They raised $50 million for charity with dusty consoles. Here’s how

A speedrunner playing a game at Awesome Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

$50 million. That’s an unimaginable amount of money, but in the 14 years that Games Done Quick (GDQ) has been holding speedrunning marathons, that’s how much money it’s raised for charity. It’s sure to be outdated by the time you’re reading this article, too — at the time of publishing, Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) 2024 in Minneapolis is entering its final push for donations, which will certainly add to the $50 million milestone.

Despite such a monumental total sum, GDQ says its median donation is just $25. It’s millions of people, from eager fans to devoted volunteers and tight-knit staff, that make the biannual marathon stream happen. It certainly doesn’t happen on its own. Twice a year, GDQ holds an event that runs for seven days, 24 hours per day, which is not only shown to a live audience in the thousands but also streamed live on Twitch for millions more.

I talked with Jason “Wyrm” Deng, director of technology at GDQ, to understand just how much goes into producing each event. As the director of technology at GDQ, Deng oversees almost every department. “There are very few departments at GDQ that actually don’t have technology requirements,” the engineer told me. Although runners, fans, and volunteers make up the soul of GDQ, technology is at the core of the operation — and it has been since GDQ’s inception.

Humble beginnings

Players at the first GDQ event.
Running with Speed

In the summer of 2009, the site administrator for Speed Demos Archive — the former hub for speedrunning leaderboards and records — Mike Uyama devised a plan. Runners were interested in organizing a marathon event to raise money for charity. A group called The Speed Gamers (TSG) flooded the Speed Demos Archives forums with suggestions.

Uyama gave it structure. “I said ‘whoa… this is a good idea, but we need to give it some focus.’ And so, I decided two things on the spot. One thing was that it should take place at MAGFest,” Uyama said in Eric “Omnigamer” Koziel’s Speedrun Science. 

MAGFest, or the Music and Gaming Festival, still runs today as a nonprofit whose stated mission is to “make the world a better place through video games.” Uyama and a group of about 20 runners got together to organize two days’ worth of speedruns at the 2010 MAGFest.

The runners were together, the schedule was filled, but there was one problem — the internet wouldn’t work. Availability was spotty, the hotel’s internet was restricted a low-bandwidth mode, and the floor of MAGFest was so loud that you couldn’t hear anyone on the stream.

The night prior, Uyama was testing the streaming setup in his mother’s basement. “I decided that the one place that everything did work was my Mom’s basement. So instead of doing it at MAGFest, we hauled all the equipment back to my house,” Uyama said in Speed Science. “I had never been so stressed in my life. Miraculously, though, the stream starts, and the rest is history.”

The first GDQ event.
The first GDQ event, called Classic Games Done Quick. Games Done Quick

At that first event, GDQ raised $10,531 for humanitarian organization CARE. And, as Uyama said, the rest is history. GDQ now hosts two main events each year, Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) that raises money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation in the winter, and SGDQ that raises money for Doctors Without Borders in the summer.

Although these main events are the star of the show, GDQ hosts events throughout the year, including Frame Fatales, which is an event with all women runners, and Unapologetically Black and Fast, which is an event with all Black runners. There’s also a revolving door of smaller streamed events live on the Games Done Quick Twitch channel each week — my favorite is Speedruns from the Crypt.

But there’s been a clear focus since the first event to make GDQ better, improving the in-person event and the stream to turn it into the behemoth it is today. And behind the scenes, it’s quite the operation.

Keep it live

Staff members watching the stream at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

Deng oversees a lot of tech at each GDQ event, but he’s directly responsible for the network stack and servers — a pretty big deal given GDQ’s history. GDQ needs to use the hotel’s internet, but one word consistently came up during my conversation with Deng: redundancy.

“We not only stream out of the hotel internet, we also have a whole backup system in case the hotel internet goes down. We run almost all of the systems on redundancy, and we pride ourselves on that.”

Although problems are few and far between, there’s a full system in place to keep the stream running if needed. That includes a cellular backup to keep the stream live, as well as a string of uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that can keep everything running for, Deng reckons, around 30 minutes without electricity.

That’s been put to the test, too. “We had one year where essentially the entire hotel power went down, and that included the lights in the stream room,” Deng told me. “Our runners were doing a run, and they see the lights shut off. But their consoles are on, the TVs are on, everything else is humming away. And they look over at the desk, like, ‘Do you need me to pause?’ And we say, ‘no, no, no, just keep going.'”

Problems are bound to come up with a stream that’s running around the clock for a week, but Deng tells me that there are backups for just about everything. In the worst case, Deng pointed to a minimum setup that’s required to keep the stream live, which will display GDQ’s technical difficulty screen that reads, “this has never happened before.”

The technical difficulty screen at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

If everything goes wrong, Deng says GDQ maintains a live view that it can feed directly into the stream. “That’s sort of the last line of defense, falling back onto our backup encoder, and then the backup encoder getting a single feed of the tech difficulty slate.”

With more recent events, you’ll notice that the tech difficulty slate rarely comes up, and that’s because there’s so much redundancy is place. “We have so much redundancy that sometimes it’s difficult to actually get to a ‘this has never happened before’ slate. Because the system wants to keep chugging along, and we built it that way,” Deng told me. “At one point, I actually had a hardware switch in to force a fallback on the tech difficulty slate.”

