Debate Done Quick: Is speedrunning an esport?

Debate Done Quick: Is speedrunning an esport?

by Nerd Street

Does competing against others make speedrunning an esport? Does that even matter? With NRG recently signing a team of speedrunners and Summer Games Done Quick ongoing and bringing a lot of attention to the speedrunning community, we sought to answer some hot button questions about the merits of speedrunning as an esport. Here’s what our writers though about speedrunning as an esport.

Is speedrunning an esport or not? Make your case.

Jessica Scharnagle: I think it is an esport. Just like a race in a track meet is a sport, this is similar. In track meets, runners are competing against themselves for their own personal best, and against other runners, although they don’t always compete at the same time. This is similar. Players compete against their own best time, and against other players’ times, even though they might not be playing at the same exact time.

Robin Mosley: It’s an esport! Speedrunners are training hours on end to ensure they understand every glitch and time-saving maneuver to complete the game as quickly as possible. Often players in the top three spots of a game category are competing against each other to be known as the top player with only a few seconds between them. In all speedrunning communities you’ll have some respect between runners, but competing for the top spot is the name of the game. Also, the bigger issue here is that companies don’t think of speedrunning as a legitimate esport yet, but I think that time is changing.

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Mitch Reames: I agree, it’s an esport. There are certainly arguments for the other side, but at speedrunning’s core are all the same components that make up why esports are awesome. There is competition, practice, dedication and pure effort. The main knock on speedrunning is that competitions don’t always happen in the same place or at the same time. But there are sports that take turns competing as well like gymnastics, diving, skiing, skating and plenty more. Speedrunning just has its individual competitions spread out a bit more.

Andrew Kulp: I'm gonna have to play the foil here and say, presently, no, I do not consider speedrunning to be an esport. There's no denying speedrunning takes tremendous skill, a ton of practice and is competitive by nature. Of course, the same can be said of most any talent or profession. Nobody becomes the best at literally anything without putting in the work, but the presence of competition alone is not enough to qualify an activity as a sport. Taking a test, applying for a job, entering a trivia contest at the bar -- all competitive, all require some level of preparation to excel, none sports. Just like those everyday tasks, the pure act of speedrunning is missing elements that elevate a competitive endeavor to sport or esport.


Does competing against other people matter in terms of classifying it as an esport?

Jessica Scharnagle: Yeah I think so. I think competition is required to have some kind of means to judge performance. If you speedrun against a game and don’t compare your times to others’ times, you’re not competing, you’re just playing a game.

Robin Mosley: Yes, absolutely. Without it, it’s not a competitive sport. It’s like any sport, you can play it for fun or you can test your skill against other people.

Mitch Reames: Yeah. If you were the only person to ever put up a speedrun attempt at a certain game, there’s no competition there besides against yourself. But if even one other person takes a shot, the competition is there to call it an esport.

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Andrew Kulp: 100%. The person who's trying to get into the Guinness World Records for the most consecutive hours Hula-Hooping, or for making the largest Philly cheesesteak, or for clipping the most clothespins to their body -- are they participating in a sport? Of course not. In many cases, there's no active opponent. It's just a person saying, "What's the record? Oh, I can beat that." That's a lot of what speedrunning is in a nutshell.

Was going for the high score on a Pac-Man coin-op in 1980 an esport? Is playing against the AI in Madden an esport? Where is the cut-off? In much the same way running is a hobby whereas track is a sport, it seems to me a line needs to be drawn at there being some sort of direct human opposition rather than simply a score or time goal.


Does a runner have to be in a formal event (like Games Done Quick) for the speedrun to be considered an esport competition?

Jessica Scharnagle: No, not at all. I could get together with a couple of friends and throw it up on a stream and call it an esport. Different people will have different opinions about what an esport competition is, or what it means to them, but don’t think people need to be in a formal event to consider it an esports competition.

Robin Mosley: No. Do people know how hard it is to get into Games Done Quick? It’s super difficult, and even top speedrunners in their categories don’t get in. That space and many other speedrunning spaces aren’t inherently built for competition, it’s a space for community building and showing off tricks. That said, there are usually a few runs dedicated to competition between two or more players. But it’s not an esport competition.

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Mitch Reames: Not really, I think a formal in-person competition highlights some of the arguments for it being an esport, but it isn’t a requirement. Especially because speedrunning requires so many attempts to do well, the highest form of speedrunning won’t be able to happen in the shorter periods necessitated by physical events.

Andrew Kulp: It depends. Racing an obstacle course generally isn't considered a sport -- or it wasn't, at least, until American Ninja Warrior came along. There are people who would argue vehemently, convincingly even that ANW is sport. Yet, for some reason, I haven't noticed a similar fervor for Wipeout, which, at its core, has the exact same premise. In both examples, we have a formal event, only one is viewed as sporting, the other purely entertainment.

