I was 14 years old when a kid in my freshman year Intro To HTML class told me that it was time I abandon my Xbox and step into a world unlike any I’d ever experienced before: an MMORPG called World of Warcraft.
Nearly 15 years ago, the MMORPG World of Warcraft changed the gaming industry forever.
Whether you had a brother or sister obsessed with manipulating the Auction House, overheard a lunch table in high school arguing about Priests and Paladins, or you resembled one of the game-obsessed South Park characters from their famous episode, Make Love, Not Warcraft, chances are, this Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game has, in some way, affected your life.
But the release of World of Warcraft did more than just give loyal Everquest players a new-and-improved fantasy world to explore.
World of Warcraft marked the beginning of a new era of gaming.
The best-selling PC game of 2005 and 2006, World of Warcraft crossed the 10 million subscriber marker by 2008 (the year I graduated high school). By the end of the 2000s, it had sparked mainstream attention and acknowledgment of the still-underground gaming industry from television personalities such as Conan O’Brien, prompted TED talks about video game addition, and spawned some of the first viral videos by gamers, like LEEEROY JENKINSSSSS, Athene The Best Paladin In The World, and one of my personal favorites, a home video of a teenager reacting to his mom cancelling his World of Warcraft account (that went massively viral). And by the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, World of Warcraft had effectively solidified itself as a professional eSport—and opened the door for a whole new industry of sponsors, live streamers, celebrity YouTubers, and more.
And now, with World of Warcraft‘s 15-year anniversary right around the corner, the madness is about to happen all over again.
In 2017, Blizzard Entertainment announced they were working on a “Classic” version of the original game, the one that originally hooked an entire generation (myself included). This announcement came after years of players requesting a classic version of World of Warcraft—with some even banding together to create an independent private server (called Nostralius) where nostalgic gamers could relive “the glory days.”
World of Warcraft has evolved over the course of the past decade through seven different expansions:
- The Burning Crusade, released in January 2007
- Wrath of the Lich King, released in November 2008
- Cataclysm, released in December 2010
- Mists of Pandaria, released in September 2012
- Warlords of Draenor, released in November 2014
- Legion, released in August 2016
- Battle for Azeroth, released in August 2018
But for those of us who were lucky enough to experience World of Warcraft in its original form, the week of the launch in November, 2004, the game that exists today is a far cry from the much simpler, much less intuitive version of the game we fell in love with at the start.
More than that, the entire gaming industry has grown from being a basement hobby to an idolized career path by teenagers and adults alike.
Major sporting arenas now sell tens of thousands of tickets for eager fans to watch their favorite professional gamers compete live. Popular Twitch streamers can earn six-figure (and sometimes even seven-figure) salaries playing video games full-time for others to enjoy and watch. Big brands now understand the value of sponsoring gaming personalities with hundreds of thousands of followers. And what so many people forget is that when World of Warcraft first launched, none of these things existed. There was no Twitch.tv. You couldn’t follow your favorite players on Twitter. You were lucky if they had a blog, let alone a YouTube channel in the late 2000s.
Blizzard Entertainment recently announced that World of Warcraft Classic will be launched to the public August 27, 2019.
I played the game back in 2004.
I was 14 years old when a kid in my freshman year Intro To HTML class told me that it was time I abandon my Xbox and step into a world unlike any I’d ever experienced before: an MMORPG called World of Warcraft. I remember lying to my parents, telling them I was upstairs in my bedroom studying for finals, while I explored the dark woods of Ashenvale on my first character—a Troll Shaman. I remember taking my first Chemistry final on two hours of sleep, because I’d stayed up the entire night before playing the game’s first 40v40 battleground, Alterac Valley. I remember the first time I scored an epic item from a Molten Core raid—Helm of the Lifegiver (which nobody else wanted, but I thought was pretty cool). I have more memories inside the World of Warcraft than I do specific moments from my real life experience of high school—and by the time I graduated (at the bottom of my class), I was one of the highest ranked 3v3 players in North America. I even wrote a book about it, called Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.
