ProfessorBroman and the Borderlands 2 Speedrun
In this segment, we'll be featuring ProfessorBroman, a Twitch.tv livestreamer with a very unique story. You can watch his streams Monday through Friday starting at around 9:30 Eastern time at his Twitch channel and also follow him on Twitter.
In my time spent watching livestreamers on Twitch.tv, I've met a lot of really interesting and cool people, but unlike the people we meet when just gaming, livestreamers let hundreds or even thousands of people into their lives in a way that's vastly different. One such guy is a currently lesser-known streamer called ProfessorBroman AKA Ben Bowman, who streams his speedruns of Borderlands 2 as well as other games like Surgeon Simulator 2013 and Anodyne. The community has split Borderlands 2's speedruns up into several categories, and as of this writing he's just lost and fighting back to get one of the world records. He's been talking for a couple of weeks about his hopes to get the chance to participate in the Awesome Games Done Quick marathon, which is a week-long livestream scheduled to be streamed on Twitch.tv this coming January - with all donation proceeds going towards charity.
But unlike many speedrunners that are looking to do their gaming exhibitions at AGDQ or the Summer version that just finished (SGDQ, also known as Summer Games Done Quick), ProfessorBroman has a very personal connection to all of this - the donations from last year's AGDQ that were sent to the Prevent Cancer Foundation almost surely went towards detecting Ben's father's prostate cancer, leading to a full recovery.
What makes this interesting is that it wasn't like Ben found out how his dad was saved from prostate cancer - a real killer where detection, not treatment, is the more difficult part - and only then started streaming with the communities like Speed Demos Archive. It's not like that. He was already doing speedruns with SDA when he found out how his father's cancer was detected.
But let's stop for a second and set things up for those who don't know about Borderlands 2 speedruns or what these speedrun marathon things even are.
So, what does the King Professor of Bros actually play on-stream? As with many other Twitch.tv streamers today, it's a mix of several games with a new one occasionally, but his main focus currently is on single-segment Borderlands 2 speedruns. He works in accordance with SDA rules on speedruns that allow for any exploit that the developer themselves allowed in the game at any point, so he uses an earlier patch version of the game that includes a bug (which has since been fixed by developer Gearbox) that can be exploited to give guns infinite ammo. It involves using a Vladof rocket launcher, and it's best exploited with the kinds of Jakobs shotguns in-game that hit very hard but can only fire once or twice before having to be reloaded. With the glitch active, he can mash his fire button and shoot a Jakobs-brand gun as fast as he can pull the trigger without using ammo or having to reload. And what's the impact? It's pretty huge: "Not worrying about reloading or running out of ammunition lets you run the game's triggers and kill the bosses at a much lower level that would otherwise be possible. The speedrun is really about damage output; the better your damage per second, the faster you will complete the game."
There are numerous other tricks - grenade jumps to skip content, small manipulations to skip cutscenes or long ECHO recorder voice clips, traveling out of bounds to move through a map much more quickly than usual, and lots of attempts to manipulate luck - after all, you're never guaranteed to get a specific gun with specific damage in the entirety of Borderlands 2. (Even the starter Gearbox-branded guns given to players with the proper DLC at the very start of the game can vary wildly in their damage and usefulness!)
This makes BL2 a difficult game to speedrun, as it takes about three hours in the best of conditions, it's full of randomness, and it still involves lots of pinpoint aiming accuracy, especially before the player can make use of the Mechromancer's Anarchy and Close Enough abilities, and plenty of good luck. But why would Ben even bother with this game specifically, when it's such a grueling speedrun and there are so many other great games that take a fraction of the time to complete a run through? It's because he loves the game, but he never got into the gun-farming that many players do once they make max level. As Ben says, "Speedrunning gives me a way to keep playing and enjoying one of my favorite games almost indefinitely."
Some say it started with a group's playing of the horrible cult classic game Penn & Teller's Smoke & Mirrors, an unreleased Sega CD game with a mini-game called Desert Bus. In this game, you must travel between Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas in a bus with crappy wheel alignment on a completely straight highway for about eight hours - yes, eight hours. There's no traffic, an insect smacks into the windshield after five hours, and once every few seconds the bus will start to go off the road, threatening a game over in just a few seconds, unless the player corrects course. And when you finally get to Vegas, the reward is simply that you get to turn around and drive the 8 hours back again.
It's a terrible game but a weird and innovative experiment, and a group back in 2007 made a charity livestream out of playing through this awful mini-game and raised quite a bit of donation money in doing it. Speedrun groups like SpeedDemosArchive took this idea and made something more interesting out of it: the idea is to come together regularly and put on livestreamed marathons of single-segment speedruns of the games they excel at, with all proceeds going to charity. The most recent of these was this summer's SGDQ which raised over $250,000 for Doctors Without Borders in five days (plus several days of "bonus stream"). The previous one, AGDQ back in January, ran for more than 10 days straight, and they raised over $400,000 during this time for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
But it was the 2012 AGDQ, also with donations benefiting Prevent Cancer, where Broman's father comes in. "He was lucky enough to have his prostate cancer detected early using some newer methods as well as getting chosen for a new type of treatment that was under study," Ben says. "After talking to him about what drove him to get checked out in the first place, he told me about some website that just struck him one day and he thought, 'I should talk to my doctor.' He showed me the website and to my surprise it was the Prevent Cancer foundation's website. I know from my experience working with non-profits that fundraisers like AGDQ keep websites like that one running and fund grants from those organizations to researchers in the field of early detection."
