The Weird And Surprising Business Of Watching People Play Old Video Games Very Fast

Competitive games like League of Legends often get most of the acclaim on the Twitch community. But one rising audience is centered around a practice called “speed-running.”

Into the wee hours of a morning in July, Cosmo Wright — who broadcasts videos of himself playing video games for a living — had completed what he likely considered to be a masterpiece.

Wright had completed what likely millions of others had done millions of times: beaten The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But unlike everyone else who had played the game, Wright had beaten it very, very quickly. Through some impressive gameplay and manipulation of glitches, he had actually beaten the game in 18 minutes and 10 seconds, earning him the world record for beating the game in the shortest-possible time.

Wright is known as a “speed-runner,” one of a community of players who go through older (and sometimes newer) games as fast as they possibly can through mastery of the game and manipulation of various glitches. And thanks to the advent of platforms like Twitch, a website and application that lets professional gamers earn a living through partnerships with the company, it’s turned into a full-blown profession in the gaming world. Many popular speed-runners make a show out of playing the game, interacting with their audience and giving step-by-step commentary as they play.

“Part of what appeals to people is it’s a lot different from most stuff you see on Twitch,” Twitch’s head of speed-running partnerships Andrew Schroeder, who runs an annual charity event called Awesome Games Done Quick, told BuzzFeed. “Most of that is eSports and fighting games. You don’t really get to see that often, an old game being played you remember from your childhood that’s being played in a completely different way — that’s what makes people stick with it.”

Thanks to Twitch’s partner program, which enrolls some of the top and most interesting players in the world, people like Wright are able to make a living through playing video games. Twitch currently has 6,500 players in its partner program who stream games like League of Legends, Minecraft, and older games in the speed-running community like Super Mario 64. These players attract donations, subscriptions for premium channel experiences, and also receive a revenue share for some of the ads shown on their channel. The job is a full-time profession, requiring months or years of practice in order to get the perfect run, like Wright’s world record for Ocarina of Time.

Prior to Twitch, speed-running had a bit of a cult following through a site called Speed Demos Archive. Players would manually record their runs and mail them to the people behind SDA, as it is colloquially called in the community, which would then encode it and upload it to the site. SDA still exists today and hosts videos of more than 1,000 games, loaded with commentary about the specifics behind the runs and how they came to exist. The games played in the speed-running community run the complete gamut of iconic classics like Super Mario to obscure titles and new ones like Dark Souls.

Despite being one of Twitch’s smaller communities, the company is still quite sensitive to its desires. Earlier this month, Twitch instituted a new tool that would mute unlicensed music in older videos stored on the site. This had the unfortunate side effect of muting archived speed-running videos based on the actual video game music, enraging many in the speed-running community — including Wright. Shear said it was a mistake that would quickly be rectified, and wrote on Reddit to address concerns about the new tools and underscoring much of what made Twitch popular among gamers: focusing on what the community wanted.

The company’s focus on its community and broadcasters, coupled with its technical expertise in building a live-streaming service, is part of the reason Twitch has rocketed to being one of the most valuable video properties in the world. Twitch says it has 55 million unique viewers each month, each of whom watch an average of 106 minutes of video a day. The company is also reportedly being eyed by Google for an acquisition that would value the company at around $1 billion.

Unlike the competitive gaming world, the speed-running community — at least initially — was known to be more collaborative. Small communities would crop up around specific games, like Super Metroid, where players would try to discover glitches and work through strategies. Since the emergence of platforms like Twitch, this has shifted a bit as people begin to literally race one another to the end of the game, where seconds can mean the difference holding a world record or not. Still, communities around games are constantly trying to improve strategies and discovery new glitches that can help players beat the game even faster.

One such absurd glitch, for example, led to Wright claiming the world record for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The “wrong warp,” as it is called in the community, abuses the way in which the game decides which cinematic movies to show the player after he or she beats a boss — enabling Wright to beat only the first boss of the game and jump directly to the end of the game. Other strange glitches exist, such as one in Super Metroid that enables a player to overwrite memory on the cartridge to jump directly to the end of the game.

Each year, Schroeder hosts an event called “Summer Games Done Quick,” a week-long marathon of some of the top speed-runners playing through dozens of older games to raise money for charity. This year’s Summer Games Done Quick was able to raise more than $700,000 for Doctors Without Borders and at one point had more than 100,000 people watching the players simultaneously go through games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Events like AGDQ have also served as launching pads for the popularity of some speed-runners in the community, including Adam Kuczynski, who holds a record for completing every Grand Theft Auto: Vice City mission in the shortest amount of time.

“We kind of take glitches for granted now,” Schroeder said. “Seeing someone go through a wall at this point is totally normal and expected.”

Of course, for every streamer like Wright, who began streaming full-time at the beginning of 2013, there are just as many if not more who still consider it a hobby. Kuczynski, for example, is a Ph. D. candidate in Economics and says he just uses revenue from his streams to buy better equipment. But it’s now possible, thanks to platforms like Twitch, to turn an otherwise odd hobby with a cult following into a full-blown profession.

“I’ve made the decision not to turn streaming into a career, because there are other goals in life I want to pursue in the long term, and it clashed with those,” he said. “It’s definitely possible to make a living via streaming, and I would easily be able to do so if I were to monetize my stream more.”

correction

Updates the text of the story to clarify that Schroeder is the organizer for Summer Games Done Quick, not Awesome Games Done Quick.

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