This is the story of a group of gamers who come together not to beat a game or shatter a high score. They don't sit for hours on end with a controller in their hand for achievement points or bragging rights online. Instead, they use their thumbs to help save lives and the planet by organizing and playing in gaming marathons around the clock while simultaneously broadcasting their exploits to the internet. Their most recent endeavour, a 168-hour blast through most of the Final Fantasy games, generated over $50,000 in money which was then donated to ACT Today, an organization dedicated to helping families with autistic children get medical care and treatment. In all, TheSpeedGamers have raised over $80,000 for six different charities since beginning the project in 2008.
With a massive Mega Man extravaganza beginning this week, Digital Kuroko sat down with three of TheSpeedGamers to find out exactly what it's like to game around the clock out of the goodness of their hearts. Continue below for the full interview.
Digital Kuroko: Tell me a little bit about how this started and what gave you the idea to start TheSpeedGamers.
Britt LaRiviere (co-founder, TheSpeedGamers.com): It first started out about a year and a half ago. My major was still journalism, or maybe it was my minor at the time, which it is right now. Anyway, I wanted to get more into writing. I was just trying to find some domain, I wanted to do some type of game writing, write game reviews, and stuff like that. When doing this then I thought about doing some sort of Let's Play but doing it live. And then it slowly evolved into playing for a weekend straight, an entire series. And then from there it was like, "Hey if we're going to play video games for that long we should probably do it for a worthy cause." We just compiled a team of half gamers, half commentators. The first marathon we had three gamers and three commentators and from there it's just slowly gotten bigger. I think we added forums after the first marathon, or maybe it was the second marathon and we just slowly built a community from there.
Digital Kuroko: Tell me about how some of the other guys got involved.
Phil Elder (SpeedGamer): I was on a different message board and I heard about TheSpeed Gamers from the very beginning, watched the first marathon. I was just a guy in the chat donating and stuff. When it came around for their second marathon, they were doing Zelda a second time through and their Twilight Princess player called in sick. I happened to live about 45 minutes away from where they were at so I took the day off and drove out there and played for them and they kept inviting me back. It's been a really fun, wild roller coaster.
Robbie Davis (TheSpeedGamers.com web designer): I joined after the third marathon, the Mario marathon. I don't remember how, but they opened up a public event channel and I joined in there. I started talking to Britt and all the rest of the guys and joined the community and stuff and built up a reputation and then I offered to host their blog and their forums on my web space. That's basically how I got started.
Robbie Davis (left) and Britt LaRiviere (right) get some R&R on the floor during a patented TSG marathon
Digital Kuroko: Tell me about that first marathon, that first Zelda one. Obviously it looks a little more difficult than people probably think it is, as far as streaming it and all that stuff. Tell me how that went and if there were any challenges you faced while doing that first Zelda one and why you picked Zelda.
Britt: We picked Zelda, that's what I grew up on. That was the first game I ever beat. I grew up on it. My dad played it a lot, and then he got me to play it. I've been watching the original Zelda since I was three. I've always been a huge Zelda fan. Now that I look at it, there's several series' that will fill up 72 hours after doing it, but right off the bat that series jumped to mind. The challenges: at the beginning, right when we started, right when we hit "broadcast now" and we got the marathon going, it took like five minutes before we got our first viewer. I think by the end of beating Zelda 1 there was maybe three viewers and the whole time I'm thinking, "Oh gosh, it's going to be hard to stay awake at five in the morning knowing there's only a couple people watching this." Eventually, by the time I beat Zelda 2, there were maybe 15 or 20. I mean the biggest challenge is always the sleep schedule. We only had three players right off the bat, so there were times when you've gone for 10 to 15 hours straight and it's five in the morning and you're just feeling like you want to quit but you can't because you're doing it for a good cause. And streaming bugs. I don't think it happened so much in the first marathon, but we've had things like the ISP go down, or have to reset the router. And it feels like an eternity whenever the stream goes down, you feel like people are wondering what happened. It's probably only five minutes, but that's kind of annoying too.
Digital Kuroko: When you talk about the sleep schedule, when you approach these marathons, is it kind of like being in the military? Like, "Alright, I'll play for eight hours and then I'll grab some sleep, and then you play..."? How is it organized beforehand?