More than a stream

A stage manager making callouts at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

Deng told me that keeping the stream live is the first priority. GDQ is a fundraising event for charity, after all, and the majority of donations come through the stream — donations are actually made directly to the charity that GDQ is supporting. There’s an in-person component of GDQ as well, and that complicates the tech a bit more. “The show needs to work for both online and offline, so there’s many different departments that serve both needs,” Deng says.

GDQ is dealing with decade’s worth of consoles, dozens of runners with their own needs, live and streamed audio, and tight turnaround times to get one runner off the stage and the next set up. In previous years, GDQ only had a single stage. When a runner was finished, the stream would cut to an overlay, and 12 to 15 minutes would pass before the next run would start.

“Last year, we introduced a second stage, which means the next runner can be put on the stage, and we can run through probably three quarters of our tech check checklist.” Deng says the team can turn around a run in as little as four minutes now.

The tech team also maintains a stock of consoles, particularly retro consoles that have been modded for modern display systems. GDQ takes RGB colors out through SCART — an old analogue video connection — runs them through a RetroTink converter, and then feeds an HDMI matrix. That matrix is able to output signals to the stream and to the various monitors that GDQ has set up both for runners and for the in-person audience.

A stage manager watching the Games Done Quick stream.
Games Done Quick

It’s an elaborate setup, but GDQ isn’t able to just take a video feed and call it a day. It needs computing power to run its complex overlays and encode the stream without any downtime. Deng says GDQ is using three computers equipped with AMD’s Threadripper CPUs. There’s a compositing computer that handles the different elements on screen, an encoding computer that keeps the stream looking clean, and a recording computer to keep archives of the marathon.

Today, GDQ has moved toward enterprise-grade hardware to keep everything running smoothly, but it wasn’t always that way. “They used to be box computers, and we did that because we wanted to be able to easily service them. But, it’s a lot of stage space, you still have that problem where it’s sitting under the desk and someone kicks it,” Deng said.

In more recent events, GDQ has combined some of its PCs and put them into server racks to reduce space. “I’ve combined the recording PC and the encoding PC into one because, partially, the advancements in encoding and streaming equipment. It’s running an Nvidia RTX Ada 4000 GPU, and it has a lot of encoding power,” Deng said. “We want something that’s supposed to be running for 24 hours, for seven days. You know, ECC memory, all that stuff. I’ve been very happy.”

New tech

A runner playing Bloodstained at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

Although GDQ has added redundancy, modded its consoles, and moved onto server hardware, it still has tech challenges to face. The most recent hurdle has been gaming monitors, Deng says. Runners have been calling for higher refresh rates, not only due to smoothness but also because certain tricks need them. Lies of P, for example, has a trick that works best at 120 frames per second (fps), and you need to be able to see that if you’re running the game.

“The newest challenge we had that runners were demanding, especially the PC runners, was a 120Hz/240Hz signal. You know, the rhythm game folks, that’s certainly a huge ask from them, Resident Evil running animation tied to fps, damage tied to fps,” Deng says. It’s not as simple as throwing a faster monitor on stage, though. GDQ needs to run it through an upscaler/downscaler, as a “fuzzy” signal, as Deng calls it, doesn’t work well with the signal chain. “We want to get it to 1080p/60 as fast as possible.”

Two runners playing Hades at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

A high refresh rate doesn’t mean the monitor will work, either. “It’s not good enough that a monitor is rated at a low GtG [response time]. We want, what is the true input delay on a monitor? We sort of had three requirements for any monitor that goes on stage. One, a good on-screen display so that if we need to change some setting on the monitor, it can be done physically. It had to have very, very low latency, and it needed to be cost effective.”

The Omnigamer, author of Speedrun Science, actually ran a series of intense tests to determine what the best monitors to use would be, Deng says. The organization uses a combination of BenQ and ViewSonic displays, and Deng says the higher refresh rates have even replaced the need for heavy, expensive CRT televisions for retro games in many cases.

A collective effort

A runner smiling at Games Done Quick.
Games Done Quick

An event like GDQ truly takes an army. You have different departments of tech, from the stream to the stage, stage managers and producers, a list of hosts and interviewers, and all the volunteers that come together to get the work done. “GDQ has always been very reliant on volunteers… and so, you know, [the stream] is 24/7, and we’re not expecting them to stay there for 12 hours.”

Still, there’s a lot of pressure. With a rat’s nest of cables, dozens of staff and volunteers, endless racks of equipment, and a stream that holds millions of dollars for charity on its back, there’s pressure to keep everything running. “Sometimes, you start to lose sight that you’re running this thing for charity,” Deng told me.

Despite that pressure, Deng says that the community surrounding GDQ is what really keeps it going. “Your audience is there to enjoy themselves. A lot of the times they really are behind you. They’re just happy that the show is happening, and even through tech problems. As long as you’re letting them know what’s happening, that you’re doing your best to get them the best show possible, there’s really a lot of understanding out there. That’s been very heartening for me.”