My Week With The Fastest Gamers On Earth

Eight years ago, Games Done Quick started as a handful of sleep-deprived speedrunners unexpectedly crammed into owner Mike Uyama’s mum’s basement. Networking issues had forced them to abandon their planned location at MAGFest’s hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, so they improvised.

Back then, the organisers’ chief concern was whether a residential internet connection and jury-rigged hardware would survive 50 hours of runners speeding through games as fast as possible for charity.

This year, Summer Games Done Quick 2018 has taken over the grand ballroom of a Hilton outside of Minneapolis, filling it with attendees, projector screens, and a bespoke audio/visual setup snaking around backstage. Donation wranglers and technical staff hover over monitors while the on-deck runners practice in an open-air green room.

The hosts, all runners themselves, kick off the festivities with a polished, pre-show filled with written skits and in-jokes. One bit has them placing a game series in the story’s chronological order. The crowd roars as feasel, who got assigned the Metroid franchise, organises Metroid: Prime 1, 2, and 3 and then slyly drops the often maligned Other M on the floor. It’s gleefully corny, but it’s more entertaining than the hot takes of Fox’s World Cup analyst desk, in great part because it feels honest.

This event has grown, but it’s still run by speedrunners for speedrunners (and their fans). It’s bigger, slicker, and backed by more brands than its humble early days, but the pre-show’s sincerity hammers home that SGDQ’s organisers have not forgotten their roots.

Both in person at the event and on Twitch streams back home, SGDQ’s presentation has come a long way from the grainy footage of that residential basement, but the event’s structure and ethos remains the same.

The commentator desk goes over the upcoming schedule, listing the races planned and highlighting a recently discovered glitch that will cut hours off The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. If a $US150,000 ($203,845) donation incentive is met, the current world record holder in Super Mario Odyssey will put on an exhibition run through the game.

After the pre-show, representatives from Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières, the charity partner for Summer Games done quick events since 2013, step up to address the crowd.

“The core principle of anyone getting together in a community — be it as state, a country, a tribe, a community like this–is to make each other’s lives better, is to help each other, is to make each other healthier, in some way or another. And we really, really need to remind the world of this. So we’re doing that here.”

The audience looks antsy for the runs to start, but they give some respectful applause.

This particular community started with a couple dozen people jockeying for spots on a couch. It has grown into 2250 attendees and hundreds of thousands of people tuned-in to online streams around the world, watching characters glitch through walls and make pixel-perfect jumps, twenty-four hours a day, every day for the next week.

Back in 2010, the first-ever GDQ charity speedrunning event, Classic Games Done Quick, raised an impressive $US10,532 ($14,313) for CARE. Last winter’s Awesome Games Done Quick brought in $US2,295,191 ($3,119,084) for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Advocacy comes in many forms, and sometimes, it looks like video games played very, very fast.

It’s 8:00PM local time on Monday, a prime time slot. Bobby Cruz, a.k.a. The Blacktastic, is running Mega Man 9 in the “Any% as Proto Man” category. SlurpeeNinja and ProtoMagicalGirl, both visible on camera while seated on the couch behind him, provide additional commentary.

The whole thing clicks like the best of these runs do, and the nearly full house audience is clearly into it. They cheer when he dispatches a stage boss in seconds, they collectively hold their breath when his health bar gets low, and someone shouts “BOO THAT MAN!” when the donation reader delivers a bad pun.

Mega Man games are ideal for a speedrunning marathon. They’re relatively short and full of smooth platforming. The large communities for these games have pulled the series apart, resulting in runs that require technical expertise but aren’t totally impenetrable to a novice viewer.

Bobby has run this same category previously in a race at AGDQ 2016, and he has years of experience organising events and competing in the fighting game community. He’s a comfortable public speaker and performer who knows how to work the crowd. He insisted to everyone at the event that “we’re all friends” so everyone should just call him Bobby (I’m honouring his request here).

