What Founders Can Learn from Professional WoW Gamers

Reading Time: 10 minutes

If you want to see tenacity at work, watch professional gamers racing to be the first to kill the latest dungeon boss in World of Warcraft. Every time Activision Blizzard releases new dungeon content, the world’s best guilds join the “Race to World First.” They grind through days, sometimes weeks, of trying to overcome the extremely hard challenges that the game puts in their way before they can claim the illustrious title of “best WoW guild in the world.”

The path to that title is one of setbacks, attrition, and failure. It’s a journey of making minor tweaks over time, overcoming new challenges every day, failing a lot —for one particular enemy in this year’s new dungeon, one guild had to try 358 times to defeat it— and operating in a field where no rule book exists just yet.

You’re making the rules up as you go. You’re failing hundreds of times. Every day is constant adaptation.

Remind you of something?

Yeah. Professional raiding has a lot of overlap with entrepreneurship, and I want to highlight a few things that we can learn from elite gamers regarding mindset, method, and process.

This piece might get a bit nerdy, as I used to dabble in professional WoW raiding myself back in 2007. Still, watching professionals at their craft is always inspiring and instructional, even if that craft is World of Warcraft.

In this Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying game, people band together in “guilds” to defeat scripted boss encounters in massive “raid” dungeons. The “endgame” of World of Warcraft consists of overcoming a dozen or so wildly different “boss fights” to procure more effective items that will make future content easier. Every few months, new content gets added to the game, and new raid dungeons get released on a twice-a-year basis.

Whenever such new content comes out —usually in expansions to the base game— the most skillful players in the most renowned guilds enter the Race to World First, where bragging rights about being the first guild to overcome are up for grabs.

Essentially, WoW is a gigantic flywheel that keeps on turning, from one expansion to another, introducing ever-harder challenges regularly. And that, just like the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup, attracts the attention of game enthusiasts, sponsors, and analysts.

Well, let’s analyze.

Today, I will share observations from the admittedly nerdy World of Warcraft and translate their practical core principles into the World of Indie Business.

Sheath your Sword of a Thousand Truths and put on your robe and wizard hat. Let’s talk dragons and business.

In a World of Warcraft raid dungeon, simply amassing a group of people and taking a run at the boss will quickly cause the group to be defeated. In gamer terms, that’s a wipe, and it might quickly demoralize any casual gamer. After all, you get no items —no loot— from dying, and the boss is still standing in your way.

But experienced raiders don’t get frustrated easily. They go into these fights expecting to die many times before seeing the monsters lying defeated at their feet.

Professional gamers can teach us a lot about reframing and expectation management. They have played enough to know what needs to be done to succeed eventually, even if it looks like no huge progress is made. They learned that incrementally failing towards success is a valid path to the finish line.

When you explore a newly released dungeon, you have a lot of learning to do. Activision Blizzard designs the dungeon encounters to have multiple phases in which the boss interacts with the players in many different, often surprising ways. Additionally, these bosses have a few secret abilities at the difficultly level that professional gamers attempt them. You can’t even research those abilities beforehand — they have to be experienced directly in-game.

Learning from mistakes is a core part of the experience for professional gamers. Trial and error are expected, valued, and used as a foundation for turning challenges into successes.

And I mean a LOT of trial and error. Just last week, as raiders struggled through the newly released dungeon, they were expecting to wipe hundreds of times learning the encounters. It took the first guild to ever kill the 5th out of 12 bosses, a giant mechanical walking spider, and not even the final and usually hardest one, a solid 358 attempts to finally defeat their foe. These players spent more than three full days attempting to down this boss alone. That is true dedication.

But if you look at it in detail, they spent even more time on this boss.

Here’s the secret of professional gamers: they come incredibly prepared. And they put a lot of resources behind their preparation efforts.

I alluded to the fact that some boss fights can be researched beforehand. That’s usually done on a PTR—a public test realm— which is a version of the game that gets released to a select few who help the game designers to test and tune the encounters on a (more or less) private server before the content gets released to the general public.

The best WoW guilds have their eyes and ears on those test realms, ensuring they know exactly what awaits them. They have designated helpers crunching the numbers and parsing the data in the patch data files released to their computers. A lot of “data mining” happens whenever new content files are distributed, which often happens months before the content is released.

