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Speed Freaks

A gaming community goes corporate

My flight touched down late on a Thursday night, and the cab ride from Orlando International to the DoubleTree was concrete desert dappled with palm trees. My driver, a Haitian immigrant named Jean, talked to me about his time working for Disney World—not great—and his opinion of Hillary Clinton—even worse.

“Are you here for work or vacation?” he asked.

“Work, I guess. I’m reporting a story about a convention.”

“What kind of convention?”

“It’s a video game thing. Have you ever heard of speedrunning?”

To Jean’s predictable “no,” I tried for a straightforward explanation. Put simply, speedrunning is the practice of trying to beat a video game—any video game—as quickly as possible, usually according to collectively agreed-upon parameters. The most popular speedrunning games, like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, have dozens of categories, most of which are served by online global leaderboards tracking the fastest times.

A small group of men performed synchronized dabs on the couch while I waited in the lobby for a PR contact to deliver my press pass.

I was on my way to spend more than fifty hours at the tail of the tenth annual Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ), a weeklong speedrunning summit and something like the Kentucky Derby of video games. The past decade has seen the event grow into the heart of a global community that draws thousands of spectators in person, hundreds of thousands on Twitch live streams, and millions of YouTube viewers after the fact. It runs twenty-four hours a day, with speedruns unfolding before a live audience at all hours and broadcasting to the streaming platforms that have made speedrunning into a worldwide phenomenon.

I arrived after midnight, but the event space was humming. A small group of men performed synchronized dabs on the couch while I waited in the lobby for a PR contact to deliver my press pass. Dozens more snapped group pictures and milled about. As is the case at many such conventions, the AGDQ attendees looked on average like a crowd of Pokémon trainers who had been styled at a swap meet. Anime-inspired getups and boldly colored hairstyles dominated. Participants largely went by their screen names, which were displayed on registration badges that had to remain visible at all times. These came affixed to thick, standard-issue lanyards, conveying an appropriately dorky look.

My first stop was the stream room, where a thinned-out live audience was watching a speedrunner called bloodthunder[*] obliterate BioShock. I grabbed a seat, popped an Adderall, and settled in for the speed.

The world is an abundant and mystifying place, its complexity ungraspable by language and textured beyond our most fevered dreams. The same cannot be said of Liberty City, Clu Clu Land, the Mushroom Kingdom, or any other virtual realm. Video games present discrete environments, governed everywhere by immutable laws and impassable boundaries, where questions have clear answers and order is intuited rather than inflicted. As Julie Muncy wrote in Wired, they are “machines masquerading as worlds.”

To play a video game is to embody a sequence of possibilities in an engineered, enclosed micro-reality. For many, that is an explicit part of its appeal: the chance to live out a comforting fantasy of tangible progress, to conquer with certainty and absolute justice. But just as any fixed text invites perpetual reinterpretation, so too can video games serve as foundations for more fluid and open-ended play. These dueling desires find resolution in the art of speedrunning. Its practitioners are less like marathon runners than explorers charting the hard limits of a man-made environment, whether they’re searching for sequence breaks to skip sections of games, planning optimized movement paths, mining for glitches to clip through walls, or practicing the mechanics of lightning-fast menu navigation. Speedrunners don’t simply go fast. They are the cosmologists of sandbox universes.

They are also engaged in a tradition with a surprisingly communal history. Speedrunners share techniques, strategies, and routes, constructing a gaming hive mind across archipelagos of Discord servers and how-to videos as they work to build the perfect playthrough—together. The person executing a run is usually just enacting the final step in a process that involves dozens, and the outcome is widely understood within the speedrunning community as a product of collective work and not the genius of a lone Randian hero.

Xem, a Ratchet & Clank speedrunner who is currently working on a Master’s degree in opera, talked to me about the non-competitive attitude that dominates a scene nominally all about achieving world records. “At its core,” he said, “[speedrunning] is not a competition against others—it’s a competition with oneself. Everybody has this sense of reverence towards the amazing runs in their community, simply because they know the effort it takes to get there. I think that’s what separates us from a lot of other gaming communities. At the end of the day, we understand that the primary goal is not PvP [Player vs. Player], it’s PvE [Player vs. Environment].”

