How a top ‘World of Warcraft’ guild reached its breaking point

What does it mean to be on top of World of Warcraft? There are several markers of success in the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG) in the world. A player can be the best for player-to-player matches, judging from the regular tournaments hosted by Blizzard, the game’s developer. They can also be among the best theorists in the world, which means diving into the game’s systems to optimize performance and then share their results with interested parties. Perhaps most well-known, however, are the players at the very top of Race to World First.

As described earlier on this particular website, Race to World First is a community-driven event that takes place every time there is a new content release in WoW. With each major patch, Blizzard adds a new raid: a 20-player dungeon with the toughest bosses in the game, thematically tied to the patch’s history. As soon as one of these new dungeons hits the game, a set of top-level player guilds begin a non-stop race to become the first group of players to complete the dungeon. The latest of these releases came on February 22, when patch 9.2, called “Eternity’s End”, came out with Sepulcher of the First Ones, an 11-game dungeon that culminated in defeating The Jailer, the Big Bad of the Shadowlands expansion.

While some subgroup of players simply wanted to see how the twisted and often reviled story of Shadowlands would end, and others, like my own guild, prepared for months of slow progression at their own pace, they were at the top of the game coming in in this new patch, prepared to take part in what was to prove to be the most grueling Race to World First, since the event became a widely recognized and widely seen phenomenon.

Most Race to World First events last up to two weeks. For reference, the last one ended, in the sanctuary of the Lordship, after just seven days. The grave, however, took 18 days to clear completely, after all was said and done, as the guilds ran into a series of roadblocks that pushed the length of the run past any reasonable prediction.

One of these guilds was the newly renamed Liquid, which finished second in the last race under the Limit tab. The guild joined Team Liquid – one of the largest e-sports organizations in the world diving into WoW for the first time – between races. With that came expectations: Liquid is a recognizable name in video games, and it was expected that with the support of such a large organization, players would be put in the best position to take the crown back from the European Guild Echo.

Although Liquid started the race on fire and picked up the world’s first kill of seven of the first eight bosses, the guild ran into the wall of exhaustion around day 10. Combined with excellent play from Echo, their biggest rivals, the exhaustion led to Liquid, who made the unprecedented decision to stop playing on day 18, minutes before Echo won the race.

The decision to stop while the race was so close to the end was a decision that had not been seen from a top guild in a race as long as the event existed. There were many factors, some obvious to the viewers and some that took place behind the scenes, that contributed to the decision, one that made Liquid fall from its first and second place so far in Shadowlands to fifth in the grave. I spoke with Royce “Bubbadub” Newcomb, Liquid’s chief analyst, to find out what exactly happened, as well as what made this race so different from before.

These races are supposed to be insane sprints to the finish, with guilds competing to play at maximum performance level for a short period of time. However, the Sepulcher of the First Ones edition turned into a marathon, and it turns out that most players, at any level of the game, are not built to play hour after hour for nearly three weeks.

I feel that people who are not so tuned into the race do not know about the support systems behind the players in the raid itself. What is your role as an analyst for Liquid in the race?

Our job is just to do that so raiders can just show up and give their best. Before the race started, we tried to convey a wealth of information about the bosses that we knew from the test. Blizzard did this thing at this level, where the last three bosses were not shown in tests at all. The first eight, however, we liked to get a lot of ideas out there and also share all those ideas with the raiders to make sure we had a good plan on the way in. In addition, a player can at any time have a question, something they need, while pulling the boss, we have made ourselves available for it.

How do you prepare for a Race to World First? Specifically with the reintroduction of tier sets this time, which were huge power boosts.

So the main question was: How do we make sure we get so many people in line [Ed. note: Tier sets are a group of items that give you big power boosts when you collect two and four; for some classes, those boosts added up to around 30 percent damage, a huge number.] as possible? Blizzard was kind enough to share all the information about how the items fell in advance. It gave us enough time to brainstorm and make sure we were doing what was best and most effective.

We actually created a system to give people a level level from the later bosses, like Rygelon and Lords of Dread, when the raid opened. And then I’m sure you’ve noticed the sheer amount of splits that were going to happen during the race – two to three times what ever happened in previous races. And I really think that was where there was a lot of focus this time. Just setting up the split, and making sure the raiders could just get into the split, not really think about it, and just kill the boss over and over and over again.

Let’s talk about divisions. [Ed. note: Splits are when guilds bring in viewers who can trade certain items in order to funnel them to specific raiders; with how WoW’s loot system works, you can trade a piece if you already have it at the same or higher level. It’s very complicated and dumb, for the most part.] Would you and the guild have preferred to have Master Loot as an option so you could assign loot to anyone in the raid, no matter what?

