I watch speedrunning like my dad watches sports

A Super Metroid speedrun race

Who knew speedrunning could be so comforting?

When I was growing up, the sounds of sports were always all over our house. My dad likes pretty much every sport imaginable, from football to baseball to track and field. A lot of the time I had no idea what was going on, but having a game on in the background made for the perfect backing track to take my Sunday afternoon naps. Sometimes when I want to feel extra cozy, I’ll find an old NFL game on YouTube to put on while I fall asleep.

These days, the closest thing I get to watching sports is esports. It’s an entirely different world, as I’ve learned from my friends who work on that side of the industry, but there’s also a lot of crossover there.

For one thing, esports took a lot from traditional sports when it comes to the way they set up their broadcasts, particularly when it comes to commentary or how they introduce players. As someone who was around sports my whole life (I have really athletic siblings), it’s been fascinating to me to see how we’ve moved competition to a digital space, and how we choose to relay that information to those who are watching.

[Image Source: NPR]

I think of speedrunning as esports’ little cousin

Moreso than esports even, I’ve recently taken a liking to speedrunning.

At this point I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with the concept, but in case you’re not, the basic idea is that players have competitions to see who can play through a game the fastest, and the rules can vary depending on whether speedrunners want to do a run that doesn’t take advantage of bugs (known as a glitchless run), if they choose not to use certain items, if they choose to only race to a certain part of the game, and so on.

Speedrunning as a concept was widely popularized in the mid-1990s by players who would do runs of Super Metroid, but these days, you can speedrun just about everything by implementing some creative rules. While esports can be pretty rigid with rules, hero/champion bans, and intense practice schedules, there’s a lightheartedness to speedrunning that I find really charming.

In recent years, players have started doing runs of games like Stardew ValleyCooking Mama, and the Little Mermaid NES game, to name a few. Seeing speedrunners lean into that silliness every once in a while speaks to how this community feels like a celebration of the games we love. I mean, you have to love a game a lot to play it for hundreds or thousands of hours to know it well enough to speedrun in the first place, right?

So now, when my best friend and I get together but don’t know what to do, we just watch speedruns of our favorite games. I love just sitting back and watching these amazing players explain to me all of the intricacies of their runs, and all the work they had to put in to shave even a few short seconds off of their runs.

This sounds familiar…

We were recently watching the highlights from Games Done Quick, a semi-annual speedrunning event that raises money for charity, and there were some really fun clips in there. While most of the players participated from home, there were a few games where players got to do their runs in person at the event.

One moment that stuck to me, in particular, was a clip of four speedrunning doing a head-to-head speedrun race of the aforementioned Super Metroid from 2014.

The commentators who were explaining the runs to the audience were in the room with the players, so they were speaking quietly so as not to disturb their concentration.

There were moments of tense silence as the players went through difficult sections, only to be met by cheers when they cleared them. As we were watching this unfold, I had a sudden realization: this sounds exactly like when my dad would watch golf on TV.

Now I’ve been putting on speedruns to either watch for fun, or to just have on in the background. With family stuff being a bit complicated right now, it’s comforting to me to have something that’s familiar-sounding, yet is also something that also caters to my interests, unlike traditional sports. I always knew I liked speedrunning, but this gives them a whole new meaning for me.

There’s nothing I love more than watching passionate people do what they’re good at, and that’s exactly what speedrunning is all about. I may not watch any more traditional sports in the future, but maybe speedruns are something I can show my dad in the future to return the favor.

One of the things that sports and speedrunning have in common is that it’s about coming together to share a love of other people doing something better than we ever could.

Noelle Warner