Games

The Speedrunner Who Wasn’t: How a Community Dealt with an Elaborate Cheater

It would take weeks of defensive public statements, private battles, Reddit threads, and hostile exchanges with a reporter before the truth came out.

by Patrick Klepek
May 30 2019, 4:16pm

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

In April, Ryan did what a lot of speedrunners do: attempted a world record, trying to beat a video game faster than anyone else, in ways the developers never anticipated. His speedrun, a full eight minutes under the previous record, was met with suspicion, leading to the unprecedented formation of an investigatory council, the expunging of Ryan’s runs, and weeks of vitriolic back-and-forth. On one side, a community trying to protect the integrity of their game. On the other, a person claiming they were targeted for the great crime of having good luck.

The whole time, though, Ryan knew the truth: He was a cheater. There was no world record.

But first, he would spend weeks denying it with defensive public statements, private battles, Reddit threads, hostile exchanges with the reporter writing this very story, and eventually paying a random online video editor to “pretend” to discover exonerating evidence before Ryan would confess some form of the truth to a community he claimed to adore.

“I cheated, and lied profusely to cover everything up in a concerted effort to hopefully calm things down with how real everything became so fast,” he would later write publicly.

There have been high-profile cheating cases in video games before, like the infamous fall of Billy Mitchell, known for his high scores in Donkey Kong. Or Todd Rogers, who beat the Atari 2600 game Dragster in just 5.51 seconds in 1982, a record disproven only last year.

1558648970323-Speedrun_Ocarina_of_Time_-_Team_Superplay_-_MangAzur_2013_-_P1590514
Speedrunning often happens on specialized equipment, or a specific version of a game, like the Japanese release. Note the use of an old CRT TV. Photo courtesy of

But Ryan is not either of these people. No one was really paying attention to this. What followed tells us a lot about communities in the Internet age, where fans of any interest, no matter how small, can find each other. And where there are people, there is often conflict.

“Let's just leave this be, take this for what it is and appreciate it,” wrote one member of the community, moments after the apology arrived. It was one of several confused responses to a moment that had gripped an otherwise sleepy, quiet group of fans trying to play a video game as fast as possible. It’s not a place where much drama happens. What are you supposed to do when someone starts breaking the rules, when there’s no higher authority to appeal to because you’ve been relying on social norms?

Ryan agreed to speak to VICE about the lies and deception if his name was changed and the game he was speedrunning (we’ll just call it a Japanese role-playing game) was also kept private, out of concerns over potential harassment. His desire to keep our conversation to email, rather than establishing a dialogue over the phone, gave me pause. A reluctance to share key pieces of information raised red flags.

Sorting fact from fiction in this story was a challenge; Ryan was an unreliable narrator. It makes it difficult to feel supreme confidence in his assertion of even the most basic of facts, like his fandom for the game he was speedrunning. His love for the series goes back to childhood, he told me, one of the reasons he initially fell in love with video games, when his family would pass the controller around, taking turns as each of them made progress.

That sounds reasonable enough. That is, until you learn about everything else.

Sex, Lies, And Video Inconsistencies

Speedrunning isn’t formally supported by most video games, especially older ones. It’s a way of playing games people came up with after the fact, which means recording a speedrun requires the use of some various hacked together tools in order to prove it’s authentic. And while some speedrunning happens in public, most of it happens in the privacy of people’s homes and apartments, often on popular livestreaming services like YouTube or Twitch. Successful runs are then submitted to various organizations, like speedrun.com, to be verified.

(This list is a great way to get up to speed on various speedrunning terms.)

Questions were raised about the authenticity of the run specifically because it was so much faster than the run before it—eight minutes is a really huge gap for an old video game because players have already spent years perfecting the fastest path In speedrunning, large breakthroughs are possible but uncommon; speedruns are often built on one another a few seconds at a time. Suspicion led to investigation, and investigation led the community to draft a list of “inconsistencies,” technical issues with the video that could have reasonable explanations but weren’t readily apparent and which Ryan was asked to explain.

There were the technical questions and observations—”odd pauses in movement,” “significant ghosting and video quality differences,” “split timer starts also showed inconsistencies.” These problems would not be visible to the average person, perhaps even the average speedrunning fan. They require a pixel-level expertise to observe and grasp.

