On November 23rd, 2004, World of Warcraft opened its servers to the world. In many ways the original WoW represented the culmination of the massively multiplayer games of the time, refining and expanding upon many of the features that made predecessors like Everquest and Ultima Online so addicting. Among these refined features was the heavier endgame emphasis on raids—series of powerful superbosses intended to serve as the game’s greatest test of players’ skill, coordination, and teamwork, as well as the source of the game’s most powerful gear. Though Everquest could be credited with introducing the concept to MMOs, World of Warcraft was arguably the first to treat raids as the end-all, be-all challenge for high-level players.
And if there is a challenge, then there are players who will rush to meet it.
It took 69 days before the guild known as Ruined finally cleared Onyxia’s Lair, WoW’s first raid. In-game, the 40-person group was rewarded with a helmet and an axe—a really good helmet and axe, mind you, but still just a helmet and an axe. Out of game, however, that guild would forever hold the title of Onyxia’s Lair’s “World First.”
Over a decade has passed since then, and the race to achieve the World First clear for a new raid is now a staple among MMOs and MMO-likes, whether it’s WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, or Destiny. The lengths of these races range from sprints, like Destiny 2’s two-hour Scourge of the Past raid, to marathons, like WoW’s 24-day Hellfire Citadel clear. The level of spectacle differs as well, with Wheelchair Emoji’s defeat of FFXIV’s Sigmascape 4.0 garnering only 25,000 views on YouTube while WoW guild Method’s final battle against G’huun received almost half a million. But regardless of the specifics, they all share one thing in common: victory begins long before the race.
Four Months to Eden’s Gate: Recruitment
It’s April 2019, and Final Fantasy XIV is at the tail end of its current expansion. The final chapter of story content for Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood dropped in March, and most players are now biding their time until the MMO’s next expansion, Shadowbringers, launches on June 28th. In addition to increasing the level cap, the new expansion will bring a plethora of new story content, areas, dungeons, and—eventually—a new series of raids.
Each expansion in Final Fantasy XIV contains a new raid series. A raid series is divided into three waves, called “raid tiers,” which are released at separate times over the course of an expansion’s lifespan. Each of these three raid tiers contains four raids which must be completed by 8-person groups in sequential order, and these raids come in both a Normal and Savage difficulty. Normal mode raids are intended for even casual players to complete with little to no foreplanning. Savage mode raids, however, are designed with FFXIV’s competitive crowd in mind. These bosses are stronger versions of their Normal-mode counterparts, featuring complex and punishing mechanics that require far greater teamwork and planning to survive. Only the Savage raids are considered part of the World First race, with the title of World First going to whichever team topples the newest tier’s fourth raid boss first.
But Shadowbringers is still months away, and the expansion’s new raid series—Eden—and it’s first tier—Eden’s Gate—have not even been revealed to the public yet. Most players will spend this dry period before an expansion leveling their alternate jobs, catching up on old content, or simply taking a break from the game. But three teams that will compete for World First—Free 2 Play, Banana Yogurt, and Entropy—still have recruiting to do.
Free 2 Play is a raid team within the Free Company—FFXIV’s version of a guild—known as Elysium. The team began recruiting for its Shadowbringers roster in late 2018, using a combination of social media, Reddit, and word of mouth to get the word out. One of Free 2 Play’s members, who goes by Sfia Pirion in-game, told me through Discord that the group received between 25 and 30 applications during that time, of which six or seven were actually trialed—a raid team’s version of tryouts. Banana Yogurt, the Free Company Ensemble’s top raid team, is in a similar situation as Shadowbringers inches closer. After losing half its roster following Stormblood’s final raid tier, Banana Yogurt now needs players to fill slots for a tank, who takes the brunt of enemies’ attacks;a healer; and two DPS, who deal the most damage.
Applications for the teams’ World First rosters are reviewed one by one. Third-party tools exist for games like FFXIV and WoW that allow players to track things like damage output, actions per minute, and damage taken, and then share their stats with others and compare them with the rest of the world. But while viewing someone’s precise damage per second does help when reviewing applicants, it rarely tells the full story. As this conversation between members of World of Warcraft’s Big Dumb Guild and Limit exemplifies, there’s a lot of valuable information that can be gleaned from parsing through a player’s raid logs, but also a lot that can be hidden.
