We'd been banging our head against the second encounter for three and a half hours. My clan, Calus in a Chalice, had entered into Destiny 2's new raid Garden of Salvation with hope and optimism. Six hours later, we were getting the snot kicked out of us by Barrier Hobgoblins in the second encounter. In the downtime following yet another wipe, news floated in: someone had completed the raid. Clan Ascend. I'd never heard of them. In my defense, not many had.
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Raids have been around in MMOs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft for decades, but Bungie found success translating the concept into a multiplayer shooter. The first raid, Vault of Glass, was a bizarre concept when it landed. Puzzle-solving and skilled execution between a team of coordinated players was rarely seen outside of hardcore PC gaming. Suddenly it was in a high budget AAA console shooter. It was also brilliant.
There have now been 11 raids released across the Destiny series, including two raid lairs (which are smaller raid-like experiences.) As the years have gone on, the fervor around the race to achieve the world's first completion has grown too. While there was a race for the Vault of Glass, it's dwarfed by the pageantry of recent raids. Now, There is a big PR push. Bungie developers watch streamers attempt to finish their creations in a theatre. There are wrestling-style belts given to the winners to keep forever. It's a big deal.
It's not for show either. According to SullyGnome, Destiny is the 22nd most-watched game on Twitch in the past year. During the most recent race, however, Destiny 2 peaked at 228,980 viewers. These races are the biggest time for the game in terms of engagement, and Garden of Salvation—which launched just a few days after the Shadowkeep expansion—proved to be a doozy. As many of the top teams struggled with the final encounter, it was Clan Ascend who took the crown.
This was an upset, at least as far as the statistics are concerned. Ascend's figurehead ExBlack had topped out at a peak of 12 viewers in the week when Shadowkeep was released. By the end of Ascend's Garden of Salvation victory, he had over 21,000. This was an overnight success story.
However, Clan Ascend didn't come out of the blue. They'd been quietly competing at a top level for several raids at this point. The win wasn't a total surprise to them.
"I think most of us were expecting to get at least in the top three this time around. We were constantly hitting the top 10. We got fourth in Scourge of the Past and then we got ninth in Crown of Sorrow," clan head ExBlack explained to me. The team worked for this. "A month or a month and a half in advance, we just have in-depth discussions with the entire clan about strategies. How mechanics could be laid out or what to use, what guns are really good. Also, doing old raids and just practicing ways to survive. Since we did all of that, we really expected to get a high finish."
Things started incredibly well for Ascend too. The team went from the Raid opening to completing the first encounter in just 32 minutes. The first encounter tasks players with learning a tether mechanic that is used throughout the raid. In the final portion of that encounter, the teams have to make a mad dash across a field full of enemies. "We got to the final race right where all the Cyclops are in front of you which we'd never seen before," explains ExBlack. "We got to that part and we just nailed it. Just having a moment like that where we adapt so fast when we saw something new, that was, for me, at least I was like, we have this."
They continued to show that adaption into the second encounter too, which Ascend completed in 54 minutes. The third encounter has a team take out a Vex Hydra called the Consecrated Mind which Ascend cleared in 57 minutes. They had every right to be confident. As it turned out, they were only the second team to get to the Raid's final boss. They had a real shot.
Little did they know what awaited them. The Sanctified Mind is one of the hardest raid bosses of the Destiny series. They'd be fighting it for 3 hours and 49 minutes.
"I'd say there was definitely a point about 90 minutes to 2 hours into us attempting the boss that we still hadn't 100% nailed how to start the damage phase. We were getting a little bit annoyed about it," clan member Antivist admitted.
ExBlack also expressed that the boss's toughness was praying on his doubts. "I think another painful moment was just having those unnecessary deaths on the actual encounter that really made me panic... or at least, inside I panicked. I didn't panic in voice or anything as to not disrupt any of my teammates but I was like, 'why are we dying now? This can't be happening. This is not how we will fail.'"
After 6 hours and 13 minutes though, Ascend beat the Garden of Salvation. It was close too. The second-place team was just 2 minutes 33 seconds behind them. If they had failed the encounter and tried again, they would have lost.
