There are few gaming YouTube channels as unique as that of Tanner “SmallAnt” Ant’s. Known for his content in Super Mario Odyssey, Pokémon, and Minecraft — videos mostly centered on interesting twists to traditional gameplay — SmallAnt has grown over the last few years to become one of the biggest speedrunning content creators in the world.
With entertaining and eye-catching videos, an engaging stream, and a ton of skill in the main games he plays, the rise of the speedrunner doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Inven Global spoke with SmallAnt, to discuss his thoughts on speedrunning, content creation, and how the speedrunning community can improve.
You’ve stated that your introduction to speedrunning was competing in a Super Mario Odyssey tournament, where you placed well. With no experience, that’s pretty impressive. Besides your work ethic and willingness to practice, what allowed you to do that?
Having a lot of previous experience in video games in general had a bit of an edge. Because growing up, that's all I did. Any video game, I just played a variety. So having that as a baseline always helps. But honestly, the biggest thing is when I really get into something, that is the only thing that exists. And when I'm really into it, I can keep doing that until I'm satisfied. With that tournament specifically, I didn't enter to lose. And so I wouldn't stop until I won that. I didn't, but I got pretty far.
How common is that last attribute among top runners?
For anyone who is getting the world record and competing at a really high level, you do have to have that dedication. Certainly, for the top runners in the most competitive games like Mario 64, there is that natural talent aspect that definitely helps a little bit. But every single one of them, all they do is just grind out, practice, and work on it. It's just time. They have the time and put the time. That's really the single largest factor: put the time and put the time into the right place. You know what you need to practice, and you practice it exactly the amount that you need to.
I was curious about the parallels between speedrunning and esports. I know that you practice a ridiculous amount for speedruns, but what other preparations do you take?
It depends on the game. With a Mario game, there's no luck, really. Especially with something like Mario Odyssey. With that game, you memorize exactly what you need to do, and you do that the exact same way every single time. You get that muscle memory, and you ride that all the way through. But with a game like Minecraft — where the speedruns are different every time — there's a lot more to consider. You have to have a lot of game sense on top of that, where you can analyze a situation very quickly and figure out what the fastest, most optimal way to do stuff is.
A big thing with Minecraft not only is playing the game, but knowing when not to play is a huge skill as well. Knowing when to reset. That's a huge skill on that one, which is different from a pure platformer. Because you might see a situation, and a better runner will be able to recognize, "I shouldn't play that because it's a waste of time. I need to just get a better run. I could play this run for 30 seconds, or I could reset for 30 seconds and get on a significantly better run."
It's a known fact in the past that you used to deal with hand problems because of your gaming. How have you countered this problem?
That's something that I'm pretty much always aware of. It comes up maybe once a month or so — I'll notice my hands starting to get sore or have some issues. But the biggest thing that I try to do is play games that use my hands in different ways, so the parts of my hands that are sore, I can give a break too. If I'm playing a lot of games that use a controller, I'll play more games that use a keyboard. So it's kind of a balance, because not only do I stream, but I'm also just on the computer a lot with the whole content creation and making sure uploads go up, etc.
What about mental burnout?
I had a really big problem with that at the start, and I got really lucky with that though. Actually, once I started YouTube with Super Mario Odyssey, all of the Odyssey content creators burned out at the exact same time. And so there was a huge gap there, I just happened to be there at the right time. But inevitably, I only uploaded Super Mario Odyssey for a while, and I eventually burned out of it. I was like, "Screw it. I'm just gonna play some Breath of the Wild for a while." And luckily, the videos did really well. Again, there happened to be a gap there, and people wanted that content, but no one was making it. A similar thing with Pokémon challenges as well.
You have a wide variety of content, but it's still focused on a handful of games. Considering how much your career is built on YouTube, is it scary uploading a video on a game you're not known for?
It was a little bit scary. Although, a lot of people say, "It's the algorithm that punishes you." What the algorithm does is it shows people content that they want to watch — it does the best job it can of doing that. At first, I had that mindset where it's like, "People watch me for Super Mario Odyssey. So I have to upload Super Mario Odyssey." I would experiment occasionally with certain things. I tried another Mario game and a Pokémon game, and both did pretty well.
