When you watch a speedrun, you're not really watching a single run. You're watching a culmination of work: the glitch hunters who figured out how to skip parts of the game, the previous runners who learned how to move around as quickly as possible, and the countless practice hours of the person currently trying to beat their personal best.
Every speedrun has a story behind it. But these stories aren't always immediately obvious. The runner, focusing on their own actions, probably won't be able to explain too much. Even at events like Games Done Quick, where runners have commentators to help them contextualise the runs for an audience who might be unfamiliar with the game, there's only so much information they can fit in. The goal is for the run to be over as quickly as possible, after all.
But there's a genre of YouTuber who looks behind the times on the leaderboard going steadily downwards and teases out the narrative between the entries. Quirks of fate that led to new discoveries, rivalries that inspired increasing dedication among runners, and all the disappointments and victories that happened along the way.
It's no surprise that SummoningSalt, the most famous creator in the speedrun history space, draws inspiration from Jon Bois, a master of sports narrative. (And that Bois is a fan of Salt in return.) They're both experts at finding a story.
Salt tells me that he got his start from his place in the Punch-Out speedrunning community, inspired by another member of that community who goes by Sinister1. (Most people in these communities prefer to simply go by their online handles, including Salt.) Sinister1 had done a two hour stream, discussing the steadily shrinking speedrun record for a certain fight in the game, playing clips from old records and describing the tricks that went into pulling them off. Some time later, Salt wanted to do something similar, but figured that with a bit of editing he could release something shorter - about 15 minutes would be perfect. In January of 2017, he released World Record Progression: Mike Tyson, which clocked in at 14:48.
Five years later, that video has 1.4 million views. But even at the time, it did pretty well for Salt. He says that at the time he had about 500 subscribers, and it hit 5000 views. "So, I decided to make them for other games," he says. "Which took off like crazy."
Salt hit 10,000 subscribers a month later, after releasing just two more world record progression videos. By now he has over 30 histories documented, and 1.25 million subscribers. His videos have crept up in length too, more often hitting the 45 minute mark as they tackle longer and more complicated histories.
And Salt has inspired other people to pick up the genre, too. Milan Karman, who usually goes by MKarma, released a two hour and forty-five minute video in October called History of The Hobbit - The Most Underrated Speedrun.
Though he used to speedrun The Hobbit, he had been on a break from it since 2015. But he was a fan of Salt, and he couldn't help but think that the game would make a fantastic video. He also knew that there were far more popular games out there, so it would probably end up overlooked. At first he thought it was just a shame that the story wouldn't get told.
But then he returned to speedrunning. "[I] realised just how much the game and the community had evolved," he says. "There were now so many new tricks, interesting members, and impressive times. That thought of how cool it would be to see a speedrunning history video on The Hobbit came back, full force. But again I realised that there probably wasn't anyone who was interested enough in The Hobbit and had the right skillset to produce such a video."
Except, of course, himself. "I was close [to the community]," he says. "I was obviously interested in The Hobbit and I had some video production experience. I'd have to learn a lot as I went, but I decided to start production on it myself."
Making one of these videos takes a long time. Salt says that usually it's the research that's the longest step. "I have to contact various community members, form a small Discord server, ask questions, watch tutorials, [and] play the game itself," he says. All of that can take weeks. But so, too, can finding the narrative. "I have to figure out which storylines are important, what to emphasise, and how to emphasise it. This process also takes several weeks."
This is the part that fascinates me. I know from experience that building this sort of story, using the facts as a scaffold and then figuring out the most compelling way to lead an audience through it, isn't easy. But Salt is very, very good at it, and I can't help but ask if there's something I can learn from him - some trick.
"Not really," he says. "I've just had a lot of practice at it over the last five years, and keep refining my process to figure out what works and what doesn't."
"Man, every small community online deserves to be documented with this kind of enthusiasm. Just demonstrates we are surrounded with incredible stories!"
Mkarma, creating his very first video, did not have the benefit of five years of practice. "Script writing was almost entirely new to me," he says. He, too, tried to figure out what he could learn from Salt and others. "I watched back some of my favourite speedrunning history videos and took notes on the way they were edited and structured, trying to understand what made them interesting," he says.
Like everything in speedrunning, though, it wasn't a solo effort. "Huge thanks to Chrix and MD_Pi," MKarma tells me, naming two of the members of The Hobbit's community who helped him gather together all the notable events in the game's history. And doing right by that community was another big consideration while writing the script. "I wanted the viewer to feel like they really understood the speedrun when watching, to feel connected with the community, and that every member got the credit [they] deserved."
When he released the video, the feedback was "overwhelmingly positive," he says. And it was a small part of that feedback that stuck with me. An account called Mysterious Bear left a comment: "Man, every small community online deserves to be documented with this kind of enthusiasm. Just demonstrates we are surrounded with incredible stories!"
We are surrounded with incredible stories. Speedrunning is lucky to have a small group of YouTubers dedicated to telling them.