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World of Warcraft’s Race to World First raids are undergoing an ownership controversy

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Who owns the race to World First?

World of Warcraft - A group of raiders attack King Rhastakhan in the Battle for Dazar’Alor Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft’s new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, has had one interesting success: the race among top guilds to be the first to finish new raids. Uldir and the Battle for Dazar’Alor, the two full raids currently in Battle for Azeroth, were both accompanied by heated races from guilds competing to gear up, learn the strategies, and down the final boss before their competition could. As Blizzard prepares to launch the third raid, Azshara’s Eternal Palace, one of the top guilds in the world has called out its sponsor for attempting to take over the entire community-led project.

Race to World First raids exist somewhere in between speedrunning and esports. Players band up in large groups with the best gear that they can possibly acquire — even by wild methods like doing a mass paid switch to the other faction to take advantage of a loot loophole, then switching back — and go through a series of carefully designed boss encounters. These boss encounters test both a player’s stats and their skill, and players have to maximize their damage and healing while also avoiding traps, counteracting boss mechanics, and moving as a group.

Race to World First raids aren’t anything new — Icecrown Citadel, Ulduar, and Ahn’Qiraj have all served as World First battlegrounds in the past — but things have changed in Battle for Azeroth. Method, the top raiding guild in the world, began streaming their progress through multiple perspectives in Battle for Azeroth. Method brings 20 players to each fight, and there are also substitutes on a bench who switch in and out depending on scheduling, logistics, and boss fights. Once the fight begins, raid leaders handle the logistics and call outs, while tanks maneuver the bosses, healers keep everyone alive, and DPS handle damage and targeting.

World of Warcraft - Players raid Azshara’s Eternal Palace Blizzard Entertainment

Streaming the raid was a risky move, as other guilds could see what tactics they were attempting on tough bosses ... but it paid off big time in viewership.

More than 160,000 viewers watched Method claim the World First in Uldir through main tank and raid leader Sco’s stream. Method also had several popular streams, from different perspectives within the raid, running parallel to the “main” stream. According to Sco, also known as Scott McMillan, Uldir was watched by over 6 million unique devices, and tallied 10 million viewer hours, which is over twice as many than the viewer hours of the Overwatch League season one playoffs. The next raid, Battle for Dazar’Alor, was even more popular. The MMO community race has become much more public — and potentially profitable.

This makes a recent Twitlonger posted by McMillan on July 6 all the more important. McMillan announced that Method is terminating its partnership with Red Bull leading up to the race for the newest raid, Azshara’s Eternal Palace. McMillan alleges that Red Bull has been consistently applying pressure to host the World First race on Red Bull’s own stream, without providing adequate compensation to Method and its raiders for taking this source of income.

[Disclosure: I wrote for Red Bull Esports for two years in a freelance capacity, from 2016 through 2018.]

Red Bull, which sponsored both of Method’s raids for Uldir and the Battle of Dazar’Alor, were the ones to establish a partnership. McMillan said that after Uldir, Red Bull and Method were unable to come to an agreement regarding who would host the stream. While the conflict did not prevent Method from hosting the Battle of Dazar’Alor with Red Bull sponsorship, the debate immediately re-emerged after Dazar’Alor. McMillan states that Red Bull had a clear gain from their sponsorship in “access to millions of hours of viewership.” Furthermore, he claims that this dispute affected Method’s Battle for Dazar’Alor plans, and prevented them from increasing the scale of the event to include other guilds.

World of Warcraft - raiders battle Lady Jaina Proudmoore Blizzard Entertainment

McMillian states that Method received leaked communications showing Red Bull had taken ideas from the proposed scope increased for the Battle for Dazar’Alor, and approached high end guilds Limit and Pieces with an offer. This event, if true, would be called “Red Bull’s World First.” (McMillian did not reveal these leaked communications in full, and linked out to be what appears to be a piece of marketing material.)

The Race to World First has been a community event, with no real owner. Blizzard has occasionally stepped in with balance changes for bosses, and deal with exploits, but otherwise each guild has owned their own progress. McMillian argues that Red Bull’s new initiative is “taking the competition away from the community [now] that there is huge public interest and commercial viability.” In short, World Firsts could become a new esport, and Red Bull is poised to profit from it.

McMillian also notes that the Race to World First also has lower overhead than other esports, since there are no enforced rulesets, brackets, referees, administrators, and other staff and infrastructure. With a third-party investor, a brand could theoretically pay very little into the scene while reaping the revenue.

This would, obviously, cut down on the feasibility of raiding in World of Warcraft as a competition.

“The majority of guilds that have achieved World Firsts are either disbanded or have stopped competing, including guilds such as Death and Taxes, Nihilum, Ensidia, Blood Legion and Paragon,” writes McMillian. “Seeking to achieve a World First requires an immense amount of dedication but yields no tangible reward if you are successful. We live in a time of top esports competitions rewarding millions in prize money and six to seven figures annual pro player salaries. Most top raiders on the other end have to take vacation from their full time jobs to compete in the RWF.”

World of Warcraft - a shot of three Allied Races Blizzard Entertainment

With Uldir and Battle for Dazar’Alor standing shoulder to shoulder with Counter-Strike: Global Offense’s Major tournaments, or League of Legends LCS, the World First raids have massive value. In an attempt to protect that value, McMillan states that Method is working on an agreement with other guilds. He writes,

Method is in the early stages of communicating with other top guilds on a collective agreement that will have the Race to World First remain in the hands of the community. An agreement that will prevent exploitation of the guilds. The agreement in broad strokes:

- The guilds elect a commissioner to act on their behalf. The commissioner will assume the role of executive director for RWF events.

- The commissioner and the guilds choose a production company and venue(s) which will be engaged on a contractor basis.

- The commissioner, on behalf of the guilds, will oversee the creation and execution of a Race to World First broadcast, to ensure the event reflects the competitive nature of the race and the passion of the raid guilds.

- Sponsorships for the RWF events will be brought in by the guilds and external agents. All revenue will be distributed in a fair manner which will be agreed upon between the guilds.

- Blizzard, as creator and IP owner of World of Warcraft, will hopefully continue to provide support to what has always made World of Warcraft special, its community. We would be keen to work directly with Blizzard with the above aforementioned points in mind.

This agreement ensures that; 1) The Race to World First will be the best it can be, because it is in the hands of the guilds and their raiders, who have passion and dedication to this competition. 2) The guilds and raiders are not taken advantage of by external for-profit companies which have no interest in the RWF other than its commercial exploitation. 3) The long term sustainability of the raiding scene is secured.

While Method declined to comment further in regards to Red Bull, Shanna “Darrie” Sarr, General Manager of Method, provided the following statement to Polygon:

Everyone at Method is excited for the Eternal Palace race, we want to see all participating guilds do their best. There is no race without competition, guilds such as Pieces, Limit, Alpha, and Method all play a critical role in the future success of a Race To World First finally getting the stage it deserves.

After the race, I think we will see guild leadership from across the Top 20 come together to talk about what happened with this race and hopefully it will lead to the raiders empowering themselves in the form of a bargaining agreement for future raid races. Raiders from Method are just as much of a part of the community as raiders from every other guild and definitely deserve a seat at the table. If Method the organization can use our voice to help gather interest and bring attention to the need for such an agreement, then I think we should, and then promptly hand the megaphone over to whomever is elected by the raiders to represent the raiders.

Method has since announced its own event for the Race to World First, which will include top guilds from North America, Europe, and Asia, and 24/7 coverage of progression through Azshara’s Eternal Palace.

Polygon has reached out to Red Bull, but did not receive a response in time for publication.