The Legend of Speedrunners

In the world of gaming there is an interesting niche called "Speedrunning." Speedrunners are gamers that want to beat a game as fast as possible. But it isn’t just about speed. It’s about love. It’s about obsession... over all the ins and outs of a game, down to the very programming.


Mount Everest is the highest mountain on earth. In 1953 an expedition set off to conquer it. It took 400 people 2 months to get 2 people to the top for 15 minutes. 2 months is 1,440 hours.

In 1996 someone climbed it in 16 hours. In 2004 someone did it 8 hours. There’s all kinds of records related to it.

To me just getting to the top would be the accomplishment of a lifetime, but there’s no way I would ever try. It sounds miserable. But not everyone feels that way. They want to push the boundaries between what’s been done and what’s possible.

People like that exist in every domain. Even video games.

Every game I’ve ever played the goal was to complete the game or defeat an opponent. Speedrunning isn’t like that. It’s an attempt to beat a game as quickly as possible. Unlike traditional sports strength doesn’t matter. It’s a competition of the mind. 

This episode was produced by Alex Cardinale. She’s a journalist with a passion for gaming and  she’s gonna take it from here.


If you just replace mountain climbers with gamers you find the exact same kind of people. They are known as speedrunners: they’re the ones who are all about being fastest. And I mean, insanely fast. Doing things that take most people 30 hours in 7 minutes. But what makes speedrunning interesting is that the goal isn’t just about speed. It’s about love. It’s about obsession… over all the ins and outs of a game, down to the very programming.

My name is Alex Cardinale and this is Prodigy

Alex: In the world of gaming, there is this interesting niche called speedrunning. In its purest form, speedrunning is finishing a video game as fast as you can. 

Zimmerman: So if you take a classic game like Mario [00:02:00] Super Mario, 

Alex: This is the voice of Eric Zimmerman, he’s a professor of game design at NYU.

Zimmerman: these are 2d platforming games where you see the player from the side, Mario is, Jumping over obstacles, avoiding things. That’s going to end your life and set you back at the beginning of the level and all the time, trying to make your way. [00:02:15] Forward to the right to reach the end of the level. Now a normal player is going to take their time, see an obstacle. Think about it. Maybe backtrack a little bit, try this, try that. But a speed runner is someone that is going to go blindingly. Fast and often play in what might be a confusing way.

Zimmerman: [00:02:34]speed runners might do things like use weird behavior that happens when you jump off just at the very edge of an obstacle. They’re going to know where every kind of hidden wall that they might bounce off of is going to help them, propel them through the level.

Alex: So the goal is not to play the game in the traditional sense that you or I play. The goal is to get to the end by whatever means possible.

Zimmerman: And this is actually, what’s so interesting about speed running is that players have to get creative. So if you really want to get through quake, which is a game where you have a big laser blaster, and you’re trying to make your way through lots of demonic monsters coming at you, you’re not going to stand and battle them and have fun with the combat as it was designed.

[00:03:27] Instead, you’re going to sidestep whole battles. You’re going to find glitches in the 3d architecture, where you might be able to slip into a room or out of a back room. You’re going to do anything you can. Just to get to the end of the level as quickly as possible.

Alex: Some people might consider this cheating, others call it a shortcut, or a glitch. 

Zimmerman: Speed running is about a certain kind of creative play. And I think what’s fascinating to me about speed running is that play already is about playing with structures. And if we think about the way we use the word play in English, we use play to mean like when gears have a little bit of wiggle room, We call that play in the gears or when there’s a steering wheel in a car, and you can wiggle the steering wheel back and forth. We call that the play in the steering wheel. what that’s, what, why I find that interesting is because what may talk about play that way as being a little bit of free movement within a more rigid structure?

[00:08:53] What that means is that. We only can play with things that are already there. We know that a child plays with the way that they walk a kid walks playfully when they walk backwards or they spin around or they try not to step on a crack as they’re walking or they just skip, as they walk, that’s walking playfully because it is still walking. It’s still getting you from point a to point B the kind of functional utilitarian structure of transportation. But within that structure, Within that system, they’re finding the wiggle room they’re playing. Oh, I don’t have to just walk. I can spin around as I walk. I can avoid cracks. I can walk sideways.