“While DPS output is important, it doesn’t translate to progression mentality at all,” Zachy Pillowfighter, Banana Yogurt’s raid leader, told me over Twitter. “I’ve played with many [95th percentile] and even 100th percentile players only for those players to die to every possible thing due to mechanical failure.”
How recruiters cut through the thicket of numbers varies from game to game and group to group. For Method, one of World of Warcraft’s top competitive guilds, most raiders come in through word of mouth and personal recommendation rather than a formal examination of their raid logs. YouTuber MarcoStyle finalized his World First team just a few days before The Division 2’s first raid launched, and did so by simply merging his existing group of six friends with North America’s top two Division players. Free 2 Play and Banana Yogurt, on the other hand, have a trial process that involves running applicants through a gamut of new and old raids, sometimes with handicaps such as playing with gear removed or at the lowest possible item level. It’s a test not only of their raw numbers, but also their awareness, communication, and learning ability. Their rosters are not finalized until applicants have proven themselves with the group.
Ahead of Shadowbringers’ release, the Free Company Entropy’s team is in a better spot than its counterparts in Free 2 Play and Banana Yogurt. Entropy, under various names, has competed for World First in every tier since late 2016. Its roster has remained relatively static since its formation, never requiring more than two replacements at a time. For the upcoming tier it has only one open spot, which is filled by a friend almost instantly.
Three Months to Eden’s Gate: The Calm Before the Storm
It’s May 2019. With Free 2 Play, Banana Yogurt, and Entropy’s rosters now set, each group can practice together with its full raid team. At this point in time, nothing has technically been confirmed about the upcoming Eden raid series other than its name. Even its release date is still a secret. If history is any indicator, however, then the first tier’s Normal mode raids will drop within a month of Shadowbringers’ launch, with Savage mode launching two weeks after that.
This far ahead of release, the teams are relatively lax with their practice, only raiding together once or twice a week, if at all. Before most raid tiers, this would be the perfect time to grind for better gear.
The launch of a new raid in any MMO is usually preceded by a long and often repetitive grind to obtain more powerful gear and items. Daily and weekly timed tasks such as FFXIV’s Duty Roulettes, World of Warcraft’s Daily Quests, and Destiny 2’s Challenges are often the most time-efficient ways to power up, incentivizing serious players to log in for at least a few hours every day. Daily and weekly reward lockouts, meanwhile, prevent those players from binge-gearing too quickly. Combined, these systems make gearing up for raids a slow and steady arms race, locking players into devoting hours every week towards building up their characters to raid-worthy power levels. In a video on becoming a World First raider posted earlier in WoW’s Battle for Azeroth expansion, Method member Chrispotter estimated that his team’s daily and weekly activities coupled with its regular raiding totalled about 25 hours per week. In Final Fantasy XIV, consistently completing daily roulettes while farming the highest tier raids can add up to over 15 hours per week.
But this raid tier is a bit different. Any new gear they obtain in the current expansion will be rendered obsolete with the launch of Shadowbringers, alleviating the importance of that daily grind. So for now, Free 2 Play, Banana Yogurt, and Entropy can afford to relax a bit. The grinding will come later.
Four Weeks to Eden’s Gate: Launch Day
It’s July 2nd, 2019. Today is the official release date of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, though players who preordered the expansion have had access since June 28th. Just a few weeks ago, Square Enix finally confirmed what players already expected: The expansion’s first raid tier, Eden’s Gate, will launch in its Normal difficulty on July 16th and in its Savage difficulty on July 30th. This gives the teams two weeks to level up their desired jobs (FFXIV’s version of character classes) so they can be ready to practice endgame content and four weeks total to prepare for the World First race.
