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WoWMar 30, 2022 10:00 am CT

The mental toll of the Race to World First

If you were watching the Sepulcher of the First One’s Race to World First you would’ve noticed something unusual happen near the end. An hour before Echo got their first Jailer kill, Team Liquid withdrew from the race. Why would the guild that was solidly in second place — with a chance of getting a last-minute victory — do that? It turns out they had an excellent reason. They were all bone-tired and burned out.

At that point, the race had been going on for 18 days in earnest, with an extra week of hard farming on the first bosses in front of that. These players had been playing World of Warcraft at an extremely high level of play for 10+ hours a day for 25 days or more. They were taking breaks for food and dinner where appropriate, but most of their day was spent in Azeroth and the Shadowlands trying to get as much loot as possible, or pulling bosses in the Sepulcher that beat their face in time after time. On top of that, all of Team Liquid were away from their homes for the duration of the event, raiding together from the Helix Esports center in Boston.

This isn’t the first Race to World First event where they all raided together. However, it is the first Race to World First that has ever reached this length. The previous record for longest raid tier was held by Tomb of Sargeras where Kil’Jaeden lasted 12 hours less than the Jailer did. The major difference between those two races is that wasn’t a large, highly produced event like the Races are now.

The race started strong but the real life boss was harder than any crab

Team Liquid came out of the gate swinging, quickly racking up World First kills on all but one of the bosses in the first eight. The very first boss — The Vigilant Guardian — fell to a guild called The Early Shift who weren’t participating in the race to the same degree as these larger organizations. Even with Halondrus, the Reclaimer being a slightly unexpected, meme-worthy roadblock, their spirits were high. However, as we got closer to the 14-day mark a few things changed.

Team Liquid lost one of their Main Tank players, who had to fly home because they had only booked off two weeks of time for the race. This was one of the two tanks that lived through the last 3% of Mythic Anduin with the rest of the raid lying dead on the floor. Losing a player of that caliber — both mechanically and as a team member — couldn’t have helped morale. They also had to change accommodations and move to a hotel that was further away from their event center. These are little things that could add up to additional pressure on any guild, but then as they got into the final three fights Echo surged ahead.

It wasn’t only Liquid feeling the real-life pressure either. Many of the other guilds had to go back to only evening raiding as they ran out of time off of work. Sepulcher of the First Ones was winning.

To go from such a commanding lead to being in second place is hard. Liquid was the first guild in the world to attempt both the Lords of Dread and Rygelon, even going so far as to change from progressing on the Lords of Dread when they thought the fight was unkillable as it currently stood. Echo proved them wrong the next morning with an almost all melee composition. Liquid got their kill pretty close after Echo did — but were playing on the back foot now. Echo also managed to figure out Rygelon before them, downing the boss in fewer pulls and earlier than Liquid.  Then came the Jailer.

The final boss of the raid is always going to be one of the hardest that the raid can throw at you. Liquid and Echo wound up staying neck and neck until Echo got ahead in a big way. When Liquid spent an entire raid day stuck at the same point, and unable to get any further than their best attempt, the writing was on the wall. As Echo first reached the secret Mythic-only phase and then kept inching closer to the kill, the morale for Team Liquid hit an all-time low.

The Team Liquid Raid Leader, Maximum, saw that his players were struggling and made the hard call to stop racing.

Liquid throws in the towel

“I feel like our players are in pure hell, and we want them to give them that time off. That’s what we had a meeting on about an hour ago, that’s why we took this break, had that meeting. People are just checked out, the race has never gone this long, playing from behind is extremely extremely taxing. I have never really experienced really anything like this. I’ve just been in a constant state of stress and focus and tired and being fatigued. It’s just not not been fun for a lot of our players, and I feel like we started this race really strong. Even through a normal Race for World First, we actually played really well. We played insanely well 9-10 days into this race, and then it just hit us like a f**ing brick.” – Raid Leader Maximum

Liquid packed up and took Sunday off to head home. They would resume raiding on Monday, and keep working on the Jailer from the comforts of home. During that time Method took the World Second kill of the Jailer, and Skyline also progressed further than Liquid. This is now Liquid’s lowest placement in two full expansions, but even so, I think that the choice to stop raiding to focus on players’ health and sanity is 100% the right call and I applaud Max for making it.