Alex: So all this examination of play- something so simple, so natural to us as humans- got me curious. How does a player, an expert player, approach playing? With a little bit of digging I found Danny. At the time of this recording, He’s the world record holder for speedrunning The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, which is an extremely popular game released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64.  Watching him play, I saw some of the weirdest behavior I’ve ever seen, like, instead of running forwards… he was playing the game running backwards. 

Danny:[00:33:18] Just so happens that in Ocarina of Time moving backwards is a little bit faster than moving forwards, but there’s actually some nuance to that if you’re willing to hear it. 

Danny: The whole thing is just a very tightly choreographed dance. every single thing about the way the character moves.Yeah. so you run backwards a little bit faster than you run forwards, right? and you don’t want to just run forwards when you are going forward. You want to roll, you want to make link roll. Cause he’s a little bit faster when he rolls. So walking backwards is only a little bit faster than rolling. But there’s some overhead involved because you have to spend time to turn around and then press the Z target button and then start to move backwards. So over very short distances, if you’re already facing forwards, you should just keep going forwards. If you’re going to have to go for awhile, you probably want to spend the time to turn around and then start back walking and we just know because we’ve done the math on it, that distance is about five of links rolls worth. If it’s going to be longer than that, then the time spent turning around is going to be worth it. And you’re going to be faster. 

Zimmerman: [00:10:16] To me, what’s so fascinating, is that a speedrunner plays with a video game The way a skateboarder plays with a skateboard, right? A skateboarder takes a skateboard and they play with the city they’re in the city and they use the structures of the city rather than using a stair or a, maybe a Bannister.

Normally they’re going to say, Hey, this is an opportunity for me to. To do something unusual with my skateboard and play with and against these structures in a creative way. And speedrunners do that. But with video games, they’re taking their speed running attitude in a sense into the environment of video games and say, how can we play these games differently?

[00:11:45]and I think. So interesting is that like something like skateboarding, it goes really deep so that there really are people that devote a huge amount of time to understanding how these video games are put together and how you can play them in ways that, open up new creative possibilities for speed running.

Alex: Now, you might be wondering 2 things, first, why on earth do people do this, and second, how on earth did people start to do this. How did it become something that has an impact on all of gaming culture if it seems so niche and contained in its own little world?

Zimmerman: In the 1990s, when speed running was first starting, we have to imagine that the internet, the world wide web was in a much more. less developed state than it was today. So it definitely existed, but we didn’t have the kind of broadband connections there weren’t sites like YouTube, where you could easily upload videos and browse through them and see content that way online. [00:04:32] So people would speed run and they would have to record their session. 

Sometimes it was done by just recording the video image on a television screen or their computer monitor, and then upload these large video files online and share them with each other. So what’s interesting though, about speed running is that it’s one of the very first instances where video games really became spectator culture.

We know that lots of games do make great spectator culture. look at professional sports, right? So there are long traditions in game culture of people wanting to watch the games. But until that point video games were mostly for players and not for people watching. It’s true that you could go to a video arcade in the eighties or nineties and look over someone’s shoulder as they were playing, or while you’re waiting next up on your street fighter game.

But yeah. Up until that point. Not a lot of people had been, really playing computer video games as a spectator sport. So speed running in many ways, anticipated today’s culture of streaming, and just sharing kind of exploits and creativity, and fan culture online.

Your, if your, listeners are not part of. Video game culture. They may not realize that there is a huge culture of people watching games online, which is so surprising because we think about games as something that’s interactive. In fact, we could define video games as an interactive media.

Alex: If you’re not into video games, this may be a bit of a foreign concept to you. Why would someone get pleasure from watching someone else play a video game? Doesn’t the enjoyment come from playing the game yourself? I think the best explanation of this exists in traditional sports. Is watching a basketball or football game on TV all that different? You watch because you love the game and enjoy watching the very best in the world play it.

