The new retro-gaming kings: Speedrunning, a thriving esport
Image credit: Dreamstime, Speedrun.com
Speedrunning boomed during the pandemic. More and more youngsters are trying to break world speed records in computer games released before they were born. Why?
For a new generation of gamers, it's no longer enough to make it through all the levels or to beat their best score. Now it’s about consistency, strategic planning and, above all, technical skill – mostly in the simpler, older games.
Some break world records, get famous and even make a living from it. These online personalities attract hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but the price is spending years in front of their screens, practising the same old video games popular in the late 1990s, again and again. It’s called Speedrunning and it’s growing fast.
The name is the game, says Matt Harris at UK Speedrunning Marathon (UKSM), a not-for-profit organisation running competition events for charity. It’s a race against time. The winner of a competition or world record holder “gets from point A, at the beginning of the game to point B, at the end of the game, in the shortest amount of time possible”, he explains.
Speedrunning took off during lockdown when in-person sports were banned and people were drawn to new forms of esports. Many returned to the nostalgia of their childhood as Retro-games made a comeback, and speedrunners were playing these old classics in online gaming channels.
Speedrunning was big even before the pandemic thanks to game streaming platforms like Twitch, but it got a boost in 2020. Speedrunning platform Speedrun.com, launched in 2014, grew 21 per cent from 600,000 registered users last November to 728,000 in May, with expertise in Europe (Germany and Sweden) and across Asia.
The site allows speedrunners to upload videos of their runs and customise leader boards. Some players cheat by stitching together runs played separately, which gets them kicked off the platform, but the community is learning to self-regulate and expose fraud.
The number of runs uploaded to the platform reflects the area’s growing appeal. At the time of writing, Speedrun.com features more than 2 million runs in nearly 23,000 games. Google Trends data suggests that interest during the past year spiralled - more people searched for ‘speedrunning’ online (see chart).
Speedrunning also has its spectator audience. “Is it any different to watching a skilled athlete compete in a physical sport to be the best? These players have practised their games for years, some even for decades and they are up against other players who have done the same”, explains one enthusiast. Watching a speedrunner set a new world record live in their living room on Twitch can be as exciting as the football world cup on TV – or just as full of drama and emotion when they muck up an hours-long speedrun in the last few minutes of the game.
Old games, maybe released decades ago, are the most popular. Of the top ten games featured on Speedrun.com, four were released before the millennium and six before 2010.
One of the most competitive and popular speedrunning games is still Super Mario 64 (SM64), released in 1996 for the Nintendo 64 console. When it came out Allan Alvarez, known as ‘Cheese’ in the scene and among the top international SM64 speedrunners today, was just a toddler.
Today, 25 years later, Alvarez is the star on the international speedrunning horizon. Part of his success may be down to the game he chose. SM64 is famous for its level of difficulty and often ranked among the hardest to speedrun. Your correspondent knows the frustrations the game can cause.
With nearly 12 million copies sold, the game is among the global video-game bestsellers and continues to have a large following among young and old.
Super Mario 64 (SM64) is seen as the ‘holy grail’, one video speedrunning aficionado says. The 120-star run category – the collection of all the tokens required to officially conclude the game - is said to be the most challenging by far.
It requires absolute perfection. It’s a tall order to manage for more than an hour and a half, the current world record - and that’s only when you are a professional speedrunner. The average player finishes the game in 12.5 hours, or 8 when rushed.
Alvarez made playing video games his profession and built a considerable following online, especially on Twitch and YouTube. It’s also where he earns his money. There, it helps to be an internet personality, with a following like an influencer. Part of his success is his wit, entertaining personality and honesty.
While speedrunning, he often cracks jokes, talks about Spanish food, or the challenges and frustrations of coming out. The level of multitasking is astonishing. Early in spring, he almost lost it, before breaking another world record for SM64. Months later, another runner called Batora from Japan, took it. Now, he is keen to get it back.
The time he invests is mind-boggling. Alvarez told RedBull in 2017 he practised each segment of SM64 thousands of times, an estimated 5,000 hours back then since the launch of his speedrun streams. Since 2017, things have only intensified. World records for SM64 have stalled at a time barrier where the community only sees seconds-long advancements (see world record chart for SM64 120 stars).
