Games Done Quick’s founder is stepping down

Games Done Quick (GDQ) started 13 years ago in Mike Uyama’s mother’s basement. It wasn’t supposed to. Uyama, the founder of the speedrunning charity event, had a nice venue all picked out and ready to go before coming to the horrific realization that forced him to decamp: the internet was too slow.

“The original intent was to have it at MAGFest,” Uyama told The Verge over Zoom. “But their internet wasn’t good enough and my mom’s was, so that’s why we had it in my mom’s basement.”

Since those less than auspicious beginnings, Games Done Quick has evolved into a biannual event that enthusiasts look forward to, clearing schedules, taking off work, and making special trips to its live events. It’s also raised over $41 million for charity, breaking its donation records almost every year. And after 13 years shepherding what’s thought of as a kind of gamer Christmas, Uyama is stepping back.

“Their internet wasn’t good enough and my mom’s was, so that’s why we had it in my mom’s basement.”

The Verge had the exclusive opportunity to speak to Uyama and his successor, Matt Merkle, about the challenges and rewards of working on the event that’s one of the most heartening and wholesome examples of gaming achievement and charity.

Uyama cites his health as the reason he’s stepping away. 

“So AGDQ 2023 marks my 13th year of GDQ. I’ve been at it for a long time, and I decided it’s time for me to take a break,” he said. “I realized that I need to take care of my health and kind of focus on different activities.”

It’s easy to understand why Uyama needs a break. In 13 years, he and his team at Games Done Quick have done a lot. In addition to the marquee Games Done Quick events in January and July, the organization also hosts a slew of regular programming focused on building up the speedrunning community, highlighting beginners and speedrunners from marginalized backgrounds. For women and nonbinary speedrunners, there’s Frame Fatales, and for Black speedrunners, there’s Unapologetically Black and Fast. 

All of these events spun out of Uyama’s initial goal of creating a charity streaming event unlike the ones that were around in 2009.

“The two main charity events were The Speed Gamers and Desert Bus For Hope,” Uyama said. “And one day we had a thread in our forum — because that’s what we did back in the aughts — about having a charity event.”

Since Speed Demos Archive, the speedrunning forum he was a part of at the time, was centered on running older games, Uyama focused his desire for a charity event into Classic Games Done Quick — a desire that manifested as the now infamous mother’s basement event. 

That first year taught Uyama the biggest lesson he’s carried forward into future events.

“Lesson number one was make sure the internet works,” he said. 

Lesson number two, according to Merkle, who’ll be taking over as the head of GDQ: no more basements.

“Lesson number one was make sure the internet works.”

“When it was growing from 15 people to 50 people, that was a big wake-up call to move it out of there,” Merkle said.

Merkle attributes the growth of GDQ, from a basement of 15 to hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch, to the simple desire of folks wanting to belong in a community doing good work.

“A lot of it is just a community vibe and people want to be a part of that,” Merkle said. And that needs to be a part of something bigger extended to the people watching from home.

Photo: Games Done Quick

“When we hit that first million dollars, I think it was 2014, that was incredible,” Merkle said. “Everybody in that room felt the excitement and how awesome it was to be there and to be a part of that. Then everybody watching and donating from home, they all got to be a part of it, too.”

But more than that, Merkle says the in-person aspect of GDQ events became a way for speedrunners to connect beyond forum threads and Discord servers. (Before the pandemic and conflict with Florida’s anti-LGBTQ and lax covid policies forced organizers to pivot to online.)

“It became a central place for speedrunners, who may only see each other online, to meet and hang out and play their favorite games together,” he said. “We often hear from runners and other people at the events that they dig the vibe and feel that our event, compared to others, is a lot more laid back, a lot more relaxed.”

GDQ hitting $1 million for the first time is one of many, many hype as hell moments in the 13-year history of the event. 

In my seven or so years of watching regularly, I have too many hype as hell moments to recount here. I remember the first time I saw a Tetris Grandmaster exhibition and the level of technical skill it took to play the hardest Tetris at the highest level. These runners were making shapes and patterns out of Tetrominoes falling so fast they could barely be seen.

Of course, anyone playing anything with a blindfold is an instant must-watch, especially this run of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

But perhaps my favorite moments have nothing to do with the technical skill on display and everything to do with the heart and emotion pouring from the crowd and the audience. The last game played at AGDQ 2017 was a run of Undertale, and watching the reaction from the crowd encouraging the runner to hug the defeated final boss brought me to tears. 

Merkle and Uyama have their own favorites, too.

“This run’s really memorable, not just because of the run itself but also just the atmosphere around it,” Merkle said. “It was the Super Metroid four-way race from 2014.” 