So there’s a sense in which watching videos can help you with your play, but it’s also just a way of experiencing the game and being part of the culture without having to invest the time. I asked Danny to explain why he loves speedrunning.

Danny: I don’t really, I can’t really explain why, but I’ve always been drawn to optimizing things for time. when I was younger, I was super into mine sweeper, which is, the game that’s on windows and you just have to get all the mines as fast as possible. 

Danny: In Ocarina of time, for example, it’s a very long game. Most people who play casually take. 20 hours, 30 hours. I actually have the record for the fastest completion ever in that game. And it’s seven minutes and 13 seconds. [00:12:51] Obviously there’s some crazy stuff going on.

Alex: It takes the average person about three 8 hour days to beat the game… He beat it in 7 minutes? I’ve played that game, and you can’t even get out of your village in 7 minutes. Much less beat the entire game.

Alex: Now, it’s probably pretty reasonable for the average person, hey, even the average gamer to ask “Good lord, why? What’s the appeal? What could possibly be the point of not just trying to play fast, but practice playing fast? As if that is a goal in and of itself for a game that isn’t about speed in the first place?” Well, it turns out that speed isn’t the only motivating factor for speedrunners. Speed was actually just a way to love something even more than you already did. Particularly for the players who played games over and over and over again, speedrunning became a way in which you learned every little detail of the game, down to the very glitches that developers overlooked.

Danny: Like when you think of playing Zelda, for example, you don’t think of playing the game as fast as possible. [00:02:20] You think of enjoying the experience, the casually and learning about the plot and the characters. but I’ve also always been a huge Zelda fan. and so right around the time that Twitch started to get popular in live streaming started to get popular online. I started to find these people who were playing Zelda as fast as possible, and this was like a completely new concept to me. [00:02:38] I was like, Oh, you can play games that weren’t meant for speed, like Mario Cart, Minesweeper, and just completely add this new layer on top of it that doesn’t exist casually. and it just like completely transformed because it merged two things. 

Alex: So speedrunning changed the way players asked questions. Now, they didn’t just ask how they could beat a game. They were asking how they could beat it better. 

Danny: [00:00:38] So speed running is the act of completing a game as fast as possible. and even that has a little bit of depth to it, what does it mean to complete a game? So you start, obviously at the very beginning, you start with a fresh save file without any progress on it. and you get to the end of the game, which generally means defeating some sort of final boss or resolving the game’s plot. but really there’s lots of different kinds of speed runs with different end goals. And sometimes it can be, just make it to the credits of the game. Some games have glitches that can warp you directly into the credits. 

Sometimes the goal is to defeat the final boss. Sometimes the goal is to complete just some completely meme arbitrary goal in the game. talk to all of these characters or Hold a chicken over your head while it’s on fire, which is a real thing that is a goal in ocarina of time, people can race anything.

Alex: And of course, as with anything that is a race, you have to have competitors. Very, competitive, competitors. Because that’s what ups the stakes of speedrunning to evolve into a full blown spectator sport, not just one person simply obsessing alone in their room. Racers submit times that are reviewed by moderating committees of gamers for their validity, and these submissions make up entire marathons of their own. One of the biggest charity marathons, Games Done Quick, has raised 28 million dollars by having one week competitions where gamers stream over 200 full length games to over 200,000 people. That makes it a niche sport with a very dedicated fanbase. And those fans obsess over their athletes. In fact, these marathoners, these top notch competitors, behave like any athlete you see in any sport. They practice intensely, have a hyper involved community, and find the difficulty of what they do half of the appeal.  

Danny: if you’re relying on reaction time for speed running, things have probably already gone wrong. Because the goal of speed running is to know everything that’s about to happen to you before it happens and to plan out the strategy and the route that you’re taking through the game to the smallest minutia and so when you attempt to full speed run, What you’re really doing is just going through something that you’ve meticulously rehearsed hundreds or thousands of times before and hoping that it goes right. And the only time you really want to rely on reaction time is if you’ve made a mistake and then you have to use your knowledge of the game and your reaction time to get things back on track as quick as possible.