Take this, for example:

“Controller inputs can be heard on many streams of attempts, but are absent in WR runs, despite the fact that the background can be heard through the mic. One exception is found during the run in the last dungeon, where inputs suddenly appear after not being present all run. Coupled with that, the inputs showed no consistency. The inputs and movements were 1-3 frames apart, 7-8 frames apart, and sometimes 13-17 frames apart. Sometimes the tap preceded the movement, and sometimes movement preceded the tap.”

Translation: When Ryan was playing, it was often possible to hear his fingers tap the controller before it was reflected onscreen in the game. Weirdly—or conveniently—these taps disappeared during the world record runs. But even when it was possible to hear the taps of Ryan’s fingers, they appeared to be slightly behind what was happening in the game.

There was also the question of Ryan’s incredible, impossible luck.

In speedruns, “luck” is often called “RNG,” short for “random number generator.” As most players know, video game enemies and environments often have random elements. Will the skeleton mage attack from the left or the right? Will it be sunny or rainy when you leave the inn? Sometimes, those unpredictable things will go in the player’s favor. An enemy moves in a direction that allows them to run down a faster path, for example. Other times, they won’t. Unless you’re Ryan. For Ryan, the enemy always moved the right way. It’s possible for a person to be blessed with the kind of run that grants favorable RNG over and over again, but what are the chances of that?

“There is getting lucky,” wrote the moderators, “there is getting lucky, and there is getting lucky back to back to back.”

Between the many inconsistencies in the video and Ryan’s suspicious RNG, the moderators decided they needed to take action. “After gathering this collection of data and observations, a team of moderators discussed how to move forward,” their public statement said. “We all agreed that most of the things on the list, alone, didn’t count for a whole lot. [...] However, in taking everything in together, the consensus was that these runs were just too suspicious.”

During his time under the microscope, Ryan did not call bullshit, or show any anger. Instead, he embraced the call for truth, and struck a shockingly conciliatory tone for someone who’d been called out for cheating.

“All parties were calm and friendly,” said the moderators, transcribing their eventual confrontation. “Each concern was brought up to the runner one at a time for explanation. [...] It should be noted that the runner was 100% calm and cooperative with our questions. At no point was he defensive, worried about his reputation, or concerned about his previous efforts in speedrunning.”

“There is getting lucky, there is getting lucky, and there is getting lucky back to back to back.”

“I maintain the position that I ran each of them legitimately," said Ryan, albeit while also acknowledging some technical issues, "and am more than willing to run each of them again to prove this by re-running with multiple camera setups showing either me, monitor, inputs, etc."

“We all hope we can move on positively from this,” concluded the moderators.

The other conclusion: All his runs were considered tainted and thus invalid, and any future runs would require additional scrutiny. He was, however, allowed to stay in the community.

“You'd imagine it would be stressful,” Ryan told VICE at the time, back when he was claiming everything was all a big misunderstanding, “but when you have nothing to hide you find a way to take a very diplomatic approach to it all. As I've spoken with others in the speedrunning community, they seem to be siding with me (if you want to call it that) because no runner who falsified that many records would be as willing as I have been to cooperate.”

In a public statement, Ryan said he’d continue “speedrunning the games I love in the future.”

Just When I Thought I Was Out

In another world, maybe that’s the end of the story? Ryan accepts being caught red-handed and waits to re-enter the community he’s become part of, and later finds a way to legitimately nail the speedruns. But that’s not where it ended; the reason he was talking to me was to give his version of events, and cause enough turmoil in the community to get people on his side. To that end, publicly, Ryan was accommodating and reasonable, but privately, he was working the community, and trying to turn some in his favor by alleging a conspiracy.

“The moderators [had] been getting a lot of private messages from community members about weird messages Ryan’s been sending them and stuff,” said Noah, a community investigator tasked with examining the videos. (Like other names in this story, Noah’s has been changed to protect their identity.)

“Pretty much all of them have said they don't trust Ryan," they continued. "I've probably been the most openly salty about it though which I kind of regret. It's definitely not helping fight his story that we all are colluding against him.”

As Ryan returned to speedrunning in the days that followed, Noah continued examining the old videos. What the investigators found was fuzzy and inconclusive, lacking a smoking gun but weird. Ryan was streaming as though everything was fine. The community had moved on, preferring the status quo of quiet chatter. It’s often the case that drama fuels more drama, and while this was true outside this community, it wasn’t true inside.

A common way for a speedrunner to cheat—which, to be perfectly clear, really doesn’t happen all that often—is video splicing, where the cheater carefully lines up multiple speedruns through crafty video editing, making it appear as though it’s the same run. (Part of what makes speedrunning so hard is having to string together everything without mistakes.)

