Rather than playing games, many of us are now choosing to spend our time watching other people play them.
The live-streaming website Twitch was all over the mainstream media recently when it was revealed that it had been bought by none other than Amazon. Just shy of $1 billion was spent acquiring it.
Though the site only launched in June 2011, by January 2014 it had one million active broadcasters and attracted more than 45 million viewers per month.
The most watched games tend to be the same ones which dominate eSports, such as League of Legends and Dota 2, but the platform has also allowed the fascinating speedrunning community to really develop.
Gotta go fast
For a speedrunner the goal is simple: be the fastest.
Every game will have different categories, and speedrunners will run them until they’re able to do it quicker than anybody else.
When it really starts to get interesting is when they decide to break the game’s rules, and find truly ingenious ways of finishing the game.
For example, in January 2013 Cosmo Wright showed off how he beats The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Anyone who’s played it knows that it should take hours to finish. For Cosmo though, the game takes just 20 minutes, thanks to an extremely complex glitch which was only discovered 13 years after the game was released.
If performed correctly, this strategy allows the player to skip straight from the first dungeon to the end of the game.
As he says: “You never know what you’ll find in games if you put enough time into them.”
This video has been watched 1.3 million times on YouTube, and helped cement Cosmo as the poster boy of speedrunning. With 158,000 followers and 26 million views on his Twitch channel, he’s able to make a living off of the advertising, paid subscribers and donations.
But even much smaller channels are now generating enough money to support their owners, allowing more and more speedrunners to start streaming full-time and really dedicate themselves to improving their times.
One of these people is 23-year-old Geoff Immel, simply known as Geoff to his fans. He’s most well known for speedrunning Super Monkey Ball, a game which requires a lot of skill and dexterity to master.
Though his follower count of 16,000 is more modest than Cosmo’s, he’s able to earn enough money from his channel to cover his bills and justify streaming full-time.
Even from a young age, he was determined to master games and reach quicker times.
“I was into racing games,” he explains. “That’s my favourite type of game because you can always get better at them, and they have in-game timers so you can track how good you’re doing.
“Once Forza 2 for the Xbox 360 came out, it had in-game leader boards for all the tracks, and I tried to get the top 100 times and things like that.”
Geoff first experimented with streaming games in 2009, when he joined TheSpeedGamers online community. Friends that he made there were streaming on Justin.tv, which would later become Twitch.
“I bought a cheap capture card and a microphone, set it up and streamed once in a while. But it was never something I thought I could do full-time, instead of something for fun.
“A few months after that I made a YouTube channel and started doing Let’s Plays. Those were fun and it got relatively big pretty quickly.
“I had about 3,000 subscribers within a few months and so I got partnered. I thought ‘wow, you can actually make money off of playing video games, what is this?’”
About a year later he had the option to live-stream games on YouTube. Realising it offered more interaction with his fans, he leaped at the chance and started streaming his content for about four hours each day, rather than recording it all on his own as he’d been doing before.
His transition to Twitch happened by chance. A bug on YouTube was preventing him streaming, so he told his 7,000 subscribers to watch him on Twitch instead while it was fixed. He’s still there to this day.
It was September 2012, and it was around this time that he started to get involved in speedrunning.
“The way I found speedrunning was by streaming Super Monkey Ball simply because I ran out of ideas for what to stream.
“I beat one of the modes kind of quickly. Then I wondered whether I could beat it even faster, so I did it again and it was fun. So I started looking up other people’s times on YouTube.
“I kind of knew what speedrunning was because I’d watched Siglemic and Cosmo, and some other people, but I didn’t really know how far it extended at the time.
“I found a video and tried to beat it faster. It was that competitiveness I guess that drew me into it. So I streamed that a few more times and it felt pretty cool. I got addicted to it from there.”
Geoff is currently studying marketing, but can do most of his work at home. He generally spends an hour on class work then watches other streams for a few hours, followed by streaming for around eight hours himself.
“I’ve held traditional jobs in the past,” he says. “I did contract web development, I’ve led a development team.
“While they’re rewarding monetarily, they’re not very rewarding mentally. They’re not fun.