Alex: What’s crazy is that speedrunners have this collection of skills, but it’s not like there was an easy way to learn it. You can’t get a speedrunning tutor like you’d get a chess tutor. Everything is self taught. Which, for the record, is even more impressive when you realize that not all games stay the same every time you play. 

This is the thing I’ve come to respect most about these players: speedrunners have no set way to learn their craft. It’s not like the average person can hire a tutor in the way you might with chess– if only because oftentimes, the rules don’t stay the same game to game, the board changes. Depending on what you play, the game might be randomized. So no two levels are ever the same, like in the Binding of Issac. That’s like trying to run a race, and you have no idea where the finish line got drawn. So half of the challenge is being fast enough to run around in circles until you find it, and half of it is just hoping you get lucky enough to find it quick

Danny: if it’s something like Zelda, for example, the game doesn’t change, between attempts, it’s always the same. You already know the layouts of all the Dungeons, where all the rooms are, where all the keys are, the best ways to defeat all the enemies[00:06:37]and so these are things that you just plan for some games like Minecraft, for example, which it does change all the time. it just, or maybe by binding of Isaac, if you say that’s how the game works. it just relies on all the different, all the knowledge that you’ve built up over the years. How exactly to move the character. A lot of the game comes down to just optimizing your movement through these rooms, exactly how to handle enemies as quickly as possible. and maybe you’ll even come to notice patterns, things that the developers intended to be completely random, like maybe the layout of the area. You start to develop pattern recognition and you might know what’s coming next, even if you’re not supposed to.

Alex: Now that is an interesting way to phrase things. “Even if you’re not supposed to.” As it happens, speedrunning is a lot about doing things you’re not supposed to. In fact, doing something traditionally, doing it the way it’s supposed to be done, has its own sister term in psychology. Functional fixity. Here’s how Professor Zimmerman describes it.

Zimmerman: [00:13:41] So game designers create problems for people to solve. That’s one way of looking at what games are and what game design is. So we like to think about how people solve problems. And one thing that I know from looking at creativity is that, people often suffer from, [00:14:00] functional fixity, which means that they are going to, use things in a, let’s say a more traditional way.

So you’re walking from point a to point B and you’re just going to go one foot in front of another and focus on the kind of utilitarian functional aspect of that. What’s interesting is that, animal behavior scientists have studied that. Creativity in primates. And they often use functional fixity to say okay, we’ve taught the monkeys that this board is used as a bridge it’s used for crossing over this little river, but can the monkeys figure out that they can also use the board as a tool to lift it off the ground and then reach a banana that’s up in a tree.

That’s overcoming functional fixity. The idea that the board was fixed as a bridge, but we’re going to overcome that and use it to get some food. So what I think is interesting is that speed runners. in a sense or overcoming a sort of functional fixity with video games, right? Which is that a designer is saying, here’s how you should play.

I want you to pay careful attention to your weapons and ammo and armor. And I want you to think about each situation as you come into it. And speedrunners are saying, I’m going to find a different way to play your video game. I’m going to discard. a normal approach. And instead, I’m going to focus just on speed and I’m getting from point a to point B. and w what’s interesting is that it’s not completely leaving behind the normal way to play the video game, but it’s just focusing in a very, over specialized way, on a particular way of engaging with a video game.

Alex: That kind of specialization is something sports psychology trainer Weldon Green is an expert at. He opened up my eyes to exactly how the kind of focus we see in speedrunners is remarkably similar to any other kind of athlete. 

Weldon: I like to equate speed running any sport to, summiting mountains. So it’s player versus environment as opposed to person versus person. And we do this a lot in sport in humans. We don’t compete a lot at the Olympics in terms of player versus environment, but we do it.