Couch commentator SlurpeeNinja is the world record holder in this category, so he’s more than up to the task of filling in technical details. The other background commentator, ProtoMagicalGirl, is one of the event hosts and has posted impressive times in a dozen categories spanning the whole Mega Man series. She adds enthusiastic colour, selling the difficult tricks, playing off the runner, and rolling with it when something goes wrong: “I swear, that’s harder than it looks. Bobby’s just really good.”

She offers that if Bobby gets lucky in the Galaxy Man fight, with the boss swooping in to attack twice in a row, she’ll buy him two scoops of ice cream after the run. The random numbers are kind; Galaxy Man obliges with a double swoop and dies immediately. Bobby yells “I love ice cream!” as the crowd applauds.

Speedrunners’ impressive tricks are the main draw at this event, but those feats aren’t as entertaining when you don’t know what you’re looking at. The commentary serves as a key part of what makes the runs fun to watch, even for newcomers to the speedrun scene.

Kasumi Yogi, GDQ’s Communications Director and a member of the game selection committee, emphasised that the event’s organisers are well aware of commentators’ importance to the event’s success.

“We want to make sure that–especially if it’s a complicated game–that we have that explanation there,” she told Kotaku. “Because we do have a massive audience of people who aren’t speedrunners that just enjoy the game and kind of want to understand what’s going on.”

My Week With The Fastest Gamers On Earth
Photo: Josh Tucker

There’s a big difference between watching these runs with the player or the commentators explaining tricks and watching a runner grind out attempts in silence on their personal stream.

The commentators add a personal touch, including anecdotes that runners might not think to share. “There’s a lot of stories that we hear a lot of the time, too,” said Yogi, “about the communities themselves and about how the runner got into speedrunning.”

“And that’s something that I don’t see on individual speedrun streams a lot. I don’t get to see how the community interacts with each other. But when they’re all gathered together on the couch, talking with each other, I really see that camaraderie.”

In live speedrunning, things do go wrong. During the second stage, Bobby misses a difficult one-tile slide and slips off into the lava. Later, he chooses the incorrect stage, throwing off his route and leaving him unequipped to deal with the boss.

The vibe gets temporarily tense and Bobby focuses up to adapt on the fly. SlurpeeNinja suggests an alternate weapon as a backup, but Bobby is either not interested in the advice or, in true speedrunner fashion, doesn’t want to burn the additional time it would take to open a menu and change. If this were a world record run, these would be catastrophic errors.

No one is really expecting a world record here, though. When grinding for a personal best, runners take every possible risk and reset hundreds or thousands of times. During an event, they only get a single shot under the pressure of the stage lights, so organisers ask them to use marathon-safe strategies to avoid a disaster. Yogi believes comparing the two is unfair, and it’s one the reasons GDQ doesn’t post the world record times on-stream during the broadcast.

Bobby is good as hell at Mega Man, and after swallowing his mistakes, he rebounds and tears the rest of the game apart. He’s not ecstatic about the final time, although of course it’s faster than all but a few people will ever beat. The crowd is impressed regardless and rises to give him a standing ovation.

When I talk to him later in the week, he’s still at the event and has just finished organising a Dragon Ball FighterZ tournament in one of the side rooms, which he rated a “smash hit.” I ask him how he felt about his run.

“I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed the run,” he said. “Because, when I first ran at GDQ, it was a race. So, despite being on the grand stage, I wasn’t really able to show people I’m more than a body. I couldn’t tell people about me. How I’m talking to you right now. Having someone else speak for me the entire time, you wouldn’t really know much about me, besides the fact that I run Mega Man.”

Exhibition runs with commentary give runners some breathing room to open up and engage with the crowd. “I was able to throw in a little bit of flair into it, despite the couple of mistakes that were made,” he said, going on to note that even after those mistakes, he “definitely bounced back from it and had fun with it. As long as it entertained, and as long as it brought in — I think we broke $US300,000 after that run. As long as people enjoyed themselves and had fun, that’s truly what matters in the long run.”

For Bobby, that was the goal. “If you want to see world record attempts, you can come to my stream, sure,” he said. But at SGDQ? “I’m here to entertain.”

The job of software quality assurance is to make sure an application does what it is supposed to do. In other words, quality assurance is about breaking things –or, trying to, until every defect gets found and patched up. Testing often amounts to banging your head against a wall for hours.

