Are speed runners the real competitive gamers?

Earlier this week I speculated about the reason for the rise of Twitch and the new games voyeurs, people who watch others play competitive online games, live, from far away. Shortly after I wrote the piece, a friend suggested the real reason millions of people watch League of Legends and Starcraft rather than – or in addition to – playing it is the same reason we like to watch Usain Bolt run or Mario Batali cook or Phil Ivey play poker: it’s simply very satisfying to watch people who have mastered something do that thing.

I guess I buy this, but it seems to me there is a purer and more satisfying way to experience gamers who have “mastered” the form: speed runs. I’ve spent the past few days watching videos on the Speed Demos Archive, and some -all – of them are staggering. From the player who beat Final Fantasy VII in less than 8 hours to the 40 minute Half-Life to the preposterous 1:01 Metroid Prime, these are feats of incredible skill, performed by people who have actual mastery over individual games. This to me is much more impressive than, say, the guy who played five days of Black Ops 2; what speed runners do to me seems much more like athletics. Read this excerpt from the FF7 speed runner’s postmortem:

If I had it to do over again, I would have started the run with the tenacity that I finished it with. With that said, I am extremely proud of what I have accomplished. In all honesty, I am not sure how much faster I could have gone. This run is far from perfect, but most of the imperfections are masked by the enormous amount of luck involved in the running of this game. I may run a segment perfectly, doing everything humanly possible correctly, and still achieve a slower time, because of something seemingly insignificant, like the number of times I am attacked in random encounters, or the length of the animations for the attacks used. Luck plays a huge factor in each and every segment. I assure you the segments I kept were the fastest I was able to get, while still keeping my sanity.

This reminds me more than anything else of a postgame interview after a sporting event. There’s that weird humility that comes from pushing up against the physical limits of a thing, the acknowledgement that once certain factors are maximized, the capricious winds decide the rest. Maybe speed runs are the track and field of the competitive gaming world, the purest expression of the human limits of excellence at games?