This isn't the first time we've seen world-class raiding guilds lose their "World First" achievements due to "exploiting a bug or game mechanics," but Ensidia's recent scandal is rife with controversy.
When the average World of Warcraft player thinks of "competitive" gameplay, PvP/Arena is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But there is another aspect to competition in the world's most-popular MMO; a group of elite, hardcore players—many who train at the "professional" level—trying to make their way to the top of PvE gameplay. At the "local" level, these are the top-rated guilds on your server; the guilds that consistently earn the "Server First" achievements for endgame raid content. At the national and international levels, only the best guilds compete for "World First" raiding achievements (a few of which actually earn a living playing WoW by picking up corporate sponsorship deals).
The release of patch 3.3.2 last week—including the final chapter of the "Fall of the Lich King" endgame content in Icecrown Citadel—ushered in an especially-prominent event in WoW's living history; who would be the first to defeat the infamous Lich King? As many predicted, professional raiding guild Ensidia claimed the world's first 25-man kill. Around the same time, Blizzard announced an emergency hotfix to address a bug that allowed players to exploit the Lich King encounter, significantly reducing its difficulty. Shortly after, we learned that Ensidia did employ the exploit, and—regardless of the players' intent or ignorance—Blizzard revoked the achievement and slapped a 72-hour ban on guild. The WoW blogosphere ignited with scathing debates and talks of scandal—but more importantly, the community raised some fundamental and significant questions about raid design, as well.
ZAM's main goal, in this editorial, is to update readers regarding the facts surrounding recent events. As we've already seen in both forums and blogs, community opinion regarding the issue is commonly voiced without weighing both sides. It's a subject that admittedly riles up the community, especially among fans who disagreed with Ensidia's actions in the past (more on that later).
Hardcore WoW raiding is a deeply-competitive form of gameplay at the "world-first" level. Professionally-backed PvE raiding is a bit less prevalent among the "e-sport" industry than you might expect, given the size and international success of World of Warcraft. Nevertheless, the top guilds that consistently battle for PvE dominance are well-known throughout the hardcore raiding community, followed by tens of thousands of fans around the world.
In an earlier editorial, ZAM explored the possible reasons why Blizzard hasn't fully embraced WoW as an e-sport to the extent of other game publishers. However, that editorial addressed PvP gameplay, which is the main aspect of competitive WoW actively followed by fans. Competitive PvE raiding is still a significant niche, though; a relatively small circle of guilds at the top of the charts regularly compete for world- and region-first achievements, some of which receive corporate sponsorship to fund their gameplay.
Beyond the obvious benefits that funding provides, sponsored guilds are often invited to Blizzard and other gaming events to compete in timed dungeon runs and showcase upcoming content. Relationships like these supply even more incentive for these elite guilds to stay on top, which is why today's raiding fans have come to expect a pretty short list of potential "competitors" for world-firsts. In a way, professional raiding has bred discontent among some fans, because the community is usually able to predict the winning guilds based on raid progression aggregator sites like WoWProgress and GuildOx.
That's why it didn't come as a surprise to many fans when Ensidia (Tarren Mill-EU) scored the world's first 25-man Lich King kill last Wednesday, following Blood Legion's (Illidan-US) 10-man victory (via WoW.com). Although Blood Legion's 10-man kill was nothing to scoff at, the 25-man raid encounter is usually considered the ultimate test of skill, taking into account the small window of time in which these guilds have to learn a brand-new boss strategy.
The victory was short-lived, though; Blizzard announced an emergency hotfix that would disable the siege damage caused by Saronite Bombs and Global Thermal Sapper Charges. It's one of the strangest bugs we've heard of recently (Lich King encounter spoilers ahead!), but the siege damage caused by these Engineering weapons was unintentionally reducing the difficulty of the fight. "The siege damage of the bombs was causing the Frozen Throne platform to rebuild," Blizzard explained in the post, "which greatly decreases the difficulty of the encounter." If you're interested to learn more about the mechanics of the Lich King battle (and the reason why "rebuilding" the Frozen Throne platform would have reduced its difficulty), check out Wowhead's Lich King encounter summary.
After the announcement, some players began to speculate that Ensidia used the exploit to score the world's first Lich King victory. Admittedly, most of the speculation probably came from community members who vehemently opposed the guild because of similar scenarios in the past. One of the most popular examples was the world-first "Alone in the Darkness" (Defeat Yogg-Saron without the assistance of any Keepers) fiasco; check out this editorial at WoWRiot for more information. According to opponents, Ensidia hasn't always manifested a great display of sportsmanship, and this isn't the first time the guild has utilized an exploit—intentionally or not—to achieve a world-first.
A few hours after the developers announced the hotfix, Blizzard issued Ensidia a 72-hour ban and revoked its world-first achievement and raid loot. Ensidia confirmed the ban was issued for exploiting the siege mechanic bug, although its members say they weren't intentionally using the exploit at the time. Ensidia explained that the group's Rogue, Naihiko, was using Saronite Bombs as part of his normal DPS rotation: "We're talking about an everyday normal DPS rotation item that the Naihiko has used on every boss in ICC," Nessaj wrote in the post. "How do one distingquish [sic] between what is causing a bug when it is related to an item you use all the time?"
Most Rogues with Engineering will agree; throwing bombs as part of your rotation is a common practice to add a little extra damage. But despite the provided WoL report screenshots Ensidia offers, the community generally agrees that it comes down to whether or not the guild actively utilized the exploit after learning about it (according to WoW.com, Ensidia member "Muqq" was aware of the bug before they earned the 25-man achievement).
In the post announcing its ban, Ensidia provides a few links to its members' personal blogs; several players write about the incident in more detail and express their feelings regarding Blizzard's decision to ban them (and more importantly, the revocation of their world-first achievement). Some of the blog posts contain a bit of swearing, but the common theme is that Ensidia thinks Blizzard should have more-thoroughly play-tested the encounter before releasing it to live servers. If you can stomach it, check out the full blog post links in the announcement above, or click here, here and here to read a few.
Is Ensidia guilty of exploiting a known bug to help ensure its reputation as the world's top raiding guild? Or was this another example of Blizzard punishing its players for mistakenly succumbing to issues that could have been avoided if the developers had properly tested the mechanics before release? That's for our readers to decide.
Finally, in case you're wondering; Paragon (EU-Lighting's Blade) was the first "official" guild to claim the world-first 25-man Lich King victory on Feb. 4 at around 11 p.m. GMT, according to WoWProgress. Ensidia was able to reclaim its victory on Feb. 7 after its ban lifted (still placing it within the first 10 guilds worldwide to complete the achievement). Let's all hope for a smoother and drama-free competition for the Lich King "hard mode" world-first in the days to come…