The Rise of a ‘Plants vs. Zombies’ Prodigy: Junior Terry You Speedruns His Way to the Top


Annette van Wyk

Junior Terry You speedruns a level of “Plants vs Zombies” with the aid of his notes that he took on speedrunning from watching YouTube tutorials. “Since a child, like really young, I’m really interested in computer and especially in gaming,” You said. “But the thing is, I don’t really play team fighting games because I feel like you rely on your team too much. I like to explore on my own, and especially in speedrun, you are learning about how each game is programmed.”

After we curiously ask junior Terry You about how he mastered the game of “Plants vs Zombies,” he eagerly pulls out his laptop and opens a mysterious Google Doc file. As we lean over to get a closer look at his screen, we find that the file spans seven pages of lengthy notes and informative visuals that You compiled throughout his journey to earning the title of a top 60 world player. 

You played “Plants vs Zombies” for the first time as a kindergarten student living in China, but he abandoned the game for years until he was a sophomore and became fascinated by speedrunning, the act of trying to finish a video game as quickly as possible. 

“With speedrunning, you have to learn about what a game does,” You said. “And it’s more than just reading what’s in the game. You actually have to go into a code, and then see what features is there and then how the game actually functions. So it’s like cracking down a childhood memory. It’s really interesting to me.”

First released in May 2009 by PopCap Games, “Plants vs Zombies” is a video game franchise that challenges its player to strategically use different kinds of plants to defend themselves from invading zombies, according to Steam. 

It kind of sounds childish, but when I beat the final boss, I was extremely happy. I feel like it’s the kind of joy that only speedrunners can share.

— Terry You

You said that he quickly learned the workings of “Plants vs Zombies” through long sittings of YouTube tutorial videos, one-on-one conversations with the game’s record holders and up to ten hours a day of nonstop practice.

“You need to grind a lot, like you need to restart a lot of times,” You said. “It might seem boring, but then when you actually have a record — like you run it 200 times, and then you actually find [a run] that’s really good and you got a record on it —  you feel really accomplished.”

It only took 20 runs and two weeks for You to earn a 43rd place world ranking in December 2021. Since then, You has dropped to 59th place now that he plays the game more recreationally than competitively, as being 43rd place at one point “was enough” for him. 

“Towards the end, I just began to realize that this is actually gonna be my new record,” You said. “It kind of sounds childish, but when I beat the final boss, I was extremely happy. I feel like it’s the kind of joy that only speedrunners can share.”