Aug 30 2013 - 1:30 pm

The fast, furious, and heartbreaking world of video game speedruns

On Monday night, a grown man cried tears of happiness after finishing a game of Sonic
Patrick Howell O'Neill
Dot Esports

On Monday night, a grown man cried tears of happiness after finishing a game of Sonic.

A 23-year-old Greek who goes by Frokenok had just beaten the speedrun world record for Sonic Generations, a 20th anniversary edition of the legendary Sega franchise. Like a time-trial in Nascar, a speedrun is a race—a solo run through a video game, where contestants chase the best times of their competitors.

Clocking in at 58:41, the Greek beat the previous record by 43 seconds. Frokenok’s own personal best had been 59:25, a single second behind the old world record.

The run didn’t make headlines. Only 120 people witnessed it live while less than 500 have watched it on YouTube. But from the way Frokenok was acting, he could have just won Olympic gold.

“I am so happy,” he said to his viewers through sobs. “I love you all. Thanks for the support. I was searching for this for so long.”

Speedrunning is, of course, a race. The fastest time wins. But there’s much more to it than that.

It’s also a highly choreographed dance. You have to hit the right moves at exactly the right time again and again for hours on end without tiring, without missing a single beat—like Adam Kuczynski did when he set yet another world record earlier this week on Grand Theft Auto 3.

It’s a problem-solving competition. You have to be able to break the game, to find the shortcuts that the designers never meant to exist and that your competitors haven’t yet discovered. That's what Cosmo Wright did last week when he found a new “super slide” move and set a new world record in Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

It’s also a game of risk and reward, in which you are constantly faced with choices that could save you a single second or cost you 30, like when linkdeadx2 was able to hit every moving platform—each a potential death trap—in Super Mario World and set a world record by a single second last month.

In most competitive gaming, every match has a winner and a loser. In speedrunning, there is only one winner: the world record holder. For top racers, every non-record run is a loss. It's a sport where heartbreak is the norm.

Speedrunners make runs in classic games like Sonic, Zelda, and Mario every day. Some runners are genuine stars in the gaming world. Wright, the Ocarina of Time record holder and cofounder of Speed Runs Live, set a world record for Zelda: Wind Waker at 4 hours, 31 minutes, 3.94 seconds in front of 15,000 viewers on Tuesday night. The chat room went wild when Cosmo broke the record. It was unreadable for 10 minutes straight as roars of congratulations flew by.

Speedrunning competition has been around since the advent of video games. In 1998, Speed Demos Archive became a hub for hosting speedrun videos. In the last four years, the launch of Speed Runs Live’s slick community website and Twitch.TV’s powerful video-streaming service have led to a huge expansion of the audience and talent pool. There are more people racing today than ever before. What’s more, tens of thousands of people want to watch them race.

At a time when League of Legends games stream to 1.2 million people and events sell out the Staples Center in Los Angeles in an hour, speedrunning can seem as though it pales in comparison to its bigger eSports brothers. The audience numbers are much smaller and the pay is tiny or nonexistent. Still, runners spend hours upon hours training, learning and racing to the end of games to break records and reach for perfection, even if no one is around to see it.

The competition is big and growing fast, however. And it has enormous potential, because it spreads across almost every game ever made. There are virtually no limits to what can be run.

The site Speed Demos Archive hosts a biannual speedrunning marathon for charity that's popular by any standard. In July 2012, Summer Games Done Quick saw over 50,000 concurrent viewers and raised nearly a half million dollars for charity.

Apart from a select set of stars, many top players compete for hours in front of audiences of less than 50. They form tight-knit friendships as they spend hours watching each other play. It’s in small chat rooms like those on like Twitch.tv that the speedrunning community is growing and talent is found.

...

Paco’s New York City apartment is decorated with tangles of wires that allow him to stream his speedruns on Twitch. There are piles of law school textbooks worth a few thousand dollars and a collection of New York Mets paraphernalia lying around. 

Paco's just a nickname: He goes by Xpaco5 on Twitch.tv, but his birth certificate lists him as Jesse Rhine. He's currently the third best runner of Super Mario World, the iconic 1990 Super Nintendo platformer, with a personal record of 1:25:21. I recently visited his home to watch him attempt to break a world record. I ended up watching him play for six hours straight.

Paco started his runs when I arrived at noon. Two hours in, he’d restarted the game a dozen times. There were great runs in there, including “the best starting 12 minutes of my life”, but a single mistake can ruin many runs. The challenge is to string together near-perfect play in each of the game’s stages into a single masterpiece of a run.

In a game that spans well over an hour, the focus is on seconds gained and seconds lost. They add up quickly. To the untrained eye, a player losing his cool—cursing himself and the game—over an error that costs maybe a half second is difficult to understand. 

“Saving half seconds on 96 total exits adds up to a lot of time,” he told me. Specifically, it’s a 48-second difference when Paco is a mere 40 seconds off the world record. Suddenly, a half second seems a lot more important.

While a newbie can’t identify all the tricks of the trade, there are some moves everyone can appreciate. When Mario rides Yoshi and forces his way into the walls, when he flies in clouds above a sea of monsters and hits single pixel jump on a moving platform to continue his flight unharmed, or when he moves through a labyrinth dungeon like a shark through open water, it doesn’t take much expertise to get excited about the high level of play you’re watching.

The most important tool of all is the timer. The most popular is a program called WSplit, which makes it visually obvious when a good run is in progress by keep track of records and posting split differentials in bright green (good) or red (bad), alerting everyone to the state of the run in a clear and easy to understand way.

...

A day after the 96 exit runs, Xpaco5 played a recently invented category called “96 exit, dragon coins and moons,” in which a runner collects all of those items in addition to hitting each exit. The race, which lasts an extra 20 minutes, is young and the competition is relatively small, but Paco currently owns the world record at 1:37:19.