Following the news and trends in your industry by listening to renowned and reliable analysts can make or break your understanding of where your field is moving. Imagine a guild expecting to fight a fire-breathing dragon but then being surprised by a hammer-swinging ogre. All that fire resistance gear wouldn’t help them against being smashed to bits with a hammer. Knowing what beasts you’ll be facing matters.

I personally subscribe to several newsletters in the spaces I work in. Some are community-sourced. Others come from prolific individuals who share their take on the changing realities of our industries. I know I can’t stay on top of all these developments myself, but I can spare 30 minutes a week to read up on someone else takes.

But knowing what looms ahead isn’t enough. Because in the end, entrepreneurship is more about doing than it is about knowing.

And so is slaying dragons.

Whatever raid guilds know about an upcoming fight gets condensed into a solid pre-fight strategy.

And as with every plan, it rarely survives the first contact with the virtual enemy. One skill that makes these professional players stand out from their casual brethren is their capability to report and adapt. With every fight, players experience new things and get used to reacting to them. After each wipe, the guild quickly comes together and analyzes if new knowledge was created and how they could apply it to their existing strategy.

If you watch these players fight —and there are whole Twitch channels dedicated to this Race to World First— you’ll hear them quickly pass on new information in the middle of the encounter. But this only happens rarely, because these players have understood that “good comms discipline” is part of the game. If everyone talks all the time, information is lost, and confusion erupts. So you’ll only hear these raiders speak when they have something important to say.

Raid leaders —usually folks who enjoy herding a very eclectic bundle of cats— will channel this information to those who can use it. As a leader, they also remind players of essential parts of the fights throughout the encounter. If a boss has an ability that they use every 30 seconds, a raid leader will inform people a few seconds in advance that it’s coming. These raid leaders are capable communicators who direct real-time information into their raids for maximum opportunity.

Tooling plays a significant role here. Game development studios built games like World of Warcraft with extensibility in mind, and they allow players to create and use self-programmed add-ons while playing. Over the decades, WoW has attracted a lot of programmers who built little software programs to make the game more enjoyable. I personally learned how to program in the LUA programming language just because I wanted to customize my WoW gaming experience.

And in the professional raiding world, custom add-ons are the magical ingredients. In fact, guilds often employ designated add-on developers in their ranks who quickly build add-ons from scratch for new encounters. These developers often aren’t particularly good players, but their job isn’t to fight the virtual battles: they’re the digital blacksmiths and armorers providing their teammates with the tools they need to succeed.

Professional gamers use data and digital tooling to their best advantage. And that’s a pretty solid approach for founders as well. Measuring how much damage your warlocks and hunters do is as important as tracking conversion rates and credit card churn. Questions like “what was the last skill the boss used before we wiped” can be answered by monitoring and logging every single skill used in a fight. It’s the same as asking, “at what part of the funnel did the prospect fall off?”

The examination isn’t just limited to individual fights, either. In World of Warcraft, there is a term called “Theorycrafting,” where number-savvy gamers spend a lot of time simulating the game in spreadsheets to make predictions and assessments about optimal ways to equip your character and use their skills.

I’ve seen more and more of this in the world of business as well. Services like Summit allow for financial modeling for your business, extrapolating from past data into multiple formula-driven scenarios. If you thought making projections in Excel was cool, you’ll be surprised by how effective tools like Summit can be. You can experiment with scenarios without having to actually live through them. And even if you’re not into simulations, just tracking your sales data in tools like Baremetrics or ProfitWell allows you insight into your past developments that will be interesting and instructive.

Data doesn’t lie. That’s why it plays such a vital part in the Race to World First. If you failed to kill the dragon, something went wrong, and it’s somewhere in that log file of yours. Having the data and the tools to examine it is essential to a good post-fight analysis.

And that’s what professional raiders do. First, they strategize, then they report and adapt, and then they analyze. Rinse and repeat. This approach to experimentation turns that wipe at 80% into a wipe at 72%, and next into 56%, whittling down the boss’s health more and more every time. Until it’s zero and the fight is finished.

And then, the next fight begins.