In many companies, QA teams are overlooked, underpaid, and always crunched for time. But even under the best circumstances, there is only so much that can be tested, and there is only so much that can be fixed.

The nature of video game fan communities in 2018–what Bobby likes to call a “rapid, accelerating age of information”–means that the moment a game is released, it gets subjected to the most ruthless, sprawling quality assurance department possible.

Game communities have become more networked and organised thanks to fan forums and, in recent years, the rise of streaming sites where players can share discoveries in real time. Fans can exponentially combine their efforts to discover cracks and crevices in new games with awe-inspiring speed. The speedrunning community in particular thrives in this new landscape.

A day before the release of ambitious space exploration game No Man’s Sky, director Sean Murray was reiterating a statement he had made previously. “The chances of two players ever crossing paths in a universe this large is pretty much zero.”

That universe is so vast that it consists of around 18 quintillion procedurally-generated planets. By the afternoon of the first day live, two players had navigated to the same location and were live-streaming their efforts to meet up.

They weren’t speedrunners, but they may as well have been; within 24 hours, they had blown Murray’s mind with their discovery.

Given more time with older games, the dogged communal efforts of players have resulted in even more bizarre and impressive feats. If you build up speed for hours and traverse parallel universes, you can beat Super Mario 64 levels without jumping.

With a meticulous routing and enough punishing practice, you can conquer all three Dark Souls games without taking a single hit. Speedrunners must also deconstruct a game to an absurd degree, all in the service of shaving off time, be it a few hours or a few fractions of a second.

This level of scrutiny results in mind-bending achievements, like this marathon’s random number generator (RNG) manipulation-heavy run of Dragon Warrior III by vaxherd. The notes for the world record version of the run are a glimpse of how deep the rabbit hole goes and include nigh-inscrutable and highly technical bullet points like “If the low byte of the RNG seed is 32n+7, swamp damage will be applied on $F1, the channel 2 sustain period; this is generally $US12 ($16), but $US06 ($8) in the $D6 pointer range $US2C-$US33 ($45) (and $US24 ($33) later in the music).”

My Week With The Fastest Gamers On Earth
The Dr. Mario tournament at SGDQ 2018 (Photo: Josh Tucker)

Speedruns are the result of countless hours of practice and reams of accumulated information, often performed with the goal of entertaining an audience, whether it’s The Mexican Runner cracking jokes and doing voices as he reads dialogue while zipping through Cuphead, or v_input_output collectively hypnotising the audience with the Brian Eno-meets-Tron serenity of Soft Body.

“It’s just a pool of knowledge that just keeps growing, and you keep getting to apply it to every other game that you touch. It gets really fun in that regard,” says runner zallard1. He ran cult horror classic Splatterhouse and its sequel for SGDQ 2018.

Previously, he’s done several Star Fox and Punch-Out runs, but he’s best known for his unforgettable Games Done Quick debut, which involved a blindfolded run of Super Punch-Out. To reiterate: he beat Super Punch-Out very quickly in a single attempt during a marathon while wearing a blindfold.

It’s a run that’s still lauded today.

“It’s not just a pure competitive thing. Even just that final run is the work of everyone in that community.”

Speedrunners don’t necessarily see one another as competitors, so much as participants in a communal, knowledge-absorbing hive mind. “Everyone in the community just does research on certain parts of the game, and you get that end product of whoever puts in the most attempts and gets that one run,” said zallard1.

“It’s like the culmination — it’s not just a pure competitive thing. Even just that final run is the work of everyone in that community.”

Games Done Quick Director of Operations Matt Merkle echoed that, saying, “The community is 100% collaborative. It’s not like a tournament where they’re like, ‘I’m going to hold this trick until I can show it off.’ They get together like, ‘I just found this, let’s get this broken.’”

Speedrunner and fighting game aficionado Bobby Cruz sees some similarities between the two gaming communities in which he takes part. “I definitely think it’s largely the same. It all goes back to ‘Let’s make all this information available for new people,’” he said.

