One afternoon last January, Andrew Schroeder slouched in a chair at the end of a hotel convention hall, nervously tapping an Xbox controller. He was seated with three other guys at a table stacked with video-game consoles. Glowing on the television screens in front of them was an 18-year-old video game called Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. At least a hundred people were crowded into the room around them, waiting for the game to start. Online, thousands more peered into the room via webcam.
Schroeder and the three others were about to race to see who could beat Castlevania in the least amount of time. This was an odd thing to do, because Castlevania isn’t designed for racing, or even for multiple players. The game’s a monster- and puzzle-filled trek through a sprawling two-dimensional castle, where the protagonist, a white-haired half-vampire named Alucard, collects power-granting relics to take on his dad, Dracula. It takes the average video-game player at least nine hours to finish.
"It's like, 'I want to join this cause.' It's not a feeling of belongingness, but participation."
But Schroeder and his competitors aren’t average video-game players. They’re speedrunners—players who seek out the quickest routes through popular single-player games like the Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Super Mario, and spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours perfecting tricks and strategies to achieve seemingly impossible completion times. Schroeder and his opponents can finish Castlevania in less than 18 minutes.
Their race was one of the most anticipated performances at Awesome Games Done Quick, an annual speedrunning festival of almost 160 straight hours of game-playing, with 135 of the fastest players, held in the conference rooms of a Hilton on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport. More than 1,000 speedrunning fanatics had traveled from as far as California and Japan for the opportunity to nerd out in-person instead of online, and to introduce themselves to the marathon’s all-star players.
Among the four racers, Schroeder, who’s known by his gaming handle Romscout, easily stood out. He’s dark-skinned and Mexican American, with a jockey’s small physique. He sat in faded jeans and a purple hoodie, blankly surveying the crowds as his fingers danced to stay loose. Somehow he’d found a pink television to play on, one with a clunky ornamental crown molded into the top of its casing—which was appropriate, because he was the fastest Castlevania player in the room. In 2008, he’d fallen for speedrunning while watching a well-known speedrunner tear up after breaking a world record, and soon discovered he had a knack for mastering the game’s maneuvers and exploiting its glitches to fly through its gothic halls.
Schroeder has been involved in organizing AGDQ since it began, under the name Classic Games Done Quick, in 2010. In the marathon’s short lifetime, he’s seen speedrunning grow from a niche hobby to a top attraction for what is being hailed as the next big thing in entertainment: watching people play video games. As boring as that may sound to non-gamers, the activity has exploded in popularity online in recent years, largely thanks to Twitch.tv, an Amazon-owned live-streaming platform on which users record themselves gaming and follow each other’s performances.
Speedrunners occupy thousands of Twitch’s channels, and account for a large number of its 100 million-plus monthly visitors. The most popular speedrunners boast hundreds of thousands of followers. As a result, more and more people hear about speedrunning and participate in AGDQ every year. It may not be long until logging in to watch others play games as fast as they can is as normal as tuning into Game of Thrones.
But AGDQ has spent the past five years steering speedrunning away from the conventional profit, glitz, and glamour that usually accompany a breakaway fad. Instead, Schroeder and his team have chosen a surprising beneficiary of the marathon’s increasing appeal: charity. AGDQ has raised several million dollars since it began, primarily for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, a health non-profit based in Alexandria, Virginia. Every year it earns more money—$1.03 million in 2014 alone. As Schroeder and his opponents waited for a start command for Castlevania, the entire event was on track to raise even more.
“All right!” a young announcer called from behind their televisions, causing Schroeder and the others to tense. “Three, two, one....” The crowd erupted in cheers, and the race was on.
It’s tempting to think of video games and charities as an odd couple, but AGDQ is one of several annual philanthropic events that involve gaming. These events began popping up around the late 2000s, when groups like Extra Life, which raises money for children’s hospitals by organizing a day of gaming around the country, decided to capitalize on gaming’s expanding popularity. Soon, they were pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Why anyone would think to solicit donations by playing video games, let alone give money while watching them, may be hard to wrap your mind around if you still picture the typical gamer as a pimpled basement-dweller. But gaming has permeated popular culture to an extent beyond any nerd’s wildest dreams. Each week, the average American adult or teenager plays video games for more than six hours; globally, people play for roughly three billion hours. Video games are as much a part of young people’s social lives as traditional activities like sports—and for many, just as fun to watch. When the best speedrunners hit a rhythm, for instance, they achieve the same sublime effortlessness you’d see in professional basketball and dance.
