Opinion: How Esports Can Harness the Raw Potential of Speedrunning – The Esports Observer

There’s a universal moment many gamers have experienced. You’re the best in your little friend group at Super Smash Bros. Beating your buddies at the game isn’t even a challenge. You’re confident in having figured out the game well enough to challenge anyone.

Then you play someone who actually understands spacing, grabs, punishes when you dash attack their shield, and you get utterly obliterated. Turns out you and your friends were playing checkers in the sandbox while these other nerds were playing 4D chess in space.

Watching a speedrun of a game you’ve played is like experiencing that moment 10 times per minute for the entire duration of a run. It’s a unique experience that combines true mastery of technical skill with hours upon hours of research, study, and experimentation. To watch a current world record run of any Super Mario title is to watch someone not only display their own unbelievable talent, but to discover how they’ve built upon years of experience from those who came before.

In short, speedrunning is awesome and more people should watch it.

To be fair, quite a lot of people watch speedrunning. The Games Done Quick charity marathons routinely top the Twitch charts multiple times per year. Outside of these tentpole events, however, speedrunning is largely relegated to a niche audience on streaming platforms. GDQ has proven that there is enormous interest in speedrunning within the proper context, but no non-charity event or speedrunning competition has come close to capturing that same energy or platform-wide viewership.

So what are the aspects that make a GDQ event so enticing, and how can they be leveraged in a more standard esports context?

Obviously, a large part of the draw for GDQ marathons is in their entire premise — it is a week-long, non-stop broadcast that raises money for charity. Viewers can tune in at their convenience and there will always be some sort of incredible display of gaming proficiency available for consumption, and all of that effort is benefiting a good cause.

Another key piece is the collective and collaborative nature of the event. While there are many talented players who compete for records in multiple games, mastery of a speedrun requires hours upon hours of work, and so most tend to focus on certain titles, franchises, or genres. A Super Mario 64 speedrunner is unlikely to attract an audience that has no affinity for the Mario series. At a GDQ, runners from every title under the sun come together for a single event. There is far greater potential for a Mario fan to stick around a few more minutes to see the start of a Final Fantasy run if they are already watching that same broadcast.

Finally, there is the exhibition element. At every GDQ, there are incentives, donation drives, and scheduled segments dedicated to showcasing aspects of games that are not seen in regular runs. Unique glitches, computer-perfected runs, special secrets the average player never saw – a fan of these games is able to discover so much they never new, and experience so many more unique things than they do even just watching top speedrunners of that same title.

Now, in addition to GDQ there is one other aspect of the speedrunning world that has grown substantially in the last few years: the speedrunning documentary. YouTube channel Summoning Salt, which details the world record history of a variety of games, has exploded recently, surpassing one million subscribers earlier this year. Even obscure and strange topics such as the world record history of Wii Sports Resort can bring in more than 2M views.

So, for an esports operator or team to harness the potentially massive viewership of speedrunning, it should ideally bring together multiple genres, include exhibition, and ideally incorporate the historical progression and storylines of some records.

There’s just one problem — that’s literally just a GDQ without raising money for charity. GDQ has not only established a worthy cause, but it is the de facto tentpole event for speedrunning. A commercial version of the same event would bounce off the community without question.

But there is one thing missing from GDQ that an esports event could leverage to bring new value to the community — stakes. Speedrunning races are commonplace, and some organizations are experimenting with competitive leagues, but the challenge will be the same that World of Warcraft has experienced in the low viewership for its Mythic Dungeon Invitational. At a certain point, watching people execute the exact same tricks in the exact same game over and over gets old.

But there’s another part of WoW esports that the speedrunning scene could learn from. The Race to World First has consistently shattered its own viewership record with each new event since late 2018. The event has the same high stakes as any other esports championship, but also brings in many of the elements that we identified in GDQ. It’s a marathon, the best players are showcasing their skill, and there is a deep history to the guilds and the game involved.

What sets the RWF apart is that each event is built around entirely new content. And therein lies the next stage of speedrunning esports.

Much of the success of speedrunning to date has harnessed nostalgia, showing what can be done with years of mastery in games we remember from years ago. But what the RWF shows is that building a narrative around the competitors rather than the game, by putting stakes on being the first to accomplish a task rather than the latest to do it slightly better, a new level of drama is available to the viewer.

The future of esports and speedrunning isn’t in replicating GDQ, it’s in bringing the things that make a speedrunning marathon exciting, and bringing them to newly released titles or never-before-seen challenges. It’s in creating stakes and incentives for competitors to challenge themselves to not grind a game for years, but to master it quickly to become the first to claim the prize. 

These sorts of races are already naturally taking place any time a new game is released, but they are not celebrated or monitored by the general gaming populace the way a GDQ or a new Mario 64 record are. 

And therein lies the opportunity to bring a new level of value to the speedrunning community, and to do so in a way that does not infringe on what GDQ has established.

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