Beyond the Clock: Finding a home in the speedrunning community
One of the most accessible communities in gaming is changing peoples' lives.
Until recently, Ryan, who goes by the handle “ThisGuyAreSick” and asked to be referred to by his first name, flinched at the thought of describing himself as a gamer. While video games were a big part of his life as a kid, he more or less abandoned the hobby that brought him so much enjoyment growing up by the time he’d entered his early teens.
As a loving father and husband, with two jobs as an IT professional and youth minister, the 30 year-old Kansas native couldn’t feasibly often balance something so time-consuming on top of his demanding responsibilities. Despite the chaos of his adult life, however, he’d still feed his lingering gaming interest a few times a year by watching speed running streams through Games Done Quick, a series of video game speedrunning charity events, with his wife “Rey” and brother “Riles” (their full names have been omitted due to privacy concerns).
“My brother was always kind of the gamer of the family,” he said. “I think he told my wife about it and then she told me about it. He’s been watching it for a long time, and she and I had been watching it for a couple of years every summer and winter.” I didn’t even have a Twitch account, so I wouldn’t even watch it on Twitch. I would watch it on the Games Done Quick website.”
At the that time, Ryan didn’t even have a Twitch account, which meant he’d watch the show on the Games Done Quick website itself. Back then, he said he had no clue how much his introduction to the world of speedrunning would significantly transform his life. It was simply an entertaining way to spend time with his wife and bond with his brother.
What is speedrunning?
For the uninitiated, speedrunning is pretty much what it sounds like: playing a game as fast as possible, often to achieve a record time. To do this, runners take advantage of various bugs, exploits and mechanics present in a particular game that people document in blogs, forums, YouTube videos and other online sources.
GDQ is one of the largest and most popular speedrunning marathons, and the organization holds two large-scale showcases a year: Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) in the winter and Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) in the summer. The goal of those showcases, and other smaller ones held throughout the year, is to highlight some of the best runners in a particular game and category while raising money for charity.
So, what’s the big deal? Not everybody is drawn to the idea of playing the same game over and over, sometimes for hours on end, just to try and beat it slightly faster than they did before. Especially not typical gamers that may be interested in various genres and styles of gameplay.
GDQ Communications and Event Director Kasumi Yogi first fell in love with speedrunning as a viewer in 2010. A longstanding member of both the FGC and League of Legends community, Yogi shared that it’s the personal relationships and connections she’s forged through speedrunning that make it so special.
“Outside of the fact that we’re all doing something great for charity, seeing the happy faces of people that I really care about really means a lot to me,” said Yogi. “For me, the draw of speedrunning is seeing my friends happy when I go to GDQ events.”
For a seasoned runner who goes by the handle Helix, however, the process is the point. Not only is it a great way to build and express skill in gaming, but there are many resources out there to help players.
huh. well that was a productive stream. pic.twitter.com/JxEKg1vyvR— Helix (@Helix13_) July 13, 2021
“It’s a great way to get more enjoyment out of games I’ve completed,” they said. “At a certain point, the only thing left to do in a game is try and beat it faster, so if I’m still enjoying a game at that point, I’ll usually try to speedrun it.”
Helix found speedrunning around 2014 while playing Super Smash Bros. Melee at a friend’s house. After watching a GDQ video together online, Helix dove further down the rabbit hole on their own, looking up runs of some of their favorite games, particularly Super Monkey Ball 2, which was released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube.
“I wanted to see just how quickly a game that gave me so much grief during childhood could be beaten,” they said. “I was, and still am, fascinated by all the different strategies, exploits and glitches people take advantage of to cut their time down as much as possible.”
Optimizing the run for a certain game, or finding the best ways to achieve the shortest time, game normally takes a village of curious and creative people. This collaborative nature present in speedrunning sets it apart from other competitive scenes in a big way, especially since it’s not bound to a single title or type of game.
Is it an esport? Sometimes it can be. But in a scene largely defined by multiple peoples’ ability to work together and share the best way to play, there are those that care more about competing with themselves than beating someone else’s record. In fact, both Helix and Ryan share the belief that these people are the majority in the speedrunning community.
“I found that people are really, really open to sharing their experience,” Ryan said. “They don’t care if other people are getting good. They just want the game to be better. And the more minds you can put to a task, the more quickly you’re going to get better.”
Everyone has their own story of how they stumbled upon speedrunning, but there seems to be a consensus on why most people end up sticking around, and that’s the community itself. With so many different sub-groups for different games, interests and cultures, newcomers tend to have an easier time finding where they fit in under the broader scope of the scene.
In Ryan’s case as someone fresher to the scene, those he met through speedrunning would ultimately empower him to create such spaces for himself and others.
Welcomed with open arms
In early 2020, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan and Rey continued their tradition of watching AGDQ. There, they stumbled upon a runner named Muttski playing Final Fantasy 8, one of Ryan’s favorite games, on the stream.
Drawn in by their gameplay and commentary style, Ryan searched for Muttski’s YouTube channel, which eventually led him to their streamed runs on Twitch. Ryan made a Twitch account just so he could follow them, and before he knew it, he was a full-fledged member of Muttski’s community.
In the coming months, a personal friend’s streaming announcement prompted Ryan to start a Twitch channel of his own and dabble in streaming. After asking said friend for tips on how to get started, he was on his way. He started out streaming various games for fun but eventually had the idea to give speedrunning a try himself and shape his stream around that.
“I’d always been really fascinated by speedrunning in general,” he said. “I am now streaming. I love speedrunning. All of the people on Twitch that I watch are speedrunners.”
Since Ryan had built a relationship with Muttski through their stream, he turned to them for advice on how to get started in such a massive hobby. Muttski recommended he play Unravel 2, which came out in 2018 for PC and major consoles, because it’s both a co-op game he could play with Rey and relatively easy to get into.
