Speedrunning and esports might have their differences, but they share that core drive to compete, to improve, to break new ground. For the UK’s fastest 70-star Super Mario 64 speedrunner, Biinny (aka Lee Whelan), patience, passion and consistency are key.
Unlike the latest esports games, many of which constantly evolve with new patches, gameplay tweaks and metas, Mario 64 is the same as it was when it first launched back in 1996 on the Nintendo 64. And Biinny’s love of the game has helped him amass a following of around 70,000 on Twitch. We sit down with the 31-year-old speedrunner to discuss all this, taking part in Games Done Quick, joining an esports org for the first time and how he even ended up making his own custom retro hardware. Words by Will Busfield and Dom Sacco.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. If you practice for eight hours a day, you could get there in about three years.
For Biinny, next year he’d have been playing Super Mario 64 solidly for a decade. Forget gaming, esports or streaming for a moment – that’s a long time in any field. So there is obviously a carrot which got him hooked, and a drive that keeps him going today. So what was the carrot, and where does that drive come from?
Before we can answer these questions, we have to go back to the ’90s, at Biinny’s family home in Runcorn, Cheshire, where he lived for 27 years before moving with his wife Nicole to Colorado Springs.
“I got into games at a young age,” Biinny tells Esports News UK. “My brother had the N64 and Sega Saturn and that’s how I played a lot of Mario 64 back then, I have a lot of vivid memories from that. Fast forward many years, and I played competitive Halo 3. And a few years later I remember Twitch being founded.”
It was on Twitch that Biinny would learn about Mario 64 speedrunning. He was watching Twitch with his friends one day and on the front page saw Siglemic completing 70-star speedruns in Super Mario 64.
Biinny says: “I couldn’t believe someone was actually playing that game, that many years later, on Twitch. Siglemic propelled Mario 64 speedrunning into the spotlight back in the day. He has since retired I think, but he was pulling in 10,000 to 15,000 viewers, which for a Mario stream is impressive.
“When I saw what he was doing and how well he was handling Mario and getting around the stage, I was thinking this is absolutely crazy, I don’t remember at all playing it like this… I watched for around three to six months and was really addicted to watching, because I was just so blown away. I thought to myself after a while, it can’t be as hard as I remember.
“So I figured, do you know what, I’m going to give it a shot just to see, but it turns out it was harder than I remember! So that’s basically how I got into it. I actually said at the beginning that I’d get a time under one hour, and then I would quit. But obviously, 10 years later, I’m still here!”
Biinny first started doing 70-star speedruns back in June 2012. These types of runs are without any major glitches (for example, major glitches allow you to access a part of the castle that you shouldn’t be able to). These runs are also popular as you need a minimum of 70 stars to open the endless stairs leading to the final boss – Bowser – just as was intended when the game launched.
All this practice and game time allowed Biinny to amass a following of around 70,000 on Twitch, exclusively streaming Super Mario 64. He has been streaming full-time for eight years now, and received Twitch partner status back in 2013.
“I fell in love with streaming,” Biinny explains. “The viewers motivate you, they keep you going. I would’ve been content with it all a long time ago, I’d have said to myself, ‘look, I’m a top three player in the world, I’m absolutely content with that’, but as time has gone on, people say: ‘Come on, you can climb higher.’
“I don’t want to let my community down.”
This community support helped motivate Biinny to become one of the first four people to break the 48-minute mark.
Today Biinny is the fastest UK-based speedrunner in this mode, as can be seen on speedrun.com. He’s also currently eighth in the world, with a time of 47 minutes and 27 seconds – a personal best of his that was set just this week, putting him just four seconds from the top five.
And he achieved a career-high rank of third amongst the world’s best in 2019. But he wants more.
German speedrunner Dwhatever is currently the world’s fastest, with a time of 46 minutes and 59 seconds. And Biinny hopes to get closer to this time in the future, but recognises what Dwhatever has accomplished is impressive.
“This run is very execution and skill-based,” Biinny says. “There’s a little bit of RNG in there, but not a lot. They’ve laid down an amazing time with an absolutely amazing run.
“Us in the top ten all pretty much follow the same route in the game – it basically comes down to execution and movement. But generally, when you do a run, there’s always a section or two somewhere through the run where it kind of falls apart a little bit. And D managed to get a run where he held it together the whole way. There are a couple of little changes, strategy-wise, that he’s implemented, and he’s put a lot of work into getting them, but I mean we’re talking maybe one second saved here and another second saved there.
“Basically, for me right now my goal is to re-enter the top five on the global leaderboards. And then once I do that, maybe I’ll consider trying to up a few things, and try and push that time down further. But at least for now, my goal is really aiming for around that 47:23 and below mark.”
Events, esports crossover and the endless skill cap
Biinny’s ranking and reputation has seen him invited to a host of speedrunning events over the years.
He’s attended DreamHack, StunFest (as one of two international super players invited), IGN’s Summer of Gaming and GamesDoneQuick. This event is one of the most popular speedrunning series and has raised millions of dollars for charity over the years.
“You sometimes hear speedrunners talking themselves down,” Biinny says. “I think anyone who plays a game competitively, they will probably do the same as well, it’s never good enough. But the reality is when you do a run on stage in front of people, even if you’re disappointed with it, your general joe public may be absolutely gobsmacked at what you’ve just done.
“So that’s what you have to bear in mind to think when you do a marathon run, it’s obvious everyone wants to put down a good time, but you just got to enjoy it. And it’s almost always for a good cause anyway, raising money for charity and whatnot. So that’s what’s all about, doing a run and people enjoying it.”