“It was like the four top players at the time all together in one spot,” Merkle continued. “Absolutely incredible skill. They’re all super close in time to each other, so it was really cool to see, and we had some really excellent commentary behind that as well. People kind of called it the pro golf of speedruns.”

For Uyama, some of his favorite moments aren’t captured on a stream but instead happen backstage. 

“We’ll have a tournament for this pretty obscure — not terribly good — fighting game called Evil Zone that’s organized by a man who calls himself a member of the PlayStation Nation,” Uyama said. “None of us ever practiced for the tournament until right before GDQ, and we’ll just play for fun.”

GDQ’s appeal lies with its community, and that community has shouldered the herculean task it is to keep the event running smoothly. In addition to ensuring a solid internet connection and booking enough space for people to gather, Uyama says another big challenge for GDQ is getting the schedule right. 

“Back in 2011, I don’t remember exactly how overscheduled we were, but we were something like 16–18 hours over schedule,” he said.

“We’ll have a tournament for this pretty obscure — not terribly good — fighting game called Evil Zone”

There is so much going on at a GDQ that isn’t necessarily shown in a broadcast. Organizers have to account for runs going over estimate, technical difficulties, or complicated setup and teardowns impacting the timing of everything.

“We have become much better at accounting for what’s on the schedule because it’s very easy, if we are ever running ahead, to fill up time. But it’s very difficult to make up time if you are behind.”

Choosing what goes on the schedule is its own unique challenge, too. 

“That’s been another growing pain because back in the day, it was like, ‘Okay, I can give all or most people a game to run at the event,’” Uyama shared. “However, when you have thousands of submissions, now that is nowhere near a possibility unless we wanted GDQ to be all year round.” 

“It’s a very difficult process picking games because you want to go with established classics that people are familiar with — stuff like Mario, the Zelda series, and Halo,” Uyama said. “But you also want to pick new games or maybe something that’s not quite as known but still might be interesting to watch because you basically want to make sure that there is a little something for everyone.”

Speedrunning is just as broad and varied as the community of runners, and Merkle wants the schedule to reflect that.

“It’s a real challenge to get into the event, but that’s why it’s so important that we try to mix it up and not just focus on only the big hitters,” Merkle added. “We want to focus on representing the entire speedrunning community.”

Getting a run accepted for GDQ is tough. The two organizers shared stories of runners submitting time and time again before finally getting accepted.

“We take into account [questions] like, ‘When’s the last time we saw this game in an event?’ ‘Have we even seen this game at an event before?’’ Merkle said. “How good is their time? How fun is the run? And if it’s not fun maybe it’s like a really, really terrible game but it’s really, really funny to watch.”

Merkle and Uyama shared tips for how runners who want to be featured at GDQ can get their runs selected. 

“We started asking the community for more outside-the-box runs,” Merkle said. “So we’ve had more rhythm games in recent events, and we’re experimenting with VR games at events. We’ll have Half-Life: Alyx at [GDQ 2023]. I’m really excited for that.”

A crowd of people in a hotel ballroom celebrating Games Done Quick 2019

Photo: Games Done Quick

Uyama told The Verge that even though he’s stepping down, he doesn’t plan to step away for good. “The community is so welcoming and supportive, and I made a lot of friends. So I definitely don’t want to just abandon them. I still want to be part of it. But I just need to take a break and reset myself.”

With Uyama stepping away, GDQ’s community will step up. At the center of GDQ — more than any one person — is the community and its desire to do charitable works. For years, GDQ has raised millions of dollars in support of organizations including the Prevent Cancer Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, the Malala Fund, and more. Merkle and Uyama speak with pride when they talk about the good their often silly but always special event has done.

“When Hurricane Harvey hit, we did a donation drive for the Houston Food Bank, which was really off-the-cuff at the last second thrown together,” Uyama said.

Merkle shared that they went from concept to streaming in just four days and that it wouldn’t have been possible at all without the support of strangers from around the country tied together by their love of games going fast.

In the last handful of years, GDQ events have included interviews and little featurettes from Prevent Cancer and Doctors Without Borders so donators can see where their money is going. Thirteen years and $41 million later, Games Done Quick has had a real and marked impact on the charities it supports. 

“I remember when we did our first fundraiser for Prevent Cancer back in 2011,” Uyama said. “I got an email from someone at Prevent Cancer right when we hit the $40,000 mark that said, ‘We funded half of our research study!’” 

“I remember people telling me that [Prevent Cancer Foundation] didn’t really have much of an international reach before we came along,” Uyama continued. “But with our international community and with our urging, they’ve been able to conduct studies around the world. I don’t remember what country it was, but there was an African country where they were using smartphone technology for early detection of cervical cancer. So it’s really going towards a good cause.”

Awesome Games Done Quick starts Sunday, January 8th, at 11:30AM ET. Looking at the schedule, there are so many things I can’t wait to watch.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz