Header art by Gavin Spence.
It's easy to forget, 12 years post-release and well past peak subscription numbers, just what a dominant force World of Warcraft once was. This dominance was total. It ruled the video game sales and income charts for the better part of a decade. For good and ill, it constrained and reshaped what was possible in the massively multiplayer space.
It both led to a gold rush at its height, as money poured into MMO studios, and eventually devastated the genre, as it became apparent that not even WoW's heights would last forever. It was even cultural, becoming shorthand for both the best of social gaming and the worst of nerdom, indirectly boosting Felicia Day's career , being lampooned on South Park, and featuring in the most mainstream thing I can imagine: a Toyota commercial.
At the center of the maelstrom was a small site called Elitist Jerks. It was initially just a site for the guild of the same name, but it would eventually grow in size and prestige to hold sway over the discourse of WoW discussion. The site's claim to fame ended up not just being tied to the guild's in-game success, but because it was the place to go for that most precious of MMO resources: knowledge.
MMOs are notorious for their opacity, blocking off vital information about how the game works behind walls of lore, sketchy user interfaces, and cryptic developer statements. MMOs are, as described on the Elitist Jerks forums long ago, a math problem: To win you must do X damage in Y time, while a tank is getting hit for N damage which is countered by Z healing. Excepting the earliest days of WoW, players didn't have the numbers for that equation (or else bugs and misinformation meant they didn't have the right ones.)
Elitist Jerks aimed to solve that through the art of "theorycrafting," or figuring out the math behind the fights and the monsters and the classes. It made them famous. They've had academic research papers written about them. With time, some of the most prominent theorycrafters from Elitist Jerks even went on to become designers on WoW itself. Most notably, long-time guild leader of Elitist Jerks Ion Hazzikostas (Watcher on the forums) wound up as WoW's game director.
This is the most important guild in one of the most important games of this century. WoW didn't invent the MMO, but it did define it. Its success conjured entire companies into existence and changed the way we think about games, from the way we interface socially inside them to how characters progress.
Elitist Jerks illuminated and clarified the game for tens of thousands of players; many of those who contributed to that effort never stopped thinking about games, even after WoW's peak. People who came through the forums are in prominent positions at Riot, ArenaNet, and Valve. Its guild leader helps run WoW. Through interviews with guild members and theorycrafters, this is the story of Elitist Jerks.
The first members of Elitist Jerks were in Goon Squad, the omnipresent MMO crew from the Something Awful forums. They got sick of being bad at the game, so they left and formed their own guild.
Luke Sullivan (aka "Chocula" in World of Warcraft ): At the time, Goon Squads in other games had a well-deserved reputation of being huge, disorganized, and abrasive. Because of this, some members of [World of Warcraft] beta Goon Squad wanted to part of a smaller, more serious guild when WoW released. With Lordbeef as their leader they formed Hooligan Syndicate, a closed guild separate from Goon Squad.
Curtis Vize (Jehu): Knowing how Something Awful goons are though, it wasn't long before there was drama. After a few ill-fated Upper Blackrock Spire runs, complaints started popping up on the forums. Accusations were tossed around and were pretty predictable—Goon Squad players were awful/terrible/trolling the group, our members were being elitist, somebody ninja-looted a hotly contested lvl 55 blue [stole a rare item] and heads would roll, etc.
It all culminated in a thread of complaining on the Goon Squad forums where someone claimed they would no longer group with us because we were "elitist assholes" or "elitist pricks" or something like that. Shortly after the complaints got the ears of the Goon Squad leadership, we all found ourselves banned from their forums. We were officially the first Goon Squad splinter guild.
Boethius [the site administrator] set up forums for us quickly and we all migrated to a newly created, aptly named guild. I believe the term "jerks" was used as a compromise to be compliant with Blizzard's profanity policy.
Morgan Vetter (Loderunner): Goon Squad was a massive screaming hellhole, and some people like Beef and Zoid wanted a quieter, more close-knit experience.
The guild's accomplishments in-game were good, arguably peaking with the completion of the "40-man" Onyxia raid with only a ten person squad , but the real explosion of interest came later, when theorycrafting around the then-unkillable raid boss, C'thun, brought tons of visitors to the site.