For now, the raiders’ task is straightforward: level up. In order to participate in the endgame content, each player will need to complete Shadowbringers’ main story, which can easily exceed over 40 hours, and level at least one job from the previous level cap of 70 to the new cap of 80. The first job can be leveled alongside the main story, but any additional job they wish to have prepared will tack on another 10 to 20 hours of grinding. For some of the teams, this is the time to rush straight to the endgame. Raffter Senpai, one of Entropy’s tanks, has leveled all four of FFXIV’s tanking jobs to 80 before the raid’s launch and believes his team was the first group of eight in the EU servers to hit the new level cap. Banana Yogurt, on the other hand, is split on the subject of rushing, with half the team progressing to the endgame as soon as possible while the other half takes time to enjoy the new expansion’s content.
But for the teams that support the World First runs, there’s more to be gathered than just experience points.
In addition to the raiders themselves, each raid team is supported by a squad of 10 or so crafters, gatherers, and materia melders. When Eden’s Gate launches at the end of July, the patch will also include new sets of craftable weapons and gear. These sets will be more powerful than any of the gear currently available in the game, which means obtaining them as quickly and efficiently as possible is a top priority for any World First raid team. As Free 2 Play’s Sfia Pirion told me over Discord, “Without [the crafting team] you can’t actually compete.”
Gathering work has to start early. Since the recipes to craft the necessary gear are not available yet, the teams must stockpile as many crafting materials as they can so they’ll have them on hand when the recipes do go live. They must also cap themselves out on any special currencies, like tomestones and scripts, that can be used to purchase essential crafting materials when the raid drops.
Banana Yogurt’s crafting and gathering needs are being met by its Free Company. Free 2 Play and Entropy, however, have contracted with separate groups to meet their demand. In Free 2 Play’s case, it’s brought on Satori Komeiji to organize its crafting efforts for this tier. She first knew she’d be crafting for the team in late April.
“I started off making a spreadsheet so we could track what jobs we’d likely be crafting for,” she told me via Discord DMs. “What specialists we needed (even if not required they make crafting much easier), how we were prioritizing items (Weapons / Body / Legs > Left side > Right side), what materia [FFXIV’s equipment upgrades] each person wanted melded onto their gear.… You have to level all your crafters to 80. Then you have to make your gear and meld it. And depending on how insane you decided to go (for me I went above and beyond) I spent a lot of time grinding out white scripts and yellow scripts so I could max meld on the shared left side and right side pieces.”
Some of these crafters volunteer their service, while others are paid in gil, FFXIV’s basic in-game currency. When I asked Satori if she could say how much she was paid for her efforts, she told me, “I’m not sure if I can but I will say it’s the most amount of gil I’ve made in that amount of time.” Banana Yogurt’s Zachy Pillowfighter was able to provide a more concrete number, saying that “584 [million gil] was not enough to fund my raid team without it coming out of my pocket.” For context, at the time of writing, the strongest craftable chest piece for a tanking job costs about 600,000 gil on his server’s market board.
One Week to Eden’s Gate: Ramping Up
It’s July 23rd, 2019. Eden’s Gate’s Normal mode has been out for one week now, with another week remaining until Savage.
One would think that the most hectic time of a World First race is the race itself, but the days leading up to it can be just as intense, if not more so. In World of Warcraft, the week before a Mythic raid’s release also sees the release of more powerful rewards from Mythic+ and Heroic dungeons, as well as new purchasable gear. In an interview with Red Bull, a company that’s sponsored some of WoW’s previous World First races, Method founder Scott McMillan said: “The amount of preparation you can do in heroic week is just obscene. There’s no limit to how much you can play the game in heroic week to try and get upgrades on your characters. For example, the chests for completing Mythic+5 dungeons right now drop the highest item level of gear that you can get… so you’re doing them on repeat, hoping that you pull that lottery lever and get an item that gives you a significant new upgrade. It’s intense.”
Destiny 2’s World First races used to encourage a similar crunch. New raids would drop late in the week, but new content and gear was released several days before that, with no practical limit on how overpowered a character could become for the upcoming raid. This turned the few days between the new content’s release and the raid’s release into a mad dash to hoard gear and become as overpowered as possible. With the recent Crown of Sorrows raid, Bungie even attempted to curtail this behavior by capping how high a group’s power level could be for the first 24 hours of the raid. I asked Destiny YouTuber and World First competitor Datto what he thought about the cap over email, and he called it “a great change for World First races” as it shifted the competition’s emphasis from gearing up and overpowering to mechanical mastery and thumb skills.