Britt: I think every marathon we've had games assigned. Besides Earthbound, we kinda would just would wing it each time we did it. Or we'd pretty much assign a main player to the game and then once they got tired we'd have someone take over. But pretty much besides Earthbound, we've had every game actually assigned a player to play through the full game and then we kind of adjust the commentator schedule so that the players and the commentating schedule don't run into each other. So we try to base it off that.
Phil: As far as I know you guys have always had player schedules. Like this person is assigned here and your first couple of marathons commentating and playing never coincided. Starting with Mario and from then on, there were people who played and commentated. From then on we usually had either forum topics that we could look at and share, "Okay, I've been practicing and this is what my time is" so we could have a general order of the games and then estimates of how long it would take us to do it live. For the most part that's worked out. Final Fantasy kind of got a wrench in the system but we have worked through it.
Britt: (laughs) those games are hard to do in one sitting.
Digital Kuroko: When you guys did that first Zelda one, you raised over $1,000. How did that compare to what you expected to raise, and what made you decide that charity for the first particular marathon?
Britt: We chose St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital just because... Well a lot of my family members have been affected by cancer. My [great] uncle who's died of cancer, and I've had a couple of other family members. And then also Luke, who's one of our main commentators, towards the beginning, the first couple marathons, his grandfather had recently died of cancer... So you know we wanted to do something that was...I don't want to say mainstream, but affected a lot of people. Cancer of course fits that very well. To tell you the truth, that first marathon, we didn't have any expectations. I remember thinking if we could raise $1,000 that would be pretty awesome. So I think we hit it right there. We were pretty excited after that first marathon, we were pretty satisfied with ourselves. We hit it right about where we wanted.
Digital Kuroko: Phil, if I heard you right, you took the day off to go do your first marathon?
Phil: Yes, that's correct. It was a school day for me.
Digital Kuroko: What was that like? "Hey I'm not going to go to school, I'm going to go spend however many hours playing Zelda games." What's the experience been for you participating in these?
Phil: For that particular marathon I had been in contact... and I offered my services because I knew I lived close by. So I had been watching their marathon all weekend and it was eight a.m. on Monday ad I was just about to head into class, and they were like, "Our guy is down" and I said I know this game reasonably well and I'll just head over there and do that instead. Because what would you rather do, play Zelda all day or go sit in eight hours of class?
Digital Kuroko: Play Zelda all day for sure.
Phil: (laughs) Exactly. So there wasn't really an option there.
Robbie: The first time I participated was Minish Cap. I played Minish Cap for their last Zelda marathon. It was during my summer break so I didn't have to take any school off or anything. It's been fun. There's always some type of hesitation going in because you don't know what to expect or how you're going to do this time. But overall the experience has been fascinating. And a lot of people in my family commend me for it because they don't really see me as the type of person to help with charitable events or whatever.
Even when he's not playing, Phil still finds time to interact with the community and viewers online between shifts
Digital Kuroko: Do the people you're donating to, do you ever tell them, "Hey we just played video games 72 hours to raise this money" and if so, what is their reaction to that?
Britt: Here recently the charities we've done the marathons for have known about it beforehand. But I remember when we chose St. Jude's we didn't even contact them until afterwards. I can't remember when we did the next one for them, but we did one relatively recently for them, and they called and they're like "I know you did a gaming marathon for us before, did you all play poker or something?" We had to explain it to them. I think we had two or three phone calls where they were just kind of wondering how we had raised the money or kind of confused. But when we told them it was for video games, they were always kind of like, "What? how does this exactly work? Do people pay for certain games?" They were just kind of confused about how we did it. But ACT Today (Autism Care and Treatment) and some of the others actually they've known beforehand so they knew it was coming.
Phil: Yeah I've never had an easy time explaining exactly what it is we do to anybody that I know. They're always so curious, like, "Where do you go on these weekends when you say you're doing video games." I'm like "I'm going to this place and I play video games to raise money for charity" and they say, "Explain that again?"
Digital Kuroko: Is everyone participating everyone from one location? Where is it centered?