In 2008, a University of Texas–Arlington student named Britt LaRiviere arranged the first-ever speedrunning charity marathon. He’d read about people raising money by streaming gameplay before, and figured it’d be a blast to recruit some friends and see if they could blitz through the entire Legend of Zelda Nintendo series—seven games at the time—in a single weekend.
They couldn’t, but they still raised enough money that LaRiviere says he “knew they had something.” His group, known as TheSpeedGamers, has since put on more than 40 video-game marathons, many of which have raised tens of thousands of dollars.
Schroeder and his friends saw what TheSpeedGamers were doing and figured they could do it better. Today, Awesome Games Done Quick has grown into the Mecca of speedrunning, the place to come together to celebrate the peculiar culture.
Somewhat cynically, I arrived at AGDQ 2015 with the assumption that a major part of the secret to the marathon’s success was speedrunners’ need to prove something. As video games creep further into the cultural spotlight, raising millions of dollars for charity seems to be speedrunners’ bold statement of gaming’s value. Just because they spend thousands of hours playing video games doesn’t mean they can’t do good, right?
Awesome Games Done Quick has raised several million dollars since it began, primarily for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, a health non-profit based in Alexandria, Virginia. What's more, every year it earns more money—$1 million in 2014 alone.
But Schroeder called out my journalistic slant when I ran this idea by him in the evening after the race. “What you described is basically how every major news site reports this: ‘Look at how they’re breaking the stereotype,’” he says. “It’s a positive, but it’s not our main focus. It’s not what’s on our minds constantly. It’s really just in the backdrop.”
Instead, he contends, speedrunners’ generosity is an element of upholding a concept I heard repeated throughout the day as I spoke with attendees: community. Without charity, “you would come away feeling happy that you met new friends,” he says, “but you would not have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and community pride.”
When Schroeder and the event’s founding director, a young data analyst named Mike Uyama, dreamed up Classic Games Done Quick in 2009, both were mainstays in the early elite speedrunning circles. For the event, they assembled an A-list of 20 young speedrunners—including a Swedish gamer named Freddy “Frezy_Man” Andersson, and one of the few female speedrunners at the time, Kari “Essentia” Johnson—to rip through 72 retro games in two days, raising money for the humanitarian aid organization CARE.
What Uyama, Schroeder, and the others knew best was the artistry of the game-run—which meant the fundraising was pretty haphazard. For the most part, they simply made up incentives to donate money on the fly as they narrated the techniques behind each performance. Want to see Mega Man climb up a wall lined with spikes? Throw in $10.
During that first event, a thousand people or so tuned in, mostly friends and fans who couldn’t get enough of the group’s rambling gamerspeak and slumber-party hijinks. (The group had planned on meeting at a Washington-area “music and gaming festival” called MAGFest, but lack of good streaming Internet forced them to camp out in Uyama’s mom’s nearby basement.) At one point, the idea was floated that Freddy Andersson should play Super C shirtless if people watching donated enough money. Andersson obliged by ripping his T-shirt off his chest—“full Hulk,” in Schroeder’s words—and twirling the shreds over his head. On a whim, the group auctioned off the tattered remains, and got around $500 more. By the end of the weekend, they’d raised $10,500.
The next year, Uyama expanded the marathon to an almost-weeklong event to benefit the Prevent Cancer Foundation. When an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan that March, Schroeder organized his own speedrun marathon to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. That inspired him to launch a second weeklong annual marathon called Summer Games Done Quick, held every July, most recently in St. Paul, Minnesota. Uyama quit his job in 2013 to focus on Games Done Quick, which now employs 44 people—16 paid and 28 volunteer—to schedule each event’s gaming, set up the venues, and run 24/7 tech support for the online streams from behind stacks of blinking electronics and piles of wires. Leading up to this summer’s marathon, Uyama and Schroeder have raised $4.3 million.
Despite this success, Schroeder admits fundraising is still “more of an art than a science” for the group. They’ve experimented with raffles, auctions of fan-made merchandise, and pay-what-you-want packages of independently designed games, but oddball incentives remain their biggest draw. Before January’s AGDQ, Uyama and Schroeder contemplated how much money they should ask for to have one of their speedrunners play a game blindfolded. Schroeder suggested $40,000; Uyama proposed $100,000. They compromised at $75,000, and hit that mark days before the game was even played.
