PACE is bringing competition and controversy to speedrunning

Competitors race against each other in a Celeste speedrun. Courtesy of GSA/Twitch

Hundreds of chairs set up for three days straight, a single couch full of commentators, a 72-hour stream and world-renowned charities are a few of the things synonymous with speedrunning, or trying to finish video games in record time. Two annual events, Games Done Quick and Awesome Games Done Quick, bring together a huge network of speedrunners from all of the world to benefit charities like Doctors without Borders or the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

For the longest time speedrunning hasn't hosted many other kinds of events outside these marathons and others like them. The Global Speedrun Association (GSA), which is hosting a head-to-head speedrunning event called PACE later this month, wants to change that. GSA believes that speedrunning has a lot of competitive potential.

"Speedrunning isn't just one game. It isn't just Overwatch," GSA founder and PACE organizer Steven Adams told ESPN. "It's Mario, it's Dark Souls, it's whatever you want it to be. We think that we can push the tournament culture and build a competitive scene too."

That's exactly what they've been doing for the last several months. Adams and GSA cofounder Ivan Iglesias have been running a competitive speedrun circuit with online, head-to-head races in Celeste, Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, as well as several other games. The top runners from those first three games, who've accumulated the most points over the course of the circuit are all converging in Laurel, Maryland, to compete in the GSA's first in-person event this weekend.

"We were doing one-off tournaments to get a feel for running single-bracket tournaments and then we took the four most popular games that we were starting to build a viewership around," Iglesias said. "Then we invited 12 runners from six of our leagues. Each runner would play everyone else in a round-robin format that ran over 11 weeks. The top eight qualify for the playoffs in an NBA-style series matchup with other runners. The top four from there qualify for the live event."

Despite the excitement, some prominent runners believe that a competitive structure for speedrunning undermines the community spirit that's been built over time. Runners like Cameron "MunchaKoopas" Mohr, among others, have talked about how events like PACE can push players away from speedrunning games that don't have cash prizes. Other runners have said that tournaments with prize money could lead to runners hiding strategies from other runners-- something unheard of in the speedrun community.

"Speedrunning is a community effort to push a game as far as possible and to see what everyone can accomplish when they put their mind to one thing. It wasn't just one runner, it was dozens of us over the years," said Bryon "Bryonato" Rothfusz, a Titanfall 2 runner who's doing an exhibition run at PACE. "I think these concerns are valid, but they are assuming the worst. We haven't seen anything like this yet so it makes the community nervous. I'm still signed up for the event because I want to see where it leads."

While Mohr did agree that some of the issues he and other runners brought up might not happen at PACE, the organization of the event was an issue on its own.

"I don't think that events like this hurt the scene. It has given many participants and fans an event to look forward to," Mohr said. "What does worry me is the haste with which this event was assembled. It seems too similar to any run-of-the-mill esports event, and I'm not sure it captures what is truly great about speedrunning."

Outside of an event like Twitch Rivals, where players compete against each other in games like Celeste and Stardew Valley, there haven't been many live events like PACE, and Adams and Iglesias only began organizing this one last year. Despite being pretty new to the roles they're in now, the GSA cofounders have tried to quell concerns about hiding strategies and countering speedrunning's community focus.

"It's no secret that speedrunning has been built by collaboration, there's so much sharing that's gone," Adams said. "So for somebody to go out of their way to spend hundreds of hours to get these strategies and then hide them, it's kind of social sabotage. When you find a strategy you share it, it's just what you do. I don't think that's changed now."

"There's room for all," Iglesias added. "There shouldn't be just one way to do things. It doesn't have to just be a hobby like anything else in life. I can understand their concerns about hiding strategies, but I think it's like any other sport. Once they've used their strat, once it's in the community, they can only do it once."

Community concerns have only grown since PACE's initial announcement last year. The GSA's partnership with Vie.gg, a betting platform, has only made worries over cheating and match fixing more widespread. Adam and Iglesias have addressed these issues in statements on Twitter, although we won't know if they've done enough to prevent them from happening until the first season is wrapped up.

"I don't expect any cheating to occur at an event like this. Both Mario games require a specific game console to be played. The event itself can control this factor, as the only way I see cheating happening here is if someone brought their own modded console," Mohr said. "As for Celeste, other than installing scripts to do certain things for you I don't know what the player could do to cheat."

Even though PACE's short lifetime has been partially hindered by this debate, Adams and Iglesias have more planned. They have a second season with different games and another live event planned later this year.

"Our goal is to have an event for each season," Adams said. "Although we may not have one for the end of Season 2 since we took on a lot for Season 1."

Despite the controversy, several of the organizers and speedrunners that ESPN spoke to believe that the grand finals could show off some of the best runs we've ever seen.

"This is going to be different than what you see at a Games Done Quick, those are always going to be about the presentation. They aren't going to use riskier strats and lose a lot of time due to an error," Rothfusz said. "This has definitely increased the grind. I think we're going to see some of the highest level of speedrunning we're ever going to see."