“Growing up with fighting games, actually in arcades and everything, we’ve had the grind. And the less effort that the next person has to put forth in order to get quickly involved in something we enjoy, the better off everyone else is.”

Having never been to a gaming event before, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Summer Games Done Quick, but I was not prepared for the level of enthusiasm or the warm feeling of fellowship.

The atmosphere almost felt like video games are a miracle that God gave us to break, and this is the evangelical celebration of that process. The participants have studied the texts of these creations so that they can perform the ultimate hubris of taking them apart, and everyone gets to delight in that effort. Oh, and there’s a Puyo Puyo Tetris machine in the hallway.

The hotel brims with the same lanyards and inside-baseball jargon that comes with any conference, but the elevator chatter is about Persona 5 and galaxy brain memes.

Periodically we stop at a floor and someone gets on carrying a console controller or an entire Xbox setup, cords dangling. There is something of a uniform, but it is primarily graphic tees and hoodies printed with animated characters and logos from streaming services. Plenty of people are in gear from previous iterations, like wearing a retired player’s jersey to a ball game or a shirt from one of bands earlier tours to their concert.

People are here to watch the marathon, but in the process they also get to see friends they might otherwise not meet in person, to support a good cause, and to have a few days surrounded by other people who share their niche interests.

Everywhere — in the lobby, in the stream room between runs, in the hotel hallways–I see attendees hugging and excitedly talking about what they’re looking forward to. During one run I hear an audience member say that she’s been here for a full day and this is the first time she has come in to watch in person. Besides the main event in the grand ballroom, there are atriums dedicated to tabletop games and a full arcade. Side rooms have every manner of TV and monitor hooked up to accommodate private run practice, casual gaming, and tournaments.

There are basketball hoops in the rear parking lot, and some attendees rally up enough people to start a pick-up game of wiffle ball. I see a Tweet from someone who ordered an adaptor cable delivered to the hotel so they can play Brawl in their room.

“Everyone is like-minded here, so everyone is extremely, extremely easy to approach and talk to about anything, especially with the way things are set up,” zallard1 says, referring to the casual conversations that spring up around arcade cabinets and monitor setups.

“That feel, right there, is just like how this entire event is. Everything is super approachable and friendly and everyone just has that common goal. We all want the event to be successful. We want more of that — we want to come back to these.”

For the first time this year, the organisers are experimenting with holding panels on topics like how to get into speedrunning and the technical aspects of streaming. The schedule includes a panel with the event’s creator Mike Uyama and several veteran runners on the original Classic Games Done quick debacle turned eventual triumph. Scene fixture Trihex is in the crowd. He banters with the panelists and they share footage he shot of them melting down when the original event devolved into chaos, before eventually succeeding in raising twice their donation goal.

This year’s event didn’t dissolve into chaotic disarray, in part due to GDQ’s director of operations Matt Merkle keeping track of the logistics of organising a week-long extravaganza like this.

The hotel needs robust internet, and the organisers prefer to stream the event on the TVs in all of the hotel rooms; during this event, all of the runs played on channel 74. The hosts have to demarcate places for everyone to eat and activities for attendees to do, lest they flood the building with pizza delivery boxes, spill out into the streets and start a Smash Bros. tournament there.

“We’ve been expanding that, things to do outside of just sitting in the stream room and watching people play,” said Merkle. “While that’s obviously a huge part of it, we want to make sure people don’t get bored.”

GDQ’s attempts to keep fans interested appear to have worked. Merkle says that they have got hotels booked for future marathons out to 2020 already. “We crash for a couple weeks after the event, and then it’s right back into it,” he said. “There’s no real stop for it.”

The event’s communal spirit seems noticeable even to outsiders. Someone friendly working at the hotel restaurant told me the event seemed to be going “really well” and that everyone has been nice and respectful.

It’s early in the week, but the worst news that they have heard of so far is that someone, presumably underage, tried to sneak in alcohol. I ask if they have conferences where people aren’t as nice and respectful and, after some hesitation, they admit: “Anime was rough.”

