Over the last week, the best World of Warcraft players in the world bashed their heads against a new batch of content, racing to be the first group of 20 players to clear the newest dungeon in the game. This race, somewhat awkwardly known as the Race to World First, happens whenever a new major dungeon is added to the game. But this particular instance of the Race to World First caused a lot of headaches, and in the process brought to light a lot of the problems that plague a 17-year-old game that still boasts a hardcore community that treats the game as a second, or in some cases first, job.
The raid in question this time around was the Sanctum of Domination, a dungeon crawl against the forces of literal death that serves as the second such raid instance in Shadowlands, the current expansion that released back in November. The raid requires groups of 20 players, known as guilds, to defeat 10 bosses, the last of which is Sylvanas Windrunner, a former leader of one of the game’s factions who turned evil because Blizzard likes doing exactly one story—someone good goes way bad—and then running it into the ground. But you don’t need to worry about any of the lore in the game, because all that matters in the Race to World First are the game mechanics that have to be mastered, through painstaking trial and error, in order for each of the 10 bosses to be defeated.
Two guilds, known as Complexity Limit (based in North America) and Echo (based in Europe), were the favorites to finish the raid first, as both have support systems that help the best players in the world play up to 17 hours a day. Both guilds got off to a hot start, knocking off the first five bosses of the raid in one day and with little difficulty. But things started to go sideways when both guilds reached the sixth boss, known as Painsmith Raznal. Echo needed 106 attempts to beat him, while Limit needed a whopping 160. For context, it’s usually not until players reach the penultimate boss of the raid that defeating one starts to take that long.
Nobody was really complaining about ramming into the same boss for so long, though; the general consensus from players, not just in those two guilds but the rest of the top guilds in the world, was that it was an incredible fight, requiring every member of the team to play perfectly, move as a unit, and pump out as much damage as possible. It was also incredible to watch, as groups of 20 people moved as one through spikes and bombs and other types of spikes.
If the sixth boss of the raid being too hard didn’t make people mad, the next set of bosses being far too easy sure did. The next three bosses, known as Guardian Of The First Ones (yeah, yeah), Fatescribe Roh-Kalo (laugh it up), and Kel’Thuzad (I know, I know) went down way, way too easy. Echo and Limit were each able to clear all three of those in under 70 attempts per boss.
Perhaps you will conclude it to be a good thing that these bosses being easier than expected prevented a lot of people from toiling away in a video game for dozens of hours longer than they ultimately did, which, fair enough. But the thing about Race to World First is that it’s not just about how much time players are willing to spend sitting in front of a computer. What makes it compelling, both to those in the top guilds and those watching them grind through the dungeon, is the act of discovering by what process each boss needs to be defeated. Watching these raids is like watching 20 people try to crack a cipher together, knowing they won’t get the right answer until they figure out the exact combination of spells or items or movements that need to be used. Without getting too lost in the weeds, it’s safe to say that the seventh, eighth, and ninth bosses of the raid were total failures in this regard. Instead of being complicated puzzles in need of solutions, they were designed with glaring mechanical flaws that Echo and Limit managed to exploit in order to move past them far too quickly.
From there, the problems just continued to compound. It’s logical to assume that Blizzard did not expect these guilds to get to Sylvanas Windrunner, the 10th and final boss, as early as they did. That’s because, as it was released, the fight is a long slog that requires every player to play flawlessly for about 15 minutes at a time. It’s a three-part fight, and the first and second parts are challenging but doable by the best players in the world. It’s the third phase that became the glaring issue, and put a spotlight on how Blizzard designs some of its most challenging fights.