Loderunner: Everything exploded during C'Thun [a raid boss who was released in a broken state], and that's when people started to really take notice of EJ. Mostly if I was approached at any time it was "can i join plz", but some people did ask me about warrior stuff [theorycrafting for the warrior class]. Occasionally in battlegrounds there's a, "holy shit ELITIST JERKS" which is always fun.
Ferina: The first time I realized just how famous we were was when I went to a game store one day to pick up a game for my DS. I ended up chatting about games with the guy there, and it led to talking about WoW. During the conversation we were talking about servers and my guild name came up. His jaw dropped and he said "holy shit, you guys are like famous. I go on your forums all the time."
Many of those visitors, unconnected to Elitist Jerks, the guild, became prominent theorycrafters on the forums.
Matt Norton (Disquette): Back when WoW was first really getting rolling, I'd do some math about how to DPS [Damage Per Second] better and share it with my guildmates. They'd be interested and sometimes change their playstyle, but without good damage meters at the time, it wasn't always convincing to them, and they weren't terribly interested in participating in the theorycrafting. EJ forums, on the other hand, were filled with those people who were not only interested, but who had already thought past what I had done myself.
David Anderson (Skyl): I wanted to carry my weight in groups. I've never felt the need to be 'the best', but not being bad is important to me. (PS, I'm bad). In Vanilla [the original release of World of Warcraft, in 2004], EJ was the only place that seriously addressed not-being-bad.
Zach Swanson (Malan): The initial in-game logs were completely obtuse and not really helpful to the player. Events were missing, obfuscated, etc. Like you'd see that an NPC did damage but you couldn't see who was on the receiving end unless you had that person's log file. Remember when someone created a log parser that required multiple members of the raid to upload logs, and then it would sort through them to come up with the best approximation? Crazy.
Matthew Siegel, Red Team Games (Vontre): From a product management view, theorycrafting only made a marginal difference in player performance. The theorycraft community's view is that the performance benefit was enormous, but this isn't in line with how real balancing success is measured.
With the influx of new people came an influx of new noise. Parallel to EJ's reputation as the best place for game information—MMOs have always been notorious for obscuring in-game information, and WoW was no different at release—was the site's reputation as a strict, ruthlessly moderated public space.
Anecdotes about how the game "felt" were discouraged in favor of data skimmed from modeling combat mechanics and number crunching; failure to back up a mechanical theory with cold, provable facts led to mockery and moderator censure. Much of the literature on EJ is focused on this fact, along with the way overzealousness in moderating eventually caused bottlenecks, where the forums eventually became overly reliant on a few people.
The site's reputation shifted.
John Palacek (Meissner): In the early expansions, it was "Go to EJ if you want to find out anything, they have the best information." By the later expansions it had become "They're so mean."
I'd say both reputations were affected by moderating. Without culling bad posts, you can't find good information. MMO-Champion proved that allowing people to post anything leads to lots of garbage. But people like posting garbage. That led to a much higher volume of posts at that site, and some true gems hiding among the chaff.
Loderunner: Poor Kaubel [the lead, and most notorious, moderator]. He was the sole moderator for years. The guy was completely overwhelmed and the site kept growing. Seeing as he was drowning in infractions, Boethius needed to add more mods. Gilliam [another moderator] and I were asked along with a third person and I can't remember her name, but she was still doing work long after I burned out.
The message was something like, "Kaubel is a saint for doing it this long blah blah blah", and we were happy to step up. I didn't know how the system really worked, so my first infractions were fairly reserved. But after a week, I was banning people left and right. Having me as one of the first mods added was especially funny because Kaubel banned me from the forums years ago, during Molten Core times, because I posted a DotA thread in the forums. It was instantly reversed because he was fucking with me, but it happened.
Kaubel: It's not that I don't think fondly of the guild and (most of) its members. I do. I've kind of put the raiding days behind me though, along with the "getting angry over a video game" thing I had going for so long.
Ugh, what an asshole I was! I sometimes wonder how many people I unnecessarily upset back then and it begins to irritate me. Still... I'm more chill now and spend far less time playing [games]. When I do play it's stuff like Overwatch or Division or NBA2K on the XB1.