When I heard World of Warcraft Classic was being released, I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the idea that I could re-live the nostalgia of my childhood was exciting. But on the other hand, I’m extremely aware of what made my years spent immersed in the World of Warcraft so memorable had less to do with the game and more to do with the friends I made along the way—the closest of whom I still keep in touch with today. Whether or not I decide to open Pandora’s box and relive “the glory days” of what I (and millions of others) believe to be the greatest video game of our lifetime, that’s still up for debate.
What I’m more interested in reflecting on here is how the landscape has changed over the past 15 years. And the differences in the game industry between World of Warcraft being launched in a digital-second society, in 2004, versus World of Warcraft Classic arriving in a digital-first society in 2019.
1. In 2004, it wasn’t “cool” to be an internet personality. Today? It’s a viable (and lucrative) career path.
Picture this: a world where saying “I have 100,000 followers on YouTube” doesn’t prompt brand deals and thirsty DMs, but strange looks from your peers and conversations with your concerned parents.
In the mid/late-2000s, those of us who were at the forefront of the competitive gaming scene were desperately trying to find a way to monetize our passion. In 2007, as one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America, every hour I spent not competing in 3v3 arenas was spent talking to other top players about how we were going to make a living off gaming. At the time, the only viable option seemed to be to start a blog, run Google Adwords, and hope you brought in enough traffic to pay yourself a modest living. And even if you won the biggest tournament of the year, you were still only looking at a few thousand dollars worth of prize money.
Today, in 2019, the best way to monetize your career as a gamer isn’t actually going pro. In fact, you can make exponentially more money as a gaming entertainer and live streamer with a loyal fanbase. Between subscription fees, donations, sponsorships, and branded campaigns, earning six figures doing what you love has never been more attainable.
My 17-year-old self envies you.
2. In 2004, “the internet” wasn’t seen as a serious way to earn a living.
I will never forget the day my parents said to me, “Cole, you’re never going to get a job sitting in front of your computer all day.”
I forgive them, of course, because they didn’t know any better than the rest of the world. The internet was still in its infancy. But the irony is that now, more than a decade later, I run a 100% remote company, called Digital Press, with the same number of employees as my 15-man Arathi Basin battleground group.
And while I’d argue that most parents and authority figures wouldn’t necessarily be jumping up and down to support their child’s ambitions of becoming a digital nomad and/or “internet entrepreneur,” at least the conversation has evolved to a point where it’s discussable. When I tried broaching the subject in 2007, anyone within earshot range thought I was either delusional or so naively rebellious that I couldn’t see two feet in front of me.
Today? It might not be the most conventional career path, but at least people can shrug their shoulders and say, “Eh, if that’s what you want to do with your life.”
Sounds like progress to me.
3. In 2004, everything about the gaming experience was slower.
Internet connections were slower.
Video cards were slower.
Even progression within the game was slower.
People forget that the original version of World of Warcraft didn’t come with an endless library of resources just a Google search away. There were no YouTube tutorial videos. There were no websites with in-depth walkthrough guides (at least, not for the first year, and certainly not the first few months). We were all navigating laggy internet connections, on overpopulated servers causing choppy frame rates, reading quest text scribbled on digital pieces of in-game parchment paper, trying to figure out where in the hell we were supposed to head next.
When World of Warcraft Classic launches in 2019, most players returning to the game will remember many of those early details, and be able to navigate the world off memory alone. For everyone else? Just wait a week or two, and plenty of YouTubers will tell you where to go.
4. In 2004, cell phones were for emergencies only, and the only messaging app you had was AOL Instant Messenger.
Part of what made the original World of Warcraft so immersive was the fact that there were far less real-world distractions.
Imagine stepping into a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game and not constantly being bombarded by your cell phone, your email, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, the list goes on. What made World of Warcraft so special in the mid-2000s was the fact that it was more than just a game—it was a way of connecting with people, long before we became an over-connected society.
