On January 21st, Twitch user Adam_ak decided to play through the spooky, foreboding horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent as fast as he could — and 11,000 people tuned in to watch it live. The concept of speedrunning has been around for some time, dating back to the late 1990s with PC games like Quake and Doom, but streaming technologies like Twitch have helped breathe new life into the phenomenon by letting viewers watch these attempts at video game greatness as they happen. "It's very akin to watching a live football game," says Twitch's marketing VP Matthew DiPietro. "The guttural experience you have with a live football game is a little bit different than watching after the fact because you didn't catch it live."
"It's very akin to watching a live football game."
Generally speaking, the goal of a speedrun is to play a game from beginning to end as fast as you can. Sometimes this playthrough may be limited to only a certain section of the game, and other times the end goal may also include certain stipulations — collect a certain number of coins, for instance, or kill every single monster on screen. No matter what, it's a test of endurance and skill, and can involve quite a bit of preparation. Players often plan out routes in advance, and practice certain skills to shave seconds of their time. Glitches can also play a big role — in Super Mario 64 many players exploit the "16 star glitch," which lets them reach the final level by collecting only 16 stars instead of the necessary 70. These techniques are constantly refined as players attempt to beat each others times.
One of the limiting factors of speedruns, though, has been how difficult they have been to put together and share. In the late 1990s the process of recording a playthrough and posting it on the internet was no small feat. And for viewers, spending a few hours downloading a tiny video of someone playing Doom really fast wasn't exactly the most satisfying experience. Fast forward a few years and the advent of sites like YouTube has made sharing them significantly easier. A quick search on YouTube will bring up hundreds of thousands of speedruns — you can watch skilled players make their way through Half Life in half an hour or Super Mario Bros. in just a few minutes.
But, as amazing as these videos are, there's something lost when you watch a recording of a run that's already complete. Seeing an event after it's happened isn't quite the same as watching it live. "What speedrunning on Twitch does, and what watching these types of events live does, is it humanizes inhuman abilities," says Twitch community manager Jared Rea. "Because it's not just about watching this flawless run anymore, it's about going on the journey towards it with this player. You watch their success and you watch their failure and you watch them develop new techniques and discover bugs or routes that they had never thought of." So while the concept of speedrunning isn't exactly new, platforms like Twitch are letting people enjoy it in a fresh, more engaging way. Not only can you watch events live, but chat rooms let viewers interact with players in real time. It turns playing a video game really fast into a spectator sport.
"It humanizes inhuman abilities."
Of course, games as a sport isn't a new concept, and Twitch itself is a big proponent of competitive gaming (also known as e-sports), with titles like League of Legends and Starcraft II among the most popular draws. But Rea says that speedrunning is slowly catching up to e-sports in terms of popularity amongst the site's 23 million viewers. "I think a lot of the reason why speedrunning is popular is just the broad appeal of it," he explains. "It's very accessible because, a lot of times, it's these nostalgic games that you grew up with."
Titles like Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are among the most popular for speedruns on Twitch, but, as the numbers for that Amnesia run show, viewers are also warming to more offbeat selections. Infamously difficult games like Batman on the NES or the action role playing game Dark Souls make for interesting runs, while unexpected titles like Ecco the Dolphin can also amass large audiences. "It's a combination of the uniqueness of the title and the skill that's being put on display," Rea says, describing what elements make for a compelling speedrun.
"They're kind of at the mercy of the game."
One of the more bizarre speedrun types to emerge is the Pokemon race. Here two players start playing a game of Pokemon at the exact same time, racing to reach a specific goal, such as being the first to beat a boss character. What makes these races different from most speedruns is their random nature — it's hard to plan a strategy in advance when you have no idea which pokemon you'll be able to catch along the way. Throw in random battles and it gets even more challenging. "I think that's where a lot of the drama comes in those races," says Rea. "[The player's] fate isn't entirely in their hands. They're kind of at the mercy of the game."
No matter the game, though, the appeal of a speedrun lies largely in seeing a game played in a new way — using incredible skill to complete games in record times or exploiting glitches to jump through walls and bypass obstacles. New streaming technologies like Twitch have helped bring this phenomenon to a larger audience, but this newfound popularity also raises an interesting question: how do the developers of these games feel about the way speedrunning has transformed their creations into something new? It's a question that Rea himself has pondered. "I don't know if Shigeru Miyamoto has seen [Twitch user] Siglemic play Mario 64, but I wonder if he'd be really ecstatic that people are still enjoying the game 15 years later, or would he be like ‘oh, I really screwed this one up, didn't I.'"