Speedrunning as an esport and why I wont support GSA
I don't get this craze about speedrunning as an esport lately. It seems like people just use "esports" as some sort of buzzword that translates to unconditional fame, money, prosperity and everything else you could possibly wish for speedrunning, without considering what it really means or implies. So far I didn't mind the circlerjerk of debating if speedrunning can be an esport or not as it was only hypothetical, but as we have been moving closer to it actually becoming a reality I'm starting to get worried. I'm posting this twitlonger now out of all times because the Global Speedrun Association (GSA) just announced a league system for next year, complete with prize money, match betting and a live event for the finals. This league will feature Celeste with at least 5000$ in prize money, which is what got me concerned as a top runner of that game. The GSA and the people representing them have been at the forefront of this push towards esports in the past 6 months or so. They hosted multiple tournaments with prize money this year and partnered with vie.gg, a videogame betting site. In short term these sort of tournaments or leagues push competition and activity, I'll concede that right now as the positive aspect of it all. I've seen times get lower and lower following a SpeedGaming tournament in a multitude of games, so while I don't find tournament or leagues in speedrunning too appealing myself I have always been glad to see these competitions pop up. What seperates past SpeedGaming tournaments from GSA is the monetization of it all, which is inspired by the big names in esports. I believe this development is incredibly short sighted and will run into fatal issues if we allow this to be representative of speedrunning.
Most importantly the approach of giving monetary incentives to head-to-head competition is in contrast to what makes speedrunning unique in the first place. Speedrunning unifies the asepects of individual self-improvement, community collaboration in finding strategies and methods to push the game to its limits, and the aspect of competing with other runners. Our leaderboards are perfectly representative of this, the videos of all the submitted runs document our collaborative knowlegde of techniques, PB progressions of all runners document their journey to get lower times and the boards themself reflect the competition. The aspect that is missing in esports is the collaboration. Hiding strategies is not only accepted in these games, but encouraged and celebrated. And for the record, I'm not criticising that at all. It's hype when Armada surpisingly picks Young Link, a underdeveloped low tier-character, as a counter to Puff to clutch the win versus Hungrybox. Or EDG baiting Faker to pick his unbeaten LeBlanc and then counterpicking the Morgana which ultimately won them the series. These are the stories that make esports what it is, they celebrate their players and performances whereas we celebrate our efforts as a community. All of this is very meta and hypothetical, I know, but it translates well to reality. Imagine a 100.000$ tournament of GameX, a day before the grand finals one of the runners finds a new strategy that saves 5 minutes. Even the most honest person in the world would hide that strategy until the race and take the free money, we are directly incentivizing behaviour that is so grossly offensive to what we stand for. And while 100.000$ is still a pipedream, this is where it's headed, right? "Make it bigger" is the motto and it's met with applause.
These tournaments and leagues are a viewer attraction of course. I suppose it's only logical, there has always been this massive disconnect between speedrunners and the people that watch it. The viewers are so focused on the competitive aspect, most notably the races for world record, whereas most speedrunners I talk to care way more about pushing themselves and the game to their limits. Speedrunners improve at their own pace and compete with others at their own discretion. This asynchronous nature of speedrunning is oddly unique in the world of competitive gaming, and I believe it's a common reason for runners to choose this hobby over fighting games for instance. I'm afraid that if these sort of tournaments or leagues become bigger the focus will more and more shift towards head-to-head competition. Essentially this ignores what is unique and interesting about speedrunning in an attempt to morph it into a half-baked copy of your favourite esport. It's half-baked because this head-to-head competition by doing consecutive races (regardless of if it's through elimination tournaments or round-robin leagues) just doesn't work very well for speedrunning. The reason that most games with direct competition use these formats is because it's the best suited way for their particular game to measure skill while also pleasing the viewers and investors. Here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGoIIV55hEc) is a video (and channel) I can highly recommend that goes in-depth on why fighting games use elimination tournaments for instance, it's slightly unrelated but beyond everything it should exemplify that a lot of thought went into choosing that format over any other. Similar to how a lot of thought went into choosing leaderboards as our way to measure skill, we don't need tournaments or leagues for that. Leaderboards are perfect for this hobby since they unify competition, individual improvement and community collaboration in one place - which is the reason why the always have been the standard for speedrunning. What makes tournaments and leagues unappealing compared to traditional esport games is that there is no form of interaction between the opponents in speedrunning. It doesn't matter who you face in a race, your strategy will always be the same whereas in direct competitions each opponent offers a unique challenge. I don't think we should completely get rid of all tournaments and leagues as a consequence, but I certainly believe that it is better for them to stay a niche thing where people compete for fun and bragging rights, rather than what represents speedrunning to the public as an esport with money as the incentive.
