The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His mom didn’t nag when he was a lost 20-something playing video games in her basement. $35 million later, she’s glad she didn’t.

A gamer at Awesome Games Done Quick 2020. (Maranda Brien for Games Done Quick)
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It began in 2010, with a quintessential request:

“Mom …”

And Mom was ready for it, no matter how weird. Susan Tenenbaum was used to her child’s outside-the-box way of existing in the high-achieving D.C.-area bubble.

“Mom, can we have the house for three days?” Mike Uyama asked. He wanted to hold a marathon gaming session with 20 friends, for charity. She decamped to a bed-and-breakfast.

Now, $35 million later, she’s glad she said yes.

My son wants to make video games his career. I'm trying not to hate this.

That gathering in Mom’s basement has grown to become a powerhouse of charitable giving in the region.

The gamers’ summer 2021 event raised over $2.9 million for Doctors Without Borders, “making it our largest fundraising event of the year,” said Leila Fuleihan, marketing manager for the international aid organization. “Since 2011, Games Done Quick has raised over $15.7 million” for the group.

For perspective, in 2019, Uyama’s event single-handedly covered the cost of the aid organization’s entire operation in Cambodia, or half of the Ebola fight in Liberia. On top of that, Uyama’s event gave $3.1 million to the Prevent Cancer Foundation in 2020. In 12 years, it has raised $35 million.

All that, in jeans and a T-shirt.

Uyama, 38, wasn’t the typical high-powered Northern Virginia child. He went to a special-education school when he was young because he still wasn’t talking at 4 years old. (But he could read.) Later he lived at home while unenthusiastically taking classes at George Mason University. He briefly was a data analyst in tech, then left to work at the local wine and beer store. He lost that job when the store closed.

Mom worried. Of course she did.

During his unemployment, “he said, ‘Mom, I just don’t know what to do with my life’, and I prayed quietly for him that he would listen” to the people telling him that this gaming thing he was doing on the side — his real passion — is his life, Tenenbaum said.

“We raised $10,000 that first year,” said Uyama, who works so hard to stay out of the spotlight that there are constant rumors in the gaming community of his disappearance, or a maybe a prolonged illness.

He is well known and occupies an unusual space in the world of video games. Starting in 2009, he and his friends were streaming “speedruns.” It’s a hardcore niche of the gaming world in which players show off how fast they can finish a game.

This was what he wanted to show the gaming world in 2010 during MAGFest, the annual Music and Gaming Festival — a big deal in the gamer world. But the MAGFest hotel, ironically, didn’t have the connectivity to support that volume of gaming, so they moved it to Mom’s basement, shuttling the hotshot players to and from the hotel for their time slots. The gaming world ate it up, and a tradition Uyama would name Games Done Quick was born.

Think of it as fans watching skiing or running. The world is riveted by the way Earth’s best athletes ski down a mountain (super-fast, around slalom poles) or run on a track (over hurdles, while passing a baton). It’s the same thing, but with Zelda, Tetris, Halo and Hades as the Olympic events.

And there are different categories of speedrunning: They compete on pure speed, ignoring all the points and bonuses along the way and exploiting glitches in the game. Or on completing every level. Or even blindfolded.

Anyone who even casually plays a video game — about 2.5 billion people, a third of the world population, call themselves gamers — loves to watch someone master a game that bedevils them night after night. And while watching, they donate, enter raffles, sponsor naming rights and keep pushing the running total at the top of the screen ever higher. It’s like the Jerry Lewis telethons of the old days, only way more interactive.

The 2022 marathon — which goes all week and ends Sunday — is proving to be the most lucrative yet.

“It’s the wildest thing,” Uyama said as he clicked over to look at the ongoing total during our conversation. “It’s the fastest $1 million we ever reached. On Wednesday.”

The Games Done Quick events — he now holds the annual one in January on the East Coast and added a summer marathon in Minneapolis — get most donations in small increments, usually about $20. You can look at every one of the donations they’ve logged since Jan. 1, 2010, from gamers such as TacticalSausage and RavingSockMonkey.

“Yeah, we’re at about $30 — let me check — $35 million,” Uyama said.

Their first $10,000 went to Switzerland-based Care International, a massive, global humanitarian agency. But that felt big and impersonal. And they didn’t take PayPal, Tenenbaum said.

So Uyama asked his gamer community to suggest another charity. Someone in his community was a cancer survivor. So they looked around for cancer nonprofits that had solid ratings. Prevent Cancer is right in their neighborhood, in Alexandria, Va., and has an A rating among charities, Tenenbaum said.

Once they got out of Mom’s basement the first year, Uyama and the friends who stuck with him moved to hotels throughout the D.C. area. But they got too big even for those and held the January 2020 event in Orlando, which was huge and had nearly 3,000 in-person attendees and a constant, 24-hour online presence of tens of thousands of viewers.

The Summer of Pale. How I lost my children to Fortnite.

When the pandemic shut their live events down, they moved everything online and still continued to grow.

“Every year, we wonder if this is it, did we finally top out,” Uyama said. “And then it goes even higher.”

He may be one of the only players in the Washington area to work in the tens-of-millions-of-dollars world without owning a suit.

“I do have one of those things, what do you call it, a jacket?” he said.

His mom, who’s been invited to speak at events honoring her son, said she didn’t helicopter her kids. Her daughter, Naomi, is a professional swing dancer and bandleader.

“Mike was saying one day,” said Tenenbaum, 77, ”‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t make me become a lawyer, Mom?’”

She is.