Unravel 2 is broken up into seven chapters, each with its own unique characteristics. While learning, Ryan and Rey found it easier to intentionally practice specific parts of the game at a time rather than trying to tackle everything at once. And that was no coincidence. Both of them are musicians trained in opera and piano, respectively, so this style of segmented learning that’s crucial to music education felt natural.
“Being able to break it up into chunks and do things in portions before putting it all together and that sort of thing… it kind of related to me a lot,” said Ryan.
In a matter of months, Ryan went from being someone with hardly much time to watch games, let alone play them, to a speedrunning streamer like the ones saw on GDQ streams. Inspired by the warm welcome he received, and his own personal beliefs around diversity and inclusion, he committed to making his platform a safe and accepting space for all.
Of course, it’s natural for every community to have its fair share of issues. Whether or not Ryan’s observation rang true throughout other speedrunning circles didn’t stop him from working toward a solution for this problem within the spaces he occupied. This started with advertising his values of acceptance on Twitch and Twitter, and it eventually evolved into something more substantial.
Enter Meteor: a Discord-based speedrunning group that Ryan founded as a safe collective of people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. According to him, while the speedrunning community is accepting of different genders and sexual identities, it is also a very white place.
“I don’t know very many speedrunners that have non-white racial identities,” Ryan said. “And I was like ‘man, I wish that weren’t the case and I wish that there were more efforts to be more welcoming and actively trying to get people involved who have different backgrounds and experiences.’”
Events such as Powerup With Pride, which ran from June 4 to June 6 this year and raised more than $20,000 for Trevor Project, have been staples in the speedrunning community for years. Helix, a member of Meteor themselves, said such a group is definitely needed in the community.
“Most community leaders do a good job of removing hatred and bigotry,” Helix said. “This isn’t universally true; some sub-communities for whatever reason are run by and/or have attracted less-accepting people. We still have some work to do on this front, but in general, I think we’re doing okay.”
A sense of belonging
In their experience, Helix has also found the speedrunning community more easygoing and accepting than other gaming spaces in general. At the end of the day, a shared passion for the games runners love creates an undercurrent of belonging that becomes the foundation for meaningful relationships. More specifically, some of Helix’s most meaningful ties with the greater speedrunning community formed through their involvement with Midwest Speedfest, a Minneapolis-based grassroots marathon they discovered at a separate convention.
— Midwest Speedfest (@MWSpeedfest) April 25, 2021
“I was there for a Smash Bros. tournament — I still competed at the time — and my friend told me about the speedrun marathon that was happening in the other room,” Helix said. “So I popped over and even ended up commentating my friend’s Donkey Kong Country 2 run, despite knowing next to nothing about the game.”
When Midwest Speedfest needed help organizing future events, Helix’s experience organizing events for the smash community came in handy. Now, their official roles at MWSF are Head of Hosting and Social Media Manager. According to them, they more or less do everything that isn’t related to tech or art, from setting up volunteer forms and answering questions to scheduling and selecting which games will be included in the marathon.
“I’m forever grateful that I can use my skills to help raise money for charity, even if I’m not organizing,” they said. “You’re telling me I can help raise money by signing up for an event and playing Super Monkey Ball? Count me in.”
For every local marathon like MWSF raising money and bringing people together, larger marathons like GDQ are smashing records and making major waves in the gaming world as a whole.
In 2019, SGDQ made history by raising $3 million in a week of charity runs, smashing the previous year’s numbers by nearly $600,000. Yogi recalled the achievement as a moment she’ll never forget.
“There was a lot of internal speculation on whether that was a feasible goal for us,” she said. “Thinking about that and actually achieving it is one thing, because we’re just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’ve done this.’ But at the same time, the community is amazing to be able to pull together some great talent.”
Brimming with nerves, Yogi awaited the results amid the event’s chaotic last few minutes while tending to her administrative duties. When they reached their $3 million goal before the donation window closed, she was swept with overwhelmed with gratitude for the people that helped make it happen.
“I think that’s the feeling that always sticks with me, you know,” Yogi said. “When we hit big milestones like that, being able to hug my colleagues and say, ‘Good job, you’ve done so well,’ being able to thank the speedrunners and say, ‘You all made this happen.’ That’s the feeling that sticks with me long after the event itself has ended.”
This year, despite holding SGDQ 2021, the event still managed to rake in more than $2.9 million in donations and bids.
It’s no secret that the speedrunning community and marathons like MWSF and GDQ have made significant impacts in and outside of the gaming community over the years. For some people, that impact transcends any charitable contributions.
To Ryan, speedrunning forged its way into his life through unexpected means, and it’s responsible for creating and strengthening connections during a time where opportunities to do so are scarce. In the case of his brother, Riles, they never spoke much before speedrunning, despite living in the same state. These days, they’re closer than they’ve ever been.
“Now we talk all the time,” he said. “Because we have this in common, I get to see him all the time. We get to talk. It’s fantastic.”
With two jobs, a gym habit, a kid at home and another on the way, Ryan said he worries about how long he’ll be able to make room for this new part of his life. What began as a curious venture into a fresh hobby during a time where many felt more isolated than ever was slowly evolving into a new passion.
“I have this overwhelming fear that when things go back to normal, Twitch is the thing that’s going to not make the cut,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen because it is an important thing and I have important friendships. I am determined to find a way to make it fit.”
For Yogi, meanwhile, speedrunning has left such a lasting impression on her life that she could never be separated from the community and the people she met within it.
“Over the last over 10 years of GDQ’s existence, we’ve seen a lot of runners grow up, get married, have kids, and we’ve been around for a lot of their major life changes,” she said. “Everybody’s just been around each other and new people come in all the time, and they’re just part of the family.”