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For decades, people have been perfecting speedruns of various games, including the original Super Mario Bros., figuring there is, actually, an optimal way to play the game.

By trying to get in the head of a cheater, Noah managed to find proof of what they’d suspected all along, but it required hunting through pixels for the smallest of slip-ups.

“I just had the random idea to look at this little animation that plays around the player cursor in dungeons,” said Noah. “I forgot that the map doesn't go away during boss fights and if he wanted to splice one, he might not think to check that animation to see if it lines up so I just started checking tough bosses that would be obvious splice points and found a few.”

Because video games don't include native speedrunning tools, it falls to experts to call balls and strikes. The problem for folks like Noah is that cheaters have an enormous headstart, and it's not necessarily clear where to look. Even if you know where to look, success and failure is defined pixels at a time.

By now, exhaustion was palpable, and patience wearing thin. This small, dedicated community wanted the outside world to pay attention when one of their own did something cool, interesting, or record-breaking—not gawk as they try to sort through a cheating scandal. Through every step of this process, reddit threads would pop up, full of speculation. But like so many other things on the internet, drama sells, which is why they wanted to end this.

“We have zero desire to drag anyone's name through the mud, and we had better not see anyone do that either,” said one of the other organizers in their private Discord channel at the time. “It's just time for everyone to move past this.”

“This is something none of us were prepared to deal with,” said another moderator, “and we tried to handle as best could.”

Noah showed me the video—and it was damning. Ryan was confronted with the evidence, and banned from the Discord for lying. No suspension, no fancy rules to explain all the “inconsistencies.” He was no longer welcome.

“I fully maintain that my runs were legitimate and that I did not perform anything of which I was accused,” Ryan wrote in a statement he dumped on PasteBin, dubbed his “final comments” on the matter. “I'm sure this will raise many questions with the latest post made today, and speculators have every right to question my stance in innocence here. In fact, it portrays me as a sociopath.”

In this moment, Ryan briefly provided a knowing glimpse behind the curtain.

1558647828578-Image-2019-05-23-at-44317-PM
Sometimes, speedrunners need a new challenge. "Blind" plays are increasingly popular.

Ryan agreed the “logic behind it was sound,” but refused to admit any culpability. He continued to hide behind the same cheery facade that had turned one mistake into a cascading nightmare, thanking the community for the friendships earned, and excitedly looking towards a future where he could… support other speedrunners?

At the same time all of this was happening in the public eye, Ryan was privately spinning his defense to me over email, telling me the moderators have colluded against him, and various “people” are privately siding with his side of the story, even if they aren’t speaking about it. Plus, he told me, he’d recently “reclaimed” one of his disputed records with the new rules. True? Who knows.

“Don't you think it seems rather silly for me to have falsified all of these if it was that easy for me to reclaim it with the added verification?” he told me. It was similar to what he’d just told the investigators: the senselessness and sloppiness of what he’d done was so obvious that it became evidence of his innocence. The implication was that, by not believing him, you were accusing him of things much more personal and loaded than simply cheating on a speedrun.

The breathlessness is only matched by the audaciousness—and the sheer weirdness.

For example, when Ryan’s runs were expunged, he “interpreted” this agreement to mean he would also take down the archives from his personal Twitch and YouTube. But he didn’t just take down the runs in question, he took everything down, which is part of what pressed the investigators to take a closer look. The mass deletion suggested he was hiding even more.

Even more convenient: Ryan told me personal copies of the runs on his hard drive had been deleted in order to save space. How odd! Because he no longer had access to the original file, it was entirely possible, he proposed, that Noah had edited the “proof” against him, a way for the investigators to justify their witch hunt. He claimed to be purchasing a piece of recovery software that would, possibly, give him a chance to find the original file and prove innocence.

“I believe that Noah had purposely worded it [the agreement] in a way to have me remove my own evidence (knowing full well that he already had the master copy),” said Ryan, “and would begin work where necessary to actually frame me for something I didn't do.”

Ryan also blamed Noah for a series of anonymous threats made against his family, threats that allegedly culminated in letters that appeared in the mail. During our whole exchange, even after confessing, Ryan never produced proof of these threats, but claimed he contemplated filing a police report, before eventually deciding not to. He did provide screenshots of several Twitter DMs with threatening language towards his family, including mentioning the city he lives in. The account no longer exists on Twitter, if it ever did.