Speedrunners don’t simply go fast. They are the cosmologists of sandbox universes.

The idea that speedrunning is more about cooperation than trying to overcome others came up in many of my conversations at AGDQ. In the convention center, you could feel it: speedrunning fosters an expansive and, in contrast with more toxic gaming scenes, notably inclusive community. The livestreamed, recorded, remotely distributed version of AGDQ might center individual players and their runs, but the action at its in-person mirror unfolds at the convention’s margins, where new and old friends make the most of one of few opportunities to connect and socialize in physical space.

I discovered as much on my first night at the event. After a few hours in the stream room, I wandered into the courtyard of the DoubleTree, where about fifty people were distributed in small clusters around a crackling fire pit. Bags of chips lay unguarded alongside plastic cups and a palette of half-empty bottles: Pepsi, cranberry juice, Smirnoff, and cheap whiskey. Someone was walking around with an empty thirty rack on their head. It felt more like the center of AGDQ  than the 3 a.m. stream room did.

Marchillin, a liquor store employee who loves to play hyper-difficult Mario hacks, told me he has attended AGDQ since 2018. “I’m from a community that has a significant showing at this. . . . I catch a couple of runs, but a lot of my time is spent hanging around with people—watching the stream, but up in the hotel room, eating some food and hanging out.”

At AGDQ 2020 and other Games Done Quick (GDQ) events that I’ve attended—including Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) and Games Done Quick Express (GDQx) in 2018—as well as in the world of speedrunning more broadly, I have met a disproportionate number of people who work night shifts, who are diagnosed with Asperger’s, who live in rural areas, or whose circumstances otherwise make it difficult to sustain a robust, in-person social network. If speedrunning is really a loose confederation of horizontal friendships, then fire pit parties are what it’s all about.

“It’s not about getting a good time,” said Tony, a bartender and Orlando native who goes by GrumbleBundle. “It’s about the determination. It’s a group effort in bettering yourself, and I don’t see that in any other gaming community.”

While the crowds at GDQ events skew decisively white and male, people at every level of the scene work to stamp out bigotry and maintain a welcoming environment for those who find less representation. “Speedrunning communities are more inclusive [than other gaming communities],” said Megan, a lesbian woman from a small conservative town in Georgia. “They don’t discriminate against people like me as much.”

“Usually [if] I walk into a building and it’s mostly white people, I get nervous,” said Monique, who mentioned that she had been one of the only black people in many groups at AGDQ. “I didn’t feel that [here].”

When I first arrived at AGDQ my plan was to stay at the convention center for three days straight, fueled by prescription amphetamines and as many micro-naps as I could steal in the stream room’s darkened auditorium. By the second night I realized that this plan was completely fucking insane and admitted that I needed to drop $50 on a nearby Super 8.

As the cab sucked me away from the convention and into Orlando’s fading daylight, I appreciated where I was for the first time: a quiet enclave inside a hyper-commercialized district of a town owned by Disney. If speedrunning at its best gestures toward a vision of decommodified community, it was nonetheless aboard a ship in troubled waters.

The metaphor may be a cliché, but it extends beyond the physical space of the convention. The online speedrunning community has largely been absorbed by YouTube and Twitch, the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform—a shift that has spawned a small cohort of professional and semi-professional micro-celebrities like darbian, Spikevegeta, and Calebhart42. They earn money from streaming by racking up paid subscribers, soliciting donations from viewers, advertising on their channels, and seeking brand sponsorships—but all of this depends on accumulating a loyal viewership that is willing to shell out. For all it has done as a medium for collective play, speedrunning has also become contested ground for an online ratings war between individual streamers.

