A Weekend at Speedrunning Marathon Awesome Games Done Quick

AWESOME GAMES DONE QUICK 2019 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Games Done Quick
Heat Vision goes to AGDQ to see what all the HYYYYPPPEEE is about.

In the grand ballroom of a D.C.-area hotel, hundreds of people sit rapt, eyes trained on one of three 150-inch projection screens, watching a guy play a Super Nintendo game.

It's the last day of Awesome Games Done Quick, a weeklong charity speedrunning marathon, and counting those watching the live-stream on GDQ's Twitch channel, well over 100,000 people have chosen to spend a Saturday afternoon watching a runner who goes by the handle "Xelna" play through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as fast as possible.

If you've played Link to the Past — which was originally released in 1991 on the SNES and is certainly in the conversation for best-ever video game — you might be impressed to learn that Xelna finished the game in one hour and 47 minutes (a casual playthrough might take anywhere from six to 20 hours, depending on skill level and determination to find every last Piece of Heart). That's before you learn that he did it playing a special version of the game where a single hit means death, which heightens the suspense considerably. Or that the run was "low percent," meaning Xelna was only allowed to collect items strictly necessary to advance through the game (again, for the LTTP heads out there, that means no boomerang, no tempered Master Sword, no Mirror Shield, etc.)

Beating video games real fast has been an informal pastime for as long as beating video games has been an informal pastime. Online communities started springing up in the mid-'90s around speedrunning certain games, notably first-person shooters Doom and Quake, but computer storage and bandwidth limitations constrained the subculture's growth. However, as Moore's Law continued to hold through the early oughts, and people no longer had to leave their computers on overnight to download a 10-minute MPEG video, speedrunning started to attract a larger following. At the beginning of the 2010s, two complementary developments brought speedrunning into the mainstream: the maturation of YouTube and the advent of Twitch. Runners could live-stream runs on Twitch, then upload the footage to YouTube and wait for those sweet, sweet recommendation algorithms to kick in whenever one of its billion users searches a phrase like "how to beat super mario world." Runners had spent decades building a community; now they had an audience.

I started watching speed runs shortly after my daughter was born in 2014 and my time to play video games was severely constricted. I couldn't spare the 8-200 hours or mental energy it takes to play through a given game, but I had time to watch, passively, somebody way better than me at that game absolutely destroy it in an hour or less. And if, around 2014, you were typing "Super Metroid speedrun" into the YouTube search bar, it was only a matter of time before you found GDQ.

What started in 2010 as Classic Games Done Quick, a three-day speedrunning marathon that raised over $10,000 for CARE, has grown into a weeklong convention with over 2,200 registered attendees. The 2019 edition of AGDQ, which ran from Jan. 6-13, raised over $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and GDQ marathons have raised over $19 million total for charities including Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Prevent Cancer Foundation and Organization for Autism Research.

Occasionally, GDQ has bubbled up into the popular culture, as it did in 2016 when runner MitchFlowerPower, who currently holds the Super Mario Bros. 3 world record in three of the four categories listed on SpeedRuns.com, was a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to promote Summer Games Done Quick, where he tried to beat the game before the host could cook and eat a Hot Pocket (his time: three minutes and 35 seconds). But on Twitch, it's big business. For the week of Jan. 7-13, the Games Done Quick Twitch channel topped all other feeds with 14.79 million hours watched, according to The Esports Observer. That's more hours than the rest of the top 10 channels combined. (As a point of reference, Ninja, Twitch's most popular streamer, amassed 2.18 million during the same period). Viewership peaked at 219,768 concurrents, second only to Ninja's 262,729, according to TwitchMetrics.net. The GDQ channel boasts 236 million total views and 1.5 million followers — this, mind you, for a channel that doesn't live-stream nearly as often as Twitch's other top feeds. Add to that another 200 million views on YouTube — which might not sound all that impressive (Ariana Grande's video for "Thank U, next" is already at 258 million) until you consider that clips average maybe 40 minutes in length — and you get the idea.

I've wanted to attend a GDQ marathon for years. This month I did. Here's some of the stuff I learned/saw.

The grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, with seating for 800. GDQ director of operations Matt Merkle told me that their strategy is one of managed growth. Considering the 2,200 passes to the event were all snapped up within 24 hours of going on sale, it seems clear that GDQ is content to leave some money on the table in the short term.

"We’re trying to steadily grow by controlling it because we want to keep the atmosphere of what makes GDQ a GDQ," Merkle told THR's Pat Shanley before the event kicked off. "We want to keep it feeling like a community get-together while supporting a charity at the same time." 

Not sure what exactly I was expecting as far as the size and scope of the production operation, only that I was expecting it to be smaller.

There's the stage for the runners and "the couch" — a place of prominence for friends and other runners to provide commentary while the runner is busy trying not to die — a separate set for interviews, and another station to capture audio commentary for races and other types of special runs where "the couch" is impractical. There were probably 10-20 people with headsets sitting at monitors or walking around with purpose. There was even a makeup person to guard against excessive forehead shine on stream. But the main thing that stuck out was just the sheer amount of A/V equipment occupying the back third of the ballroom.