[00:15:35] We celebrate it a lot. We jump out of really high, bubbles from the stratosphere and, Parachute to the ground. We climb mountains. we do really crazy things like trying to, deep dive and hold your breath for as long as we can, and see how deep we can go. So these kinds of things are similar to speed running and that there is a, there’s a mountain to climb and people are trying to do it better and faster than somebody else.

[00:06:13] Weldon: So from the sports psychology perspective. There’s not a lot of difference between a physical Eastport and somebody learning how to kick a soccer ball. If you go and you kick a soccer ball, essentially, you’re running up to the ball and you’re you have this visual stimuli and you’re trying to like, Control the coordinated muscles in your leg to create a trajectory that’s going to hit the ball in a specific way and cause an action when you’re performing an e-sport skill, a reaction, speed skill, and one of these games, you have this visual stimuli, you see a pattern similar to football, where you see a pattern, you see a ball moving at a certain rate and your mind is able to predict when it’s going to be where, Hey, you see it, you see the same thing on the screen, and then you’re moving in coordination. It’s a gross motor movement. So you’re using your shoulders to coordinate your arms on your right hand, usually your mouse, hand, and your fingers on your left hand to do an action at a very specific time. That’s going to cause this result and it’s controlled to the motor cortex, which is why you see the same kind of training used in soccer players and in e-sport players where essentially you’re doing these repetitive drills over and over again, which is really the only way to train the motor cortex. You don’t do the same thing in chest and chest. There’s a lot of study, chess is a game. And then there’s these video games like league of legends, which are sports in that they involve the motor cortex in this sport, like way in the brain.

From my perspective. If I’m looking at a brain scan, I’m not seeing a lot of difference between these two movements and therefore there’s not a lot of difference in how it is that people want to train them. Now there’s an entire aspect of football, soccer, that involves like being fit enough to actually run down the field and be in the place where the ball is going to be.

[00:07:49] And that is what is missing in e-sport. and that’s why people see it. And they’re like, Oh, that’s not a sport because it doesn’t have this fitness aspect, but there are plenty of sports like archery and shooting in the Olympics that just involve this coordination. And if you were to compare, for example, archery or shooting, it’s about the same level of physical coordination required for trap shooting.

Alex: But what portion of these skills is actually something someone can train for, versus something they’re born with? Is it all just in your DNA? Or is there something true to the concept of “Rage To Master?”; The concept where people are attracted to something and learn everything about it as quickly as they can, with a focus and concentration unmatched by their peers. 

Weldon: [00:17:03]The first thing that I try to explain to people is that it’s important to understand the difference between actual motivation and what society defines as motivation. So you see a kid, for example, who is spending, who’s coming late to school, spending all his days, playing video games. who’s, failing his classes, running home right after school and you’d say, Oh, that kid’s not very motivated. which actually is not true at all. The kid is supremely motivated. He just, he’s not motivated by the thing that society determines that he should be motivated by. So in the brain, motivation is simply that pursuit, that desire, that impassioned emotion that is quite chemical, that drives you towards something and then in society, we talk about motivation in terms of, Oh, how many hours somebody logs on something and what they’re, what they look like they’re doing. So that’s why there are. Video gamers who play 12 hours. And there are other video gamers who play 12 hours. And some of those video gamers who play 12 hours are professionals and earn millions of dollars. Some of them are just amateurs and never get any better because while they’re doing the same action internally, some of them are motivated, more. To a certain perfectionism and they’re able to overcome their own mistakes and their own fears and their own facing of their ability to accomplish something and to just desire to improve it, as opposed to people who would spend a lot of time avoiding that seeking pleasure, seeking entertainment in the, You would say like the escapism of video games and people do this in sport too.

Just the escapism of the activity, which is what they’re doing it for in the first place, which is not a problem. It’s just, the motivation is different when your motivation is for mastery versus for entertainment or escapism, then you’re willing to undergo a lot more. effort in your brain and effort in your preparation to become better at what you’re doing and what I see in supremely motivated e-sport players and supremely motivated, speedrunners, and also athletes is that they’re constantly analyzing their game, seeing that they’re insufficient facing that insufficiency and then not being okay with it and finding ways to improve at all costs.