In Final Fantasy XIV’s case, that precious time before the raid is for practicing and grinding. Now that they’ve hit the level cap, Entropy, Free 2 Play, and Banana Yogurt’s members can begin grinding for Allagan Tomestones of Goetia, which are exchanged for the game’s current best gear. The teams’ practice schedules have also ramped up. Banana Yogurt is now raiding together a couple of times per week for about three and a half hours each session, while Entropy does the same three to four times per week. Free 2 Play is practicing almost every day for as long as possible.
Since Savage raids expand upon the bosses seen in Normal mode, the teams try to extrapolate as much information as they can from the mechanics of the Normal fights. This involves testing the effectiveness of different job compositions, as well as experimenting with boss mechanics to learn things like whether a debuff remains in place after death, what animations telegraph their attacks, and the sequence of their mechanics. This also helps them coordinate how they’ll respond to these threats, such as spreading out to specific spots, splitting into preformed teams, or swapping the person currently tanking the boss. When the race actually begins, having a plan in place and practice executing it will make all the difference.
Three Days to Eden’s Gate: Counting Down
It’s July 27th, 2019. Eden’s Gate’s Savage mode will not be available for three more days, but the patch that contains it—and the new crafting recipes—can already be downloaded to players’ computers. With the download out in the wild, data miners begin digging into the files, revealing the exact materials needed to craft the patch’s new gear. This information is spread through sites like Reddit and Discord channels. Crafters like Satori now know exactly what materials will be needed and can prepare to buy special materials that will release alongside the patch.
On the raiders’ side, the teams will have to have sorted out their real-life responsibilities. Recent Savage tiers have hovered around 16 hours from launch to defeat, though earlier tiers lasted as long as 71 hours. Most raiders prepare to take two days off of work or school, though some take off up to week, just to be safe. Final Fantasy XIV also has special Ultimate-difficulty raids, which are separate from each expansion’s raid series. Their intense difficulty and length require players to set aside up to two weeks for their completion—often through unpaid time off from work.
World First races in most games require a similar level of commitment. Prior to the changes made for Destiny 2’s Crown of Sorrows, Datto and his fireteam would take all the days between the new content’s release and the raid’s launch off in order to secure as much grinding time as possible. World of Warcraft’s Mythic raids typically take over a week to clear, with raiders in top guilds like Method and Limit playing more than 14 hours per day for that entire duration.
The time obligation of these extended World First races is a huge deterrent for competing, but also a necessity for anyone hoping to win World First. Naesam, who raids for World of Warcraft’s Big Dumb Guild under the name Shamxd, described to me over Twitter how his guild’s preparations for World First progression are similar to a top World First competitor’s. Where they differ, however, is in how many hours they can commit. Raiding only 16 hours per week, Big Dumb Guild’s team is capable of snagging World First clears on some of the raids’ early bosses, but inevitably falls behind more committed guilds like Method and Limit as the days stretch on. Free 2 Play’s Sfia Pirion told me his group even lost the race for Final Fantasy XIV’s first Ultimate raid because it did not set aside enough time, adding, “The worst feeling is losing a race because you didn’t take enough time off.”
For Eden’s Gate, most are betting on a short race.
Eden’s Gate: On Your Marks…
It’s July 30th, 2019, 10:30 GMT. Eden’s Gate’s Savage mode has been available for half an hour. There are four raids in the tier: Resurrection, Descent, Inundation, and Sepulture. Defeating one raid permanently unlocks access to the next in the tier. The ultimate prize is to be the World First team to defeat the tier’s fourth and final raid. But as of this moment, no one in the world has even defeated the first.
Entropy, Free 2 Play, and Banana Yogurt are effectively throwing themselves at Eden’s Gate: Resurrection. The boss, Eden Prime, has a beam mechanic that requires groups to spread out and carefully bait the beams around the arena to prevent excess damage to the party. Even with the fight aligning closely with expectations, it still requires multiple attempts.