Britt: As far as mods go, we have someone from Australia, Denmark, all around the world. For this last marathon we actually had Gwellin, one of our other web site designers, he flew down from Canada. And then we had one of our players from Delaware fly down. We all meet at my house, usually. This next marathon is going to be somewhere else. When we get off work or get out of class or whatever we're doing, usually in the evenings, we all meet up on Ventrilo and discuss SpeedGamer related stuff, what we're going to do on the web site, future events stuff like that.
Robbie: I also this last time drove as well.
Britt: He's from Georgia.
Robbie: Yeah, 14 hours.
Digital Kuroko: Usually these go all weekend?
Britt: Yeah, Friday to Monday. We start on Friday at six and end Monday at six.
Digital Kuroko: How do you guys decide what you're going to do next? What's the decision-making process like for the games you're going to do?
Britt: Usually I guess we just play to the strengths of our players. This is just an example: Phil is really good at Mario 64 and several other Mario games so if we have a player that's especially good at one series we'll probably lean to that. That and fan requests. We look at what the fans want. We have a topic that requests series and stuff like that.
Digital Kuroko: I want to ask about the Final Fantasy marathon that you did last month. You guys raised over $50,000 which is insanely more than what you raised for the first marathon. How did you manage to raise so much money, and what was it like doing such huge games because you did it for much longer than before, 168 hours.
Robbie: I give a lot of our credit to WorldofRaids.com.
Britt: And MMO-Champion.
Robbie: Yeah, there was another one too.
Robbie: We were on their web sites and they get tons of traffic and they had us embedded for a while. A lot of people were just viewing their topics or whatever but they just happened to hear us and see us and scrolled down to see what was going on. I think that helped a lot. Not to mention we promoted a lot more than we usually do for this marathon.
Phil: From the players' perspectives, last year a couple of other marathon teams that had shown up over the summer had contacted us and posed the idea of a week long marathon where each group of people did a game series or something. And my immediate reaction was there's only one thing I can think of that would take a whole week and that would be Final Fantasy. It ended up falling through, we ended up doing our own things, and we've all had our own successes, but Final Fantasy just got in my brain and wouldn't let go. I went and did some research on various speed running web sites (Speed Demos Archive and Twin Galaxies) and found out the world record times and found out it was feasible to do a week of the Final Fantasy series. So I talked to the guys and they said, "You're crazy" and I said, "I know" and they said, "Well we'll try and pull something together." We at least managed to play the whole time. We've got some issues to work out if we ever do a second time through and maybe get all the games in, but I will say that playing for that long at a time... I think before the longest games that we ever had were stuff like Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess where you've got to sit down for six to eight hours minimum just to play through them. All the Final Fantasy games were like... I think our shortest times were six (hours) for the first and the sixth one and then everything else was 10, 12, 20. It is a much different beast to tackle than just sitting down and knocking out Super Mario Bros. in a few minutes or something.
Digital Kuroko: Have you guys ever faced any catastrophic loss of data, like you lose a save or you delete a save or you die after making so much progress and have to redo a whole segment?
Britt: Yeah, and it turned into a big joke, too. We tried to catch all the Pokemon during our December marathon. It was kind of a holiday/Christmas themed marathon. We tried to catch all the Pokemon and our Pokemon Ruby cartridge corrupted so we lost all the Pokemon on that cartridge. That was pretty catastrophic. Nothing compares to that one but also one time my Wii froze while Rob was playing Ocarina of Time. Luckily he had a save file that was a little bit back, he probably lost about 15 minutes on his Wii, so he went and drove and got his Wii and then came back.
Robbie: During the Pokemon marathon you also failed to to get Ho-Oh the first time.
Britt: Oh gosh. We made an error. We misread an FAQ or misread something or misinterpreted it or something. We did something wrong. You had to battle 100 gym leaders with a specific party or something, and we took the wrong party, which took about... I dunno how many hours...
Phil: I was trucking through it with the wrong party for a long time and I spent like four hours or so because you have to beat 100 trainers in a row. And they're not even hard, it's just tedious. You throw out the exact same three guys every single time and use the same three moves and watch all the cutscenes. And we got all the way through and it was the wrong thing. So Rob had to sit there and do it all again.
Britt: It was Rob and Taylor. They had to go through an redo the 100 trainer battle again in order to get this one Pokemon. It was pretty funny. I mean it sucked at the time, but it was pretty funny.
