Artist's rendition of the Trihard emote. Illustration by Sam Woolley
According to Mychal "Trihex" Jefferson, there really isn't much of a difference between speedrunning video games and lifting weights. "You have to be goal-oriented," he recently said as he beamed live and uncut from a private Discord call. "It's very easy to get into a speed game and feel intimidated, insecure and inadequate about how bad your times are, and you can get overwhelmed and salty.
Very similarly, when you start working out you get into the gym, you feel like everyone is looking at you, you're feeling judged, and you can't do things that support your own body weight. You're looking at someone like, 'Oh my god, look at that guy, he's got abs on his abs.' You have to be addicted to the tangible progress. … Once I started crushing those plateau points in working out, I applied that mindset to speedrunning and I became way happier with it."
Trihex's specialty is the intricate, and infinitely frustrating Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island — which is widely considered to be one of the most demanding games in the scene. His 100 per cent performance at Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 is legendary. For three hours and 20 minutes, Trihex is stone cold; his fingers violently ricochet off the candy-coloured Famicom controller as he launches pixel-perfect eggs at offscreen walls, pipes, and enemies to maximise his efficiency. On his knee, he drapes a white kitchen towel to keep his hands free of any sweat that might muck up an input. He uses it sparingly, usually during the split-second cartridge-derived loading screens.
That run made Jefferson a star, and it highlighted who he is: a big man throwing himself against hard-as-nails Nintendo games. In the years that followed his breakout run, his likeness would become immortalised as one of the most widely used emotes on Twitch, and spark an ongoing culture war in the streaming community.
Trihex started speedrunning Yoshi's Island in 2004, long before the scene was made mainstream by the democratization of internet video. His introduction to the community was an accident.
In the early 2000s, gaming magazines on newsstands were occasionally packed with a DVD. In a pre-YouTube world, those DVDs served as a way for publishers to deliver game trailers and gameplay footage to those without a G4-enabled cable box. Trihex was an avid Electronic Gaming Monthly reader, but his subscription ran out, so he made the trek to a local convenience store to buy the latest issue straight from the rack. "The copy I bought had a bundled DVD with one of SpeedDemosArchives' attempts to reach out and explain what speedrunning was," said Trihex. "It had a little five minute demo of a bunch of runs ... and that was it. I put that disc into my PS2 and was like 'oh my god. Speedrunning is a thing! This is what I already wanted to do."
Those early days were magical. Imagine trying to parse frame-perfect tricks through murky forum jargon. "There was a lot of compromise and limitations," Trihex recalled. "Like, 'hey I found this really cool skip! ...it's kind of tough to describe, there's this one corner of this one section of this level. I don't have capture, it's pretty cool though!'" The community instead relied on an archaic, analogue form of tape-trading, in which hardcore speedrunners recorded their best runs on VHS and sent them off to a staff member at Speed Demos Archive (which remains the governing body of the scene to this day,) who would host it on the site through an analogue-digital converter for the official world record tally. It was obscene and convoluted, but that was the point.
The pre-Twitch era of speedrunning required a pathological obsession with a specific game, and the idea of ever getting famous by beating Yoshi's Island quickly was laughable. "Everyone was poor, everyone was broke, there was no revenue to be had," he said. "You did it for the glory. It was all a giant love letter for the game you enjoyed. When beating the game wasn't enough, and you wanted more out of it. Speedrunning gave the game an infinite purpose."
Trihex learned about livestreaming from fellow speedrunner Narcissa Wright, whose mind-boggling 20-minute Ocarina of Time run helped propel the community into video game ubiquity.
It completely changed his perception of the culture. For years, speedrunning was presented only in its most seamless, perfected form, but Trihex discovered that there was a significant audience willing to watch him try (and fail) a tough sequence over and over again. They would watch the unglamorous laboratory work that adds up to a refined clear. "When I saw that people would want to watch that, I was like 'oh, speedrunning can be social? I'm in!" he said.
Trihex broadcasted his first stream in February of 2011, and moved his channel to Twitch the same day the platform launched, later that year.
Jefferson was a natural. He can complete transcendent speedruns, but he's also affable, intelligent, and gleefully, joyously geeky. Tune in as Trihex stares at the screen, mesmerised by a Beyblades tactics video, only to be interrupted by his incredulous girlfriend, understandably asking "what the fuck are you watching?" He desperately tries to switch tabs to find something less incriminating, only to bring up reams and reams of more Beyblade videos. So many people struggle in the transition from competitive gamer to public personality, but Trihex stuck the landing. Watching his stream feels like being his friend.