Other events are more competitive. The Global Speedrun Association runs an event called PACE, with prize money up for grabs.
There’s also the European Speedrunner Assembly’s Break the Record Live. They hosted an event in January 2020 for the 120-Star category, with a guaranteed prize pool of $5,000 and Elgato Gaming sponsoring the event.
“Some organisers like PACE sponsor players to fly out to their live event,” Biinny says. “And so I think that could be, you know, starting to get into the realm a bit more like what people would consider esports, where there’s money is on the line and things like that.
“It’s basically 1v1, you are side by side and racing to get to 70 stars. And when you race anybody in a tournament, there is always that mind game. Do I have a peek and see where they’re at in the run? Because like, there’s two ways you could look at that: if they’re ahead, I’ve got to start taking risks, otherwise I’m not gonna catch up, or would that make you mess up more?
“You’re gonna get more nervous if you know that they’re ahead, so do you just not look at all? I tend to just have one look [at my opponent’s run] roughly halfway through the run just to get a gauge of where I’m at.”
Biinny’s comments remind us of that Mario 64 challenge in GamesMaster back in the ’90s, which saw experienced former games journalist Dave Perry fail the slide level in spectacular fashion after trying to pull off a cocky shortcut, before showing extreme levels of saltiness. So speedrunning is not as new as some might think, though back then it’s nowhere near the level it is today.
Biinny says of this incident: “So I think [salty and competitive behaviour] comes from a place of passion from a lot of people, you know, it’s a competitive scene. I think people are hungry for the times and trying to defend their leaderboard positions and whatnot.
“Some people are stoic when they play, they just show zero emotion. I’m sure it’s the same in every esports title, I would imagine. But then you also get the really emotional players who will not mind showing when they’re upset.
“You get some speedrunners cracking jokes every two minutes and you get other runners for whom it’s all business.”
In addition to the vast amounts of events, Biinny feels that although not considered an esport as such, speedrunning is becoming more recognised by esports teams, with one player on the leaderboards – Spanish speedrunner Cheese – signed to CLG (Counter Logic Gaming).
And Biinny himself recently joined UK esports org Myztro Gaming, the champions of QuakeCon 2021.
“I know speedrunning is not considered esports, or your traditional type of esports game or tournament like League of Legends or Counter-Strike. But I think it’s becoming more recognised by esports teams,” Biinny says.
“And at the top of the Mario 64 70-star leaderboards, it’s like a speedrunner World Cup. You’ve got Germany, you’ve got Sweden, you’ve got America, Japan, Spain, England… so yeah, it’s quite diverse at the top. But generally speaking, I would say America and Japan probably have the most players inside the top.”
Other UK speedrunners in this category include Dekudude (27th), luke994 (46th), GothicLogic (61st), Waz (Northern Ireland, 70th), ThatDrunkenDwarf (101st) and more.
“We have had some good British players over the years,” Biinny adds. “But I think the most we’ve had at one time is maybe two or three players from the UK inside the top 10 at one time. I was enjoying that but it didn’t last very long. Because the minute you start playing a game like this, it’s just you fall off real quick, you know?”
That feverish competitiveness means new records are being made by speedrunners all the time. And with a game like Mario 64, the sky is the limit.
“I can assure you that Super Mario 64 is by far the most-played speedrun game and probably the most popular speedrun game ever,” Biinny states. “The skill cap is basically endless. The mechanics of the game, the inputs… it’s just so raw, so there’s really no limit to how good you can get.”
Does playing the same game over and over again get tiring? Does Biinny get sick of it?
He says: “That’s a very good question. Absolutely, everyone gets sick of it from time to time, and you can get burnout. But I actually do things a little differently. So a lot of the runners out there will practice offline and things like that. I actually never play this game offline. Ever. The only time I ever play it, even to practice, is online on stream.
“So I’m always on stream at night. That way I can keep my enthusiasm up for when to start the stream, because I’m looking forward to playing. Because if if you do play offline, you know, when you when you go to hit the live button [you might not be at your best].”
From speedrunner to hardware maker
Aside from streaming and striving for records, Biinny has been hard at work on a new project which fans of the N64 may be interested in: BrewStix64 custom controller modules.
“I just started something relatively recently,” Biinny explains, “designing custom N64 parts.”
“There’s a need in the community for them, as the original controllers are old and struggling now. The module [I’ve made] is designed with premium elements like highly polished steel, it’s effectively a familiar feeling for players but something that won’t wear out over time. It’ll really hold up. I do my speedruns using them.”
UK host BOWIEtheHERO once told Esports News UK that ‘speedrunning is about love’. It’s clear from the dedication and time put in to setting new records and crafting new hardware that is very much the case.
But when Nintendo made the N64 in the ’90s, does Biinny think that they, and other game makers, had any idea how their games would be pushed to the limit in the future? Does he think they designed those games to be played in the exteme ways they are now?
“I love this question,” Biinny says. “Speedrunners find ways where it’s barely possible to make it [in order to cut corners and save time]. Super Mario 64 is obviously a very revolutionary game, and they couldn’t have intended for this level of play, because it had never been seen before.
“But in places, it almost seems too convenient. You know, when you watch some people do things, the way they do them… it’s just barely possible. You can just about make it and it’s like, did they [Nintendo] know you could do that? But I truly believe they didn’t know that you could make that. I think it’s just made to look that way. Or it might appear that way.
“Just because speedrunners have pushed the limits.”