Watching anyone who is the best at doing anything can be incredibly engaging — regardless of the activity. Televised talent shows and Guinness world record categories for bizarrely specific feats bear witness to that fact. Video games are no exception. The allure of watching individuals overcoming difficult challenges within a virtual world is quite compelling.
Speedrunning and competitive Esports are expressions of top-tier ability. Both of these classifications within gaming have proven they are able to generate enough of an audience that high-caliber players can make a career out of their performances. Historically, however, their differences in public perception and fame are quite stark. Because of its niche appeal and convoluted nature, speedrunning garners a lot less respect. Should this be the case?
Gotta Go Fast
The Starting Line
At its core, speedrunning a game is an attempt to get to the end of the game, usually determined by accessing the end-game credits screen, as quickly as possible. Different categories put different demands on players which dramatically change up the strategies required to compete for the ultimate goal, the world record. Players will pick a specific category and will grind on it for months hoping to cut off seconds from their personal best runs to get the fastest possible times.
Every game will have different categories that dictate which exploits or shortcuts are allowed and what completion metrics are used. Some categories involve simply getting to the credits as fast as possible while utilizing any options available. Other varieties may require a player to finish a larger portion of the game and ban certain bugs. Additionally, every game will have unique rules that define when the run timer starts and stops.
It is very common for the maneuvers necessary to compete for world-record pace to be very technically difficult to perform. In the context of a long game or a one with multiple frame-perfect tricks, this effect is compounded. Runs are often practiced and attempted during live streams which adds public performance as another difficulty. The pressure is immense.
According to a recent report from Stream Hatchet, the 2020 pandemic caused a sizable increase in people streaming and watching speedruns. While this community has existed for decades, its popularity has steadily grown as more people learn its intricacies. Members of the scene have also worked hard to increase its exposure.
The organization Games Done Quick, which got its start in 2010, really helped shine a spotlight on the community while also raising large sums of money for various charities over the years. On an individual level, a growing number of successful YouTube creators including Summoning Salt (1.2 Million Subscribers), Karl Jobst (627k Subscribers), and Lowest Percent (300k Subscribers) explain speedrunning tricks and history in an entertaining documentary-style format. The boundaries for discovering and comprehending the scene are lowering, and more people are becoming enamored by this culture.
Watching a player attempt to set a world record can be fascinating, but this growing scene has some drawbacks. A downside of spectating speedruns is that each game has its own intricacies, bugs, or techniques to understand before being able to fully appreciate a run. Sometimes glitches look difficult but are easy to perform or vice versa. If a viewer is unfamiliar with a game at all, they may not even understand why players seemingly do strange things throughout runs or understand when a player has successfully executed something impressive. Being able to keep up with new tactics for an individual game can be daunting if lots of players are actively working on solving the equation of a particular game’s optimal route.
Speedrunning detractors have some interesting criticisms. While there are events where players may simultaneously “race” each other to try and reach the end of a game faster, speedruns are generally tracked individually. Unlike in most traditional sports, what one player does during a run does not affect their competitor in any way. Also absent is any inclusion of team dynamics. The lack of cooperation or direct conflict turns many off.
The speedrun community also offends a lot of gamers on another level. The idea of rushing through a game as quickly as possible invigorates some players as an unorthodox way to get enjoyment out of a product that they love and have been playing already for years. On the other hand, the utilization of game bugs and the disregard for the intended play method for some games can be interpreted as disrespectful and sacrilegious.
As an entertainment medium, speedrunning suffers from another problem. Players can practice or attempt runs for hours on end without anything noteworthy happening. A world record can be set during any run without any sort of preamble by a hardworking newcomer. On the flip side, established runners may stream for months without any significant advancement in their best times. Being unable to know where or when these landmark moments will happen makes this form of competition extremely difficult to monetize.
