What is speedrunning?
At its most basic, speedrunning is an attempt to beat a game from beginning to end as quickly as possible. It’s a lot more than just playing the game, it’s about finding every possible way to shave a minute, a second, or even a millisecond off your time.
It’s a style of gaming that is suited to the obsessive. The average speedrunner will spend hours every day practicing and honing their skills in order to beat whatever game they are playing in the fastest time possible. It requires an almost perfect understanding of the game’s core mechanics. You need to be incredibly good at what you are playing to avoid anything that would slow you down.
The interesting thing about speedrunning is that it is not just about playing the game as it was intended, but scouring every inch of the game for glitches, bugs, and issues that can be exploited to shave those precious seconds off your time. That is why, if you were to watch a video of someone speedrunning a game like Tomb Raider, some of the gameplay and terrain would look unrecognisable. Speedrunners break the game and force bugs to blast their way to the end of the game.
Much like esports, speedrunning requires dedication, practice, and more than a little obsession.
What games can you speedrun?
One of the great things about speedrunning is that there are communities of speedrunners for nearly every game you can think of. If for some reason, you are obsessed with the 7up Cool Spot Gameboy title, there will be a small community of people who are dedicated to beating it in under one minute.
Games from as far back as the NES to the modern console and PC games of today all have speedrunning communities who are dedicated to beating the game as quickly as possible. There are several different types of speedruns:
- Any% Runs: This is about completing the game as quickly as possible, nothing more nothing less.
- 100% Runs: This is a more difficult sort of run that requires completing a game in its entirety. For example, if you are running a Super Mario 64 100% run you must collect every Star and complete the game in order to qualify. These tend to be longer than any% runs and most speedrunners will dedicate themselves to one of these two runs. It is unlikely that one person would hold the record for a 100% and any% run for a single game.
- Low% Runs: This is the opposite of the 100% run. You must complete the game by doing the bare minimum.
- Glitchless Runs: These runs are all about skill. You are not allowed to exploit the game’s glitches or bugs.
How do you get into speedrunning?
If you are looking for a good introduction to speedrunning there is no better place to start than to check out AGDQ and SGDQ (Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick). These are annual speedrunning marathons that bring together scores of speedrunners from around the world. They are charity events that raise money for The Prevent Cancer Foundation and Doctors Without Borders.
They are great for understanding the basics of speedrunning. Not only can you watch some of the best competitors, each run is also accompanied by a panel of equally talented commentators. Often, they are also speedrunners that give interesting insights into the strategies and tricks being employed, this gives you an interesting insight into the skills needed to compete at such a high level.
These events really show how much of a following the speedrunning community has. The events draw large live audiences and there is an average of 150,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch at any one time. The relatively recent success of these two events has catapulted them to the two biggest live events hosted on Twitch every year.
If you decide to try speedrunning out for yourself, all you need to do is pick a game and get to work. The speedrunning community is very open and helpful. There are lots of different guides available online for almost any game you can think of that can give you a great head start.
If you really want to go for that world record, you have to pick a game that you like. Practice makes perfect and you will need a tremendous amount of practice before you come close to perfect. You will end up playing the same game hundreds of times so if you can’t stand Donkey Kong Country don’t try to be the fastest in the world to beat it.
This is very similar to the world of esports, it takes years of practice and some natural skill, and eventually, you will find an audience and a community willing to accept you.
So, is it an esport?
There has been a lot of speculation about whether speedrunning could be considered an esport. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate, so it is worth looking into them. Let’s look at some of the arguments for and against speedrunning as an esport.
It varies the style of the sport.
When most people think about esports, they think of competitive games like CS:GO, Overwatch, League of Legends, and more. These are games wherein you directly compete against another person or team of people at the same time. They are closer to traditional team sports like football, basketball and baseball. However, there are many different types of sports that do not have directly competitive play.
Look at golf, look at the Olympic track and field games, most of these sports do not have direct competition. Rory McIlroy is not trying to give Tiger Woods a black eye with a golf club so he can race down the green faster than him. The competitors play independently of one another. If Street Fighter is boxing, then speedrunning is the 100-meter sprint.