He ran for eight hours to improve his 18-second world record lead.

The big move came six hours into the session after many failed attempts. He built up a huge lead by castle 4 (there's a castle stage at the end of each world in Super Mario World) and was on pace to beat the world record by almost two minutes before it all fell apart.

Torpedo Teds and Bullet Bills, enemies that might have slightly annoyed you when you played as a kid, are the great nemeses of speedrunners. Generated at random, they can ruin an hours-long run thanks solely to bad luck. That's what happened to Paco, when he met the wrong end of a Bullet Bill in castle 5.

Eight hours after he sat down to start playing, Paco turned off his Super Nintendo for the night. He sighed.

“You have to report on my failings too?” 

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

Today - 9:02 pm

The Blood Moon hangs in the sky—and Blood Moon Jhin could be League’s next skin

In an eerie tweet, Riot hints at the next champion in the Blood Moon skin line.
Aaron Mickunas
League of Legends Writer
Images via Riot Games | Remix by William Copus

The latest skin in the League of Legends Blood Moon skin series, Blood Moon Jhin, could be in the works.

Earlier today Riot tweeted out a teaser, in which the crimson moon can be seen through an archway of sorts with Jhin’s gun suspended in the air, making it almost certain that he’s the next champion to receive a Blood Moon skin. The red haze covering the scene really adds to the creepy factor.

The Blood Moon skins have been pretty awesome—even the early iterations of the series like Akali’s Blood Moon skin. The Blood Moon skins are all colored red in some way, and feature demon masks based on “The Red Demon”—a version of Japanese “oni” which is a spirit that brings strife, disease, disasters, and deceit. In addition to Akali, there have been five more skins in the series: Thresh, Yasuo, Kennen, Kalista, and Shen. Jhin’s will hopefully be no exception to that pattern of awesomeness.

If the skin turned out to be a dud the community wouldn’t take it too kindly. Why? Well, two reasons. First of all, the community has been asking for another Jhin skin since his launch in January last year. He has only had the skin he was launched with, High Noon Jhin, since he actually came out. It is a pretty cool skin, but fans want more. If they finally see Jhin get his new skin and it sucks? Well, I’m sure you can imagine how that would go down.

With ADC mains sending death threats to Riot staff over not enjoying ADC gameplay, imagine what they’d do if their favorite champion received a bad skin. And that brings us to the second point. Jhin is one of the favorite ADCs in the game right now.

Jhin sports almost an 18 percent rate of play, which means he is in nearly one-fifth of all ranked games. In the ADC role, there are only three other ADCs that compete with that play rate out of nearly 20 ADC champions: Vayne, Caitlyn, and Ezreal. I know you were expecting me to say “Ziggs,” but Ziggs isn’t played all that much in the bot lane (yet).

Fortunately, Riot’s skins have been very cool lately. Just look at the Worldbreaker skins, and even the new Lunar Revel set. With the track record of those awesome skins and the previous Blood Moon skins, we’re hoping Blood Moon Jhin will be as badass as it deserves to be.

Today - 1:25 am

Get your Red Envelopes ready—the Lunar Revel event in League starts today

Riot is kicking off the 2017 Lunar Revel with some slick new skins.
Aaron Mickunas
League of Legends Writer
Image via Riot Games

The Lunar New Year is a sacred, historic holiday that is celebrated by nations in the far east. It marks the beginning of the year based on the cycles of the moon. There’s dancing, festivals, parades, but much more importantly: A special League of Legends event. Why is that so important? Because you can get sweet new skins, of course!

The Lunar Revel Event is a yearly occurrence in League that features shiny new goodies to buy in-game. The event was announced and started today, so after you update the client, you’ll be able to take part in the festivities.

1) Free Icon

That’s right, for the small cost of going to the official Lunar Revel web page, you can claim a free Summoner Icon! The interactive home page acts as the hub for the Lunar Revel event, and you can click through the menu to see all the features. There’s even some lore tying each of this year’s Lunar Revel skins to their respective champions.

2) Champion Skins

There are three skins coming out for the Lunar Revel event this year: Garen, Azir, and Vi. Each has a matching Summoner Icon available in the store.

Garen’s sword and rad man-bun make this skin what it is: Awesome. When he spins to win, a green dragon swirls around him. When he ults, the giant sword that falls from the heavens... well, it’s green.

Azir seems to be more of a themed skin specific to this year, as it’s the Year of the Rooster—and Azir is as rooster-like as any League champion gets. His soldiers are also made to match his skin, sporting golden armor.

Vi’s theme is “the green demon” and when she ults, a big green dragon swirls up into the air and slams back into the ground as she does. This one’s our favorite, but mostly because it’s the only time we’re ever going to see Vi in a ponytail.

Not only are those three new skins available now, but past Lunar Revel skins and bundles are in the shop as well.

3) Crafting

A brand new Lunar Revel crafting system will also be in the client until the end of the event. It uses the same crafting page as usual, where you open chests with keys you earn from playing games and combine shards to form skins and champions. You can buy a Revel Red Envelope for 250 RP and visit the crafting page in your client to turn it into a skin shard and one random relic.

The relics come in three types: the Pauldron Relic, the Golden Relic, and the Gauntlet Relic. Once you have all three, you can combine them into Epic Skin Shards (1350 RP skins), random skin permanents, Gemstones, or Hextech Chests and Keys.

4) Merch

Finally, you can visit the Lunar Revel merch store to check out some IRL event goodies. Want a shirt featuring each Chinese Zodiac with League champions instead of the usual animals? Well it’s in the merch store, as well as a collectible figurine of Lunar Revel Azir.

The event is running from now until Feb. 2, so be sure to log into the game and check it out!