Follow the Money
Understanding the Market
Esports as a professional concept gained major traction in the late 2010s. Increased interest from both viewers and sponsors brought more money and popularity to the scene. The most common types of games played are those created specifically for multiplayer competition such as virtual sports titles, fighting games, first-person shooters, and multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs). These genres are often easy to grasp as alternatives to traditional sports since they contain so many of the same elements. Teamwork, head-to-head competition, strategy, and hard-earned skill are easy to identify.
Video games also have an advantage over traditional sports in their lack of stagnation. With every major game update, there can be sweeping shifts in the competitive landscape. New characters can be added to a game. Guns can have their stats increased or decreased. There can be glitches or exploits discovered that are legally permissible until patched out at a later time. The constant feeling of fresh tweaking to these games keep both the professionals and the viewership on their toes.
The pure draw of high-level play can not be ignored either. Seeing the most talented people in the world at any skill can be a beautiful thing to behold. Video games are no exception. Esports allow the best-of-the-best to push a game to its absolute limits and show just how well it can be played. The thrill of a close game, the pride of absolute domination, and the crushing feeling of a heartbreaking loss can captivate crowds all over the world. The nature of these competitions allows for crowds to be present for the highest-stakes events and the anticipation and anxiety of fans and players alike feed on each other.
This relatability of Esports not only translates easily to value from fans, but it also is a concept that investors can capitalize on. A lot of the fanfare around its success has just as much to do with the money it generates as the professional gaming skill promoted. Celebrity players can act as influencers who bring in money to advertisers. Advertiser funds can be used on a marketing budget and to hire professional commentators or add to a sizable prize pool. The sizable prize pool attracts more player interest which forces players to become even better if they want to win. It is a cycle. Check out this trailer for the RLCS X Championship from this summer. The highlight reel and energetic commentary build hype for the event in a way very familiar to sports fans.
It is easy to see why this category of skill-based gaming is more esteemed. Traditional sports have gathered crowds and admiration for over one thousand years. They are something that both we as people and moneymakers understand. Digital athletes, much like their physical counterparts push the bounds of what is possible in their respective “sports” and play a game as hard as it can be played to great entertainment value.
Game Respects Game
However, we should not let market realities cloud our judgment of skill. Esports focuses on playing games the “right” way at the highest skill level possible, and speedrunning is about playing games the “wrong” way the best. While speedrunning hasn’t been able to capitalize as effectively as synchronous competition, it is still an important aspect of professional gaming. The amount of dedication, commitment, and skill necessary for a world-record time in a popular game is undoubtedly worth of achievement.
Watching a runner play the same segments of a video game repeatedly for thousands of hours as they inch closer and closer to the limits of human perfection can be wildly entertaining. Frequently a community will be on the verge of thinking they’ve eeked every tenth of a second out of a game only to have someone discover another glitch or method of shaving off more time. Long runs of games can require multiple hours of completely dedicated focus and perfect execution of hundreds of thousands of extremely precise inputs and timing in a massive endurance strain. Short speedruns can be thrown out if movements are only a pixel off.
Unlike large, planned events, part of the hook of watching runners is spontaneity. Players may reset their consoles 2 hours into a run that could have been going very well until a critical mistake. A bad run could drastically shift as the player attempts a riskier, but faster strategy than normal and completes the trick successfully. The reality also always exists if you are watching any skilled player that you could be present for the setting of a new world record. Being able to rejoice in the chat with a streamer and their community can be a hugely memorable occasion.
I would love to see Speedrunners gain more popularity and respect within the gaming community. Seeing more people discover and love to watch runs of their favorite games has been encouraging for many who are passionate about this specific side of the internet. I’m sure as time goes by people will find better ways to make money on Speedrunners. At that point, this discussion will likely be moot as popularity and profit often force definitions to change.
Until then, I believe Speedrunning is an Esport regardless, and it’s my favorite one.
Where Do You Land?
Do you think that the inherent lack of direct simultaneous competition eliminates speedrunning from being a true Esport? Do you think the amount of skill required in speedrunning games is enough to value speedrunners as digital athletes? Do you enjoy watching professional gaming? Who are your favorite streamers/players/teams? Please let us know in the comment section below.