How "speedrunning" became an Olympic-level gaming competition

Gotta go fast.

Gamers can be split into countless subcultures and categories based on the genre they favor or their style of play.

First-person shooter fanatics are obsessed with fast-paced online gameplay, completionists strive to finish every quest available in adventures like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but the speedrunning community is among the most storied groups in video game history.

These speed demons will stop at nothing to complete games as fast as humanly possible. We’re talking titles with 40-hour campaigns completed in mere hours. To achieve this breakneck pace, speedrunners pay no regard to the guidelines and stories laid out by developers that spend years crafting games. They cut corners, abuse glitches to skip swaths of gameplay sections, and even use special tools to push speedrunning past human capabilities.

These dragsters of the gaming world have reached new levels of fame thanks to live streaming platforms like Twitch. But they’ve been around since the dawn of modern gaming and continue to blaze through new and classic titles for internet glory and good causes.

Games Done Quick is a semiannual charity event that featured 141 different playthroughs and raised more than $3.1 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation during its tenth anniversary on February 23. It featured a four-hour speedrun of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game with a main story estimated to take 32 hours to complete on average.

Streamers celebrate a 4:02 charity run of GTA San Andreas.

Games Done Quick via YouTube

GDQ has essentially become the Olympics for the speedrunning community, featuring absurd challenges like blindfolded playthroughs of Castlevania. The marathon event also began hosting Frame Fatales in 2019 an online, all-female speedrunning category, which is especially fitting since the first organized internet ranking board for speedrunning times was started by a woman in the early 90s.

The origins of speedrunning

The earliest documented speedrunning competitions were done on DOOM, published by id Software in 1993. The now-legendary first-person shooter was foundational for the FPS genre as a whole, but it was also the inadvertent catalyst that spawned the speedrunning community with a single feature: in-game recordings.

With a reliable way to capture gameplay, it was only a matter of time before gamers figured out how to brag how fast they completed a level of DOOM. It was Christina 'Strunoph' Norman who first thought of using the internet as a means to share these clips, referred to as “demos.”

In 1994, Norman — who was reportedly posing as “Chris” online at the time — started the first online DOOM demo hub, called the LMP Hall of Fame. The now-defunct website had a curated leaderboard that urged gamers to get their name in the top spot. From there, a fan-built community of competitive DOOM speedrunners began to blossom.

Later that year, Frank Stajano, a researcher at AT&T Laboratories in Cambridge, became the granddaddy of competitive DOOM when he started DOOM Honorific Titles (DHT), which is still active today. (Many similar websites would follow, but DHT established the format.)

Completing certain levels in unorthodox or challenging ways came to be known as “exams,” and sharing footage of the deed could earn gamers a title. One such achievement is called “D1T6: DOOM Pacifist,” which had to be completed without dealing any damage to any monster in the level.

Stajano says he got pretty good at some of them. ”According to that rating system I am a DOOM Master (DM, D1M, D2M),” he wrote on his website. “I never claimed to be the best player around, but I used to be able to give your average deathmatch champion a run for his money.”

Soon after, Simon Widlake would take DHT as inspiration to begin COMPET-N, the oldest website dedicated to DOOM speedruns.

The definitive DOOM speedrunning community

Widlake started COMPET-N in November 1994, it worked very similarly to DHT but it was completely dedicated to completion runs of DOOM. Users had to blaze through the entire game if they wanted a shot to get their name on the site’s leaderboards. Thousands of gamers flocked to the site and uploaded hundreds of hours of recorded gameplay.

This was where two distinct styles of speedrunning were coined: Any% and 100%. In Any% playthroughs, speed is your main objective. Conversely, 100% playthroughs require players to find and defeat all of the level’s or game’s monsters as quickly as they can, before ending the game or level. In this variation, you need to be thorough as well as fast.

Widlake passed on the responsibility of maintaining the site in 1997 and it has moved around ever since. In 2011, it was allegedly redesigned by Croatian UI/UX designer Alen Stojanac and its source code was given to another Croatian developer, Zvonimir Bužanić. Both Stojanac and Bužanić are credited on the site’s about page.

The site is still updated today and has amassed 32 days, 3 hours, 33 minutes, and 40 seconds of worth of speedrunning demos. The last clip was added in October 2019 by a player named Guillaume 'Guiddqd' Pierson, almost exactly 26 years after the first demo was uploaded on November 11, 2019.

Speedrunning leaves human ability in the dust

Speedrunning took off on other titles, starting with Quake (1996), which was also developed by id Software. In April 1997, speedrunning legend Nolan “Radix” Pflug started Speed Demos Archive (SDA), which has been the world’s top multi-system speedrun competition ever since with categories for 432 games. Pflug then created Quake Done Quick, which was meant for speedruns of entire games instead of just levels. Its greatest hits were edited together into episodic videos that are now on YouTube.

It was when players began obsessing with completing full games that the concept of “tool-assisted” speedruns began to grow and the practice would move past what a human is capable of with two hands and a joystick.

In 1999, DOOM player and programmer Andy “Aurikan” Kempling released a modified version of DOOM source code that allowed players to record demos in slow motion. This allowed players to more carefully input their moves to optimize the fastest-possible routes to complete DOOM. Prominent players began sharing these demos, which known as tool-assisted speedruns, or TAS.

In the beginning, gamers would share TAS playthroughs for entertainment on sites like TASVideos, but they soon became a form of competition all their own, after a notorious speedrun was posted on the site in mid-2003. An anonymous player nicknamed Morimoto shared an 11-minute completion run of Super Mario Bros. 3, which takes casual gamers around five hours to beat.

At first many users believed Morimoto to be some kind of speedrunning deity, but they later explained that the video was made using a special emulator. Many members of the community believed this made the video an illegitimate record. But Morimoto’s TAS innovation would go on to inspire a generation of crafty speedsters who wanted more control over games rather than just playing them in slow motion.

Regular speedruns are done in real-time, like a concert or a play. Today, TAS are a creation polished over a long period of time, like a painting or a sculpture. Think of it like a player piano that uses special hole-punched paper to dictate exactly what note to play at any given moment. TAS works the same way, but gamers write a sequence of button presses and feed them into the game using an emulator and perfect their list of inputs until they beat the game as quickly as possible.

It’s a highly technical and incredibly grueling process that can only be done on emulators. TASers use tools to fundamentally understand games better than anyone else and abuse oversights in their core mechanics to rush through lengthy campaigns in minutes. For instance, the video below details how TASers figured out a special technique, called Backwards Long Jumping, to achieve a four minute and 20 second completion of Super Mario 64 in 2019.

Speedrunning has evolved to become a sport that requires unmatched endurance and persistence, we’ve all seen compilations of raging gamers failing a speedrun. But it has also become an incredibly technical, intricate style of gameplay all its own.

As games continue to become more complex, today’s speedrunners continue to become more cunning with their techniques. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild speedrunning community has basically taught themselves how to fly across vast sections of Hyrule, while virtual reality speedrunners are bringing the competition to an emerging genre of video games.

Speedrunning isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

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