As Speedrunning Flourishes, Some Look Beyond Games Done Quick

"I think it’s a little dangerous to have the entire community centered around one event."

In January 2010, an event called Awesome Games Done Quick broadcast some of the best speedrunners in gaming from organizer Mike Uyama’s basement, raising about $10,000 for charity in the process. Since then, the art of speedrunning - finishing a game as quickly as possible, usually by following a strict ruleset - has proliferated in kind, largely thanks to the ever-increasing audience of AGDQ and its sister event Summer Games Done Quick.

But while the charitable revenue has soared to over $2 million in the past two years, not everyone is happy. Following some highly-publicized clashes between attendees and GDQ staff about what constitutes acceptable behavior on-stream, some runners have begun to question how central the event remains to the overall viability and visibility of the speedrunning scene as a whole, and whether that bodes well for the future of speedrunning. GDQ’s organizers responded by clarifying that they’re not trying to monopolize the scene; in their words, they’re just trying to bring speedrunning to the widest possible audience. As the debate has gone on, others within the community have come to GDQ’s defense, contending that its organizers are just trying to do the best they can.

“People say that speedrunning doesn’t need to change, it doesn’t need to grow,” says former speedrunner Ben “Apollo Legend” Smith, an outspoken critic of GDQ, who observes and commentates on the hobby through his successful YouTube channel. “But I think it’s a little dangerous to have the entire community centered around one event. All the event has to do is change something, and it reflects on the entire community.”

From Smith’s channel, you might think that he’s solely referring to now-infamous scuffles like Bonesaw577 getting banned from GDQ events for a year following a profanity-laced run of PS2 platformer Jak and Daxter, or PvtCinnamonBun suffering the same fate for brandishing a “Make America Great Again” hat, or unplugging a powerstrip, depending on who you ask. But, to hear Smith tell it, while some of these specific flare-ups represent the symptoms of what he views as the decline of GDQ, they aren’t the pathogen itself. Rather, he points to an increased focus on the charitable proceeds themselves as the source of what he calls the “watering-down” of the event. “They’re basically run by a charity, so obviously they want to tone it down as much as possible,” he says. “In their quest to raise more and more money, they’ve snubbed their own base. They’ve given up on what made it popular in the first place, the personalities of the runners. I think if you started GDQ now, with no fanbase, and ran it the same way, I don’t think anyone would watch it.”

That’s why Smith has decided to make his own speedrunning event. Dubbed the Oceanside Marathon, he says he plans to fly out sixteen notable speedrunners to live stream for three days under the same roof, including top-tier Super Mario 64 runner Cheese05, paying for their meals and transportation along the way. While he originally sought to crowdfund Oceanside, eschewing the traditional sponsor-seeking route in order to ensure the “independence” of the event, Smith tells Glixel he plans to sink at least $15,000 of his own money to rent equipment and book the venue, in addition to some private donations from the GoFundMe and elsewhere. Still, even as he toils to make the event actually happen, he notes that the marathon originated as a group effort. In particular, Alex “RagingCherry” Chiricosta - best-known as the organizer behind Smash the Record, a hybrid Smash Bros. and speedrunning event first inaugurated in 2014 - was the one who first came up with the concept.

Though Smith’s intentions seem sincere, some in the larger speedrunning community have expressed doubts over his unproven track record as an organizer and reputation for stirring up drama through his outspoken commentary, which occasionally verges on out-and-out polemic. And, to be sure, he can sometimes jump the gun, such as in this much-maligned video, where he criticizes the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s public financial data, essentially claiming that they overpay their employees. (As of press time, the Prevent Cancer Foundation has a four-star rating from independent watchdog Charity Navigator, the highest score possible.) Smith himself now says that he jumped to conclusions too hastily about that subject, but he says the video itself wasn’t really the point. “People looked at the financials,” he says. “I just want GDQ to be more transparent. If people are talking about it, then I feel like that’s a win.”

From the outside, speedrunning can seem like a closed ecosystem dominated by titans of Twitch like GDQ. But, as speedrunning YouTuber Collin “EZScape” O’Brien notes, that perception is mostly illusory. There are plenty of marathons that aren’t hosted by Games Done Quick, like the European Speedrunner Assembly - they just don’t get nearly as much attention, because AGDQ is considered the originator. “I’m happy to see other marathons get started, because growing the community is great,” says O’Brien. “But I don’t think that any event should be ‘anti-GDQ.’ I don’t think GDQ is bad. People give GDQ a hard time just because it’s so visible.”