So there’s people that are always wondering what parts portion is hard work and what portion is talent in sport. and it’s always. A little bit of a convoluted discussion because in a lot of sports that humans, advent we’re mixing things that are naturally selected in us.

[00:12:20] And then mixing things that we’ve invented. So I don’t think that, for example, we were probably killed by tigers for having inferior football skills, versus, the, so there’s movements that we were bred to do, which you could say some people end up on the higher end of the genetic scale for running  and then there’s things that we were not bred to do such as swimming. maybe way back and the evolutionary pool, but, things that we were not ready to do, for example, curling, that you could say that there was no jungle in which we were naturally selected to be better or worse curlers.

And so the talents that go into that, the genetic talents that go into curling can have far less impact on the results of the sport. and give hard work much more of a leg up in that respect and in e-sport those things were probably abstracting it to the most extreme that we can with humans. We’re taking almost all fitness and movement and like cardiac health and stuff like out of the equation completely. but one simple way to look at talent versus hard work is that there is. It a lot of times a genetic cutoff. You can’t say that the person who is most intelligent is the one who’s most likely to be successful, or the person who is the most tall, but rather that there is a certain set of presuppositions that you need to have to come to the table, in your gene code.

[00:13:35] And, but those are very common. Actually. There is this there’s this great New York times article about. The Olympic gene, and it’s saying, Oh look, so many people like, a majority of people at the Rio Olympics have this particular LL in their gene code. Like they’re one of the people, what they fail to say is that there’s only three real options at that particular location.

So a third of humanity has that same, that same opportunity. At that particular address in their genes. And so while it’s trying to Harold this idea of Oh, look, there’s a larger density of these people who have this particular oil there in their gene code there. So then this, if they have this snip, then that predicts them for better sport performance,  what about the like 2.5 billion people who aren’t at the Olympics who also have that right thing or the half of the people who are at the Olympics? who don’t have that? So it’s. There’s a lot of miscommunication around the credence of you must have this particular, genome in order to compete and have talent, but it is fair to say that in basketball, if you aren’t a certain height, like at a certain cutoff, you’re just not going to have the opportunity to then play at the top level or in chess.

So I always say that, when I’m trying to build a roster, for example, that I look for people with drive because it has to come pre-installed, I don’t know where drive comes from. I don’t think that sports psychology research over the last 60 years or 70 years now, since it’s been around, basically in this form since the cold war.

[00:19:49]when Russia and the U S were trying to invest a lot into sports psychology in order to understand who is going to be an Olympian, we haven’t come any closer to being able to predict or. Explain who it is that has that drive. When they’re a child, we’re able to say that those with that drive are going to succeed at a higher rate than people, without it, even at a higher rate than people with the right physical capabilities, that drive is a differentiating factor to success in the longterm.

[00:20:15]but where does that drive come from? And who’s going to be driven? I don’t think that is a research question that has been answered or at least not in my field. to any great extent, people only have guesses.

Zimmerman: [00:22:05] In our society today. when we think about something being a virtuosic activity or someone being a prodigy. It’s not necessarily just about that person, but it’s about their social being. And it’s about how the activity that they are excelling in is part of culture and part of a community. In that regard.

Alex: Being a brilliant speedrunner, or in fact, brilliant at anything, virtuosic even, doesn’t operate in a bubble. By definition, it kind of can’t. It is a type of hybrid of psychology and performance that has to be compared to something, contribute to something. A sport. A culture. It can even contribute to the way we think about things entirely outside the sport itself. 

Zimmerman: [00:22:28] I think that speed running is fascinating. Not just because there’s a few odd balls works, practicing it in weird corners of the internet, but that there are these huge cultures that have sprung up what that are very dedicated around particular games. So the sense of being virtuosic is also being virtuosic for an audience in a community, with, and against your peers.