I sat down with GDQ founder Mike Uyama, who ran through some of the event’s history. “As Twitch was growing, especially in the mid-2010s,” he said, “GDQ was [also] growing at an exponential rate.” The organization uses its marathons to raise money for charity, and over the past decade it has grown from a few dozen people in Uyama’s mother’s basement to a fundraising powerhouse, pulling in over $3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation by the end of AGDQ 2020. Commercialization has grown speedrunning to a previously unimaginable size, but not without introducing new complications.

I appreciated where I was for the first time: a quiet enclave inside a hyper-commercialized district of a town owned by Disney.

Private streaming platforms exert a growing influence over how speedrunners use and understand the word “community.” Speedrunning was far more cloistered before the rise of livestreaming, largely organized around a small constellation of forums and websites like Speed Demos Archive and Twin Galaxies. But as the practice became more accessible, it also became more fractured, dividing into a multitude of communities centered around different games and even specific run categories within particular games. Now, the scene is increasingly anchored to individual personalities, frayed by their competing orbits, with successful runners and even platforms like Twitch claiming dedicated fans as their “communities.”

As I checked into the motel room, my mind returned to the first person I met at AGDQ 2020: RawDerps, a Resident Evil speedrunner in a white and purple Twitch hoodie. He wasn’t a micro-celebrity or even a Twitch partner, but he wanted to become one. He told me he had attended the last TwitchCon for GDQ Express. As it turns out, I had also been to a GDQ Express, at TwitchCon 2018 in San Jose. There, the speedrunning marathon room had felt like a sanctuary: all around it, Twitch’s messaging preached the gospel of monetization, inviting small-scale streamers like RawDerps to turn their channels into platforms and their communities into parasocial relationships, with Amazon earning kickbacks on the remote performance of friendship. At one point, I attended a panel on “monetizing fun.”

TwitchCon 2018 had climaxed at the Avaya Stadium, where Diplo took the stage for a surreal performance to a healthy chunk of its 30,000 attendees. As the crowd cleared out after the show, I met a man dressed as Wilfred the Dog from the eponymous TV show. His name was Nick Kazimiroff, and he works as a “search consultant” for a firm called Avenue Pacific, which specializes in “building teams and placing industry leaders.” He described himself as a “headhunter” who works with brands and top streaming talent. In other words, a front-line foot soldier in the battle to commodify the comradely spirit found in places like AGDQ.

“The point of TwitchCon is basically to bring in more people that want to stream, and monetize their channels,” Kazimiroff told me. “Not everybody’s going to be a Tom Hanks, or a George Clooney, or a Ninja, [but] if you had the opportunity to sell opportunity, would that be what you’re selling?”

For the uninitiated, Ninja is the definitive rockstar of video game livestreaming. He abandoned Twitch for Mixer—Microsoft’s streaming platform—in August 2019, but at one point commanded Twitch’s most-subscribed channel, pulling in more than $500,000 a month playing Fortnite. When Kazimiroff spoke about selling opportunity, he meant selling the dream of turning one’s virtual friendships into a lucrative empire like Ninja’s—evoking impossible fantasies of fame and fortune in order to tempt players to take what may have begun as a solution to loneliness, inject it with a competitive logic, and turn it into business.

Kazimiroff opined that the majority of streamers don’t think about the big picture when it comes to Twitch, and tend to simply focus on themselves, their content, and their communities. “I think it’s going to hinge on the bigger corporate groups,” Kazimiroff said of Twitch’s future. “It’s not going to be this crowd,” he said, referring to the mass of rank-and-file TwitchCon attendees around us.

Kazimiroff was not at this year’s AGDQ, but the forces he represented loomed at the margins—a whisper in the mouths of runners like RawDerps.