One of Team Liquids’ greatest strengths in these Races is that they always have looked like they were having fun. It was rough to watch them as it became more and more apparent that wasn’t the case. This is supposed to be a fun event, even though it is a competition. If the roles were reversed, Echo said that they would’ve probably made the same decision as Liquid did. The diminishing returns with every pull where nothing changes and you can’t progress would just lead to more player issues in the long run.

There are no other esports or even regular sports events that will come close to the marathon level of focus that the Race to World First requires. Even the shorter, week-long races like we saw from the Sanctum of Domination are still seven days in a row where they’re spending the majority of their day in Warcraft. To then do that for almost three straight weeks? It’s a small wonder that any of them want to even look at the game again.

What made this race particularly rough on them was, even when they weren’t actively pulling the Mythic bosses in Sepulcher, they were busy running it across multiple copies of their characters trying to get as much tier armor as possible. The set bonuses were so strong that they didn’t even go into Mythic difficulty for the first day of the race, choosing instead to spend multiple hours farming the same bosses over and over again, often paying outrageous sums of gold to people who could trade the gear to their main raiders.

This is definitely a case of the guilds choosing to do something that isn’t fun, eats up a bunch of their time, and isn’t truly part of the race itself — but is 100% necessary for them to compete at this level. The tier bonuses were uniformly large power gains, which were needed to pump out the numbers that these Mythic bosses require, especially as World First kills are done at such a power disadvantage over what the bosses are designed for. So while the guilds may not like it, if Liquid chose to not do any of these extra raid splits the next time there’s a Race to World First, other guilds probably would — meaning Liquid just wouldn’t be nearly as competitive.

What should the next race look like

What can be done about this going forward? Is it even possible for Blizzard developers to balance the next raid tier so it doesn’t last 18 days? Time and time again the top guilds have shown that if there is anything available in-game that results in even a 1% damage increase they’ll force themselves through whatever that requires, so that they have that edge going into the race. During Battle for Azeroth that was running Island Expeditions for hours on end, because that was the fastest way to get Azerite Power and level up their Heart of Azeroth.

The Sanctum of Domination Race to World First left many viewers feeling like it didn’t last nearly long enough, and most of the back half of the bosses died far too quickly. I don’t think it’s a matter of more PTR testing either, as the final three bosses in Sepulcher weren’t tested on Mythic difficulty and all died in fairly appropriate amounts of time.

Is it time for Blizzard to take a more hands-on approach to the Race to World First? All this time they’ve been happy to leave it as just a fun community-driven event, but these last two races had major power spikes in Shards of Domination and Class armor both being rewarded randomly. Guilds were putting themselves through hell to fight that randomness as much as possible. There are also always complaints about the varied start time between the different regions of WoW, with the European servers coming up a full day later than the North American. This leads to calls of unfairness whenever a NA guild can get their weekly reset gear first and sneak a kill out from underneath an EU server guild.

So what could Blizzard do to change this? We’ve seen them use a special tournament realm before for the Mythic Dungeon International, so maybe they should start to doing the same for the Race to World First. Let guilds make as many characters as they’d like without having to do the massive grind outside of the race to get their characters ready. Give everyone a set of Heroic difficulty raid and dungeon gear, and as many consumables as they need.

Make the event start at the same time for everyone around the world, and have them all go in on equal footing. Without all of the extra hassle around gearing, we won’t see players benched because they don’t ever hit the lucky break on getting their Shards of Domination, or have to have five different Paladin alts to ensure that one gets their full tier set. The race would be more about the skill of the players and the guilds involved.

I think it’s time.

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