrunning and the business. I can think of no better authority to say what it’s like when their worlds intersect.
“The broadcast room has a special aura during the highlight runs. As an example, when [dram55 was playing Kaizo Mario Wold], it was standing room only and the tension on every jump would be felt throughout the entire audience. When the game was completed, everyone in the room instinctively gave a stand ovation. Positive energy could be felt by [everyone] watching online or participating in person. Even as the events grow to the point where they arguably become the size of conventions, the feeling that the community is family still holds up and makes moments like this incredibly special.”