“We should have gone for a million,” Chris Grant, GDQ’s media relations manager, joked after he saw the result. “Sometimes we think an incentive is really stupid, and in that case we don’t know whether that means it’s worth more or less.”
Schroeder agreed. “We’re working off intuition almost entirely,” he says. “Because the growth of the events and the community has always surpassed our expectations, we’ve never been fully prepared for the next step.”
I pressed Schroeder on this notion of community, but it was hard for him to say exactly what it meant. In fact, I spent most of the day after the Castlevania race talking to dozens of marathon-goers about speedrunners’ enthusiasm for giving. While they all agreed charity is essential to the AGDQ experience, they had only vague reasons for why. It feels good to support something, many said; it’s important to give back.
But the more I wandered around and watched the AGDQ attendees, the more I saw what Schroeder was trying to articulate: Speedrunning sounds lonely, but it’s actually intensely collaborative. Gamers I talked to explained how they like to band together to track each other’s progress, teach each other tricks, and cultivate friendly rivalries. In conference rooms set aside for casual gameplay, it was common to see novice players cluster around seasoned pros who were walking them through tough segments of games step by step. Shortly before I arrived, some of the fastest speedrunners spent an entire night trying to crack the 100-meter record in an obscure track and field game. The next day, 18 people on 18 different Nintendo 64s raced a Legend of Zelda game simultaneously.
Giving to charity is just another way for speedrunners to bond. The secret to GDQ’s success, more than anything, is simply that the organizers know this. The marathons make charity the basic platform for the other stuff: jaw-dropping gaming, expert commentary, and a string of sleepless, pizza-fueled nights with the only people on the planet who truly understand your obsession with shaving five seconds off your Super Mario 64 time.
Throughout every GDQ marathon, the staff holds a fundraising bidding war they call Save the Animals. The idea is to collect money to determine the fate of some obscure creatures in the Super Nintendo game Super Metroid, which, per tradition, is always played at the end of the week. If more money is donated in the “save them” category, the speedrunner playing the game has to take extra time to release the animals from a cage before a planet explodes. If more money is donated to “kill them,” the player gets to shave time off by leaving the creatures to go down with the planet. Viewers go bananas for this contest; last January, it raised $356,202.
Schroeder says that, at first, many donors don’t even know what Save the Animals is. But the marathon’s genius is they don’t have to. Anyone can instantly be a part of the community just by taking out a credit card.
“[The organizers] do such a great job of making it exciting every time we hit some sort of milestone, driving the viewers and runners to push for the next one,” says Jack Sapperstein, a veteran speedrunner. “It’s like, ‘I want to join this cause.’ It’s not a feeling of belongingness, but participation.”
While GDQ is far from the first fundraising event to succeed by tapping into a shared passion—your local charity 5k, for instance, uses the same strategy—the level to which it has molded speedrunning around charity does seem new.
Most of the hours speedrunners spend streaming aren’t dedicated to raising money for a cause. Usually they’re just practicing for whoever wants to watch. Some even make money for themselves via viewer donations and advertising revenue. But GDQ’s influence is pervasive. The Web forums for speedrunners advertise small-scale online charity marathons all the time. Gamers around the country spend time together by organizing a few days of streaming races and raising money from family and friends.
Every year, Schroeder says, “we’ve basically doubled in size, and every time a lot of the community members worry that there will be a bunch of people they don’t know, that the community will lose its tightness, that things will be horrible. But they get here, and it’s magical.... We still feel really tight-knit. I can feel it in the room.”
In the Castlevania race, Schroeder got off to a slow start. He’d hardly had time to sleep in the past month, let alone practice. On his screen, Alucard looked sluggish; the hero missed leaps around the castle’s platforms, and got tangled in scuffles with its monsters.
Halfway through the race, Schroeder’s pace began to shift. A fast Castlevania run demands a crazed series of controller-button inputs in the game’s later stages to repeatedly turn Alucard into a bat, an unwieldy form that can glide past time-sucking obstacles when properly directed. This was where Schroeder was king. As the others struggled to keep their bats from careening into walls, Schroeder shot from point to point in perfectly choreographed arcs, zipping over dungeons toward the final confrontation with papa Dracula at the top of the castle.
Schroeder won in 17:27—25 seconds ahead of second place, and just 10 seconds shy of his personal best at the time.
“That is absolutely an incredible run by Romscout,” the announcer said. “We only get the best from him.”
In the 18 minutes it took all the players to finish the race, the marathon received more than $1,000 in donations. By the end of the week, it had raised more than $1.57 million.
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