Of all the millions of video game streams that run each year on Twitch—from individuals at home to professional eSports tournaments—there's nothing quite like the Games Done Quick marathons. Each year since 2010 (and twice a year since 2011), hundreds of speedrunners gather to play games as quickly as possible for seven days straight in a non-stop tag-team that only takes short breaks for set up and on-stream interviews.
In the process, hundreds of thousands of viewers donate millions of dollars for charity (over $4 million in 2017 alone), with their donation messages shared on stream.
While the production looks relatively simple from the viewer's side of the Twitch stream—a video of the gameplay screen, a smaller webcam view of the player, a donation counter, a timer, etc.—a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to keep the games running and the donations flowing smoothly for an entire week. To see what things were like from the other side, I headed down to Dulles, Virginia, earlier this week to see some of the work that goes into making the Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) marathon into the well-oiled machine that it is.
The work for a Games Done Quick marathon starts months before the Twitch stream, when organizers start accepting submissions from members of the speedrun community who want to be on the big stage. Well over 1,000 submissions (which would run for over 2,000 hours altogether) have to get narrowed down to about 200 runs that will make up the week of streams.
"It's easier for shorter games to get in; we were pretty up front about that," says Matt "CoolMattie" Merkle, AGDQ's Director of Operations and Event Manager. "RPGs are obviously really long… a game like Final Fantasy X isn't going to make it into the event without something crazy happening, like a 'skip cutscene' button being discovered."
Merkle says the organizers struggle to create a mix of games that includes the classics speedrun fans expect while also introducing games that haven't been seen at the marathon before. This year's AGDQ schedule stood out for not including the now-traditionalSuper Metroid race or other popular titles like Super Mario 64.
"We don't want anything to feel like it's safe," Merkle said. "It shouldn't be that any game is considered a lock for every event… We want to make sure that the run is really entertaining, so in the end, it doesn't matter how popular it is: if you think the run isn't going to work or it's too stale, you have to move on."
With the schedule approved, over 1,800 runners and other attendees descend on the Dulles Airport Holiday Inn for AGDQ week, functionally taking over the location. In addition to the main ballroom, where the stream emanates, there are massive practice rooms (both public and private), a makeshift arcade, a tournament room for impromptu competitions, and a "casual" console room with loads of classic consoles for those just hanging out. A fleet of food trucks swings in front of the lobby around lunchtime to help feed the hordes.
Hundreds of those attendees will volunteer to help with setup and production. Besides the runners themselves (and often additional commentators sitting by on the couch behind the player), AGDQ needs to fill the following positions at all hours of the day:
- A stream tech to run the broadcast software.
- Stage techs to physically connect consoles and get runners set up.
- An audio engineer to run the mixer.
- A producer to call the shots and make sure everyone is in communication.
- A host to read donations and introduce runners.
- Donation trackers who monitor the incoming donations and pick ones to be read on stream.
- An interview crew with its own production staff to fill time between runs.
For the most part, Merkle says, there are people awake at all hours to take the four-to-eight hour shifts at each post. "The hardest time to shift people for is Friday evening," AGDQ Tech Coordinator Aharon Turpie said. "That's the night everyone wants to go and party."
But making sure people are at the right place at the right time can be a major undertaking. Oversleeping "has been a problem at previous events," Merkle admits, especially when runners don't show up for their call times. "[The panic level] slowly escalates as we get closer to the run. It starts off with a 'Hey' text to the guy or girl. Then you text the roommates, then text the friends we know about, then get on discord [an online chat room service]. Then we get to 'OK, what room are they in?' and start to knock on doors."
Planning out sleep schedules is up to the volunteers themselves, and that can be an issue for those not used to the marathon environment. "You have the seniors, the people who have been at these events before, and the newbies," Merkle said. "The newbies will try to stay up as long as they physically can. By the third day they crash and sleep for 48 hours. The seniors, they plan ahead of time what they want to see and what they want to go to sleep for… It's a week long, so eventually they're going to sleep whether they like it or not. We prefer they make it to their room when they do it."
"There are definitely times where people are like 'I have a run in three hours, I'm going to take a three-hour nap,' and then run down here… then as soon as the run's over they go to sleep," Aaron added.
Many runners prefer to get a time slot earlier in the week so they can relax and hang out the rest of the event without having to worry about practicing and staying sharp. "At Summer Games done Quick, the Metroid runners asked us not to put them on Saturday because they wanted to have a little bit of free time afterwards and not be practicing the whole event," Merkle said.
Listing image by Kyle Orland