So that's right, Ben was doing speedruns with the SpeedDemosArchive people before he even found out that their marathon helped to save his dad's life. "I began to be active on SDA and in the speedrun community a year after my Dad got through his fight with cancer", Ben says. "It was not until our recent conversation that I discovered the link between the resources that helped my Dad and the speedrunning community. So the way I see it people in the community were responsible for funding the organization that, with the help of treatment, saved my Dad's life." So if you've ever seen these speedrun marathons and wanted proof that a donation to one of them is going to the right place, look no further than Broman, who was a part of SDA's own community, inadvertently helped by them - although they help plenty of people that have nothing to do with video games, either.
There are a lot of speedrunners with big audiences and impressive visibility on the internet now compared to just a couple of years ago. The rise of Twitch.tv for livestreaming games has given these people a new, live space to do their runs from, and while there are only a few runners that get thousands of viewers regularly - namely, Adam_AK and Joshimuz with their Grand Theft Auto series speedruns, and Siglemic and CosmoWright with their many classic game runs - plenty of others discuss and explain their runs while simultaneously chatting with fans and other speedrunners, live. You might think that these people would prefer to concentrate and not constantly be distracted by Skype calls and text chat, but speedrunning is a grueling pastime where a world-record pace might be preceded by months (!) or more of practice work, constant resetting of the game, and hundreds of attempts to get a good attempt off the ground. During that time, it's easy to go a little crazy, and many speedrunners enjoy having people around to keep them sane.
Does the wild open-chat environment of a place like Twitch make for something less polished than a verified SDA run that's recorded at high quality and verified by the community? Sure, but when you do it live in one segment, the audience can see you fail - most speedrun attempts do not improve on a player's personal best, much less the world record - and then eventually succeed, and that success is all the more satisfying for the runner and his or her audience. Those with some fame in the speedrun community must still work hard to run a good stream and community, but they're rewarded with Twitch partnerships and donations that can be enough for these players to actually make a living.
All of this makes timeslots at marathons like SDA's Awesome Games Done Quick, which is scheduled for January 2014, pretty highly coveted, since these events often give these speedrunners a bit of notoriety which they can take home with them to boost their own livestreams. Ben is campaigning to get into AGDQ with a few games including Anodyne and Surgeon Simulator 2013, but the biggest is of course Borderlands 2, where he just had to give up the world record for what is called the "Any % with DLC" speedrun. (If you're wondering, it's counted in a separate "with DLC" category because Gaige the Mechromancer, the character he uses, is not part of the base game - nor are the Gearbox weapons that you start with when you begin a new game). He's not trying to capitalize on the fact that SDA inadvertently saved his dad's life to get a spot at AGDQ this coming January, but it is a pretty cool story, isn't it?
And in a new development, Ben has started thinking of doing a four-player cooperative run on that same pre-patch version of Borderlands 2 to submit to SDA, specifically for the upcoming AGDQ marathon in January with three other players who have already committed to going. While it's not a faster speedrun than playing alone - many more enemies spawn in four-player mode and each has much more health - it does break the game much more. Not only can Axton make use of a glitch to run at ludicrous speeds, but Maya has a glitch with her instant Phaselock resurrection that can make other players pretty much invincible. Throw in infinite ammo for all players, and you can start to see how insane that gets - just look at the sequence at about 3 hours and 2 minutes into this Twitch archive to see what I'm talking about. The beginning of the run when these glitches can't be done would be boring, but it'd get really interesting after about an hour in!
In asking questions of Ben for this article, I picked a wide range of things to ask. His perspective as a smaller streamer without Twitch partnership (and therefore no direct revenue from Twitch) is interesting, as he's been streaming five days a week for months and hasn't found some of the bigger success that other streamers have just yet. One thing I had to know was what he thought made a three-hour game full of randomness a good candidate for speedruns, and what he told me was that it keeps up the tradition of FPS speedruns pretty well: "On the RPG side it has planning out character specs and finding the discovering the best equipment. And on the FPS side it has all the usual elements of running an FPS speedrun like grenade jumping, out of bounds and recalling enemy spawn points. Each of these things blend together in a very challenging and random way each time I do an attempt with the game."
But still, three hours? Isn't that a bit tedious, both for the runner and for the viewers? A lot can go wrong in that time, and can't it make an error at the end excruciating? I've seen Broman lose a couple of really good, world-record-pace runs due to something ridiculous happening that kills him more than two hours into a run (and this can easily happen in BL2 when you're level 20 and enemies are almost level 30), and he will just laugh it off immediately and start over. The only time he's really gotten upset on stream is when his chat gets rowdy or annoying, and then it's only for a few seconds. Some streamers find success when they rage at the camera and make things a little uncomfortable as a result, but that's not Broman. He's almost as unflappable as LethalFrag, a nighttime streamer that I've profiled on AtomicGamer (and who's still truckin' on his two-year challenge).
But as far as popular runners that play very long games, Joshimuz might be the gold standard as GTA San Andreas takes six hours, has many of the same frustrations as what I've listed above, and people still love watching it. In this respect, what Broman's doing isn't outside the realm of good, live speedrun entertainment. Many people stream on Twitch on a daily basis for months at a time while never getting more than a dozen viewers, but Broman seems to me to be close to breaking out and getting a more sizable audience and the ability to make some kind of living from streaming and speedrunning. Either way, I'll still be watching because of my love of Borderlands 2 as well as my enjoyment of the brand of entertainment that Ben delivers. Maybe you'll join me soon - remember, he starts at 9:30 Eastern and goes through most afternoons on Monday through Friday. See you in the Broman chat!