When Roger Bannister became the first person to run a sub-four-minute on a May day in 1954, his achievement made international news, later earning him the inaugural Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award. While Bannister’s record lasted only forty-six days, his recognition as the first to crack a barrier once considered insurmountable remains. More recently, the crown jewel of the Summer Olympics for many viewers is the 100-metre dash, especially since the electrifying ascent of Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter to ever live.
Speed matters. Since Philippides ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to report a Greek military victory over Persia, we have considered the race as one of the most clear-cut ways to define and assess greatness. And yet as competitive video games continue their ascent into mainstream culture, with events such as the League of Legends World Championship appearing on ESPN, the race is curiously under-represented in this realm.
The weeklong speedrunning marathon AGDQ (Awesome Games Done Quickly) closed Sunday after raising $2.2 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, over a million dollars more than the previous record. The inaugural event in 2010, by contrast, raised $10,000, and the increased enrollment and number of participants and volunteers suggest the event will continue to grow and raise funds for worthwhile causes for years to come.
While AGDQ and its bi-annual companion SGDQ (Summer Games Done Quickly) have obviously received attention on twitch and within the gaming community, the marathons—and speedrunning in general—do not receive the attention that eSports have, particularly the various MOBA communities. And while part of this can be explained simply by the legions of loyal devotees of the likes of Dota 2 or League of Legends, the fact that a network such as ESPN (which opened an eSports page on its website) does not promote or encourage the creation of speedrunning tournaments or events is puzzling and, one might say, a disappointment.
Speedrunning has had a few moments of mainstream recognition. Mitch Fowler, who streams under the name Mitchflowerpower, appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show to introduce the 2016 version of Summer Games Done Quick marathon; the host designed a three-way race between a NCAA track team running a mile, himself cooking and eating a Hot Pocket, and Fowler completing Super Mario Bros. any % (using the Wrong Warp glitch to reach the game’s credits in under four minutes). In addition, Brad Myers, who streams as darbian, has been featured in such mainstream venues as CNN, ESPN, and TIME for his work in continually beating the world record in Super Mario Bros. In both cases, the streamers find opportunities to discuss the intricacies and appeals of speedrunning, of attempting a run, tens of thousands of times, and—of particular interest to the more technically inclined—of the glitches and quirks that make the runs possible.
These notable exceptions aside, speedrunning’s potential to reach a widespread audience and to attract viewers to televised tournaments or events has not received the recognition it deserves. For all the intricate energy and chaos of the MOBA genre, their appeal to those unfamiliar with the game is limited. A race of Mario speedrunners as has been featured at various AGDQs, taps both into the nostalgia factor (“I couldn’t even beat Mario, and these guys can do that?!”) as well as our fascination with speed and the simple beauty of the race. Indeed, Oliver Roeder’s article about darbian on fivethirtyeight openly compares lowering the SMB1 game time to the world record in the 100-metre dash. Showing races and talking to runners about the distinct challenges of the various games, from the near perfect execution of a shorter run such as SMB1 where new records are mere milliseconds quicker than their predecessor, to a lengthier run, like collecting all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 can introduce viewers to an aspect of competitive gaming that they might be unfamiliar with and yet is infinitely recognizable.
The growth of eSports—such as the ability for gaming teams to gain sponsorships—is important, and shows a widespread recognition and appreciation of the gaming community that continues to help de-stigmatize gamers. Should gamers have to justify themselves, their hobbies, their interests? No, of course not. But the expansion of competitive gaming into the public consciousness, especially through the rise of speedrunning, both as a casual, charity-centered event as well as more competitive scenarios, will only help draw more positive attention to the community. Part of Roger Bannister’s enduring legacy is his role as an amateur, a medical student who became the first human to achieve a task once thought impossible. For those in the gaming community, finding their own four-minute mile and showing the positivity that resonates from most speedrunning communities can have a profound impact on a different generation.