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You Can Now Make a Career Out of Playing Zelda Really, Really Fast

A Swede is challenging the reigning champ to become the Ocarina of Time "speedrunning" champ.

As his avatar prepared to engage in deadly combat, Cosmo Wright panicked. The 25-year-old with pale skin, androgynous features and an amorphous haircut could almost pass for the real-life version of Link, the hero of the Zelda video game franchise and the elfin character that the professional gamer spent eight hours a day controlling. Wright minimised the chat window on Twitch, the live-streaming video platform that sponsors him. He didn't want the 7,000 people watching – and going ape-shit – to flip him out.

Annoncering

He had tried 1,200 times over the course of almost a decade to get to this point, but knew it could easily be another 1,200 before he got another chance to achieve his dream. “I spent most of the time before the Ganon fight practicing the infinite sword glitch input on the control over and over and trying to relax and have pure focus,” he would later explain in a YouTube commentary that's racked up 450,000 views.

The “infinite sword glitch” – known in the speedrunning community as ISG – is just one of the more than 300 glitches that diehard Ocarina of Time fans have sussed out in a decade worth of hardcore research. And it's also a crucial tool that allowed Wright to condense dozens of hours worth of Ocarina gameplay into 18 minutes and 10 seconds back in July. As the end-credits rolled after his breath-taking run, the gamer laughed and held back tears.

Ocarina of Time has sold 11 million copies since 1998, and is one of the most beloved games ever. But now, 16 years later, Wright is making a living by pulling back the curtain on its coding flaws. Come November, a 24-year-old rival from Sweden hopes to become the next guy to turn a childhood obsession into some serious cash flow.

There are about 50 people in the world – the vast majority of whom are male, 20-something and white – who focus on playing Ocarina of Time at the highest level. They congregate at streams like Twitch and SpeedRunsLive, as well as on the forums of ZeldaSpeedRuns.com. Cosmo got interested in the game again in 2003, when it was re-released for GameCube. Two years later, he stumbled upon Speed Demos forums, which was the beginning of the speed-running community. “I guess really the first person who started this crazy adventure was a guy from Finland named Kazooie,” explains Wright. “He figured out how to do things like get into the Shadow Temple before you were supposed to, get the Requiem of Spirit as child Link – basically play the game out of order.”

Annoncering

Back then, Wright learned Zelda tricks by trying to emulate pictures he'd find on the forums. Once he'd learned to exploit certain glitches the community had found, he could make Link go through walls or access areas that were typically off-limits, sometimes fooling the game to transport the character through time and space. Today, though, speedrunners have technology that eliminates the guesswork. Software exists to read Link's precise coordinates when performing the tricks, which means you can then commit certain manoeuvres to procedural memory. “First you solve the puzzle,” he told me. “And then you practice.”

Cosmo Wright's infamous Ocarina of Time speedrun

This elimination of guesswork is exactly why some people are critical of the speedrunning community. They say it takes the mystery and joy out of games. But tens of millions of people disagree, and they're starting to see gaming as not only a legitimate athletic endeavour, but one that's worthy of spectating. When Twitch launched in 2012, it allowed players to stream live on the site and vie for sponsorships based on popularity. A sponsored gamer's page would have a subscription option and advertisements. Sensing that it could come to rival YouTube, Amazon bought the site for £605 million this past August.

That's the same month that Joel Westerberg, a soft-spoken Swede who vaguely resembles Jesse Bradford, started both speed-running and streaming. He came across Wright's video online and felt inspired to take on a remarkably difficult schedule, attending medical school from 8AM to 3PM and then playing Zelda from 4PM until midnight.

Annoncering

“I don't really do much else,” he told me. “And I don't sleep much, either. Never have.” He has a long-distance relationship with a girlfriend who he sees about once per month and says he couldn't handle much more than that, with his streaming responsibilities and all. “I basically have to have a very strict schedule, and if I'm gonna do stuff outside of school or streaming, I have to know far in advance. I've lost some friends because they don’t really approve.”

And even though Wright has been practicing for nearly a decade, this dedicated newcomer is the champion's closest competitor. He's only 10 seconds away from Wright's world record, and the two will be competing in a live race on the 27th of November in Sweden. If Westerberg claims the title – or even just beats Wright – it'll be a huge step toward becoming a full-time streamer. But more than the advertising money, Westerberg says he cares about the rush.

“It's the most intense feeling I've ever experienced,” he says. “I can get so filled with it that it's pretty hard to stay focused, because you know you might not get a chance to get like this again. But when you pull it off, you feel like a god.”

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

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