When the week is over, the donation total for Doctors Without Borders reads $US2 ($3),122,529.20. In all, the Games Done Quick events have now raised over sixteen million dollars for various charitable organisations.

Although that number has steadily climbed with each event, the organisers still seem amazed at their success. “From [the original Classic Games Done Quick], it kind of grew into whatever it is today. And what I think is that it is a huge behemoth,” said Yogi.

“It is not something that I would have ever expected. I’m very proud of the community for coming together the way it has and for going the way it has, given that it’s a very niche category of gaming.”

When I ask about Games Done Quick’s status as the face of speedrunning, at least for people who are less familiar with the practice, Yogi agrees that the event has some responsibility to the community, but she pushes back against the supposition that GDQ is the be-all-end-all for speedrunning visibility.

“There are a lot of personalities who speedrun and they actually lend their voice to promote GDQ. So I feel that, in that way, we’re not necessarily the face of speedrunning. They are sharing their communities with us, because they’re lending their talents to us, for our event,” she said. “GDQ is not the speedrunning community; GDQ is a collection of all of the different speedrunners and different communities that are coming together.”

Games Done Quick has experienced a juggernaut ascendance since its inception, but most of its growing pains seem to have happened as far back as AGDQ 2014, when the event moved into the Crowne Plaza Dulles Airport Hotel and the donation total for a single event first broke the million dollar mark.

In the past, some fans have complained about the implementation of subscription-only Twitch chat, rule enforcement, and various other controversies, but none of it seemed to be causing obvious distress on the ground this year.

“It feels like everyone, at least that I talk to, have no problem with these things,” zallard1 said when I asked about the rules enforcement. “No one seems to be upset, at least here.” Yogi and Merkle both say that subscriber-only chat was necessary, that it got a lot of good feedback from AGDQ 2018, and they will stick with it until they can find another good solution for moderation.

“Games Done Quick events are kind of isolated… it forms its own kind of ecosystem.”

This is not a ColecoVision fantasy-camp utopia. Merkle concedes that any event this big will accrue some hate, but he believes that responses to the event have gotten more positive in recent years, after “kind of low point in the 2014-15 era, where just the whole internet in general was kind of in a downtrodden way.”

GDQ is something of an escape, though; while some may complain about it being more risk-averse in recent years, at its best, the communal emphasis also creates a safe, insulated vibe.

“Games Done Quick events are kind of isolated, in that it forms its own kind of ecosystem of people that are coming in and spending all of their time here,” says Yogi. “Some people never leave the venue and then they go home, and then they go back to real life.”

The hotel plays World Cup matches in the lobby, but few people at GDQ are making conversation about the biggest sporting event in the world. I don’t overhear anyone talking about the news that the night before the event started, police shot a man named Thurman Blevins to death in North Minneapolis, not far from here. But even this insulated space has carved out some corners to remind its attendees of the world outside GDQ.

There are photos scattered around the second floor, amongst arcade machines, of the situations and places where Doctors Without Borders has stepped in.

My Week With The Fastest Gamers On Earth
On the left, Puyo Puyo Tetris setups. On the right, a photo via Doctors Without Borders. (Photo: Josh Tucker)

Still, we all need respites, and every year, there are more and more people who want to be a part of this one. In early June, a new event called Games Done Quick Express, got announced for TwichCon 2018. At this point, the organisers’ big worry is burning out their staff and volunteers.

“There’s definitely a concern about oversaturation, not necessarily from a donation perspective, but on our staff side and volunteer/runner side,” said Merkle. “We don’t want to overwhelm them, but we wanted to experiment with it.”

Yogi concurred, saying, “We don’t just want to sit on two events and say ‘Hey, that’s great. We don’t need to do any more. We always want to revisit what we’re doing and try something new.”

“We’re definitely always looking for ways to expand,” agreed Merkle. “But we’ve been trying to control the growth so that we can manage it, make sure it stays entertaining, and not have the con pains of growing.”

They have managed to keep walking that tightrope, according to Merkle. “It helped that we kind of had an idea of what we wanted to do from the very beginning. It’s not changed too much since. We’re going to play games. We’re going to play them for charity. And we’re going to have fun.”

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