When Competitive Gaming is Niche - Speedrunning & GDQ

The long and winding path to speedrunning fandom

When Competitive Gaming is Niche - Speedrunning & GDQ
Source: WikiMedia Commons.

I've been subconsciously aware of competitive gaming since I was a kid. During pre-internet days in my household, it was primarily from well-worn gaming magazines and my older brother. While cleaning out my parent's house to sell it last year, I found developed photos of an ancient CRT with barely visible Pitfall! scores. My brother sent pictures to 80s gaming mags for photographic proof of his scores for clout and a chance to win prizes in a time that even predated the existence of Twin Galaxies.

My older siblings were already in their late teens when my younger sister and I were given a Super Nintendo for Christmas, which I consider my first gaming system. There was already a Nintendo in the house; my parents were early adopters of console gaming and had an Atari, Collecovision, and Intellivision. I have a very distinct memory of my brother showing me how to do a "trick" where you jump on a Koopa shell for as long as possible in 3-1 of Super Mario Bros. (also known as "turtle tipping" and brought to me via Super Mario All-Stars) to stack up infinite lives. He also casually mentioned that he and his friends would try to beat games "as fast as possible ." Whenever he'd play games in front of me, he went as fast as possible, on a straight path. He'd always take the warp levels as far as possible.

Prehistoric Pitfall! Clout circa 1983. Source: Author.

I didn't have much of a chance, I was a total videogame and anime-obsessed dork before I even made it to high school, and discovered online forums with like-minded weirdos. My mom supported the hobbies I shared with my little sister, and we found the barely ventilated gaming rooms that lurked in the depths of anime conventions. Both of us had signed up for Smash Brothers and Tekken tournaments, something I've never been competitively good at. I remember, none too fondly, being in a room with a bunch of men, frustrated after getting defeated by my younger sister, an accomplished Ness main at the age of twelve, looking like they wanted to punch a wall because weren't the best Princess Peach.

I started writing on websites, eventually in print media by seventeen, and more or less left nerd conventions by the time I was twenty from a mixture of frustration and a couple of bad experiences. Gaming and online forums and the community attached to them became relegated to subforums on places like SomethingAwful, where I'd occasionally check out a mix of legitimately interesting and toxic observations, and gaming was kept to myself while still appreciating my collection of modded systems and now-prehistoric portable emulators.

I am currently on a plane to Summer Games Done Quick 2023, now trying to avoid my email that started piling up with pitch requests this morning. I am not a speedrunner - I am not a great gamer, either! I believe in taking your time and enjoying those experiences that could very well lead to it being the only game you want to talk about for the next decade, and for gaming review purposes, that games should be played as intended on "Normal" difficulty to give it a fair assessment. Accessibility in gaming is a hot topic. I got into a text argument about the visibility, or lack thereof, of using Ultrahand flatten commands in Tears of the Kingdom with my sister this morning. I have watched GDQ regularly for the last 3 years but only really paid attention last year; this incentive run, a TASbot-guided run of Ocarina of Time, is likely what sold me.

For most of my adult life, I have worked in an industry with expos and competitions, which takes a lot of dexterity and skill, and often rewards speed with precision. I've explained how I got into Twitch's non-podcast-actual-gaming content by being shown a Mario Maker streamer. With the pandemic, I started watching streamers punish themselves with kaizo Mario romhacks, often with a controller input display and timer on their overlay.

Grinding a game I enjoy, against a timer, looks like my version of hell, something I'd never even want to attempt. Still, my interest in it is not unusual, considering I've grown up on a diet of professional sports and gaming for most of my life. Games Done Quick, shortened to GDQ, is a twice-a-year proxy Olympics for speedrunners, but with the added catch that viewers are incentivized to donate with proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders. What started as a tiny donation drive in 2007 became an event at a convention called "Classic Games Done Quick" at MAGFest 2010. This proved a success and was born out of needing a more stable internet connection. Speed Demos Archive admin Mike Uyama moved it to his mother's basement. GDQ is now an event that attracts runners and attendees worldwide, and as of Winter 2023, GDQ has raised almost 44 million dollars for charity.

American Classic Arcade Museum - A Home for Arcade World Records. Source: Author.

King of Kong, detailing the triumph of Steve Wiebe while ousting hot sauce entrepreneur and generally divisive Billy Mitchell from his reign as the Donkey Kong world record holder, is one of the most well-known documentaries about gaming. The GDQ community's opus is Running with Speed, which goes into the even more niche world of console-based speedrunning. It isn't as sensationalized as King of Kong. Still, it gives you a good basepoint of understanding the thought process behind why some people would strive to be the world record holder for a forgotten game based on pre-existing IP, like a Family Dog run, or something as exalted and incredibly competitive as anything from the Mario or Zelda franchises.

In Running with Speed, you aren't going to feel compelled to root against someone. Runners like MitchFlowerPower and GlitchCat don't have Joker origin stories that involve sending minions to other runner's houses to inspect the circuit boards of their hardware. You'll watch it and understand sequence breaking and damage boosting, all terms I have used to explain this to other people. Getting a thorough explanation via narration from notable speedrunner SummoningSalt, who is best equipped to explain it given his credentials, gave me a better appreciation of it.

Super Metroid runner Hotarubi is the closest you get to anyone questioning record submissions, but that was mainly because nobody comprehended how he was achieving his record times. Hotarubi achieved his results by breaking physics in Super Metroid, and his run also inadvertently gave GDQ the idea to have future runs with a Save or Kill the Animals objective. Many former speedrunners are vocal about distancing themselves from it, and you get a glimpse of the toll on Narcissa Wright. Even though it's hard to watch, seeing people lose their titles or rank and the fallout are significant themes in both Running and Kong.

If you are a newcomer, a bit of clarification might help when you see the individual rulesets for every run. "Any%" is by far the most common rule: since speedruns often come with the implications of exploiting glitches, Any% literally means playing the came to completion even if you've technically only "played" a tiny percentage of the game. Far rarer is Glitchless, which means completion without those skips and exploits, and games like Elden Ring and God of War are some of the most impressive examples. Blindfolded runs and runs completed while wearing hindrances like oven mitts are all fair game.‌‌

Another popular genre of runs is kaizo, a style of gameplay I forced myself to play, mostly tutorials, every day for two months, mostly out of morbid curiosity. Kaizo has traditionally stayed within the realm of pre-N64 Mario games, unless, in the case of games like Super Mario Maker, it has branched out to the Metroid series and games like Super Monkey Ball. I'd get annoyed that playing with an original SNES with a rare original controller or rarely available Super NT was heavily suggested, but I get it now. Playing with original hardware on a CRT monitor means no input lag and something pixel-perfect. If you are going to compete, those things are vital, even if I thought it was pedantic at that moment.

Celeste Speedrun @ PAX East 2023. Source: Author.

Speedrunner and streamer Glitchcat mentions being four in 1991 and being a weird bookish kid obsessed with video games, namely Super Mario World. I am not much different except for an immeasurable skill gap. I'll never be on the path to a glitchless Sekiro zero-damage run, but I'll enjoy participating in the much less stressful form as a curious viewer.

Summer Games Done Quick 2023 is being held in person in Minneapolis from May 28th to June 4th, and while registration is closed, you can view it on their website or their live feed on Twitch with VODs of runs uploaded to Youtube. Running with Speed: The Fastest Gamers on Earth is available on major VOD platforms, including Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon, Google, YouTube Movies, Vudu, and Microsoft.


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