My palms won’t stop sweating, beads of moisture dripping down the buttons of my controller. My grip hasn’t changed in nearly an hour, but I refuse to let my wetted hands kill my focus. I try to regulate my breath—inhale, slowly, exhale—but I have the jitters. Don’t choke, I mumble to myself.
It’s a warm May night in Toronto, and I’m hunched over my computer, clicking away at a Sega Genesis controller and trying to make personal history. On my screen, a pixelated blue hedgehog zooms through loops and hops from platform to platform. I keep breathing, heavier and heavier, until it’s over, until Sonic destroys Dr. Robotnik’s final form. And then I stop my timer: 49 minutes, 51 seconds. Eventually, on the official leaderboards, I’ll rank among the top players to beat this particular Sonic game in the fastest possible time. When the realization sets in, I’m exhilarated. All I want to do is play again.
I started speedrunning Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in January, keen for a new pandemic pastime. The classic game, released in 1994 for the Sega Genesis, was a staple of my childhood: My older brother, then much more of a gamer than me, would play through the game over and over, and I’d dutifully watch each time. It’s a game where players are intended to move quickly, spin-dashing and speeding through levels. So, as Toronto settled in for yet another citywide lockdown late last year, I tried to play it through myself and see how fast I could do it—or at least, if I could beat my brother’s pace from all those years ago. I quickly became obsessed, jotting down times and notes in a journal. Not unlike an actual runner, I yearned for a new personal best, or PB, every time I played. For each milestone I hit, I knew I could do better.
Why Is Speedrunning So Much Fun?
While “speedrunning” at its simplest is playing a game as quickly as you can, there are categories for each game with specific objectives. Ever the completionist, I opted to collect all seven emeralds in Sonic 3—a tedious but ultimately satisfying task. For months I’d toil, spinning the orb-like Sonic into secret areas and special stages, improving bit by bit until I could officially make leaderboard status. I’d play almost every night; eventually, my partner begged me to wear headphones, sick of the same chiptune songs playing on rotation.
You’ve likely heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That’s the concept at the heart of speedrunning. But speedrunners don’t experience fits of instability or unrest; instead, they are elated at the prospect of playing the same game—the same levels, through the same routes—over and over.
Search the speedrun category on Twitch on any given night and you’ll find dozens of amateur gamers playing their favorite games fast. Speedrunning has become so popular over the years that massive worldwide events like Games Done Quick amass hundreds of thousands of viewers and have raked in millions of dollars for charity. And when runners beat their PB, or they finish in world-record time, they scream or cry in joy—or, if they’re like me, pace around their tiny apartment with their fists in the air, the kind of reactions that wind up in viral YouTube compilations.
So why does speedrunning—an odd sport of doing the same thing again and again—have such a cult following? A better understanding of how and why we game, and the ways speedrunning exploit that psychology of gaming, can help explain the rush gamers get from going fast. But at its core, speedrunning fulfills some of our most basic human needs: a desire to be our best selves, to be among communities of like-minded peers, and to complete things as quickly as we possibly can.
How Did Speedrunning Get So Popular?
Speedruns have, in one form or another, been around as long as video games have existed. There’s a simple reason for that: Being the fastest at something is an easy, quantifiable way to measure a player’s greatness, not unlike earning a high score. As game developer John Romero puts it in Speedrun Science: A Long Guide to Short Playthroughs, “Anybody can achieve things slowly, but that’s not a competition.”
When communities of gamers flocked online in the early ’90s, speedrunners began finding each other to exchange tips and tricks and share their times. Speedrunners of the classic first-person-shooter game Doom were among the first to establish leaderboards back in 1994; today, the definitive leaderboard site Speedrun.com boasts more than 2 million recorded runs across more than 20,000 games.