All of this seems as undesirable as it possibly gets to me already. However if turning speedrunning into an esports still seems appealing to people, we have to be aware of the risks that every esport faces. The ones I want to go into here are cheating, doping and match fixing. Before that, I of course have to acknowledge that all of these issues exist right now already in speedrunning. However once there is money on the line (match betting and prize pools) all of these will become way more apparent. So far the only reason to engage in these actions is for attention really, but the monetization model GSA is following now incentivizes and encourages these actions. My major fear here is because we speedrun from the comfort of our home rather than gathering at some locality all of these will be especially hard to circumvent or prevent, and even established esports struggle to enforce rules against these.
So let's start out with match fixing. For our intents and purposes match fixing can occur in two ways. Either both parties agree to fixing the result of the match, usually the winner pays the loser to do so. This is an unavoidable scenario in any head-to-head competition. The other scenario is related to betting, where you get a third party to bet against you and then intentionally lose the match and share revenue with that third party. Match fixing isn't hard either way, but it's even easier in speedrunning where you can just fail a trick that is known to be inconsistent and hard a few times and easily lose time without looking suspicious. It's definitely more challenging to look like you are trying when playing against another person. As this is the most related to betting I also want to mention that betting comes with a myriad of other issues, anyone familiar with CS:GO knows what I'm talking about. The community overall also seems to be resistant to this, here (https://old.reddit.com/r/speedrun/comments/a0i99a/gsa_should_not_partner_with_viegg/) is a good reddit thread that definitely speaks a lot to how bad of an idea this is, thanks for everyone being vocally against this on there.
Next up is doping, where I'm pretty sure I don't have to go into detail why exactly performance enhancing drugs are bad. Again, this is very very common in esports to the point where people just kind of accept it as part of the culture as any sort of anti-doping enforcement is nigh impossible, especially for smaller communities and games. If you want to get an idea just how normal this is, watch this (https://youtu.be/XFMY5RQxCpw?t=468) clip where CS:GO pro semphis in the most casual way explains that his whole team is on adderall and the interviewers reaction is as mundane as laughingly shrugging it off. Yeah, this is what happens if you pay people to compete. Now imagine to even attempt any sort of anti-doping enforcement in speedrunning, where people perform and compete in their own house. You can't. It's already hard in established esports, it's impossible in speedrunning. If we accept prize pools we accept doping, as far as I'm concerned that is simply the sad reality, but I would love to be proven wrong.
Before I get into cheating, we first have to clarify the function of our current proof system. Something that isn't very obvious to many casual observers of speedrunning is that video proof is not perfect. I imagine any proof system to be on a 2-dimensional graph where one axis is tamper proofness and the other axis being availability. The extremes would be having a trusted referee observe each run live (clearly not viable) for tamper proofness and word of mouth for availability. Video proof is found somewhere in the middle, being decently hard to fake without good knowledge about video editing and very available to most speedrunners. It also serves a secondary function on our leaderboards in that it documents collaborative effort, as touched upon earlier. We don't use it because it is perfect and can't be faked, we use it because it works well for speedrunning. What to get from this is is that it is easy to cheat convincing and undetectable proof. Here (https://youtu.be/JdvFSQFZfK8?t=874) is a clip (~2 minutes) of ApolloLegend creating a nigh undetectable splice, highly recommend checking this out to get what I'm talking about.
Cheating is very hard to accomplish in head-to-head competition, however in speedrunning it's incredibly easy. This is evidenced by all the splices that were found in the recent years alone, it's much more common of an issue than people think and it will only get worse when your cheating gets you real world money rather than just enlarging your e-penis. In fact if I was just slightly more of a coward you wouldn't even be reading this post right now, I wouldn't have made it and instead just cheated my way to 5.000$. Because if splicing videos isn't easy enough already, cheating in Celeste is beyond easy. And if that Apollo video taught you how to splice, then now I will teach you how to cheat in Celeste. I'm sure not all of you will be a fan of this. I'm doing this because for one anybody smart enough to cheat is also smart enough to figure this out themselves anyway, but also because people have to accept the sad reality that beyond anything else our proof system in speedrunning relies on trust.