Like most things on Twitch, the origin of the Trihard emote, which turned Trihex from celebrity to ubiquitous meme, is fairly trollish. As Jefferson remembered it, he was at an anime convention in the summer of 2012, and took a photo with a cute girl. When he looked back at the picture, he discovered that the look on his face was priceless: sweaty, mouth slightly open, eyes wide and full of fear. The eternal panic smile, as Trihex described it. He posted the photo to his Twitter, and was immediately inundated by playful photoshops re-appropriating his soon-to-be-famous visage into high-pressure situations. "They made it into an in-chat meme," he said. "It went viral in my own chat, and I was happy with it. I agree, that was a very cringe smile I made. That girl was cute and I was freaking out and lost all of my spaghetti, and it's forever documented in that face being super-awkward."
This was still in the early days of Twitch, when there were only 20 global emotes available to chat. (You may be aware of the most famous ones - Kappa, Pogchamp, 4Head.) The corporate brass wanted to add more, so the staff stickied a thread in the (long-gone) Twitch forums petitioning the burgeoning community for options. It was spammed constantly; hundreds of streamers begging, pleading to be baked in the DNA of the world's most prominent live-streaming platform.
Trihex never advocated for himself, but his followers made it a personal mission to deify that manic moment. They flyered the thread with Trihex's face like they were campaigning for a crucial state primary, and a week later, a Twitch employee entered his chat.
"I saw that sweet, totally eye-fetching wrench symbol next to their name, and I was like, 'Oh my god, there's staff here!'" said Trihex. "I stop my run of Yoshi's Island and go to the hardest level with the most swag in it, and start pounding my controller at full capacity. While doing that I put on Beauty and the Beast's 'Be Our Guest' at full volume. And the staff was like 'Hey, why is this guy trying so hard?' And that was it. [The emote was] Trihard. The staff member came up with the name for it."
Five years later, Trihard is one of the most prominent emotes in the Twitch community. Like Kappa or ResidentSleeper, it's become a crucial fixture for the subculture's linguistics, and Trihex has embraced his face's canonization with open arms. The Trihard is his calling card; you can find it all over his YouTube channel thumbnails, and he takes giddy pride in its top-three placement amongst all Twitch emotes.
Recently, the semantic definition of Trihard has changed. Trihex is black, and if you spend enough time on Twitch, you'll see Trihards used to denigrate people of colour. From my own anecdotal experience, I've seen the emote fill chat feeds when a personality uses an innocuous word like "steal" on stream. In Hearthstone broadcasts, Trihards are sometimes posted when players play a spell called "Burgle" or summon King Mukla, an in-universe stand-in for King Kong.
Sometimes, Trihards are used to target and harass specific people. Last year Terrence "TerrenceM" Miller, a black Hearthstone pro, made an impressive, second-place run at Dreamhack Austin, but was bombarded by racist messages, many punctuated with Trihards. At TwitchCon, last October, a diversity panel's chatbox was hijacked in a similar way. The video game community's racism problem is nothing new, but now, Jefferson's face has emerged as a de facto slur.
Trihex knows that if he wanted to, he could pen an open letter to Twitch complaining about the emote's newfound contextual racism and have Trihard purged from the database the next morning. But that's not something he's interested in doing, "It's not the emote's fault that it's being used for racist things," he said, in a video addressing the controversy, "Nothing in the emote is racist at all. It's not like there's exaggerated lips, or anything to make it look offensive. It's a picture of me very, very happy." His position is understandable, Trihex isn't interested in letting anyone tell him what his face does and doesn't mean.
"If for any reason I got rid of the Trihard emote, or if was deemed derogatory speech or whatever, all chat would do is migrate 'cmonbruh,' 'punchtrees,' and 'kevinturtle' — the other black guy emotes," he said. "If anything you're empowered them, you've told them, 'Oh, if we cause enough ruckus, we caused them to react.' If you give the shitters attention they will say 'Let's just rock and roll further.' ... It goes back to the accountability of the individual with the context, not the emote."
