9:00am PT by Patrick Shanley
How an Event Dedicated to Playing Video Games as Fast as Possible Raises Millions For Charity
Watching other people play video games may be an activity that many gamers remember from childhood, most likely if one is a younger sibling, but Games Done Quick (GDQ), a video game speedrunning marathon that is now entering its ninth year, has managed to raise nearly $17 million for charities like the Prevent Cancer Foundation and Doctors Without Borders based on the concept.
The events (which are held biannually in two separate iterations: Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick) began in 2010 as Classic Games Done Quick in company owner Mike Uyama's basement. In the intervening years, it has grown into a spectacle with thousands of registered attendees and millions of viewers streaming on Twitch, with millions more watching once the individual speed runs are uploaded to YouTube. This year's Awesome Games Done Quick begins Sunday, streaming live for a full week with dozens of different games being played as fast as possible by multiple runners.
Increased exposure for GDQ has brought in significantly larger donations, as both of last year's events pulled in over $2 million in charitable contributions each. However, that recognition has also brought increased scrutiny of the runners playing the games. In November, two runners who were slated to participate in next week's event were banned by GDQ for making transphobic and racist remarks online.
Ahead of this year's AGDQ, director of operations Matt Merkle caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the future of the event, how its growth continues to court runners and popular streamers, his thoughts on speedrunning as an e-sport, how the company vets its runners and what his goals for 2019 are.
These events have always benefitted charities instead of being for-profit. Why?
It started off considerably smaller in Mike Uyama’s basement — he’s the owner of the company — as a small gathering of friends from online and in the area. They decided they wanted to do something interesting with speedrunning because that was their hobby, so they did an informal get-together and decided they wanted to do something with it, which was streaming. That was really uncommon at the time. Streaming was uncommon back then in 2010. They wanted to stream for a purpose, not just playing games, and that’s where the charity aspect came in. It was a huge success. If he did $2,000 he’d be happy, but he ended up getting close to $11,000. After that huge response, he decided to make it into a proper event and that’s when we started moving into hotels and really scaling everything up. It’s been growing ever since. He absolutely loves the mission of playing games for a good cause and showing that there is a good side to gaming opposed to some of the news you might see about gaming.
How do the donations work? Are they made directly to the organization?
It goes directly to the charity. We have custom donation tracker software that we’ve written which communicates with PayPal. I think that’s actually a huge part of why the event is so successful because they don’t have to trust that we’re not misusing the money, it’s going directly to these charities.
Where do the funds for GDQ come from?
We have a few different revenue sources. Twitch ad revenue and things like that have obviously been a small part, but also registration onsite for attendees and, the other big one, is the charity will pay us a flat fee ahead of the event, which we negotiate ahead of time. That covers the budget of what we think it will actually take to hold the charity portion of the event. Things like the main ballroom, the internet services, all those types of things; also, our staff, who have done months of planning for these events at that point, it covers that. That’s all arranged ahead of time. It’s a flat fee, it’s not based on percentage, so we don’t have some kind of performance contract or anything like that. The charities love that because they know straightforward what they’re getting.
Does GDQ have full-time employees?
Yes. We are up to three full-time and one almost full-time.
Are the runners compensated?
No. They are effectively volunteers. They pay their own way here, get their own hotel rooms. The only thing we do is comp their badges for attending. We don’t feel like they have to pay to attend the event. I think we give away t-shirts and stuff, but no real compensation.
Do runners see GDQ as a good source of exposure? Do you have to court them or do they come to you?
There’s a huge competition to get into the events. I’m sure a lot of them try to get in to try and also boost their exposure in the streaming community, but there’s also a lot of runners who just enjoy speedrunning in general and want to perform just because it’s a big stage and it’s really exciting to be up there showing off your run that you’ve worked so hard on. These runners sometimes spend years working on these runs.
How many people does it take to put on a GDQ event?
We’ve got about — it varies per event — but we have roughly 30 staff members who are paid in some form on a contract basis and then we’ve got around 150 runners and about 200-250 volunteers, depending on how you define that because we have runner-volunteer crossover.
Do you see GDQ becoming akin to conventions like GamesCom or E3, with game announcements and appearances from developers and studios?
Not for the time being. We obviously have sponsorships from developers from time to time, but that’s usually for stuff that’s already been announced. We don’t ever make announcements. I don’t know how long it will be before we see anything like that. I don’t think we’re quite the right group to kick off a game announcement, but I think we’re definitely growing, absolutely. It’s a certain niche, so it’s not going to grow to E3 standards, but we definitely have huge room to grow. We’re selling out of tickets in 24 hours. We’re trying to steadily grow by controlling it because we want to keep the atmosphere of what makes GDQ a GDQ. We want to keep it feeling like a community get-together while supporting a charity at the same time.
What about speedrunning becoming an organized e-sport? Is that something that is on your radar?
There are e-sports teams picking up speedrunners at this time. It’s still a little too early to say whether it will be a true e-sport category just because the nature of speedrunning is so collaborative as opposed to competitive. Everyone is constantly improving times all the time. [A speedrunning] title could be usurped the next night, so it’s a different way to look at how that could play out in the e-sports style. That said, I know there are plenty of people trying to make that happen. GDQ I think will be ancillary in its involvement in that. We’re kind of just sitting back and seeing what happens there rather than pushing forward with it ourselves.
Are there copyright issues you have to navigate to broadcast these games since you’re getting ad sale revenue?
We don’t really comment on legal things.
Do you have plans to expand to more events annually in the near future?
We want to make sure that we don’t burn out anybody. GDQ Express was a nice experiment and we will definitely look at trying that again. We’re always open to smaller impromptu events like Harvey Relief [2017’s Harvey Relief Done Quick event that raised $229,000 for Houston Food Bank]. Those are definitely things we’re looking to expand with but nothing to commit to right now.
Two runners were banned from this year’s event based on comments they made online. What’s your vetting process for runners?
We are always evaluating our policies on how we vet different runners and volunteers at our events. As we’ve grown, we’re continuously expanding on how we involve that. Otherwise, we don’t really touch on our policies publicly. We try to finalize everything and make a public statement and put it on our rules so everyone knows what our policies are.
What are your goals for 2019?
More growth, more growth. We always want to see more money for the charities. That’s our ultimate goal. We always want to try new things. We introduced panels at Summer Games Done Quick last year and we’re expanding that, as well, this event.