Here is my tutorial on how to make 5.000$ in around a day, speedrunners hate him. Only prerequisite is being up high enough on the leaderboards so that people trust you, but no worries, you can just slowly cheat yourself up there using the same methods. All you have to do is play a normal run and record your inputs. You now take those inputs and treat them like a TAS. Use the TAS tools to round out your run, you want to touch on the major mistakes while leaving the majority of the run as it is. You do this until you have a time that you are happy with, should probably be within 5-20s of your personal best. Congratulations, you now have inputs of a top level run that is indistinguishable from human play (because it is human play) while causing no oddities in related video footage. You do this 11 times (you have to play 11 matches in the league) and just play those runs back on stream. I'm sure other games have similar tools to do this sort of stuff, but Celeste is where I'm knowledgeable so I'll stick to this. GSA's only anti-cheat system is giving you a code to put as your filename, so just put that in manually and then sync up the TAS after. And there are no better anti-cheat systems than that anyway, the only thing they could do is force you to do certain inputs between levels, at which point you just split up the TAS into individual levels that you sync up after you manually do their anti-cheat. If they start tampering with gameplay sections to prevent cheating then they are offending the integrity of the competition. So there is no sensible anti-cheat, at least not as far as I am aware, that could possibly prevent this method of cheating. I'm aware that the final of the league is at an on-site event, so you wont be able to use this during the final, but "you can easily cheat the entire league ... except for the final" is not a very convincing argument if your goal is to build this up as an esport.
People are so obsessed with if speedrunning is or isn't an esport. For all of the reasons listed here I think we should take a step back from that question and instead ask if we should even want it to become an esport. And as much as I criticized the supporters for using "esports" as a buzzword that equals everything good, I'm here using it as a buzzword that equals everything bad. I suppose in a way it's self-ironic. The reality is somewhere in the middle, I'm fully aware that this is not all bad and that there are some good ideas in what GSA and others are doing. However it is very easy to blindly mistake money and monetization as success and progress, we should consider where this can and will lead, and in the case of speedrunning I believe this is more dangerous than what it's worth. Make your own opinion and stand for what you think is right, we are a rather small community and every action counts. Needless to say I'm not taking part in the GSA league, even though I could probably make some easy money by doing what I would be doing anyway, but a lot of fellow runners and friends of mine are - some of the kindest and nicest people I know - and I don't respect or like them any less because of it. Just stand for what you think is right and make your actions count.
This is separate from the rest of the twitlonger.
There are two addendums I would like to make that didn't fit in the rest of the text.
(1) There is a minor point that because this esports culture can only support the most popular games we would lose a lot of variety because many would chase the money and only run the big games.
(2) SpeedGaming has also recently had some tournaments with prize money, and I wasn't a fan of that either. I didn't call them out as much here because for them it's a special event whereas for GSA it's the unique selling point. SpeedGaming has partnered up with GSA now, so I will not be supporting them any further either. Then again, the purpose of this was less to call out GSA and more to just get my thoughts on the esports thing out there, because I think it is an important topic that people with a bigger platform don't talk enough about.
Furthermore I wanted to close this out with something constructive after being the naysayer the entire time. I think the people at GSA want the best for speedrunning, they just do it in a way that I disagree with. So if you want to help the community at large out, here are some ways for us to grow in a better way:
(1) Speedrunning needs more in-depth content creators. Be it blogging, articles, podcasts, YouTube, whatever. I find a lot of the content that is out there is really shallow and poorly made. And especially now after the top guy on YouTube (except for MVP SummoningSalt maybe) was found out to be a raging anti-semite and white nationalist there is a void for content that needs to be filled here. It has definitely been getting better, but there are still ways to go.
(2) Our main hub right now is speedrun.com, which is primarily a leaderboard site. As a consequence, a bunch of the other features on that site are half-baked. I'm talking Guides and Resources, Forums and Marathons mostly. We could distribute these things across multiple websites and then flesh each out individually. Funnily enough Cheese and Simply (two of the top guys at GSA) were talking about some sort of site dedicated to guides on their latest podcast with ApolloLegend, I think that would be a good way to go forward. Something that bugs me personally a lot are all the smaller marathons that live in the shadow of GDQ, partly because I think GDQ is awful and I'd prefer them to not have a monopoly on that aspect of speedrunning. Right now though the best way to discover these marathons is on the speedrun.com forums, which function terribly for that sort of thing. I'd love if there was a website just made for people to list and manage marathons. That should drastically increase visibility. If we then up the production value and talent pool on those marathons there is some good content to be found here that is perfect for introducing people to speedrunning. Especially to all you bigger speedrunner streamers out there: give the smaller marathons some time of the day instead of only longing for GDQ.