By Greg Dempsey
September 15, 2018
Not all games are created equal, and gamers know this. Not every game is going to end up being an esports staple, even great online games that are made with esports in mind. It just doesn’t happen for everybody, and that’s fine. But there is one niche community that’s almost there as an esport, but not quite. They have the Twitch viewership and the camaraderie that comes with it, but they haven’t quite reached stardom.
Let’s talk about speedrunning.
For those that don’t know, or only have a fleeting idea, speedrunning is just the act of playing through a game, usually a single-player one, as fast as humanly possible. People try to shoot for records in all sorts of games, be it Mario Kart or Skyrim, trying to break the game down to a level where they can beat it way faster than the developer intended.
Usually, this involves using a lot of glitches or exploits to skip past parts of the game or move a character at ridiculous speeds. A great speedrunner is a sight to behold; world record runs are always fun to watch because they’re playing the game at a way higher level than what is considered “natural” for these single-player games.
So…why hasn’t it hit the big time yet? Why isn’t speedrunning a full-fledged esport?
Speedrunning requires perfection of one specific game, and it requires running through a game with as few errors as possible over and over and over again. You have to memorize every input, every map layout, and never make a mistake—or else you have to start over.
Oh, and even if you’re the best, you have to keep doing it…because someone’s gonna end up gunning for your world record.
There’s no end to a speedrunner’s practice, and for a lot of people, that just isn’t fun at all. For most, it can be too much of a chore to “get into,” and people would rather just play games normally and naturally.
It doesn’t just affect the number of players, too—that can affect the people watching it. You need an audience to have an esport, which brings us to the next problem.
This is easily the most important reason for why speedrunning is such a niche, insular online community. Because speedrunning does not occur as a multiplayer or team esport, its growth relies on audience and viewership. The problem is, no one wants to watch speedrunning that often due to the previous point (practice is long, repetitive, and punishing).
For someone to get an audience as a speedrunner, they have to be the best at a particular game (sometimes more than one), but that means that their stream is constantly running those games and only those games. Variety and variance (even in one game, like League or Overwatch) are what keep people watching streams, and you literally can’t get that from speedrunning.
There are a few exceptions to this, though: charity streams and conventions end up being particularly popular on Twitch. The GDQ series, which stands for “Games Done Quick,” is often the top of Twitch when it’s running due to its unique format. The conventions have multiple speedrunners and commentators, and speedrunners will often explain their tactics and game quirks while playing. If they don’t get the world record then and there, they’re getting something very close to it.
This solves the problem of speedrunning being repetitive and punishing; these guys aren’t just practicing, they’re targeting a specific “score” for a run in the game and showing off the fastest ways to beat it. The GDQ series shows a lot of games rapid-fire, so viewers don’t get bored. It’s Ocarina of Time, followed by Ninja Gaiden, followed by Borderlands…it’s a wild ride for people who aren’t used to it and are watching the glitches for the first time.
The problem is that you can only do that a few times a year. You can’t hold those conventions all the time!
This is worth mentioning because it can have a severe impact on gathering an audience. They are single-player games almost all of the time, which means that the game throws the same (or nearly the same) obstacles at you every single time. The enemies are going to act within the parameters of their predetermined AI. It’s up to the speedrunner to just interact with the game as fast as humanly possible.
The problem is that there is a cap to this; there is a calculatable limit to the speed at which these games can be completed. So, sometimes they just have a computer do it for them, running the inputs at the fastest speeds possible.
This is called “TAS,” and it stands for “tool-assisted speedrun.” It is more of an umbrella turn nowadays that means both “having the computer do the entire run for you” and “using the computer for parts that would require inhuman execution.”
It’s not unusual to see a pro player (or a pro team) have sponsors from all sorts of sources. Intel and Red Bull have been in the game for a while, and Coca-Cola is a pretty prestigious one that has recently entered in the fray. Hell, the Smash player BizzaroFlame was sponsored by Pornhub for a while.
Sponsorships are important for paying for expenses that are incurred just from being a pro player. T-Mobile or Mountain Dew paying some of your hotel and travel fees (or in some cases, all of them) can really make the difference between being able to attend a major tournament and sitting it out.
But for speedrunners, sponsorships are nonexistent. Speedrunners, most of the time, are just playing in their own homes, practicing as they see fit, only flying or driving out a few times a year for conventions. Otherwise, they incur no fees…what is a sponsorship gonna buy them, another copy of Goldeneye and a new N64 controller?
This brings us to our final point:
Very rarely are games made to be beaten anymore; they’re made with replayability in mind and focus on a lot of features. Speedrunning can’t grow as an esport because it relies on the fact that it is stagnant; speedrunners can play the same game for decades and constantly look for new ways to get a faster time, and it makes little sense for them to move on to anything else.
Some game developers actually do try to make a few games with speedrunning in mind, but targeting a niche audience like that rarely works out. Games like Super Meat Boy are great games first and foremost, in a genre that naturally attracts speedrunners (coupled with challenging gameplay that they crave). If you haven’t heard of more obscure examples, like Dustforce, it’s because they fizzled before they could get the sort of audience they wanted.
Some new games are still compatible with speedrunning, but the “fun” isn’t always there. They need to have cool glitches or workarounds to make them fun to watch, and not all games have that anymore; generally, newer generations of games are more polished experiences with all the kinks ironed out.
Unfortunately, I don’t think speedrunning is going to “get there.” Something drastic would have to happen, and it would have to be on the part of facilitators or developers, rather than the already passionate community that pours nothing but love into their game. Their scene certainly won’t die any time soon, but they won’t have the explosion of popularity that lets them be considered an esport on the level that people are already used to.