Loderunner: I stopped being a moderator before Boethius sold the site. I quit WoW more or less in the middle of Wrath of the Lich King (2008). What I remember most was just the sheer volume of infractions. It was like Newman's rant in Seinfeld about the mail never stopping.
Chocula: I wasn't a very prolific moderator so I didn't keep up with the rules well. Mostly I would check the report log for big fires (spammers, obvious trolls) and infract or ban them.
WoW's popularity began to wane with Cataclysm (2010) , its third expansion. At the same time, information in the game became more transparent and the discussions around it more democratized. EJ's traffic also began to wane, as the new information paradigm shifted traffic to competing sites like Icy Veins. The site was eventually bought out by Ten Ton Hammer and is now defunct after a failed monetization effort by that company.
Kevin Turner (Sutiru): Blizzard put in effort to make clear, obvious ability rotations for players of all classes in order to reduce the disparity in performance between skill levels. While there was still significant difference between a player mashing buttons and once executing a proper rotation [the optimal order of ability usage], it was no longer nearly as stark. This reduced the need for players to seek out means of improvement as well as the difficulty of theorycrafting proper play in the first place.
At the same time, simulators had reached a point where they could optimize the minutiae of rotations and stat weights, eliminating the need for painstaking math and theorycraft on that front. It no longer required a math or science degree to determine proper play, just a decent computer and a little patience.
Vontre: I don't think theorycrafting matters anymore because Blizzard hired the best theorycrafters to do theorycraft balance. The game tells you all the ability rotations and stat weights up front, and is Icy Veins really better at this than Astrylian [a prominent theorycrafter who now works for Blizzard in systems design]? I don't think so.
Skyl: I don't think you'll see a community built around theorycrafting again unless a game comes out with intentionally opaque mechanics. EJ, the site, existed in substantial part because theorycrafting was really hard in the beginning.
Malan: Some of it I think was due to the very things that made EJ successful—strict moderation and a low tolerance for bullshit. People weren't fond of their "mistreatment" at the hands of the EJ mods, or the dismissal of their really stupid ideas/questions, and picked up and moved camp.
Loderunner: Our information has never been, shall we say, easy to access. Frankly even though the theorycrafting stuff is accurate, it's much easier to go to someplace like Icy Veins and just get told how to spec and what stat to favor. Stuff waned after I quit anyway.
Even with WoW's subscriptions declining, EJ as a site attracted so much traffic that it couldn't stay up without an influx of cash. This led to the opening of the Elitist Jerks Benefactor's Bar, or EJB. For $10, you got access to a hidden, moderator free set of forums. These forums became a fertile ground for discussing not just games, but everything from politics to higher level mathematics.
Malan: Boethius needed beer money. Or as it was presented at the time, EJ server costs were getting high with all the traffic to the site and I guess up until then Boe had been paying it out of pocket. The Benefactor Bar as a hidden forum, not subject to the normal rules of EJ, was one of the perks for helping defray those costs. It was a crazy thing on EJ, to be told that we could post new threads and stupid things and not be banned for it!
Skyl: I've met people from around the world that I view as friends, when I've found myself in other regions for work or personal travel, I've been able to share a meal with people that I've 'known' for years, it's great. I live in a rural area so don't have a lot of RL people that I share interests with, but, through the Benefactor's Bar I have a wide network of people with common interests.
Franklin Morrison (Ashstrike): EJB gave me an online community that I have been a part of since 2006. Being a part of a diverse group of people introduced me to new ideas and different ways of thinking about things.
Jehu: It absolutely had a positive effect on my enjoyment of the game, and the game in turn had an overall positive impact on my life. EJB really came about during a perfect time for a lot of people.
And that, really, is what EJ the site was, and EJ the guild still is. A group of sometimes disparate people, pulled together by mutual interest in a video game. They've celebrated births together. They've mourned deaths. They've fought about politics and hugged over sports games. They are remarkable people still in the orbit, knowingly or not, of a remarkable game.
Ion Hazzikostas declined to be interviewed for this article through the Blizzard PR department. Interviews were edited for length and clarity.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Ion Hazzikostas' title incorrectly. This has been fixed.