Will that same feeling exist when Classic is launched in August, 2019?
I doubt it.
5. In 2004, Postmates and Uber Eats didn’t exist—and Domino’s ruled all.
If you want the true World of Warcraft Classic experience, get ready to eat a ton of pizza.
Today’s gamers have it made. With the rise of food delivery apps, you can effectively eat whatever you want, whenever you want, without leaving the comfort of your own home (or computer chair).
But back in 2004, no such luxuries existed. In fact, unless a restaurant offered delivery services of their own (which were usually unnecessarily expensive), Domino’s pizza was your only option. Personally, I always opted for a large pepperoni pizza, a side of cinnasticks, and a large lemonade. This was long before I learned that I had Celiac disease, and always prompted a vicious stomach ache.
6. In 2004, “working remotely” was just starting to become a viable luxury for employees.
The workforce today operates under a very different set of employee expectations than it did nearly 15 years ago.
Back in 2004, you couldn’t realistically ask your employer to let you work from home one or two days per week. In fact, 2004 was one of the first real signals of changing times. Research found that as audio and video conferencing tools became more accessible to the everyday user, companies were more willing to allow their employees the freedom to work from wherever they’d like. That, in itself, was a big mental leap for the previous generation, having grown up in a world where you punched in at 8:30 a.m. and you punched out at 5:00 p.m.
Today, in 2019, I expect far fewer employees in the workforce to call out sick during World of Warcraft Classic‘s renowned “patch days,” where new additions (such as dungeons or the honor system) were implemented into the game. They’ll just do what I did as a sophomore in high school: finish my homework while waiting twenty minutes in queue for the next battleground.
7. In 2004, you had to anticipate the next “video-worthy” moment and pray you remembered to hit the record button.
From the day World of Warcraft was launched, gameplay videos were a crucial component of gaming culture.
One of the first video makers was a Mage by the name of Otherguy, who released a library of PvP videos in the mid-2000s under the series title Sorrow Hill (named after one of the zones in the game where Horde and Alliance players would battle each other for hours on end). These videos were more than just a way to entertain yourself while you waited for the servers to come back online after patching every Tuesday morning. Otherguy, and many other gamers like him, were some of the first gamers to turn themselves into digital celebrities. They were pioneers, personal branding experts long before anyone knew to call them that—and paved the way for future video makers and live streamers to turn themselves into internet personalities.
However, creating a personal brand around yourself as a gamer in the mid-2000s was no easy feat.
As a video maker, you had to anticipate some of the “great moments” that happened within the World of Warcraft before they began, hitting record using a 3rd-party screen recording program and hoping your computer didn’t crash in the process.
Today, in 2019, most gamers live stream their gameplay and the entire thing gets saved right then and there.
8. In 2004, you made friends in the World of Warcraft because you had to—there was no other way to succeed.
This will be the most interesting aspect of World of Warcraft Classic arriving in 2019.
Back in 2004, online friendships were essential in order for you to make progress within the game. If you wanted to raid Molten Core, then you had to coordinate your efforts (on a weekly basis) with 39 other loyal raiders. If you wanted to climb the honor system ladder and try your hand at achieving Rank 14, you had to find 9 other die-hard players willing to play Warsong Gulch with you for 12 hours per day, seven days per week, for months on end. Anything worth obtaining in the game, could really only be obtained with the help of others—many of whom became friends in the process.
The way World of Warcraft Classic is being designed, and that it is intended to “stay true” to those original qualities of the game, it will be interesting to see if the same quality relationships form in 2019 as they did in 2004. Will players be as committed to the difficulties of this classic version of the game? Will nostalgia alone be enough for PvPers to grind honor points with their comrades along enough for life-long bonds to be formed.
As one of World of Warcraft’s most popular streamers today, Asmongold, so eloquently put it (during his long hours spent within the Classic beta), “A great game should be so immersive that it makes you want to ruin your life. If you don’t want to ruin your life, is it really that great of a game?”
We’ll certainly find out.