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Speed gaming is a thing on Twitch

From CNET Magazine: Twitch fans love watching speedrunners blast through their favorite video games in record time.

Sarah Tew

Brad Myers showed no emotion but felt his heart race when the screen in front of him flashed, "World 8-4."

World 8-4, for those of you not steeped in '80s video game lore, is the ultimate level of Nintendo's classic Super Mario Bros. Under Myers' control, the heroic plumber never looked so nimble. Think a highly choreographed ballet of running, jumping and occasional head-butting.

For Myers, also known by his gamer handle "darbian," this really was the "Swan Lake" of runs as Mario deftly evaded a wall of flames and swam past white, squid-like Bloopers. "World 8-4 has a lot of stuff going on, and literally every frame matters," says Myers.

Like thousands of gamers before him, Myers vaulted past the last villain, Bowser, to beat the game. Except at just under 5 minutes, he did it faster than anyone in the world.

"I have no idea what that was," he exclaimed as the final screen flashed. "I don't know what just happened there."

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Michal Dziekan

Myers' run in October helped to boost the popularity of speedrunning, a small but expanding niche of the online gaming world where competitors use exploits and hidden shortcuts to finish games as fast as possible. His eye-popping run in a game many view with nostalgic fondness has drawn about 1.3 million views to his YouTube video.

Speedruns underscore a growing shift in video games from being an active to a passive source of entertainment. People aren't just playing games; they're watching others play them. It's just as acceptable to see someone tear through a level of space-age shooter Destiny as it is to tune into an episode of "Veep" or watch the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles.

And boy, are they tuning in. Two years ago, speedrunning drew 13,000 viewers a month on Twitch, the video streaming service where gamers post their play for others to watch. Now, it's up to 3.5 million.

Still, bring up speedrunning to your parents or even a casual gamer, and you'll likely draw blank stares. Some dismiss it as little more than a novelty.

"It is definitely not a trend, any more than hot dog eating contests are a trend," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with investment firm Wedbush Securities.

Perhaps, but people still pack Coney Island every July Fourth to watch competitive eaters shove an alarming number of Nathan's dogs into their mouths.

What's the attraction?

Speedrunning started nearly two decades ago when hardcore gamers began competing for the best time on first-person shooter game Quake. The movement really came into its own a few years ago, thanks to the proliferation of video sites that let players upload and view competing runs.

"There's no 'I heard some guy finished it fast,' " says Mike Olson, an analyst at investment firm Piper Jaffray. "Now everyone can see it."

What inspires someone to devote thousands of hours perfecting the moves and uncovering the code glitches that will help them zip through levels? For many, the challenge offers a fresh spin on a beloved game.

"You're able to take a game you've fallen in love with and continue to get maximum replay-ability out of it," explains Andrew Schroeder, who heads up speedrunning partnerships and charity events for Twitch.

The hunt for new ways to exploit the code also inspires gamers to keep going. One YouTube video narrates the hunt for new shortcuts in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with the seriousness of a documentarian. "It felt more like we were doing science than anything else," gamer "Cosmo" says about one of his runs.

For others, it's a way to make money.

Living the dream

What kid doesn't dream of playing video games for a living? Thanks to sites like Twitch and YouTube, popular gamers can do just that.

Ben Bowman, known as "Professor Broman," got his start speedrunning the open-world adventure game Saints Row 3, but now devotes his time to Destiny. And he makes money doing it.

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James Martin/CNET

With more than 430,000 followers on Twitch, the 28-year-old from Tampa, Florida, has signed advertising and merchandising deals. Dedicated fans also subscribe to his channel ($4.99 a month) or send him a tip after a particularly entertaining run.

"People are realizing they can make a career out of this," says "Kungfufruitcup," a 25-year-old female gamer who doesn't want to use her real name.

Followers can watch as Kungfufruitcup plays Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards -- the game on one side of the screen and her face on the other. She says she can make as much as a thousand dollars from a single playthrough, where she plays a game from start to finish without a stop. A really good stream can trigger a "donation train," as one fan's tip kicks off a wave of contributions.

Gaming for a cause

It's not all about making money for themselves. Speedrunners also play a big role in multiday events that raise money for charity. (To boost donations, gamers will even perform tricks like playing blindfolded.)

Bowman says he learned about speedrunning after watching gamers play for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

It's hard to argue with results. The two Games Done Quick charity events hosted by Twitch last year drew 1.9 billion viewership minutes and raised $2.8 million for charities such as Doctors Without Borders and the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

Myers, who holds the record for Super Mario Bros., participated in a Games Done Quick event in January. But gaming isn't his whole life. The 29-year-old also juggles a full-time job as a software engineer in Christiansburg, Virginia. Still, he likes the attention he got from his record-breaking run on Super Mario Bros. and hopes to see new faces in the speedrunning community.

The crazy thing? Myers believes he can go even faster. 

Roger Cheng (@RogerWCheng) manages CNET's mobile, e-commerce, digital media and Apple news coverage -- and when he can, binge watches TV shows on Netflix and sleeps (often at the same time).

This story appears in the spring 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.