While the raiders chip off as much of Eden Prime’s health bar as they can, their respective crafting teams churn out the new gear as quickly as possible. They prioritize crafting the gear with the biggest impact—weapons, chest, and leg pieces—to give the biggest strength boosts. In addition to its crafters, Banana Yogurt employs a small team of analysts to watch its private stream and check for any mechanics that the main raid team may be tripping over without realizing. Free 2 Play is opting to go without any analysts for this tier. Entropy never utilizes them.
At 10:51, a team called MOOF from a Japanese and Australian server defeats Eden’s Gate: Resurrection. It’s the World First to move on to Eden’s Gate: Descent. Banana Yogurt is three minutes behind, claiming World Second. Free 2 Play and Entropy follow 3 and 17 minutes later, respectively, claiming World Sixth and Ninth. The World First race is tracked on a website overseen by Frosty_TV, Miunih, and Dudeitsantonio, a trio of Final Fantasy XIV streamers and YouTubers.
At 12:00, things are still going relatively smoothly. A North American team named Kio’s Dinosaur Park has already beaten Descent’s boss, the Void Walker, and Free 2 Play is getting close as well. Banana Yogurt is now fully geared, while some of Entropy’s raiders are becoming stressed over their missing gear pieces. The Void Walker utilizes a unique mechanic called Spell in Waiting that staggers the effects of its attacks, forcing players to adjust the order in which they react to mechanics. But the teams have prepared for this. At 12:06, Free 2 Play becomes the World Second to defeat the Void Walker, moving on to Inundation. Entropy snags World Third at 12:20, and Banana Yogurt is World Seventh at 12:37.
It’s 16:00 GMT, and the teams have hit rough waters, literally. Although the previous two raids took a little over two hours total to clear, Inundation’s Leviathan is proving more resilient. Now fully equipped with melded gear, Free 2 Play is inching closer to defeating Leviathan, while its tricky tsunami phases are slowing down Entropy and Banana Yogurt. At 16:08, Free 2 Play becomes the World First to clear Eden’s Gate: Inundation.
It’s 17:00. Free 2 Play and Entropy are the only two groups to make it to the fourth and final raid of the tier, Eden’s Gate: Sepulture. But rather than capitalizing on its lead, Free 2 Play’s members are stuck staring at error messages. DDoS attacks have shut down North American data centers, allowing other groups like Entropy to gain valuable progress as Free 2 Play’s lead crumbles. Speaking of crumbling, Sepulture’s boss Titan is a reimagining of the Final Fantasy series’ earth deity—one that plays heavily with terrain and spacing while hitting like a truck.
It’s 18:01 as Banana Yogurt finally defeats Inundation’s Leviathan and moves onto Sepulture. At least half a dozen other teams, including Entropy, are now grappling with Titan while Free 2 Play grapples with connection issues. Unlike in World of Warcraft, very few of Final Fantasy XIV’s top World First teams publicly stream their Savage runs, as taking the time to do so would be detrimental to their progression and offer little value. The week-long progression of Ultimate raids makes them more lucrative to both stream and watch, but for Savage tiers any teams that do stream their runs are well behind top raiders like Free 2 Play, meaning the group can’t even catch up on what it’s missing. For now, members have little to do but get some food and rest.
Resting can be both a boon and a bane when racing against the world’s best players. For Savage tier raids, which are expected to last less than a day, most teams choose to play it by ear rather than follow a strict break schedule, opting to rest when it feels right and generally playing until the final boss falls. In Destiny 2, Datto’s fireteam competes with the expectation that it won’t stop until the end. As the races stretch out over days, however, like in FFXIV’s Ultimate difficulty or WoW’s Mythic, a more concrete schedule becomes essential. Method’s raiding schedule ensures players get at least 8 hours of sleep per night to keep them at peak performance. Banana Yogurt maintains a similar routine. But in a raid tier as brief as Eden’s Gate, these hours are mainly just a timesink.
It’s 19:30. After two and a half hours of downtime, North America’s servers are back up and Free 2 Play can reenter the fray. Despite Free 2 Play finishing Inundation almost an hour ahead of Entropy and two ahead of Banana Yogurt, both teams have now had more play time with the final raid.