“I definitely don’t earn as much streaming but that’s not what matters. Streaming to me offers this ability to interact with people and to make someone’s day better.
“But a career in streaming is like any career on the internet. You’ll have people saying it’s not a real job, but it is because I’m able to pay my bills and it’s sustainable.
“It’s work. There’s a lot of effort behind the scenes that goes into everything.”
He likens the growth of Twitch to the growth of YouTube.
“People were partnered on YouTube before everything blew up. You have people like Smosh, who have been making a career out of it for eight or nine years.
“We’re just getting to that point where this is blowing up. I feel that if you look five years in the future, streaming for a living isn’t a farfetched idea.”
Saving frames and saving lives
It’s not just the growth of Twitch which has boosted interest in speedrunning. For the past four years, the speedrunning community has gathered together twice a year for the Games Done Quick charity marathons.
Each event has dwarfed the previous one, both in terms of size and the amount of money raised.
January 2014’s Awesome Games Done Quick event marked a monumental milestone, as it raised more than $1 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
Mike Uyama, the marathons’ director said: “It’s weird because even now the whole $1 million thing hasn’t really hit me. Though at the time that was pretty incredible.”
For perspective, the first marathon in January 2010 lasted 55 hours and involved about 20 people on-site. They now run for a full week and squeeze in runs of more than 150 games.
“We were so impressed with our viewer peak of 1500 people at the first marathon,” Mike says, “and we raised $11,000 for CARE, an international aid organisation.
“We were so happy we raised that much money, because back then that was amazing. We had no reference for how much we would raise, so I set the goal at $5,000. A lot of people said that was too high.
“Time has proven that we’re really bad at setting goals, but that’s a good thing because they always get smashed.”
The events are run by Speed Demos Archive, which is the largest community of speedrunners online. The ten marathons have raised a total of $2.7 million, proving that speedrunning, though very technical, is appealing to many people.
The appeal of speedrunning
For Mike, the fascination is due to the incredible skill on display.
“These are games people played in their childhood or even recently, and they’re given a new perspective that people haven’t seen before. So they get to see not only something technically impressive, but a new way of playing.
“And with the live aspect there’s commentary, so everything’s being explained and you get live reaction, such as the euphoria of landing a really difficult trick and the blow of random number generators screwing you over or just failing a certain level.”
Geoff agrees: “You’ll notice that the League players who are generally the most skilled get the most Twitch viewers, because people know they’re good and want to watch top-level play.
“Then look at a speed runner like Puncayshun, for example. He doesn’t talk to his chat that much, but he’s very good at what he does, and that draws thousands of people when he’s on a good run.
“Then I would say that some speed runners just have a good personality for streaming.
“I’ll use Cosmo as an example. When he used to run Wind Waker, even if he reset ten runs in a day, every run he’d explain what was happening in very good detail. So anyone new would be educated about what was going on.
“It’s very tough to play a game at a high level and also explain things in very minute details.”
Despite this, when Geoff is running a game, he’ll still find time to read his chat and interact with his fans.
“I kind of just let my knowledge of the game take over. In between levels I look over and I’ll just talk with them.
“When you’ve put a ton of time into the game you know when you have half a second to look at the chat and pick a message out to read, or you know when you need to avoid distractions.”
For people who want to have success with streaming, Geoff’s key advice is to have fun doing it.
“When you’re having fun and people see that, they’re gonna have fun. That’s how you grow, by having fun and catching the eye of people.”
For streamers looking to make the switch into full-time though, it seems that planning is the most important thing to do.
“Always have a contingency plan. I have a resume that, if streaming wasn’t successful, would allow me to go out and get a traditional job.
“Before I switched to full-time I made sure I had enough money so that if something catastrophic happened, like if my computer broke, I could replace it and not worry about it.
“Do your research before jumping. It’s just like any other job, it requires planning and lifestyle changes.”
The next charity marathon will be Awesome Games Done Quick 2015, taking place from January 4-10.
Be sure to read the first part of Gaming for a Living, which delves into the lives of professional eSports gamers.
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