Now I’m biased. I’m a game designer, but one of the things that fascinates me about games is that I think that games have a special and interesting relevance to the times in which we live right now, that since the rise of digital technologies and networks of information, Our sense of what it means to be literate has changed and by literate and literacy, I just mean how people create and understand meaning.

[00:16:51]What I mean is that today, so many aspects of our lives are completely intertwined with complex systems of information the way that we work and communicate the way that we go to school and study and learn and research the way that we conduct our finances and connect with governments as citizens, the way that we, socialize and flirt and romance, all of these fairly important aspects of our lives are, happened through email and social media and texting and telephones and managing our various accounts and identities in. Digital media. And so what I’m trying to say is that creating an understanding, meaning is no longer just about reading and writing today.

And it’s, it even goes beyond visual literacy and technological literacy. It’s really about understanding how the parts fit together to form a whole, how we. Can understand how systems work and also how we can maybe be critical [00:18:00] of those systems or even redesign or reconceptualize those systems. So when we talk about huge problems in society, economic, inequity, and poverty, or we’re talking about, racial injustices and how we can start to shift.

Culture and society to a better place. We’re talking about systems that have been around a long time and systems in which we’re all playing a role in one way or another. So what’s fascinating to me, is that games in a sense. Potentially are a place for practicing these forms of literacy, because when you’re just playing a chess game, you are looking at a little laboratory for understanding how the parts fit together.

How, if I move this piece here, how does it affect all the other pieces on the board? even if it’s not visible, I have to understand those hidden connections. And again, to bring this back to speed running. speed running is a way of playing with those systems, right? It’s a kind of expert or  or specially creative play with these systems.

People are engaging with the games at the level of deconstructing, how the system works and trying to, figure out new ways of creatively overcoming obstacles, getting around hazards and getting to that end in time.

Alex: But, as new people discover tactics and glitches that, literally overnight, can shave entire minutes off of your run, that actually poses kind of an anxiety-inducing challenge for these players. It leads to a kind of love-hate relationship with this thing they’re putting so many hours into– particularly because, as a digital sport, there is this kind of social media clickiness to it. Any time your race time on a leaderboard is challenged, you get a notification telling you you’re starting to lose, that the thing you worked so hard for is about to be taken away. That constant monitoring only contributes more and more to this low level, constant anxiety that many speedrunners feel forces them to over-obsess over a game they love, ultimately destroying their ability to enjoy it at all. 

Danny: [00:26:24] Speed running is inherently a perfectionist sort of thing, right? You want to be as fast as possible. You want to play the game as optimally as possible.

 You want to make zero mistakes. And what ends up happening is, you keep a lot of statistics about yourself as you play, right? So when you run a mile, what you do is you keep your splits. How fast did I run each of the 400 meters? And you might say, okay, over the course of all the miles I’ve run the best.

Middle 400 meters that I ran was this fast. And you can maybe stitch together all of those times over the course of all of your runs and come up with what would be your perfect mile, right? The sum of all of your best splits put together. that’s a really common statistic that we track in speed running, you divide the run into segments.

You divide the run, the splits, you keep track of the best time you’ve ever put up for one of those splits and it altogether, that’s your perfect run. If you were to play you’re 100% best on any given day, that’s what you would get. and so that’s what you’re always shooting for and nobody can ever match it, right?

Because people do speed runs thousands of times, you might get a best split a couple times a day. And so you’re never going to match all of them in a row. And so basically what that means is every single speed run has mistakes. There’s no speed run in the whole planet, except for the simplest of games.

That is perfect. And because speed running is inherently a perfectionist sport. That means that you just get sucked into the trap of just doing it forever. You’re just there. You’re never going to be perfect. Yeah. And of course you always going to be improving. So I got, I am better now than I was a month ago, but my PB hasn’t improved yet.

VO: PB stands for personal best.

Because I’ve just been getting better at individual sections and I haven’t stitched together a whole run yet. That happened to be good overall. And then by the time that I do, by the time I get that run, my skill level has gone up so much, but maybe my PB doesn’t match my new skill level and it’s what I wanted a month ago.

