May 7, 2020 This feature was originally published in May 2019.
Jacob, who wishes to remain on first name terms, has never been interested in being a competitive player. On Twitch, he’s watched everything on the esports roster, from Dota 2 to StarCraft, but that’s as close as he wants to get – the lifestyle of an esports pro just doesn’t appeal.
“For me, it’s like asking a football player if they want to play in the NFL,” Jacob tells me. “Most people would probably say yes, but it’s a matter of if you’re willing to put in the time, effort, and energy of playing 16 hours a day and sacrificing years with family and spouses. I don’t think I would ever be able to be that person.”
It’s surprising, then, that Jacob – better known by his online moniker Albino Liger – was on the winning team of Twitch’s recent Stardew Valley event, alongside teammates Tooshi, Cannibal Queen, and Laquetuph. The inaugural competition pits teams of four against each other in a six-hour race to collect the most gold or bundles before time runs out. Why Jacob ended up joining in, however, wasn’t the competition, it was because of Harvest Moon.
Jacob felt immediately familiar with Stardew Valley as it was designed to fix the issues its creator, Eric Barone, had with the Harvest Moon series following Back to Nature in 1999. As Jacob spent a lot of time with Harvest Moon 64 growing up, he felt he had accumulated enough knowledge of farming sims between the two to enjoy competing without straining his personal life.
“If I wanted to be a Dota 2 competitor, I would have to do 12 hour days every day, I’d have to move into a gamer house, and I’d have to sacrifice so much to do that,” he explains. “But for Stardew, I already felt that I had the repertoire and that I’d knew what it would be. Like with [Twitch] Rivals – a very chill, fun time for everyone who loves Stardew to play the game together.”
The idea of treating Stardew Valley competitively may seem at odds with its design. People have flocked to it for a relaxing and rewarding experience that feeds into the process of self-care. The game evokes a sense of therapy through its individually crafted farming routines. Despite that, there’s a movement of players blending those tenets with healthy competition. As such, besting any challenge takes all the farming, foraging, fishing, and spelunking the tranquil farming sim is known for, but doesn’t leave its competitors burnt out in the process.
One of the more popular figures of that scene is Jacob’s teammate Tooshi, who challenges himself to hit specific targets such as earning 15 million in gold within a year of the game’s lifecycle. Once he beats his goal, he sets himself a loftier one. Spencer, who also wishes to remain on first name terms, comes from a background of competitive speedrunning. The first game he did so was Banjo Kazooie, and he’s competed in a bunch more since, from Super Mario Sunshine to Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus. He’s even broken a few records, both in-game and on Twitch, where he holds the record for the longest daily streamer in the world at close to six years. Inevitably, however, those kinds of achievements take a lot out of you.
“I love speedrunning, but it takes its toll when you do it every day for so long, and I wanted to feel freer to play what I wanted while still getting viewers,” Spencer tells me. “Stardew Valley helped me break out of just doing speedrunning. I played through the whole game casually, and then I wanted to keep playing it, so I started doing challenges.”
While Stardew Valley holds therapeutic appeal, what makes it challenging also sets it apart from other games, too. Spencer tells me that the most significant difference between speedrunning other games and completing challenges in Stardew Valley is that the former leans on your mechanical skill while the latter sways towards your knowledge of the game.
“The games I used to speedrun were movement based,” he tells me. “It’s all about the execution, you know what you need to do, you need to follow the movements, right? Stardew Valley is all about time management and strategy. At any given moment there are 100 things you could be doing, and there isn’t a definite answer on what you should be doing.”
That emphasis on knowledge and the freedom to manoeuvre are also on show in Twitch Rivals. Jacob adds that, while different teams try to earn more points than each other, the focus tends to remain on doing your best. “It feels more like a competition against yourself because the biggest thing is there is no team on the same map,” he says. “We may be on the same kind of farm, in terms of layout, but we’re not fighting against each other, we’re not competing against each other, and we’re not doing anything more than competing against ourselves.”
One of Stardew Valley’s core mechanics is its energy meter, which depletes the more you do, and will inevitably force you to rest when it gets low. It’s managing each team member’s energy meter that plays into the overall strategy of competitive Stardew Valley.
One of Jacob’s roles during Twitch Rivals was to fish so that the others had plenty of food to keep their energy up while they made their way through the mines. He also tells me that because everyone on his team is seasoned Stardew Valley players, the self-care the game encourages through the energy meter is ingrained into their playing habits.
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“At no point did anyone lose energy, get fatigued, or forget about the mechanics,” he explains. “Because it’s like riding a bike, it’s so second nature for all of us to play Stardew – we weren’t even thinking of our energy or personal characters. We were thinking ‘let’s execute this strategy’.”
Spencer also tells me that competing in Stardew Valley never dilutes its tranquil vibe as simple mistakes don’t undo hours of work, which leaves more room for error and recovery when compared to other games. “Speedrunning is a lot like that, where if you mess up any execution at any given moment, you can kill a run,” he tells me. “There are so many points in a speedrun where if you don’t press this button at this exact moment you’ll fall and die and then you’ll lose three minutes, your run will be over, and you’ll have to restart your three-hour run. That kind of thing happens, but Stardew isn’t like that.”
While Stardew Valley has all the tools to be a gentler kind of competitive gaming experience, the event format requires some honing before it can fully realise that potential. Spencer tells me that having to compete for six hours straight with no predetermined breaks means that Twitch Rivals isn’t yet as accommodating to Stardew Valley’s spirit of self-care as it could be.
“When you do a normal competition, you go up and do your 20 minutes, and then you’ll have a break. But we had to do six hours straight, so that was concerning,” Spencer recalls. “But we told each other ‘hey, no worries. Go to the bathroom if you need the bathroom, if you need to take a few minutes then take a few minutes. Just tell us, and we’ll route it in when we have days when we have to do stuff’.”
Jacob also tells me that the competition was only open to Twitch Partners and not Affiliates, which meant that a lot of the game’s speedrunning community couldn’t take part. A prime example of this is one player called The Haboo, who helped Jacob and Spencer hone their strategy as he wasn’t able to join.
“The argument between partnership and affiliate will always be there, but the line is getting more blurred every single day,” Jacob tells me. “That’s the beauty of Twitch, as it allows anyone to be successful. But, to have tournaments and advertise, spotlighting these Affiliate channels would be amazing for them. Because, arguably, there are so many Affiliates that should be partnered.”
Despite the bumps, Spencer and Jacob echo each other’s sentiments when saying that Twitch’s event has bolstered interest in the scene and inspired people to give it a go. As I wrap up my chat with Spencer on Discord, I ask him if he thinks that Stardew Valley has the potential to appeal to players turned off by normal esports.
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“A lot of people feel alienated or that there’s too big of a wall to climb to get into esports or speedrunning,” Spencer explains. “With Stardew Valley, anyone can do the mechanics of it – if you played the game, you can handle the mechanics of it. So it’s less about how you can handle the mouse and keyboard and more about what you’re deciding to do within the game. If you have good game knowledge, then you’ll go far.”