By all accounts, O’Brien and Smith are cordial, they share mutual admiration for each other’s work, and they both plan to attend outside events like Oceanside. Although O’Brien supports his friend’s event, he says that the charges against GDQ are largely trumped up. “When you think about the number of runs that happen at GDQ, they end up punishing people so seldomly. And sometimes, it really is justified. But people get so worked up about it. If you forgive the people who make dumb mistakes at GDQ, we should also forgive GDQ for over policing sometimes.” And though O’Brien tries his best to stay neutral, he has pointed words for those who continue to lambast the organization: “GDQ gets views, sure. But it’s not a monopoly. If it really were the only thing to watch, I could understand people getting upset about how things are run. But honestly, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

For those notable runners who find themselves banned from these events, however, such forgiveness doesn’t come so easy. Just ask Tucker “BubblesDelFuego” Olinsky, a noted figure in the field best-known for his famed runs of the Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls series, who announced via his Twitch page two weeks ago that he received a permanent ban from all GDQ events for giving a portion of a marijuana edible to a friend to help deal with his anxiety. As a two-time cancer survivor who relies on the well-documented medicinal effects of THC to deal with chronic fatigue and pain, Olinsky describes the decision to share as a “mistake” that resulted from him “not considering the professionalism of the environment that he was in.”

Olinsky says that the experience hasn’t changed his overall opinion of GDQ. “I don’t feel any different about GDQ,” he says. “They have always been kind of awkward and untrained in the enforcement department, and any person who has attended a few GDQs has heard of, or experienced moments where it was out of line.” While he doesn’t feel that GDQ over policies its existing policies, he faults certain staff, saying “they don’t always know what to do in the moment of need.” But when it comes to the popularity of their events, Olinsky acknowledges the colossal impact that the organization can have on the viewing audience. “As much as GDQ is about charity and presenting your or the community’s speedrun to the world, it goes without saying that there is a large audience you are exposed to when performing. I owe a lot to GDQ when it comes to my channel’s audience and the exposure I have received, but I never participated for that reason. If I want exposure, I can get it in much easier and healthier ways for my channel.”

Though GDQ itself focuses on its charitable events, they’re still not a registered non-profit, a status that would require more fiscal transparency. It’s a hurdle that director of operations Matt Merkle says that they’re “working on.” Merkle says that during these events, all of the donations go directly to the charities involved. To cover the costs of staff and running the event, GDQ negotiates a fixed fee with the charities beforehand, which Merkle describes as “10 to 15 percent” of the previous event total. “That is enough to cover the fundraising/streaming side of our events,” he says. “and we use other revenue like registration fees or ad revenue from Twitch to pay for things that don't really affect the fundraiser, like bringing in an arcade for attendees.” To hear Merkle tell it, GDQ owes its success in large part to the rules that Smith decries - saying it’s the best way to maximize the potential audience, and thus ensure the future of speedrunning.

As an organization, GDQ feels the need to make the speedrunning community feel as open as possible to new audiences, including children. “I think GDQ has become a gateway for introducing speedrunning to a broader audience and a whole new generation,” says Matt Merkle, GDQ’s director of operations. But he pushes back against the idea of the cultural shift purported by Smith and some others. “The bulk of our rules have changed little, if at all since the beginning,” he says. “The real difference is as we’ve grown, we’ve noticed the need to ensure these rules were better-communicated to attendees who might be unfamiliar with our events.”

For Smith, however, even if GDQ does regain the “magic” that he feels that it’s lost, he has his own philosophy for the subculture: one that focuses on the personalities rather than the runs themselves. “My dream for speedrunning is that twice a year, everybody looks at GDQ and says, ‘oh, cool, they raised a bunch of money for charity,’” says Smith. “But they’re not just thinking about the next GDQ. You look at fighting games - they have events all year long, and then they have a big charity event. Speedrunning is very caught-up in GDQ. Because it’s been a monolith for so long, people think you only do speedrunning events for charity; it’s just a hobby, you shouldn’t take it seriously. I want people to be open to new things.”

Still, while it remains to be seen whether or not a continued dissatisfaction with GDQ will lead others in the community to try to start their own splinter-marathon events, Smith tries to remain grounded. In his own words, he used to dedicate hours and hours of each day to speedrunning himself, before suffering a sort of career-ending injury due to severe carpal tunnel syndrome. As he goes on and on about his favorite hobby, it’s easy to get the sense that this is the way he plans to give back to the community and his channel. “Just the fact that people are talking about it is enough for me,” he says. “Speedrunning can be more than just GDQ. That’s what matters.”