There are established teams and personalities.
There are established teams in Esports. Team Liquid and OG are well known for their DOTA 2 and League of Legends teams, Astralis and VIRTUS.PRO dominate in CS:GO and many more established Esports teams have one or two games that they focus on.
The major issue when a new game is released is who will play the game. It takes time to practice, “git gud”, and field a competitive team. Luckily, the speedrunning community already has an established network of dedicated players for nearly every game.
If you sit down to watch AGDQ, you will leave with lasting memories of players like Cosmo and her world record Windwaker runs, Siglemic and his historical domination of Super Mario 64, and Trihex, a former Yoshi’s Island speedrunner who, as of 2020, was recruited by the esports team Tempo Storm to compete as a professional Smash Brothers player.
All of these speedrunners and more have a baked-in fanbase, a healthy number of twitch subscribers, and name recognition that could catapult them to esports fame and success.
Speedrunning has a wide appeal.
A lot of esports revolves around the “flavour of the week”. Games can fall in and out of favour with the viewing public and what may have seemed like a sure bet for an esports franchise could die off due to different factors, an unpopular patch could decrease support or a newer game could draw the audience away.
Speedruns defy the “flavour of the week” mentality. The most popular games to speedrun were released over a decade ago, sometimes more. The desire to improve, strategize, and find new routes maintains the audience and the players for games that would and could never be considered traditional esports titles.
The retention of the classic games also maintains a fanbase that has a larger age range than the average esport. Nearly everything to do with videogames tends to skew to a younger audience but the obsessive nature of speedrunning maintains that audience far longer.
Speedrunning comes with a pre-built infrastructure.
Every year the speedrunning community comes together at several events to share notes, play together, and compete. SGDQ and AGDQ are the most famous and popular events but there are also events that are all about competition.
In 2018, PACE, an event started by the Global Speed Runner Association, was founded. This was one of the first attempts to take speedrunning to a live competitive environment. There are races to finish games with large pots of prize money and fans in the live audience and watching on streams. These competitions are still in their infancy, it is only the third year of PACE, but track has already been laid for a more established esports franchise.
Competitive speedrunning is like a race, whoever is the fastest wins, whoever is the slowest loses. Unlike races, however, there is no way to speed up and win from behind. It is all about perfection and if a speedrunner messes up early in the race it is unlikely that they would catch up.
Unlike competitive shooters and MOBA games, there cannot be a concerted push to win near the end, the runner must perform the same set of moves as perfectly as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Speedruns can take hours and if someone doesn’t make the perfect move in the first few minutes, it can be disheartening to watch someone lose for hours because of one single issue.
Most games are not made to be speedrun.
Valorant, Overwatch, DOTA 2, all of these games are built to be competitive esports titles. CS:GO has only maintained its popularity because of the esports community. Most games are not designed for speedrunning in mind.
Random Number Generators (RNG) are the bane of the speedrunner. Not every run can be guaranteed to be identical. Most game developers introduce random elements to improve replayability. The lack of identical starting conditions means that some world records are won by both skill and luck.
If this was introduced in a competitive scene, there would be an unbalance in the runs, and it would end up reducing the balanced nature of the esports scene.
Speedrunning shows off flaws.
Traditional esports has the amazing ability to show the best that a game has to offer. You could spend 30 hours playing Rainbow 6 Siege and barely scratch the surface of the skill you need to play competitively.
Speedrunning, on the other hand, can show the worst that a game can offer. Often the quickest runs of games exploit bugs and glitches, they reduce 15-hour experiences to minutes, and they look under the hood of games that are supposed to be a cohesive experience.
Sponsors probably wouldn’t be too happy with this, you are not likely to gain much support from the developers of the games, people who worked for years only to have their games disassembled and broken.
Speedrunning can never be a traditional esport. There is too much randomness and luck to make it truly competitive. It can, however, be the Olympic Games of esports.
How many times do you sit down a week and watch competitive hurdling? It’s not a popular sport, but it is still a sport. A lot of the events at the Olympics do not have the same widespread appeal of team sports like football and basketball but they are still gripping and a viable niche sport.