A Look Into The World Of Zelda Speedrunning

A Look Into The World Of Zelda Speedrunning

It’s a big year for the Legend of Zelda series in more ways than one. The series turned 35 in February and is far from becoming obsolete – especially for one giant online community known as Zelda Speedruns (ZSR). Despite Nintendo not yet marking the anniversary, ZSR continues to celebrate in its stead with various tournaments, races, and, of course, fast-paced gaming action.

Almost every day across the community’s four separate Twitch channels, ZSR runs illustrious Zelda gauntlets such as randomizers, spoiler log races, and more. Zelda may not be an official esport, but with the way the tournaments are run, you’d think G2 would have bought in already.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the head of ZSR, TreZc0_, and a very prominent runner named gymnast86. ZSR is run entirely by volunteers and funded by the generous support of subscribers and various donations from the community.

For those who are not familiar with what a randomizer is, here’s a quick explanation: in the majority of the 3D Zelda games, you can code the game to change item locations, song locations, keys, boss keys, and other items needed to progress through what is known as “go mode”, so that they appear randomly, making playthroughs all about reacting rather than planning ahead. In the Zelda community, it’s simply known as “ZOOTR”.

This mode has changed the way a normal run of Zelda is played. In these competitions, the player who gets all the items they need to beat the game first wins. Meanwhile, in a spoiler log, tournament runners have access to the log created to generate the randomizer game or “seed” and have to utilize unique routing and other techniques to acquire the important items needed to progress. While they may know the locations of all the items, they still have to pick the best way to obtain them. From a viewer standpoint, it’s fascinating to watch runners overcome these unique obstacles while listening to compelling commentary provided by knowledgeable members of the ZSR community.

TreZc0_ started out as a moderator for zeldaspeedruns.com and began speedrunning in 2013 with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. After quickly discovering that the constant practicing required to master speedrunning wasn’t his thing, he went on to be the “glitch hunting and documentation guy”, before eventually joining ZSR in an administrative role to boost the community when it had become inactive.

In an effort to make the space more of a central hub for the Zelda speedrunning community, he and his friend dragonbane worked hard to reform the website before turning their attention to Twitch. They focused their efforts on keeping the channels consistently busy with community races, tournaments, and charity events. Eventually, the original owner of ZSR gave TreZc0_ and dragonbane full control over the group, both of whom still run everything we see today.

However, it’s the randomizers that really draw viewers.

“It is what our audience enjoys the most, especially since it is also a playground for more casual players,” says TreZc0_. “After becoming the admin of OoT Randomizer and creating the website, ZSR and OoTR formed a very strong bond.”

“I won’t lie, the entire ZSR system would never be possible next to my full-time job without our absolutely amazing and very committed volunteers,” TreZc0_ says. “This reaches from our 36 re-streamers over all the community managers and organizers to every single commentator and tracker.”

The team aren’t financially compensated for their efforts, and instead, do it purely out of love for the community. “All these people work on this in their free time without getting much more than exposure out of it, and they do so with a passion that is unmatched,” TreZc0_ continues. “I am 100 percent convinced that without them, even outside the ZSR space, speedrunning would be a lot more problematic and harder to maintain. I am very grateful for every single one of them.”

ZSR has a total of four separate Twitch channels, as well as multiple websites, and an affiliate channel known as The Silver Gauntlets. To keep things running smoothly, TreZc0_ tells me there are a total of seven servers behind their infrastructure and multiple remote streaming machines. Two of those servers actually run out of his own home. A custom-built broadcasting suite was even created to run all of this, but it’s hard work to maintain. That suite was built by the community’s main developer, dragonbane.

He explained his own personal investment into making sure things run smoothly.“Lots of lack of sleep, heh 😀 Nah I won’t lie, the entire ZSR system would never be possible next to my full-time job without our absolutely amazing and very committed volunteers. This reaches from our 36 restreamers over all the community managers and organizers to every single commentator and tracker.”

ZSR relies on ad revenue to keep all of this running – essentially whatever they get from Twitch through subscriptions, bits, and donations. TreZc0_ also puts some of his own funds into the initiative.

While organizing these tournaments can be exhausting, it’s a completely different experience to compete – that’s where gymnast86 comes in. He’s been involved with the ZSR community since way back in 2013.

gymnast86’s games of choice are the 3D Zelda titles, mostly The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. “I began streaming and doing runs on my own after a few months and slowly became better at Wind Waker while trying to learn a lot of the other 3D Zelda games on the side,” he tells me. “Over the years, I’ve had a lot of time to consistently practice and refine the skills necessary for running each game.”

When it comes to seeing a future for Zelda in the world of esports, he’s skeptical, mostly because of Nintendo’s typically tight hold on its intellectual property. “There was a recent tournament with a $1,000 prize pool that I was a part of,” he continues. “However, it was a randomizer tournament, so if it ended up drawing too much attention I’m sure Nintendo would’ve tried to shut it down. And that’s unfortunate because I do think that randomizers (specifically spoiler log races) have great potential for future tournaments as they heavily rely on a player’s ability to both execute strategies and route on the fly.”

gymnast86 also explains that randomizers are “beginner-friendly” for those looking to get into running. Being heavily involved in this community on a regular basis can be rewarding for someone trying to make a name for themselves. There is, however, a common challenge many of the runners face.

“When you’re trying to grind speedrun attempts for a new personal best or world record, burnout can easily happen if you feel like you aren’t making progress and are constantly resetting to the same mistakes over and over again,” he explains. “However, since I can speedrun a lot of Zelda games, my own solution for burnout is to simply speedrun a different Zelda game for a little bit. There’s usually some category in a game I haven’t done in a while or haven’t attempted before, so switching to that can give me the feeling of progress and doing something fresh and new for a while.”

When looking at all the Nintendo games out there, The Legend of Zelda series seems to be one of the most popular ones to speedrun and compete in right next to the Mario franchise. Even casual runners will look up speedrun strategies from well-known competitors such as gymnast86.

“Some Zelda games like Ocarina of Time have consistently had new speedrun discoveries for long periods of time that keep viewers engaged with watching the game as there’s always something new and exciting happening,” he explains.

Being so popular also contributes to why at least one Zelda game is featured at almost every big speedrunning event such as Games Done Quick.

“The constant new discoveries also make the game popular to run at speedrunning marathons, and Zelda games tend to be run at prime time marathon slots where viewership is usually highest,” gymnast tells me. “That sort of produces a positive feedback loop for its popularity since more people are now going to see it run at a marathon and potentially seek out more speedruns to watch once the marathon is over.”

Whether or not Zelda becomes a fully recognized competitive esport doesn’t matter – the important thing is that this community is not going anywhere anytime soon. With the remake of Skyward Sword HD on the horizon, Zelda fans are eagerly awaiting for older titles to finally be ported over to the Switch. Whether or not that happens is up for debate – the ball is still in Nintendo’s court as we await information for Zelda’s anniversary.

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