It’s 23:00. Eden’s Gate Savage mode has been active for 13 hours, and the raid teams have been dying against Titan for several hours now. As the hours drag on and the losses stack up, the World First race becomes a competition of mentality as much as it is skill. Frustration is natural, but it comes at the cost of morale. When I asked Zachy Pillowfighter what kind of mentality someone needs to compete for World First, he emphasized the importance of focus and teamwork.
“Progression mentality is a HUGE deal,” he told me. “Really it just comes down to playing smart and playing to achieve one collective goal: kill the fight.… It’s important to work with your team, and—if you don’t understand something—[ask] questions. Ask questions about a mechanics, in detail, 20 times if you have to, for it’s better to do that than it is to assume you already know, make another pull, and wipe to the very same thing. And try not to tilt. The first team that tilts is the team that loses.”
Big Dumb Guild’s Naesam shared a similar opinion. “Being patient, calm, and understanding. Everyone needs to be ready to wipe 200-plus times on the last boss without being disheartened…. You also can’t have people who are going to yell at other players over mistakes. Morale has a big affect on quality of play and if everyone is on edge because someone started raging, that can take a good night of progression south really quick…. For guilds that raid many hours every day, patience becomes more of a stamina attribute.”
It’s 23:40, and Titan just got bigger. After whittling him down to 68 percent health, Entropy watches as the boss grows to screen-consuming proportions, signaling that the second main phase of the fight has begun. Titan targets players with attacks that have a very specific area of effect, forcing the team to spread out in some areas and bunch together in others to minimize damage. To complicate matters, the arena’s terrain transforms periodically to trap players in undesirable positions. The teams must respond to each threat immediately, all while still dishing out a steady stream of damage.
But if the battle is frantic, then Entropy’s members don’t show it. They respond to each mechanic calmly and effectively, only communicating the most essential information in an otherwise silent fight. Even when they hit Titan’s third phase, in which both a large and small version of the boss hammer the group with constant, arena-wide damage, each person continues to fulfill their role in near silence with only the occasional call-outs. The first crack in this cool demeanor doesn’t come until 13 minutes and 22 seconds into the fight, with the boss at 1 percent health, when someone begins to yell, “Push, push, push!”
Titan falls. Time of death: 23:50 GMT. After months of recruitment, weeks of grinding and practice, 13 hours and 50 minutes of World First progression, 6 hours and 58 minutes of battling Titan, and a slow start, Entropy clears Eden’s Gate: Sepulture and becomes the tier’s World First team.
One Month After Eden’s Gate: A Stepping Stone
After the race ended, I asked Entropy’s Raffter Senpai over Discord how he felt about the team’s performance. His answer was just as succinct as his group’s communication. “Could have been better in multiple places,” he told me. “But overall it was fine. It got the result but there are improvements.”
Finishing 2 hours and 38 minutes after Entropy, Free 2 Play ended up placing World Third, behind another team from Japan. “I mean, it’s hard not to be disappointed,” Sfia told me. “If you’re not first you’re last in my opinion. But we know the exact reasons we didn’t win. And I think we know we played well enough to win, even though we know we could have played better.” As for his group’s plans for the next raid, he told me, “This tier was honestly more of a stepping stone for Ultimate for us so yeah, we’ll be going hard for that.”
Banana Yogurt ended the race at World Fourth, just 16 minutes later than Free 2 Play. “We saw Titan enrage and no one had killed it yet, so it kinda sucked that we fell short of what we wanted,” Zachy said. “We practiced for months and we all put in dedicated hard work. I think the team isn’t satisfied with the rank and we know exactly what we need to do to make sure we’re in a better position for the next progression push.”
That next progression push will likely be Shadowbringers’ first Ultimate raid. Square Enix hasn’t released any details yet, but if history is any indicator then it will likely drop sometime in October or November. In the meantime, the teams can afford to relax their schedules and take some time before the next race begins.
Banana Yogurt has two open slots to fill anyway.
Header image: Square Enix
Jack Waibel is a writer, dungeon master, and lifelong gamer. He’s tapped more land cards than modern science can measure and still brags about being TIME’s 2006 Person of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @WaibelJack.