On the game’s easier modes, which are what normies like me experience this raid on, Sylvanas “dies” at 50-percent health; players do not get to kill her, probably because she will return to the side of the angels and help defeat the Jailer, the true Big Bad of the Shadowlands expansion. But as Echo painfully discovered, when players fight Sylvanas at the highest difficulty level, which is what everyone in Race to World Fist competes at, the boss … does not die at 50 percent. This is what it looks like when 20 gamers’ hearts break all at once:
And so nobody knew for certain at what percentage Sylvanas would die. Some people went spelunking into the game files and believed that she would die at 45 percent, but it seemed almost mathematically impossible for Echo or Limit to reach that threshold during the raid’s first week. By Monday night, it looked like both guilds would just have to wait for the game’s scheduled “reset” at 11:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday (in North America) and 3:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday (in Europe). The reset would have allowed both guilds to collect more powerful items that would have likely gotten them over the 45-percent threshold with no problems. Instead of waiting, though, both guilds decided to keep pushing as the deadline for their first week of attempts approached. Limit called it a night late on Monday with a 45.44 percent attempt under their belts, which was close enough to give Echo hope that they could use their extra remaining day of attempts to kill the boss.
And kill her they did, early into their Tuesday attempts. As expected, Echo had to play perfectly for an entire attempt, with no individual mistakes and with perfectly optimized abilities. The screams of joy, especially in contrast with the previous video above, really say it all:
Given that this raid came down to one guild simply outperforming the other, it would appear to have been a success on a base level. After all, the best guild deservedly won, and Limit will have to console themselves with being so close before regrouping for whatever the next dungeon is. But this particular Race to World First still left a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and it’s mostly due to how Blizzard treats the biggest event in WoW.
To start, it feels insane that no one knew for sure that the boss would die at a different percentage on the highest difficulty level. It’s possible that these guilds would have tweaked the players they would bring for the fight in order to maximize their damage in the third phase, had they known what their target percentage was, but they were going by the math available to them. This led to a lot of frustration with the fight; an encounter that should have been something grueling but fair turned instead into a math problem that could only be solved by eliminating the variable of human error.
Echo will be happy to have won the race, but they were certainly not happy with how their progress on Sylvanas went, and a big part of that is just down to fight design. Blizzard played it a bit fast and loose by deploying “fixes” to various monsters in the middle of the race. In one instance, they fixed a monster to suddenly act in a way that totally undermined one of Echo’s attempts to defeat the boss:
That attitude is par for the course. Blizzard has shown over the years that they don’t particularly care about the Race to World First. The event is entirely community-driven, with no real input or support from Blizzard. The company’s indifference is most starkly seen in its refusal to tweak the game in order to put North American and European guilds on even footing. It didn’t matter this time, because Echo won before the game had a chance to reset, but for a while, it looked like all that would matter was the fact that North America would get a chance to get more items from the raid 16 hours ahead of Europe, which would have let Limit theoretically blow past the boss simply by virtue of their region.
That was all anyone could talk about on Monday, especially as Limit got closer and closer to a kill, and though the time differences made for an exciting finish thanks to Echo pulling out that sought-after perfect attempt, it also drowned out a bit of the hype behind the two best guilds in the world trying to beat this incredibly challenging fight. If Limit had ended up winning thanks to the reset, as they did in the last raid, it would have only put a brighter spotlight on Blizzard’s decision to keep the staggered releases, one that is mostly hated by the Race to World First community.
The call for a “global release” has grown stronger with every raid; after all, if there are groups of players from all over the world playing, it makes no sense for one region to start before the other. This was less of a problem in the past, because European guilds have been so much better than North America’s groups, but now that Limit is committed to being the top guild in the world, the cracks aren’t just showing, they’re exploding in front of thousands of viewers. Blizzard could figure out a way to fix this, though I will admit that a global release doesn’t solve everything. Even if everyone starts at the same time, one region will have a suboptimal time to get started. That’s preferable to the current system, though, as these guilds can adjust their schedules in order to get the same start. This is, after all, a major source of their income.
In the meantime, though, this particular Race to World First devolved into the kind of mess that detracts from the experience of watching people at the top of their games perform highly complex tasks. It’s a bummer, because when the Race to World First works correctly, it’s unlike anything else in esports. The only possible benefit is that this current nightmare forces Blizzard to wake up and change something to make it a fairer and more pleasant experience for all.