NBA franchise company Golden State Warriors’ first major foray into esports came when the company was selected as a long term partner for the League of Legends Championship Series. Since then, GSW’s esports brand, Golden Guardians, has slowly expanded into a number of competitive titles. Most recently, the organization took a rather unique step and did something only one other esports organization has ever done – it partnered with a World of Warcraft guild.
World of Warcraft is rather unique among esports titles in that it has three entirely separate and actively supported esports ecosystems operating within it. Two of these are operated by Activision Blizzard, given large prize pools, and a presence at the company’s annual BlizzCon fan expo. The last, and arguably most popular in terms of viewership on Twitch, has been acknowledged by the publisher but is run entirely by the game’s community.
The Race to World First is an event that takes place two to three times per year during which teams of 20-25 elite WoW players (referred to as “guilds”) attempt to defeat the game’s most difficult challenges as quickly as possible the moment they are released. We have outlined how the race functions in more detail in our previous coverage of the event.
Last month, Golden Guardians became part of the race by announcing a partnership with one of the top guilds in North America, Big Dumb Guild, which rebranded to BDGG as part of the partnership.
“I think WoW really is underappreciated,” Golden State Warriors head of esports Hunter Leigh told The Esports Observer. “I’ve thought this for years. It’s very easy to focus on what WoW isn’t anymore. I think everybody’s done that for so long that we’ve stopped looking at what WoW still is, which is one of the biggest games in the world with this incredibly die-hard player base.”
Having launched in 2004, WoW is one of the oldest games to still operate a growing esports ecosystem. As a result, while the game still has a substantial playerbase and is among the most-watched games on Twitch, there is also a massive group of former players with fond memories of their time spent with the game. This allows events like the Race to World First to not only engage active players, but draw in former players by leveraging their nostalgia for the game.
This was evident in the explosive viewership for the first livestreamed Race to World First in 2018. Leigh said that this broadcast, organized by veteran guild and esports organization Method (who also won that race), proved the viability of the raid race scene as an esport. As a result, while the race has been a major event for WoW players for roughly a decade, it really didn’t become a viable esport until late 2018.
Method is rather unique in that the company began as a WoW guild and then expanded to become an esports organization. No other guilds had the resources to produce their own race event on the scale of Method’s broadcast, and esports organizations trying to enter the space as they traditionally do would have been looking at signing almost 30 people. Instead, Golden Guardians found a workaround – signing a partnership with an existing guild. The first organization to establish such a partnership was Complexity, which last year partnered with North American guild Limit. For the most recent race at the end of 2019, Complexity flew the Limit players to its headquarters in Frisco, Texas, where they were provided with food and resources in order to focus on their competition. Complexity-Limit would go on to win that race.
As Leigh explained, the BDGG partnership has a similar goal in mind. Golden Guardians supports the guild financially on a monthly basis, and intends to provide its raiders with a venue and the resources to commit themselves fully to the competition. Leigh also noted that the company is factoring the current global COVID-19 pandemic into its plans.
The two groups began communicating roughly six months ago, shortly after Golden Guardians announced its first foray into another one of WoW’s esports scenes, the Arena World Championship. At that time, according to BDGG events and partnership lead James “Comfy” Kerschbaumer, the guild had been looking for a partner for roughly two years. Seeing that Golden Guardians had an interest in WoW, Kerschbaumer and his guildmates sent a “shot in the dark” message asking if the organization was looking to pursue the Race to World First as well.
Kerschbaumer spoke positively about the experience of discussing a potential partnership with Leigh and Golden Guardians, saying that the values of the guild aligned with the organization.
For him, signing this partnership will allow the guild to take the next step forward in really competing during the next race.
“At this point we’re not the best, and we’re not the most hardcore,” Kerschbaumer said. “But we want to be the best, and we’re going to put everything we can into being the best. And we want to actually compete for World First.”
He explained that at the moment, there are realistically only two or three guilds that can compete for World First (counting Method and Complexity-Limit). There are very few players who can focus on WoW full time year-round, and so even the most elite raiding teams with other full-time employment. To truly compete for World First, an entire guild needs to be able to take two weeks off from work, according to Kerschbaumer.
In the past, without the financial support from Golden Guardians, BDG has been able to keep pace with the top competitive guilds for the early days of the race, but has been unable to remain competitive for the full thing. Having that financial support as well as facility and the resources to focus fully on raiding when the time comes means that BDGG is no longer held back by limitations outside of the game.
For Leigh the partnership addresses one of the common challenges that diversified esports organizations face.
“When you are trying to build a content mix on your social media channels…there’s this age-old question around ‘Ok, do I put everything on one feed or on one YouTube channel?’ and then only X% of my audience is going to like that content at a time. I put out a [League of Legends] video, well all the non-League people don’t want to watch it…These guys have established channels. That sort of solves the problem for us. We can pull over whatever we think really should hit the broader audience…and there are still their channels and their audience that already exists, that already have followings. So they’re an entity, they’re a guild, but I really think of them like a streamer.”
The next Race to World First will take place later this year, following the release of WoW’s next expansion. Each time a new expansion is released, the game sees a significant spike in Twitch viewership, which will no doubt impact the first post-release race. This viewership is part of what makes the race an interesting opportunity for esports organizations. In other esports, teams merely participate in a competition where the broadcast is controlled by the game’s publisher or a third-party organizer.
Because Activision Blizzard does not actively control the Race to World First, teams are able to produce their own livestreams of the event and secure their own sponsors for that broadcast. As Leigh explained, during previous races Method and Complexity-Limit have been able to generate viewership numbers in line with other top esports, but on a broadcast entirely owned by the organization.
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