10 years ago today, Leeroy Jenkins fumbled into memetic superstardom

leeroy jenkins warcraft movie
Mike Krahulik/WoW TCG
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, especially with Leeroy Jenkins in your guild.

It’s hard to believe that it has been a decade since Leeroy became the World of Warcraft‘s first (and really only) breakout star. On May 11, 2005 a video, originally titled “A Rough Go” was posted to WarcraftMovies.com showing a horribly botched raid attempt by the guild Pals For Life. After a minute of standing around and discussing tactics and crunching numbers, the group’s paladin, Leeroy Jenkins, who was apparently away from the computer re-heating KFC, hops up, exclaims “all right chums, time’s up. Let’s do this,” before charging headlong into the room full of dragon hatchlings and bellowing his own name as a now-famous war cry.

Leeroy’s fellow party members are left dumbstruck, taking a few seconds to realize what has happened before frantically scrambling in after him. When the carnage settles, everyone is left dead and bemoaning Leeroy’s stupidity, to which he replies “at least I have chicken!”

The video was re-posted to YouTube on November 19, 2005, but really exploded when a second instance was uploaded on August 6, 2006. As of the time of this writing, that second video has garnered over 43 million views.

Consensus among those in the know is that the video was in fact staged. A close reading of the strategy session that Leeroy interrupts reveals that much of their plan is knowingly nonsensical, particularly the abstracted and hyperbolically geeky percentage chance of failure. Other members of Pals For for Life have subsequently more or less admitted that it was planned for publicity, but also insist that it was still a faithful recreation of an actual incident. Leeroy himself (otherwise known as Ben Schulz) has remained coy about the video’s veracity, offering “I like people to decide for themselves. It’s more fun that way.” as his standard response.

PC Gamer UK was one of the first outlets to cover the video, with an article in its August 2005 issue called The Ballad of Leeroy Jenkins. The article’s author Craig Pearson proposed that the video was staged as a commentary on the overly-meticulous planning of “nerd-guilds.” Anyone who has seriously played WoW, or knows people who have, can attest to its tendency to become a part-time job at the higher levels of play, where you must keep up with the best loot and a vigorous raiding schedule. In this reading, Leeroy is the hero, reinvigorating the game with a much-needed sense of fun and spontaneity.

The video’s notoriety quickly spread within the Warcraft community. Leeroy was featured as a card in the official trading card game. An achievement in the Rookery section of Blackrock Spire where the video took place was named after him. In the most recent expansion, Warlords of Draenor, Leeroy was added to the world as a non-playable character. Shulz became a fixture at Warcraft events, hosting a PvP tournament at BlizzCon 2007, for instance.

Leeroy could easily have topped out there, within the meme-rich gaming forums of sites like Reddit and 4chan. His destiny was far greater, however, and soon cries of his name echoed throughout the pop culture at large. YouTube had just launched in early 2005, and Leeroy’s viral spread in 2006 immediately preceded the site’s sale to Google. These were halcyon days for online videos, when YouTube was a melting pot of Internet esoterica, and “viral” was not yet such a marketing buzzword.

Something about Leeroy spoke to people who had never even heard about World of Warcraft, which had only just been launched in 2004. The spread of Leeroy coincided with the game’s generally explosive growth in that period, and references to the video popped up all over pop culture at large, including a Toyota Tacoma commercial, How I Met Your Mother, and even a Jeopardy question.

Ten years on, Leeroy remains a potent symbol. Meticulous planning and running numbers might make for a safer approach, but sometimes in the spirit of fun you need to just nut up, shut up, and rush headlong into your own destruction. You might die, and you might drag down all of your friends with you, but, by God, at least you’ll have chicken.

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