The Inevitable Plot Twist

After Ryan had been essentially exiled from the community, he retreated to a private Discord, where he spun tales of deception and conspiracy amongst the faithful. (There were only a few.) I was hanging in this Discord, tracking the fallout, when a random person showed up, claiming to have the magic file Ryan was looking for. It was like a season finale cliffhanger from Lost.

I actually managed to briefly chat with this anonymous person, too.

“I saved the video from Twitch when it was approved on speedrun,” they told me. “I download when run was approved to take notes and view off Twitch because bad internet. I saw the report saying 4 splice but looked and saw 0 splice.”

Then, the person uploaded the video to YouTube, and immediately vanished.

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Same, honestly.

“Well, crazy turn of events here,” Ryan wrote in an email, unaware I was in the Discord and already talking with this person. “Someone popped into my Discord saying they have the original VOD from Twitch and it shows no splicing. I think the theory will hold true once they're done uploading the video.”

That is crazy, Ryan.

Try to remember the layers of lies being juggled at this point: lying about an initial world record speedrun; lying when confronted with evidence of cheating; publicly saying the people who called you a cheater were perfectly nice people and you'd like to continue being in a community with them; privately sowing dissent in an attempt to change public perception of the investigators; knowingly participating in a conspiracy and looping in a reporter, acting surprised.

Ryan told me he’d had “no contact with that person.” That was, of course, not true.

This stranger, he would later tell me, was a random video editor and software engineer found by posting on UpWork, a place to connect freelancers with contract work. The job posting allegedly asked for someone to edit a video file, and whose changes needed to look “seamless.” For a few extra dollars, the person would appear on Discord and make some additional claims. Ta-da.

There was a problem: the “new” video—excuse me, “original” video—had its own red flags, which made clear Ryan was sloppily trying to clean up his mess with even further deception. Some frames of video showed additional evidence of splicing.

It was at that point Ryan nuked his online presence: Twitch, YouTube, Twitter. He sent me an email showing appreciation for my interest, but alleged that additional threats had arrived at his home, and “exposure is unsafe and unhealthy for my family.” He said I no longer had permission to post our correspondence. (Which was untrue, as we were on the record the entire time.)

A few days of silence later, Ryan posted a lengthy statement to the community he’d lied to.

“The reason I’m typing all this now is because I just came back from my first professional appointment to get help for the things I’ve done,” he said. “It’s a severe, severe mental condition that I have that would cause me to blatantly lie, deceive, and cheat to be accepted.”

He ended his apology with well wishes for the community and its future, and most seemed simultaneously relieved Ryan would be seeking help and the community could move on.

"The problem was I felt everyone saw me as just a hobbyist, so having two viewers watch with me doing great was frustrating.”

That community was already niche—it’s not the kind that would typically get a splashy headline on Kotaku or reddit when a record was broken. But still, being noteworthy in a niche is its own satisfaction, and Ryan claimed he’d grown frustrated nobody noticed him.

“All I was thinking in the moment was that this would hopefully end questioning of my legitimacy as a speedrunner,” he said. “I was still relatively new to it all and had great times done without splicing—top three in every category I ran. The problem was I felt everyone saw me as just a hobbyist, so having two viewers watch with me doing great was frustrating.”

With all the deceptions and lies, it’s hard to know what to make of the contradictions that are still there when Ryan is supposedly telling the truth. Earlier versions of this story contained a lot of details about his personal life, as told to me by him. But the longer I spent with the story, the more my editor and I sat with it—how much could we really believe, exactly?

That was the same dilemma in the community. He wanted people to respect him seriously as a legitimate speedrunner, so he posted illegitimate runs in the hopes his speedrunning peers would notice him. They did, of course, but what they noticed was someone who seemed to be lying. So Ryan dug the hole deeper, trying (with lies) to convince people of his integrity.

“I was honestly hoping that it would be over the night the moderators initially came forward,” he said. “Although I still didn't feel the need to confess, I was hoping it would be over and that there would be enough doubt from outside eyes that they would just see it as someone looking to clear their name.”

One of my last communications with Ryan a few weeks back.

“I'm sure this all happened for a reason,” he said, “and being able to focus more on work and family life is great.”

Within a few hours of his departure, however, his former community had already moved on. They turned to congratulating a player on having a really successful run, and chided another for procrastinating. No investigations, no whisper campaigns about players and moderators. It’s still a small community, and most runs aren’t that big a deal. Besides, they trust each other.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've seen any interesting stories in the speedrunning world, reach out at patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal.

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