Formal events can certainly help lend legitimacy to speedrunning. However, a formal event alone doesn't suddenly transform speedrunning into an esport if it still lacks a structured competitive element.


Does the game itself matter? For example, does speedrunning GTA as opposed to a Legend of Zelda game make it more or less of an esport?

Jessica Scharnagle: I’m definitely of the opinion that if you think it’s an esport, then it’s an esport and who cares what others think. So I don’t think the game matters, but I also acknowledge that there are games out there that might not have a means of gauging performance so it might be hard to speedrun it.

Robin Mosley: Absolutely not! What you think matters. The tricky thing is when you want to make it a full-time career. What major companies think an esport is will likely factor into that until there is a bigger community rallying behind it.

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Mitch Reames: As long as the game has a community and a ruleset in place, then, no it doesn’t really matter. The speedrunning community does a good job of defining competitions including runs with or without glitches, banning specific practices or having it be a complete free-for-all. As long as the speedrunning records ruleset is defined and it has a few players to provide the competition aspect, the actual game isn’t important. Some titles will always carry a lot more prestige than others and that’s a good thing too.

Andrew Kulp: I'm not sure the genre matters. For me, it's more a concern about a particular game's relevance. Is speedrunning GTA an esport? Still, no, but at least there's some semblance of competition when we're talking about one of the most popular games in the world and other people are doing it. If you're speedrunning some obscure NES game nobody else would ever bother with, on the other hand, how is that sporting?

Read more: Speedrunning the latest addition to NRG’s content creation Castle

Image credit: NRG

NRG recently signed a team of speedrunners. What kind of effect do you think big orgs jumping into speedrunning will have on the development of an esport scene?

Jessica Scharnagle: I welcome any growth to the esports scene. If it helps esports orgs, games or players get more attention, I’m all for it. That said, I don’t think it’s going to have that big of an effect. It is really great for the speedrunning community to see bigwigs get involved, and I can’t imagine any downside to that, but until more orgs start paying attention to it, the esports community as a whole won’t really be affected.

Robin Mosley: Nothing yet I’m afraid. NRG is big, but there are still so many places that need to be involved to bring more attention to it. For example, if Twitch got involved and created a competition partnering with another major esports brand, then maybe.

Mitch Reames: I’m going to say yes, absolutely. For NRG specifically, it's not enough to shape the entire scene, but for the four players themselves this is a huge win. Speedrunning is an absolute grind, and if players are signed to orgs, they get paid. If more orgs start signing players, that will make them better players because they can dedicate more time and more attention to speedrunning than if they didn’t have paychecks coming from an org. Given more time, esports orgs could then start setting up more competitions or using their weight to push other tournament operators into creating events that benefit the scene as a whole.

Andrew Kulp: Despite my repeated objections to classifying speedrunning as an esport, more orgs getting involved could have major implications. Take auto racing, for example. Despite removing the test of athleticism that defines traditional sports, there's not a whole lot of debate about whether racing is a sport, it's pretty much just accepted as such. Why is that? The answer probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are head-to-head competitions, typically where two or more competitors share a track simultaneously, even leagues that hold entire seasons.

I can totally envision a scenario where the entry of orgs into the speedrunning scene leads to the creation of more competitive formats. If that were to happen, we could see speedrunning shift away from being this sort of niche thing that makes headlines whenever somebody manages to shave a millisecond off their Super Mario Bros. run, and veer more toward a world of regularly held events with players racing in real-time with actual winners and losers and somebody crowned champion at the end. Now that, my friends, would be esports.


Bonus question: If you could speedrun a game, what would it be?

Jessica Scharnagle: The Ori franchise. Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps are my absolute favorite games of all time, and if I were to decide to speedrun, I’d probably start with those games. Although I don’t understand how people complete the achievement of getting through the entire game without dying. You’ve got to have some mad muscle memory to do that.

Robin Mosley: This is a difficult question. I am a huge Kirby fan, so any of them would do. But for the sake of a direct answer, Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land. It was such a profound game for me during my childhood and just a blast to play from start to finish.

Mitch Reames: Breath of the Wild. There are already so many amazing speedrunners in that game and the way they have figured out how to manipulate the abilities just looks like an absolute blast. Plus, it’s probably my favorite non-esports game of all time.

Andrew Kulp: The speedrun that consistently attracts my attention (probably because I’m “old,” which also explains why I’m such a curmudgeon about this) is Super Mario Bros., so I'll go with that. Between the game's legacy and the fact that it can be completed in under five minutes, I could be internet famous for something I finished in less time than it takes to unload the dishwasher!

Lead image credit: Nintendo

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