Aharon Turpie, aka "test_runner," GDQ's tech lead, cites two reasons they bring all that stuff. First, the fact that the event runs 24 hours a day, meaning various backups and fail-safes are required to ensure some fried resistor doesn't shut down the whole operation for an hour. The second is the variety of consoles involved in the marathon, from NES to PS4 and everything in between (new systems this year included GDQ's first-ever run of a game on the iPad, and the Lynx, a 16-bit handheld from Atari that hit shelves in 1989).

"We need to cover a huge range of different kinds of video," says Turpie. "Most runners right now want to play on the big CRT TVs, and those are huge and take up a ton of space. And the fact that we need to run both SD stuff and HD stuff, we need to find all this equipment to be able to create a unified signal" to send to Twitch in 1080p.

"NES is 240p. You put it on the stream it's very blurry and stretched," Turpie explains. "We try to put it at the correct aspect so it'll look right if you're watching it on a TV. Then the next run right after is some PC run, and it looks like an entirely different stream! So our layout team spends a lot of effort trying to make the stream have a very consistent style so that even though you have all these very different looking games everything still feels like the GDQ show."

Nicholas "Sent" Gussie, GDQ's prize coordinator, is tasked with putting together the extensive donor incentives list, which this year included a $3,000 scale replica of Link's Master Sword and Hylian Shield from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (pictured above but also click this link to see a step-by-step gallery of its design and assembly, which … woo!), a Nightmare (a character from the Soul Caliber fighting game series) helmet made from Arby's packaging materials, and, as always, plenty of perlers (the way in which the individual beads resemble pixels has long established perlers as a medium of choice for video game fan art.)

The practice room is kind of what it sounds like: a room where participants can practice their runs before they stream them live, but it mainly functioned as a room where attendees could just hang out and play games. Event sponsor World 9 Gaming provided tons of consoles and games attendees could borrow and use, plus truckloads of old CRT TVs (as Turpie mentioned, many people prefer to play old SD systems on TVs from the same era rather than upconvert the signal). A fan of Pringles Game, a 2009 homebrew title for the Sega Genesis, staked out a prime location right inside the door. At some point one of the decorative cans of Pringles went missing, but the GDQ community rallied and replaced it with a few Mega Stacks. Lots of attendees also used the room to stream their own runs on Twitch.

Several attendees used GDQ as an opportunity to show off their obscure peripherals. I spotted an NES Power Pad, a variety of Dance Dance Revolution platforms, a group playing Trauma Center: Second Opinion — an emergency surgery simulator — with the Wii bowling ball, and this thing: the Sega Activator. Released in 1993 and advertised as a way to exercise while gaming, the device "works" by translating body movements into controller inputs via infrared beams. Anyhow, it's terrible, and I feel sorry for anyone that paid the $150 it cost when it came out. Always fun to take a trip down memory lane on garbage day!

One thing I didn't see, despite the presence of literally hundreds of CRTs: light guns. I sincerely hope someone submits a Super Scope 6 run for June's SGDQ.

The arcade room featured machines from Tokyo Attack!, a company that imports amazing games from Japan — where arcade culture is still alive and thriving — including this game called Scotto, which is like a cross between beer pong and HORSE. Note to L.A. bar owners: Buy all of these. Take my money.

After the final run on Saturday night, Merkle announced that for 2020 AGDQ would be moving from the Beltway to sunny Orlando, so I hope everyone enjoyed the weather.

My Favorite Runs From AGDQ 2019

In addition to the LTTP 1-hit KO low% run embedded up top, here are some more personal highlights

TASBOT Plays Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

TAS stands for "tool-assisted speedrun," a process where a computer program is used to designate controller inputs frame by frame in an effort to discover an ideal set of button presses that will allow the game to be completed in the fastest possible time. Not "humanly possible," mind, as in some cases, the TAS inputs are too rapid for a human player to perform in real time. This TAS run through the Game Boy Advance game Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is as good an example as any of how thoroughly broken and insane a game can become when it's played "perfectly."

Cuphead by TheMexicanRunner

There are any number of insanely hard bullet hell shooters I could have chosen here, but none of them looks like Cuphead. Even if it's not immediately apparent just how incredible TheMexicanRunner is at this game, it's enough to just sit back and appreciate the gorgeous hand-drawn animation as he grinds through boss after boss on his way to a literal bullet hell.

Quickie World Race

This run combines two of my favorite subsets of GDQ runs: races and Kaizo Mario ROM hacks. Races: self-explanatory. ROM hacks: games created using the engine of an existing title but with altered graphics, gameplay or level design. In the case of Kaizo Mario hacks, specifically, the levels designed are, well … you'll see. And to think I was so proud of myself for beating all the Star Road levels back in the day.