One of the, one of the strongest tools in a speedrunners toolbox is apathy. You want to care as little as possible about any individual attempt as you can, right?

Because you’re doing this hundreds of times and you’re only going to PB very rarely. If you’re only going to beat your best, extremely uncommonly. And so you want to minimize how crushing it feels when it messes up, because it messes up all the time. It’s as if you were playing baseball and your batting average was a 0.02, right?

Like people go for batting 300, they’ve succeeded a third of the time. And that’s really good and baseball, most other sports aren’t like that. You want us to see most of the time in speed running used to seed. 0.5% of the time. And that’s, it’s hard to deal with . It requires a lot of practice to accept a fee because defeat is the most common outcome and when you’ve been doing it for a long time, you get really good at that. Like most of the time when I make mistakes nowadays, I just laugh it off. Oh, that was silly. I’ll try again now. And that’s it, because it’s just another run. I’ve done thousands of them. And, it’s not that big a deal.

When I was new, I used to get angry more often and it’s just, you learn how to deal with it. And, it’s tough. 

Alex: And yet… speedrunners like Danny seem to take these challenges in stride, using them to inspire motivation to refine their craft and their capabilities, all in search of that wonderful high of winning. 

Danny: [00:07:45] I’ve probably put my 10,000 hours into ocarina of time and I’m continuing to improve at it. A game that is completely static as far as its content, I just somehow keep getting better. and I really think that just comes down to. Learning exactly how the game operates. Like every few weeks I’ll discover some tiny new detail about how linked behaves in a new situation. And I might know that, Oh, I can exploit this to save a 10th of a second here or there. And over the course of the years and months, and it just builds up and you can save seconds or minutes. 

VO- The pressure is real when you’ve done something 10,000 times for 10,000 hours. I asked Danny to put me in his shoes, and show me how he feels in those moments of intensity.

[00:29:20] I’m going to give you a specific example of a run that I finished about three years ago. It was, I was not at the top of the game yet, but it was one of the best records I had ever put up. It was a world record in the glitch lists category of occurring at a time. And I was so nervous going into the final 10 minutes because there’s some hard stuff at the end. And I was quite literally hyperventilating. Like I was breathing so hard because it’s a four hour long category. How often do you get a shot at the final 10 minutes?

Not very often. You do these things hundreds of times to get it right. And I had been grinding the category for months and here it was the final 10 minutes. It’s about to happen. As long as I don’t mess up. I was more nervous than I’d probably ever been for anything. And. I was like, my body was like starting to go numb because I was breathing so hard.

And at the end, when I dealt the final blow again, and it was a new record and it was not only was it a new record, but I was incredibly happy with the run because it was about, as good as I could have expected. I couldn’t even speak. There’s a VOD of me on Twitch, like stumbling over my words because I was just breathing so hard.

[00:30:25] I was so happy. it’s a hobby that really gets into your head. And after a while it becomes like, it’s just the one thing you want to do when you get home from work is just, I got to try it one more time. Cause I’m so close and I know I can do it. And even if there’s not a whole lot of glory in it, it just feels so good to know that your hard work paid off because it, it really is hard work speed running requires a lot of practice, a lot of focus.

And to know that if finally put you on top is just puts you over the moon

Alex: Speedrunning is an underrated microcosm, a case study in human nature- showing how we are hardwired to think about the rules of play in a world we make for one another, and then, just for fun, show how we’re hardwired to love to break them.

Thank you to all the speedrunners who helped make this episode possible, Danny B, Chaos Drifter, and BeefChief- you can find links to their channels in the show notes to learn more about their lives as speedrunners. And of course thank you to Weldon Green and Professor Eric Zimmerman. 

Prodigy was created and produced by Lowell Brillante. The executive producer is Tyler Klang. 

Show notes:

Alex Cardinale


Weldon Green


Eric Zimmerman






Chaos Drifter