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"It is upsetting, this is like our Super Bowl," says Arthur Maxwell 'Maximum' Smith, Guild Master of Limit, the top North American World of Warcraft guild. "Not winning when you had a very clear lead and you had a shot at winning is rough."
The stage was set for a race of immense proportions. Two of the best World of Warcraft guilds on the planet were at London's Red Bull Gaming Sphere, racing to be the first to kill Queen Azshara on Mythic difficulty (the game's highest difficulty level for raids), the end boss of the newest raid dungeon in the MMORPG which has been running for 15 years. There was a livestream running for nearly 24 hours a day, with a rotating cast of experts and commentators.
Would it be Limit, or European guild Pieces? In the end, it was neither. Another guild, Method, running their own livestream, got there first.
It took 13 days. Almost two weeks of solid raiding with no days off, playing between 12 and 16 hours a day. The players had taken time off from their jobs, from their studies, their wives and girlfriends, and they had travelled to a foreign land to play a video game. Most of them had never even met in real life before, and now they would have to spend all day, every day together. But upon arrival, they felt like they already knew each other.
"It's pretty shocking how quickly things just fall in," says Limit's Alden 'Veyloris' Haight. "I've spent basically 24 hours a week with these people for the past two or three months, like co-workers, you get to know them."
What most of the raiders will tell you is that although World of Warcraft is a video game, going for a world first is very much like a job, and often even more gruelling. It's not even just the countless hours spent each day in front of the computer screen - it's the months of preparation.
"They've been farming reputations, finding all ways of empowering their characters," says Daniel 'AutomaticJak' Anzenberger, host, streamer, writer for Wowhead.com, and a top-level raider himself. "They make sure they're working through the mechanics they need to, and figuring out how to most efficiently spend time on certain bosses to get through them quickly."
Azshara's Eternal Palace has eight bosses, and in order to make sure they're all working properly, Blizzard releases them for a short period of time on the Public Test Realm before they make it to the live servers. They don't get long, but the top guilds use this time to figure out strategies, so they're not going in completely blind.
"We try to do things as collaboratively as possible," says Limit's William 'Siory' Pratt. "Some people look at the bigger picture of the fight, other people are focused on how they can make their particular character the best it can be in the encounter. There's not one savant who can see the way everything fits together. It takes a lot of minds looking at it from different angles to figure it out."
Not only did they have to contend with the bosses in the raid, and the other guilds competing around the world, the challenge of streaming had to be overcome as well. The race to world first has been around ever since the start of World of Warcraft, but it's only in the last year or so that the top guilds have been livestreaming their progress.
"I'm cynical so I worry about people getting distracted by the stream, worried about how they look, getting tilted by the notoriously toxic Twitch chat," says Siory. But the downsides go even beyond that. "At any point in the race, if you're ahead and you're streaming, it's a disadvantage."
"Your opponents being able to see how you're positioning on the bosses is a major factor," says AutomaticJak. "Plus, if your opponent has already worked through what worked and what didn't, that makes it a bit easier for the guilds behind in the race."
This exact thing happened on Queen Azshara herself. Limit got there first with a huge lead, and worked out the best ways of getting through various parts of the fight. But then they hit a wall, allowing other guilds to catch up, using the tactics they had perfected. Some aspects of the fight got nerfed by Blizzard part way through the second week, and the race was on. Method had one way of approaching the final phase of the fight, Limit had another. They both stubbornly stuck to their strategies, and on the 13th day, Method came out on top.
"I was sleeping when Method did it," says Maximum. "But we had an idea the previous night, we knew if they got a good pull they'd kill it. We knew there was a possibility they could get tilted and not do it because their strat was inconsistent, but as we went to bed we had come to terms with the fact that we'd probably lost."
Limit entered the Red Bull Gaming Sphere a few hours after Method had achieved the world first, and they killed Queen Azshara a few hours after that. Despite coming second, Maximum pounded his fist on the desk, and threw his headset before rushing around to congratulate his fellow guild members.
"You go through an immense amount of stuff you don't want to do for six months, just to do this for two weeks. But we enjoy these two weeks so much, that even though we didn't win it's still really rewarding."
In a weekend where teenagers were winning millions of dollars in the Fornite World Cup, these veteran World of Warcraft players were simply playing for the accolade of being the best, or even second best. For most of them, that's all they need.
"The feeling of killing a final boss is incredible," says AutomaticJak. "They take so many pulls, you have to work through each individual phase. It's a grind. When you're going through a hardship, a struggle, and then you finally do it after 300, 400, 500 attempts... it's a relief, it's joy, it's a profound sense of accomplishment.
"At the end of the day it's a video game, but it's one where you have to be working with other people to achieve the maximum result. It's a triumph of coordination."
Is it more than a video game for some of them, though?
"I've done a lot of stuff in my life," says Maximum. "I went to school for music, for IT, I managed a restaurant, I sang professionally in a choir. But WoW is kinda what I do with my life now, and I'm insanely fortunate that I've been able to make a career out of it.
"It's not necessarily more than a game, but I do know that this group of people that I'm with, I would do literally anything for. They are the most important thing to me, more than the game."
There's only one thing left to ask. When does preparation for the next race to world first start? Maximum has a very simple answer.
"It's started already."
Words: Matt Porter
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