David Snyder wrote a whole book about speedrunning and explored its appeal. Snyder charted the world record development of SM64. Since 2011, it dropped around a quarter of an hour. Breaking the code of games made the biggest difference for advancements.
A comparison by speedrunning enthusiast Jailak for the most recent SM64 word record attempts, measuring four different players side-by-side (chart), shows players struggle at different ends of the game. Alvarez might be able to shave off playtime at stages others sailed through and slice seconds off his 1h 38m 25s run.
How much further can these players push the time barrier? It’s difficult to say, Jailak says. Multiple speedrunners had runs that are on pace for a 1:37 time but have made a mistake that has either ended the run or cost too much time to make it, he adds. Even the last two records were on pace to beat 1:38 but lost time within the last ten minutes of the run.
“I think if you asked the top speedrunners, many would say 1:37 will be the barrier to be broken. I know ‘Simply’ [another speedrunner] said if he achieves 1:37 he will not compete on the top level for 120 stars, again. But then, who knows where we will be in five or ten years’ time”, he says. “Maybe knocking on the 1:36 door comes sooner than we think”.
In other games, world records are decided by much smaller margins. At the beginning of April, another new world record was decided on the basis of mere seconds. Retrogame Super Mario Bros was for the first time played in 4 minutes, 54 seconds and 97 milliseconds, marking the first and probably last time that the 55-second barrier is broken, fans rumour. “Sometimes it's not even milliseconds. [For some games] it's frames of gameplay that separate world records”, Harris says.
Perfecting the game is not enough. To compress playtime to a minimum it often requires ‘breaking’ the game. By exploiting flaws in the game's programming, known as bugs or glitches, speedrunners can skip entire sections of a storyline.
The first to find glitches can exploit them for world record attempts – if that’s accepted by the community. Such speedrunning rules are set usually on Speedrun.com, run by a passionate group of speedrunners which help to fuse the community together and weed out fraud runs.
Snyder writes that some games are better programmed than others. N64 game ‘The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ (see chart) is surprisingly well programmed. Even after 30 years, there have not been any unintended shortcuts discovered. There are only a couple of glitches, errors in the code that can be exploited to save time, he writes.
In other popular games, speedrunners still discover glitches. How L-shaped the world record charts are is often an indication of how rapidly glitches are being discovered and exploited (see below).
Glitches are clearly an obsession among speedrunners. In a video by Lowest Percent, a producer of videos on speedrun glitches and avid speedrunner himself, a new glitch in Super Mario Odyssey (SMO) illustrates this. It involves pressing buttons in a sequence at perfect timing. Buttons are pressed after an interval of three seconds, with no visual or audio cues assisting. To hit the frame to break the game, they need to move at about “one-sixtieth of a second”. Some SMO speedrunner started using a metronome to time right, he says.
Some glitches allow jumping ‘out of bounds’ of a game’s 3D environment. They can enter it again at a different spot further down the storyline, saving time. The N64 speedrunning community of Legend of Zelda saw a new category emerge after such glitches were used more frequently, called Stale Reference Manipulation (SRM).
In 2019, the old category of no-SRM ceased to exist and was replaced by ‘100 per cent SRM’ category, that accepted using the glitch in the game (see chart on Super Mario Odyssey).
Gamers also program robots to run video games as quickly as possible in what’s called Tool-Assisted Superplay (TAS). Harris says it’s about programming behaviour human beings have no hope of achieving. “It isn't cheating and isn't registered on leader boards”. It’s also a way for gamers to show off their brilliance: “It's funny because sometimes you'll have someone generate one of these programmed speedruns and it reveals something that the human players haven't discovered yet”, he says. Younger speedrunners who manage to find glitches might thrive in a career in game design or software engineering.
Will speedrunning continue to thrive or soon get as old as the games speedrunners often play? For SM64, the hype isn’t over. A new breed of game designers frequently takes the old Super Mario 64 and other games and up their graphics capabilities, in one example to 4K and 60FPS. The community rejoiced. “I would say that there are certain games from the retro space that are popular, but then you have newer games, too”, Harris adds. I suppose Minecraft could be considered a retro game by now but that makes me feel old”. His view is that any game is viable for speedrunning, as long as it has a beginning and an end. This new esports genre might be here to stay.
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