If you want to see grade-A, first class, premium video game playing, you typically have two places you can go. You can either visit the glittering, glorified world of eSports, where the crowds roar and the shout-casters make nerdy references about Mario Kart in the middle of a team fight, or you go to the homely back-alleys of Speedrunning, where hyper-competitive and borderline obsessive gamers congregate to swap strategies, exploits, and bugs in order to save as many precious seconds as possible when trying to reach the end of a game.
Both worlds have their fans, but the eSports world is inarguably the bigger, more public side of things, where players have personality, rivalries, and sex scandals to keep people enthralled even after a match is over. Speedrunning, on the other hand, is smaller, but a tighter-knit community, where rivalries exist but they’re undeniably friendly. People give each other shout-outs and tips, celebrate the breaking of a new record, and endlessly debate if it’s possible to shave any more time off whatever run is the most popular at the time. Each have their own in-group, their own language and heroes, and both are a great place to visit if you want to watch someone absolutely destroy a game you can barely even play.
And in that respect, they are very similar.
So here’s my question, which you probably saw when you clicked on the article title (unless you blindly clicked the moment you noticed I posted something new, in which case, thank you for your loyalty) – are we overdue to turn Speedrunning into a proper eSport?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still possible to earn a living doing speed-runs: all too often they stream their efforts for some ad revenue and donations, and there are speed run “bounties” for people who can break certain, mythical hypothetical records. But is it time we elevate it from the backrooms of video games and put them in the limelight? All the glitz, the glamor, the fashion of the esports world, but spotlighting the people who can absolutely destroy Tetris even when the blocks are invisible? Let’s look at some pros and cons, shall we?
Pro: Friendly to advertisers
Esports, like every sport, relies on a series of sponsors to keep the lights on and the players decked out in the latest gear. In eSports, sponsors tend to be banks, energy drinks, insurance companies, and of course, computer hardware developers: all industries that are related to video games or their demographic in some form or another. And the great news for speedrunners is that there’s a lot of overlap in those demographics. Computer manufacturer could honestly reuse just about every esports marketing ploy they have and apply it to the speedrunning community: IE, “Pro Gamers need every edge they can get, so they trust the enhanced performance of our software” become “Speed runners need every frame they can get, so they trust…” ect.
Speedrunners need the energy to stay focused and awake, so there’s your Red Bull. They need all those comfortable chairs and mousepads. They need money and insurance like everyone else. Perhaps the only thing they don’t have in common is that they sometimes, by necessity, need to use old, unsupported consoles, like an N64. Granted, that’s uncommon these days thanks to emulators, but that brings in a different, more challenging problem:
Con: developers don’t typically like their games “broken”
One of the pulls of eSports for developers is that it both draws attention to their game (which is good for boosting sales) and shows off all the cool stuff you can do in it (and all the sweet cosmetics, of course). So developers will try, often a little too hard, to showcase their games potential as an eSport, and hope that it catches. You can’t force it (looking at you, Arms), but you can embrace it when or if it does eventually happen, and that support is necessary if you’re going to make that game big league. There’s a reason there are DOTA 2 leagues around the globe but Super Smash Brothers is so much more “underground”.
Speedrunning, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of what developers want to showcase. It draws attention to a game, sure, but it also typically involves playing through the whole thing which might mean people don’t feel the need to grab it for themselves. Speedrunning also involves “breaking” games more often than not, which makes the developers look bad. And of course, there’s a better than good chance that the game being speed run is either old, or it’s being played on an emulator, which no developer would ever support, ever. It’s basically advertising “You don’t have to buy this – you can get it free on your PC!”
Developers probably won’t be on board with that, and finding one willing to cooperate with organizers to make it happen officially is unlikely.
Pro: There’s lots of drama
One of the most dramatic things in all of human history is a ticking clock. A countdown to something amazing – amazing good or amazing bad, no one’s sure yet. And watching someone race against a clock (counting down instead of up, for an example of how to really enhance the drama) can be a nail-biting experience. Plus, those friendly rivalries could be pretty easily dramatized to make it seem way more competitive than it actually is, and would give us plenty of pre-and-post game discussion to talk about planned strategies and what could, or did, go wrong. And of course, there’s the always-exciting thrill of watching someone explode with glee after beating a record.
And the show itself, while pretty chill in current speed running streams, could be amped up with the right tools. A play-by-play Camera to explain why a certain trick is hard. An overlay to look at interesting stats. Moment-to-moment commentary about what’s coming up and how to prepare for it. All of which would be important because…
Con: might not make a great live performance
Speed-running is very much a mentality thing. You have to be in the right mind space, have lots of focus, and the freedom to know when it’s time to walk away. That doesn’t exist in a live setting, which is why speedrun records are rarely made during those Awesome Games Done Quick streams. Making that the “norm” would probably mean that all the pros we’re putting in front of the Camera and a crowd of hundreds would routinely fail to astonish us as they try and fail to do something they just aren’t in the right space to do. Plus, what are you supposed to do for the people who bought tickets only to discover that the day’s athlete screwed up an hour in and quits, knowing there’s no way to recover? Do they sit through that whole hour again when he tries a second time?
And that’s the second thing: an almost-perfect speedrun will look basically identical to a perfect speedrun in 99% of the entire run. So you’d need all those flashy designs and play-by-play talk to make the run actually interesting, especially if you’ve seen a certain run, and all the tricks involved, done a few dozen times beforehand. Obviously there’s a crowd for that stuff, but I think it’s safe to say those folks are not the mainstream.
So at the end of the day, having looked at just some of the pros and cons, I’m forced to conclude that making speedruns into an eSport would probably be a bad idea. Or at the very least if we were to make it more mainstream, we’d have to scrap the live performances in the packed stadiums to do something else. Like, turn it into a game show, where the goal isn’t to beat the world record but just beat the guys sitting next to you. Or maybe have it where you submit the video of your speedrun, a bunch of people juice it up, and then they present it that way. Or maybe I’m just trying too hard to see this happen when I know there simply isn’t a market for it in today’s world. eSports is already fringe enough in the mainstream, throw in speedrunning and you’re going to have a terribly confused and awfully unhappy public.
Still. I admire speedrunners, and the work they do. Maybe they want the mainstream success of esports players, or maybe they’re happy in their own little bubble-culture where their words carry all the weight in the world. Who am I to know or judge? I just wish that their obsessions, their passion, the fact they can take a forgotten game and turn it into something like a piece of art as they eviscerate it from the inside out, I wish that would get more acknowledgement from the public in general.
And possibly from Red Bull. Because you’re more likely to need a Red Bull when speedrunning Final Fantasy 7 then during a 15 minute match of Starcraft.