Xem, the Ratchet & Clank speedrunner I mentioned earlier, was also a former full-time streamer—one of the lucky few who had managed to win enough subscribers to earn a living. He quit streaming full-time to focus on graduate school after a bout of burnout, but he still commits enough hours each week to maintain a modest but dedicated community. Xem plans to return to full-time streaming after completing his degree. He spoke with candor about the pressures of balancing genuine online friendships with the reality of needing to monetize an audience. “The majority of people who stream are not making money,” Xem said, alluding to the fact that, as successful speedrunning personalities become established, it has become increasingly difficult for new ones to break into the upper echelons or grow their channels.

Twitch’s messaging preached the gospel of monetization, inviting small-scale streamers to turn their channels into platforms and their communities into parasocial relationships.

When he first started streaming professionally, Xem said, “I expected it to be as simple as, ‘turn stream on, play for six to eight hours, turn it off.’ But it became so much more than that, [requiring] fifty-five, sixty-five-hour work weeks just to scrape by.” He told me about his monthly twenty-four-hour stream sessions, regimented social media strategy, and the other habits that he needed to adopt in order to contort his hobby into a job. It seemed like Xem was applying a speedrunner’s brain to the task of going pro—optimizing quantified relationships in the way one might navigate a virtual world made of code.

At the same time, he told me he’d drifted further from the core speedrunning community around his game of choice, Ratchet & Clank, than he’d once been. “Largely I view them as friends,” he said, “[but] nowadays I kind of view them as business associates first. I try to maintain an emotional disconnect whenever I can.” As for his streaming audience—“his” community—Xem told me that he tries to be everybody’s friend, “but they can’t rely on you.” He continued: “I try to show people that I’m there for them, but I have to draw the line when they’re messaging me at 4 a.m. being like, ‘oh my god, Xem, I need help.’”

Xem is not a corporate executive, nor is he a Ninja. What he does with his Twitch and YouTube channels is neither dishonest nor necessarily harmful, but it illustrates an ascendant logic, increasingly prominent among speedrunners and reinforced by the design of privatized streaming platforms. At scale, it threatens to dilute beyond recognition the sense of community that makes speedrunning special.

On the final morning of AGDQ 2020, I took a walk through the convention center. In the cathedralesque practice room, attendees rigged gaming consoles up to an incongruous assemblage of flat screen and tube TVs dating back to the early 1990s. Beyond that, in the center of a pop-up arcade that featured a wall of pinball machines from Black Knight to White Water, a serious-looking dude in a galaxy patterned shirt, tight corduroy pants, flip flops, and a bright blue Hitler Youth haircut was absolutely tearing it up on a rhythm game called Jubeat. Deeper in the hotel, crowds gathered around tabletops and geeked out over a library of board games.

The marathon’s schedule traditionally closes with Super Metroid, a side-scrolling sci-fi shooter from 1994 in which players navigate Samus Aran through a labyrinth of underground tunnels on planet Zebes. The planet self-destructs at the end of the game, and as the player races back to the surface they are given a single opportunity to access a hidden room and rescue a small group of animals that are trapped in the collapsing caverns. The animals present a problem for speedrunners, as saving them adds precious time to the run and is not technically required to beat the game. GDQ lets viewers donate to decide whether a given speedrunner will save the animals or leave them for dead.

In this year’s final slot, a runner called Oatsngoats played Super Metroid Impossible, a modified version of Super Metroid with an insanely high difficulty. The end of his run was shaky: he died numerous times and had to repeat several sections over and over. It set him far behind world record pace, but he was still met with a standing ovation.

GDQ events continue to embody many of the DIY, cooperative values that make speedrunning stand alone in the world of competitive gaming. They provide spaces that bring atomized people together and enforce strict rules against harassment to maintain an inclusive environment. But speedrunners and fans alike are increasingly besieged by the isolating forces of finance capital in the form of platforms and investors who want to turn their communities into just another way of making money. This year, Oatsngoats saved the animals in Super Metroid Impossible. In the years ahead, the most important speedrunning challenge might be saving the community itself.

[*] Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the name of the AGDQ 2020 BioShock speedrunner. While CovertMuffin hosted the run, the runner was a user called bloodthunder.