But there was one moment when I didn't have much faith in a video, but I uploaded it just to see what would happen. It was like a casual playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker — a game that I wasn't known for and wasn't good at. It did really well, and that really surprised me. So at a certain point, I realized my audience isn't just watching me for Mario or for Pokémon. They're just watching me at this point.
Once I made that realization, it opened me up to try new things a lot more. I did some more casual games: random Mario games, some Minecraft, Cooking Mama, etc. And they've all done pretty well — they usually get at least a million, which is more than I could have ever dreamed of even a year ago.
So there's always that anxiety when you upload. Every single video I upload I think, "Maybe people are burned out of this type of video." Especially with the COVID situation getting better. I would imagine views across the board for everyone are down. just because more people are going outside. That is the case with me. And it's been a little bit hard on the mental think, "This video is doing 10% worse. Is it because the video is 10% worse, or is it because there's just 10% less people available? But yeah, the anxiety is always there for uploading YouTube videos, because you never know what's going to do well or poorly.
You've stated your strategy for content is to find a niche, build an audience there, and then broaden. With how large your audience is now, how much further can this go? How have you felt about the direction of your content?
It's pretty good. There's a lot of cool things that are in the works right now that have the potential for a lot of growth. I haven't been playing as much Mario, but that's because a lot of the Mario content requires a lot of work (not from me, but from my modder working with me that's grinding around the clock). A lot of the Mario Odyssey content is relying on mods now, and that takes a lot of time to develop.
Because of that, I've been able to explore a lot of other things. All of my Pokémon videos do way better than anything else. Whenever I upload a Pokémon video, the numbers are crazy — it's way better than I could expect. There's a huge amount of potential there for Pokémon. And I'm starting to get known for Minecraft stuff despite not uploading all that much. Right now in my head, I do really enjoy Minecraft, and I'll probably be adding a little bit of Minecraft to a more regular roster of games that I can rely on as a core thing when I don't feel like playing something else. Minecraft has a massive audience, so there's a lot of potential with Minecraft for me, because I see a lot of gaps that are similar to what I was doing with Pokémon and Odyssey when I started.
Probably the most amount of time I've actually ever put into a speedrun is Minecraft. I probably put twice the amount of time into Minecraft speedruns than I did Super Mario Odyssey.
Why is that? Is that out of necessity?
It's out of necessity, but I also just enjoy it more. Because instead of just doing the same thing over and over again, it's unique every time. It's almost like a slot machine. Every single time you do a run, it could be a good one. And then you do a good run, and you fail something like, "Okay, I need to practice that. I don't want that mistake to ever happen again." It's a lot more enjoyable.
You certainly have an unusual umbrella of core games. How do you compare playing them on stream?
It very much depends on what I'm doing that day with the game. There's certain days where it is just messing around and having fun with chat. And there's other days where I'm racing someone, and chat is literally in emote only mode, so I can't interact and I'm purely focused on competing.
With Pokémon recently, I did a challenge with a friend where we were working together in Pokémon to complete a Soul Link Nuzlocke, and that was something that was really fun and light. We weren't taking the challenge too seriously. But a few weeks ago I did a Pokémon map randomizer race. All the loading zones are randomized. With that one it was pure focus — remember as much as you can and play hard. I really enjoy both, but there's a huge difference. What I'm doing definitely sets the tone for that stream.
You have some of the most unique type of speedrunning and challenges: how do all these video ideas come to you? What makes you want to do something like a pencil sharpening run? What's your creative process?
When I first started, there was a content creator called FearsomeFire. I would look through his channel and find stuff that I was like, "I think that would be fun if I did that on stream." I'd do it on stream and make a video. And I was just a knockoff FearsomeFire at the start, for sure. That was maybe a month or two.
But I occasionally see videos or ideas that stand out to me. The first video that did really well was blindfolded. And that one was someone in my chat who told me to do it. Early on, I did a Super Mario 64 1 Star run. I remember always wanting to do one, because I'd seen people do it , and it seemed cool.
A lot of them came from me seeing difficult runs and wanting to try them, to see how well I can do. Originally, a lot of it was that, but sometimes certain things would stand out. I saw someone do a Super Mario Odyssey All Moons Run unedited. It was like eight or nine hours long (the world record) and it got like 50,000 views. I thought, "Wow, that's a lot of views for such a long video! If someone just does the same video but makes it more accessible — maybe less than an hour instead of nine — people can see the whole experience." And that video did really well.