The boss encounters are designed to be quite diverse and force players to play in many different ways. A mage spamming the Fireball spell might work against the giant Water Elemental, but they’ll probably fail against the Fire Demon. In professional raiding, this is very much expected, and players prepare in an interesting way: they create “alts,” alternative characters. While someone might be a Troll Warrior on their main (character), they are also encouraged to create a few other characters —like a Goblin Warlock and maybe an Orc Priest— so that they can participate in fights where no warriors are needed.

Having alts results in an interesting phenomenon: players get to have experience in roles other than their own, developing empathy for their guildmates who play that role and overall improving their understanding of the group dynamics. If you’re usually playing a warrior who smashes their enemies face to face, but you also learn how to play a healer who usually stands at a safe distance, you understand that your position matters to the overall fight. In the next battle, you might try to stand in your healers’ line of sight so they can keep you out of trouble better. Now you both have an easier time: they have less trouble, and you can shield them from harm.

Diversification is usually a very good thing, in gaming just as much as in business. Gaining specialized knowledge in other fields allows for the transfer of skills and reliably sparks cross-inspiration. And just like a boss fight needs tanks, healers, and damage dealers, so does a business need people with different roles. They work together best when they know how the other roles function. And just like you can’t kill a raid boss without a dedicated team of healers keeping all the damage dealers alive, you won’t be able to create a business without anyone selling the product —as much as technical founders would love to claim that it’s possible. A diverse team will win.

But at least in the World of Warcraft, only one team will win the Race to World First. Let’s talk a bit about competition.

A Race to World First without a potential World Second wouldn’t be interesting. It wouldn’t even make sense. Most sports wouldn’t make sense, as they involve multiple parties, but even when you’re playing against computer-controlled monsters like in World of Warcraft, having other people to measure your skill against is a critical part of the game.

First off, it provides you with validation that what you’re doing is something worth doing. The more people play the game, the better: more professional guilds can recruit full rosters of hopefuls, the virtual worlds will be more densely populated, and the meta-game —the communities outside of the game servers— will provide more insights and entertainment.

It’s very much the same for entrepreneurs. The more you see people in your industry tackle similar problems, the more you can rest easy knowing that there is something valuable to create. The faster you find a community of founders, the quicker you’ll find support, motivation, and instruction from sharing a journey.

It’s the same for gamers: progress made by one group ultimately helps the others. During the Race to World First, you could often see one guild wiping hundreds of times, but publicly refining their strategy to finally defeat the boss. That strategy would then quickly be adopted by the competing guilds, who’d do better at their own attempts to finish the encounter.

Now, this sounds a bit like plagiarism, and that’s where I want to point out that even though the boss fights happen in public, the strategic conversations and per-player tactics are usually well-kept secrets. People will eventually figure them out, but professional raiders don’t go around and share everything.

And neither should you, particularly when you’re building your business in public. You’re the arbiter of what gets shared and what remains unsaid. You might want to keep your competitors in the dark about your secret sauce, but you can share a lot about yourself, your journey, and your product without compromising your advantages.

There are definitely a lot of things we can learn from professional gamers. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the clear and the not-so-obvious differences between gamers and entrepreneurs.

It starts with the nature of games, to begin with. There are finite games and infinite games. Finite games are challenges that can be won and overcome, like a raid boss in a game dungeon. Infinite games are things like “business” or “society:” something you can’t ever win, but you can keep playing better and better.

Most computer games are very much finite in nature. Even with a constant stream of new content, WoW is a finite game. Once the Race to World First is over, players have either won or lost. They then wait until the next dungeon is constructed, tested, and released.

In entrepreneurship, goals aren’t as clearly defined, and everything is much more open-ended. The challenges we face in our day-to-day business experience are not tuned by an all-powerful game creator; they result from a complicated mix of consumer choices and competitor moves. We never really know if we defeated the dragon or if it just flew off to take a nap under a mountain somewhere.

Still, I believe we can learn a lot from professional gamers about tenacity, preparation, and using tools to supplement our existing skills.

So maybe spend some time on Twitch next time World of Warcraft releases a new raid dungeon. You’ll be inspired by these eSports athletes who love what they do and do what they love well— something that every entrepreneur ultimately aspires to.

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