Only a Game

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Not many people may realise that during the world’s largest sporting occasion, the one that’s delighting us, enrapturing us with every wonder-gollazzo and unprecedented upset, another international event showcasing the leading talents of the sport is being held, on the same land mass. This alternative event also stars athletes primed to be the fastest, the most determined, the most technically sound. They too will only get a single chance to show off their talents to the lucky ones watching live, and the scores around the world watching at home. Just as Guillermo Ochoa became the first diamond darling uncovered this World Cup with his display of superhuman reflexes, brilliant anticipation and mental fortitude, so too will such attributes need to be shown by the runners at the Summer Games Done Quick Marathon in Denver, Colorado.

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When I said “leading talents of the sport” in that last paragraph, it should really be ‘e-sport’, if we’re being honest. And saying “athletes” might be a stretch too, though I’m sure a lot of the competitors at SGDQ are, if not athletes, certainly mathletes. Speed running (which means completing a video game as fast as possible, incorporating any available advantageous glitches and tricks) is a curious way of playing a video game, for the gaming layman it seems utterly silly. Where is the fun in running past all the enemies, in being concerned only with the milliseconds it takes to fly across the game map, when the majesty of the battle is there to bask in? It would be like a football team trying to score directly from the kick off without letting the ball touch the ground, attempting it again and again until the perfect choreography for it was mapped out. But for the elite runners, speed is all that matters. If there is a way to skip half the level (often using methods that the game developers never even knew were there) and that means seconds shaved off the total completion time, then enough said. For Mario Kart 64 it might mean jumping off what seems like a run-ending precipice, only to hit a particular polygon that warps you back to the track, ahead of where you fell. For Halo 2, it might be something more sophisticated, like doing a ‘sword-fly’ manoeuvre, where a plasma sword lunge is performed then cancelled so that the lunge launches you over the map, bypassing crowds of bothersome enemy aliens. There is a database, just like there is for any other sport, that holds every record for every game, from every Tool Assisted Speedrun, to every single segment time, to every no-glitch, all boss play through. The jargon and in-jokes are endless.

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So, the runners practise in the lead up to a marathon, they optimise their runs to the umpteenth degree and test new strats (strategies), ones for safety or more risky strats that might get you a record. Actually, rarely are records set at marathons because, although the best runners come from all over to compete and show off, there are no individual winners of SGDQ. The aim for this event, in brutally stark contrast to the FIFA’s objectives for the World Cup, is to put on a show solely for the financial benefit of their chosen charity. The Speed Demos Archive organisation holds two marathon festivals annually, the Awesome Games Done Quick in winter and SGDQ in summer. This year’s AGDQ was done in support of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and SGDQ will donate all of its profits to Doctors without Borders. Incredibly, AGDQ 2014 raised more than $1,000,000, four times as much as last year. All of the money comes from donations sent in by viewers watching the marathon at home. Over 100,000 people were watching when runner WYMORN ran The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim at AGDQ 2014, and they donated just under $10,000 in the hour the run lasted. The financial stats for the last marathon are all here. The entire event is broadcast on Twitch.tv, the video streaming site that Google just purchased for a cool billion dollars. Almost all of the runners who hold world records stream live on Twitch, and new records are set all the time. The arena of speed running is a constantly evolving one, with runs being optimised further and further and new runners with even finer skills emerging all the time. It isn’t just modern games either, plenty of classics from the 1980s and 90s are still being run, and will be rolled out over SGDQ’s six day schedule.

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The precision, timing and accuracy exhibited by Tim Cahill when scoring as he did against Holland boggled the mind. For a comparable example, I’d suggest CGN’s 25:35 run of F-Zero GX. Just as Robin van Persie’s flying header made our collective jaws drop, made us cry out “how did he think to do that?” so does Studio’s largely backwards-facing (it’s quicker to run backwards) 2:15:55 run of Half Life 2. These people have put thousands of hours into perfecting their skills, as much, if not more than Ronaldo has spent on his knuckle-ball free kicks (or hair styling). The difference is that they don’t earn the kind of money footballers earn; in fact, they don’t even expect payment when publically exhibiting the fruits of their labour. They are passionate amateurs generously giving up their time and money to fly to a convention centre in Denver to dazzle hundreds of thousands over the internet, all for the sake of raising money for worthy causes. When Marouane Fellaini gets paid £250,000 a week to amble vaguely around the pitch for Manchester United, it only seems fair that Kotti should be equally reimbursed for his utter mastery of Dark Souls, the most gruelling and brutal video game of all time.

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Their feats are less objectively spectacular, sure. You don’t need to be a professional footballer to appreciate Arjen Robben’s blitzing sprint to score against Spain. You don’t even need to have jogged much in your life to know that the Dutchman’s act was undoubtedly special. But it does help to know why Bonesaw77’s single-cycle plant destruction on Jak and Daxter was so extraordinary, though from the reaction, I have no doubt that it was. Their often pallid demeanours, their sartorially questionable over-use of the baggy, beige cargo pant, and generally their pure, grade-A, uncut nerd-dom (and proud of it) makes them less desirable pin-up boys than the toned and graceful, if slightly impish figure that Neymar cuts. These things explain the fact they all aren’t household names (at least outside of South Korea). But their dedication is unquestionable, their skill unparalleled and their generosity not often mirrored in the world of football. So, in between matches over the next few weeks, you might tune in to catch a run or two, and to appreciate the fact that we get to have two world-class sporting events showcasing the world’s best players, from opposite ends of the sporting spectrum, to savour this month. Get hype!

SGDQ runs from the 23rd to the 29th of June. Schedule here

A glossary of Speedrunning terms.

Highlights and bloopers of AGDQ 2014.

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