A lot of my video ideas were that. It was like, "Okay, this video of mine did well in the past. I'm going to retry that". I did a "I Can't See Pokemon" video after my Super Mario Odyssey video did well. I would see a video in another game that did well, and was like, "How can I apply that to my game?" The first time I did that was with "Speedrunner Plays Luigi's Balloon World for the First Time". That was directly inspired by a few things, but the thumbnail and title was specifically inspired by a video called a "A 1989 TETRIS Expert Plays TETRIS EFFECT for the First Time." That video popped up on my recommended tab, and I noticed that it had 10 million views. I thought of how I could apply that to my channel.
And if you look at the thumbnails, they're almost exactly the same. Because I was copying what I saw was working, and at that point, I didn't have a full understanding of why stuff worked like that. A lot of it was experimenting and imitating other people in a unique way. I tried putting my own spin on stuff. Eventually, I did get a better grasp on what stuff does well.
An exercise I would do, and still do is that whenever I click on a YouTube video, I take a minute just to figure out why I clicked on it. What about it made me want to click on this? And over time, you can get a good feeling for what will do well, and what doesn't.
So a lot of it was seeing things other people were doing, and wanting to do it myself — put my own spin on it. But over time, I'll be playing a game, and think of interesting ways to change the game, because a lot of great videos are simply interesting twists. Sometimes I'll even lie on the floor and think for an hour of what would be an interesting way to play this game. Sometimes I'll just search the game up on YouTube, scroll through, and see if anything comes up that seems interesting or inspires me.
You used to compete in Smash 4. Have you ever considered doing content for something like Melee or Ultimate?
I'm not sure. In terms of content, I don't think that would be something that I would like to do too much. I enjoy playing it casually from time to time. Smash is...interesting. To be a big content creator, you have to be pretty good at the game. To be entertaining at something like that, you got to be able to talk, and also hold your own. You just can't be bad. No, one's gonna watch someone who's bad. And to get that level of skill, I'd have to put a lot of time that I don't really have. Time that'd be better spent elsewhere. I can't split my focus too much.
In the past year, I've been putting a lot of my time into Minecraft and getting better at that. And I think that could be worth it, because the audience for Minecraft is massive. So getting good at that game is never going to be a bad thing. There's really no super big Smash Ultimate content creators. And I don't think that's due to a lack of effort. There are a lot of Smash creators that put a ton of time into it, and the numbers just aren't there to justify it.
But also, I kind of moved on from playing Smash. I played it for a while, I enjoyed it for a while, kind of got sick of it. I have a sort of frustration with it as well. I remember when I was competing at Smash 4, the reason why I quit was — at this point, it probably wouldn't be an issue — I couldn't get enough people to practice with. I always wanted to get better. I always wanted to do it, and no one wanted to practice. No one wanted to get better, that I knew at the time. So the frustration still lingers, which is also another factor.
Have there been factors you wish would be improved on in the speedrun community?
That's tough, because whenever I go into a new game and research if anyone asked any questions, people are always incredibly helpful. They want you to get better. Speedrunning at its core — it is really a collaborative effort. That's how the speedruns get so optimized, is it's a lot of people working together on a bunch of different things to go faster as a whole. It's also tough because there's so many different communities.
If there was one thing that could be better: there is a lack of accessible speedrunning content. I don't mean the tutorials or anything. But speedrunning is really big. But it has the potential to be way, way larger than it is if more successful videos were available. Like EazySpeezy. He just does a different speedrun every two or three days. I don't know how he does it. His output's insane. But, there's a big gap in content — that or my own content — where it's just a little more casual, easy to understand, and you can watch it and just kind of get it. There's also some commentary channels like SummoningSalt. There's my channel Lowest Percent with Linkus7 that explains speedruns.
The general content for speedruns is lacking. With speedruns, the community is massive, and there's so many cool things that could be shown off. And they're just not showing it off yet. Inevitably that will be a thing, but there is a still a big gap there. Where there's a lot of potential for content to make it more accessible. And the more people that know about your speedrun, the more people that are going to do it, and the faster it'll get. So ultimately, I think that would be a big positive.
Disclaimer: At the time the interview was conducted, SmallAnt was part of Panda, which was mentioned in an earlier version of this article. SmallAnt has since left Panda, and the article has been updated to reflect that.
I write. I rap. I run. That’s pretty much it.