I think the general answer to this question will be yes. But with split, I think it’s an interesting dynamic because it gets a lot of people involved in the race, who are not usually part of the race, right? Like I think we had over a thousand people involved who just helped us in the race, just got to split.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is to get a lot of people involved is actually good publicity for the race. However, I do not think it feels good to make a lot of splits and I think the master loot will definitely help in that aspect.

How long before the race did you start preparing different characters for the raid? I imagine it must be hard to find the balance with so many variables still to be decided before the race even starts.

The amount of innovation and creativity you have for your class can actually mean a lot. So we said, “We want to keep track of what’s good, and then Blizzard can change the balance at any time and change our mind about it.” You do not know which classes will be polished and nervous. So it’s about keeping opportunities open, but also like making sure you have enough coverage between all your players to have the coverage for any boss.

How many characters did everyone prepare for the raid?

This level was the number more than ever before. I think most had three characters ready to go. Much of it was because of how the level dropped and how we needed to acquire the pieces In the first week. So that was probably about 80, 90 characters for 30 people.

By shifting gears, this was the first live event where everyone was there in person because of COVID-19. How did it change both the preparations and the moment-to-moment raid? I know it later became a problem, but at first it seemed like you seemed very happy for everyone to be in the same place and have everything taken care of there.

Yes it’s really nice just to be able to see everyone. I think if the race did not pull out and know of having to delay flights and all the negative things associated with the long stay in Boston, I think it would have been extremely beneficial. I was able to communicate with the raid leaders very quickly between moves or breaks. Whereas if I were at home, they would not look at their phones and respond to disagreement messages, such a thing. They will try to relax and just talk strategy on breaks. I would say it helped very early on, and then when fatigue and just the mental aspect of being at an event for too long and constantly had to delay flights and not know when it would end. There were some memes going around where it’s like, oh, we will be here forever kind of thing. Because of how ridiculous it was.

What did a day at the event look like for you? How long was the raid every day?

We would strive to start at. 11:00, which meant everyone in their chairs in voice chat. We took a break for lunch around noon. 14.30. We took 30 minutes for lunch and 40 minutes for dinner. And then just a few breaks after dinner when the guys were more tired. And that was pretty much our whole day.

I would say our worst attempt in general is late at night. We tried a few different things because we would notice that our pull was bad after dinner and it was like you might have to walk an hour and take a 10 minute break. If the attempts are bad, just stop for a few minutes and reset and then return.

We stopped at 01.00, maybe at 02.00, depending on how close we were to a killing.

How was the decision to stop before the end of the race made?

I would say we did well at The Jailer for the first two days. Man, that boss lasted that long, but basically we made consistent progression the first few days. And then it was very clear from the third day we did no progression at all. And it’s like, okay, so maybe we should go to bed, wake up and play better. But when it became clear that we were just hitting our heads against the boss and not seeing a new best for a very long time … I think in addition to mental fatigue, it really comes down to the players individually.

I think in a normal race, mental health is already a problem because you go for 16 hours a day for two, three weeks if you also count Heroic Week. We decided, OK, so Echo will kill the boss here shortly, because they keep making progress, and we did not. We understand that we are not going to get world first at this point because I think Echo had seen the final stage and had gotten the boss to below three percent and we are not at all in progress.

I think to ensure that we ended with a remark that we are not just here to kill bosses. We also try to enjoy our time. At the time, we were essentially going to the event for an entire month, which is a week longer than any forecast we had. I know people really wanted to go home. We wanted to make sure we were able to get them home again and then just settle down and keep pulling the boss and killing it when we were home. I think it was kind of our thought process behind it. And the mental reset certainly helped.

Were there any concerns that you would not end up being number two? [Liquid eventually finished fifth in the race.]

As for the internal discussions, I do not think it was such a big deal in the sense oh we could be number two if we stayed at the event and forced ourselves to do this. We spent pretty much two days and did not make progression on the boss. We were going to be two days extra and we would be able to be number two or we could just go home. If we become number two, we become number two.

With an event that lasts so long, the homes are not set for the month. Having to change hotel, the catering is not for a month… there are many things that are set up and you can not just extend it forever. We just need to have people in a position where they are able to perform their best and we did not feel it was worth trying to stay in place to do so because of all the extra external factors that were kind of showing up. So second place was not really a big concern. I think it matters, but it’s less than the world’s first. I know we ended up in fifth place, so it was boring, but we can not change that.