Trihex also doesn't want to obscure the fact that the emote is associated with more innocent definitions. "It is used for racism a lot, but it's also used for good a lot," he said. "One of the way the emote is being used for good that I'm really proud of is there's a Dota 2 streamer named Arteezy, and when he's winning really hard, he'll put Trihard on the screen, and cover his minimap. He'll finish the match without using his minimap and call it 'Trihard mode.' His chat is spamming Trihard all day. Clearly it's a play on the face — because I look hyped in the face — and it's a play on the pun of the emote itself. If you're 'trying hard' ... you gotta turn off the minimap to win in style."
Essentially, Trihex is fighting for the purity of Trihard, to make sure that its translation remains firmly in his grasp. He also holds a surprisingly unsympathetic position towards those who want to see it removed. In that same video where he lays out his love for the emote, he wraps things up by echoing some of the diction used in alt-right circles. "It's a great emote that itself does not [promote] racism, so for those who want to get rid of it: dude, your mods suck, your mods are cucklords, you gotta talk to this community and clean that shit up, it can be done," he said. "Or change your snowflake values of what you get offended by, because it's all over the internet,"
When I asked him if he's ever bothered when Trihard is used to hound people of colour on Twitch, he adopted a slightly softer tone, but still put the onus on the streamer to govern their chat, rather than blaming the audience.
"If [streamers] were to ask me about [getting harassed,] it I'd say 'You need to set your culture better, you probably have crap mods that aren't doing a good job, and you have to set a tone," he replied. "If you don't curate your culture and your environment as early as possible, then you're going to let your viewers remain toxic. You have to call out what you want to call out. You are building your castle, and if you allow those things to happen, people are going to get the mindset that you're ok with that. I personally don't take racism very seriously. To me it's just people trying to provoke you."
Other people of colour on Twitch don't hold Trihard in the same regard, and they're happy to purge it from their chat when things get bad. Deejay Knight, a Star Citizen streamer and military veteran, told me that there's been several times where he's put the emote on a one-second delay for its racist usage. (He does this when his broadcast is featured on the Twitch homepage, or when his stream was raided by trolls.) I asked him what he thought about Trihex's thesis — that streamers can snub out the bad actors by enforcing a strong code of laws — he told me he can see both sides.
"I, for one, know the importance of not allowing people to say whatever they like. He's correct there. If you let people say whatever they like, they will walk all over you, and I have no intention of giving power to racists," replied Knight. "There is also a penchant for some Twitch communities to be very racist. That exists everywhere in life, it would be no different within Twitch."
Knight, like Trihex, doesn't want to see the Trihard banned. "That would be like saying 'a select group of racist people use sheets, should we ban sheets? "And he also believes that Twitch could improve some of their moderation tools to make weeding out racism easier, (though he does say that overall, the platform does a good job.) The one thing Knight does seem sure about is the unlikeliness that the tone of our online discourse is going to change anytime soon. "Good old mods and ban tools help plenty for me, but not everyone can shrug it off. Racism is a part of the world, and by association, the internet," he says. "Being rid of it is impossible, so the trick is navigating around it. At least for me."
That's what makes Trihex different. He has a deep, slightly naive faith in Twitch. Despite his occasional bristliness, Trihex is not toxic, nor does he root for toxicity. He told me he believes that the gaming community is a "diverse, happy place, where everyone feels welcome." The hate and misogyny that corrodes online culture? "The shitstains of the past, but it will get better." It's a bold stance to take when his face is being used in place of the n-word, but Trihex still believes that gamers are affectionate, considerate, and empathetic. He made friends through clever Yoshi's Island skips — the true unity of the games community on its best days — and he sincerely hopes that with a little more education and some better moderation, we'll be on the path to utopia. In the meantime, the fate of Trihard rests in his hands. It's not going anywhere, because he doesn't want to lose.
"All I'd be doing is saying, 'Hey racist cucks, great job getting empowered enough to rid Twitch of one of their best emotes. One of our best emotes. Fuck, of me," he says in that video. "We end the story because it's abused for the wrong reason."
Trihex has curtailed his gym schedule for November to focus solely on perfecting Super Mario Odyssey's embryonic speedrun path. To compensate, he's drummed up a series of macros for his caloric intake to compensate for his temporary "sedentary lifestyle." This week he set a new personal best at one hour, 26 minutes, and he just discovered a way to skip the ground-pounds behind the waterfall.