Digital Kuroko: Do you ever find that this sort of gorging so often, so many video games at a time, do you lose your interest in playing in your free time? Do you kind of save it for the marathons?
Phil: I don't because generally after a marathon, you've been sitting there watching for who knows for how many hours an entire game series has been played. Once the marathon ends, you're like, "Wow, I really want to go through and play all those I didn't do personally." I watched a full week of Final Fantasy and I'm so sick of it but I can't put them down. The same thing happened with Zelda and I'm sure it will happen again for Mega Man. Especially Mega Man since I think this one we've got more players than almost ever before for the period of time we're doing. You practice your game over and over again until you're tired of it and then you see all the other ones and you're like, "Those look so much better than the ones I've put so much time into."
Britt: Maybe the game you play, the game you've been practicing you're sick of for a while. But like Phil said, any of the other games, it kind of gets you in a mood for those games. The Mega Man marathon right now we're practicing for, I just really wanna play, collect all the Mega Man games. It just really gets you pumped for all the games in general. I'm sure a lot of the people watching want to play the games too. But video games in general, it definitely hasn't burned me out of that, just maybe that one game in particular I'm practicing.
Robbie: I still play games in my free time. Right now I'm plying Mario & Luigi's Superstar Saga and I'm fairly close to the end, but I can say I never want to play Final Fantasy 2 again so take that how you will.
Digital Kuroko: What's the cuisine like when you're all together for 72 hours? What are you doing for food?
Britt: We've done two marathons where we've had people sponsor us and give us money to go get food, so I guess we've eaten better then. Besides that, we've got a Wal Mart close by. We've have a lot of fast food close by so it's a lot of fast food. Some of us probably eat better than the others. I don't really know how to describe it. I think this last marathon I ate way too much fast food. In the past I've been better.
Phil: There wasn't too many options this last marathon. It was a full week and we were bringing in people from everywhere around the continent. It wasn't like we could expect somebody to supply all of our food. It was actually kind of unusual to have to go out and buy fast food all the time. Usually I'll go out of my way and bring over pineapples and spinach, something to make my body not hate me after three days of hot pockets.
Digital Kuroko: The Mega Man marathon starts this Friday. Tell me about the cause, and tell me about how you're approaching doing so many Mega Man games.
Britt: This is the first cause that's not medically related. We used to have a slogan "Gaming for a Cure" and this one we changed over to "Gaming for a Cause." We wanted to do something different and so we're going to do some commentating outside in light of what we're gaming for: EarthDay.net. As far as the games go, even during the FInal Fantasy marathon when we were playing Final Fantasy 1 through 12 we still had people complaining we weren't playing Tactics and X-2 so we try and cover as many games as possible. I'm sure there's still going to be some people asking why we're not playing Mega Man Soccer.
Phil: For Metal Gear we went out of our way to get the NES game and the Gameboy Color game. I really wanted to do VR Missions and the AC!D series but we ended up deciding that wouldn't be entertaining. And apparently nobody else thought it would either because nobody asked about those.
Phil: We try and research the series a bit more and find out the black sheep of the series that we didn't pick. The portable games especially are kind of fun because many people haven't seen every iteration. Our third Zelda marathon we added all of the portable games from Link's Awakening to the Oracles, Minish Cap to Phantom Hourglass and also Four Swords Adventures so we got to see a lot of the series that people don't usually do.
Digital Kuroko: What are your future plans for TheSpeedGamers?
Britt: Funny that you mention that. We do marathons about every other month. During the summer of course we have more and during the college semesters we have a little bit less. We have one for Halloween, Christmas, Spring break, and then we pick up in the summer again with several. We're going to start expanding and we're gonna do a gaming blog where we update gaming news and start doing skits, game shows, stuff like that to make more entertainment for everybody between marathons. That's where we're headed right now, getting more content for the web site.
Digital Kuroko: Thank you guys so much.
Britt: No problem.
How can you help TheSpeedGamers raise money? Tune in to the Mega Man 72-hour marathon beginning this Friday, August 14 to watch the guys play and make a donation. EarthDay.net is a group of organizations dedicated to helping spread sustainable environmentalism around the globe.