Instead, ExBlack, Antivist, Monks, Narhzul, Cyber and Pash's names were etched into the history of Destiny forever. While they prepared hard for the raid, they were six normal people—most either students or with day jobs—who bested the cream of the crop.
"We finished the raid at quarter past midnight, and I didn't go to sleep until quarter past 10 in the morning because I was so pumped," Antivist said.
In almost every one of Destiny's world's first completions, that level of hype is consistent. You can hear Ascend screaming as they realize what they've achieved in clips of the victory. It's reminiscent of quite possibly the most famous world's first completion—King's Fall.
"It's weird to say a video game changed my life, but it did you know," Cory 'KingGothalion' Michael tells me. He is one of the biggest faces in the Destiny community, especially when it comes to Twitch. He has the highest viewers per average of any Destiny 2 steamer and over a million followers. He and his team winning King's Fall was big for Destiny.
"Vault of Glass, we didn't know what to expect. Crota's End was weird and then King's Fall happened. It was like the first 'raid' raid. It really felt like a big, grand experience and you know, that's when it sort of started to take off on Twitch."
Kings Fall's final encounter is one of Destiny's most impressive battles. Oryx, who is possibly the most threatening bad guy Guardians have ever faced, appears as a huge figure, towering over the entire encounter. It's epic in scale and a visual treat even for those spectating. On September 18, 2015, the six players faced up to the Hive god for one final damage phase.
"At that moment, you just don't want to let anybody down," says Gothalion.
"You don't want to be the guy that botched it. The mindset is 'all I have to do is not be the guy who dies here. Social media will be hell for the next 30 days.' When it comes down to those final moments, you're just praying things don't fall apart for silly reasons, you know?"
Ben 'ProfessorBroman' Broman, another big Destiny streamer, was also part of the team. "Getting confirmation realizing that we were the first people in the world to do something like that, that's like a childhood dream, right? Like everybody would love to be the first to do something and I got the rare opportunity, along with five of my closest friends, to do that."
Gothalion and Broman were joined by Gunny629, Rebelize_, Charionna, and TheTeawrex. Their preparation was quite different than recent winners though. Instead of being a 'clan' that trains hard specifically for the world's first, they are six great players who sit down on raid day and try to do their best.
"Our team was never really like an ultra-competitive team. We've always approached the race with like, 'world's first to fun', you know?" Gothalion says. "We never want to be one of those teams that's at each other's throats, but everybody wants to win. Especially having a championship once, you'd like to have another. When we sit down to do it, we want to get it done as fast as possible and if we happen to nab another first, then that's better."
Something has changed in the last two raids that is shifting the landscape of the world's first race though. Contest mode was implemented during the Crown of Sorrow launch—a condition designed to make the competition fairer. Previously, players who ground out content for days and found certain exploits to inflate their power level topped world's first races. It put the race in favor of players who had the time and incentive to inflate their power as fast as possible. Streamers and professionals, mainly.
Contest mode is a refocusing of the raid for the first 24 hours. Now, all you need to do is get to a Bungie-designated power level, and anything past that is effectively null. Players, as long as they are over that level, are all experiencing the same thing. It ensures that raids are based more on skill as opposed to just grinding beforehand.
The catch is when contest mode is active, even if you meet the power level requirements, it plays as if you are significantly underpowered.
"I feel like that's sort of turned the whole thing up to 11," Gothalion remarks. "Now it's much more skill-based. The competition is a lot tougher now. I think our raid team might have to practice and prepare for the next one. Before recently, we've been able to show up, be smart with mechanics and still get a top ten finish. That's not possible anymore. You gotta buckle down. You got to have a team that's on top."
Contest mode has changed Destiny raids. Now, no matter what you do to prepare, you're always at a distinct disadvantage. As someone who tried it out, that stands out—it's really hard.
ProfessorBroman agrees. "Contest mode is hard. I feel like this is the way that Bungie wants the encounter to feel narratively, right? Like the first Guardians that go into any one of these encounters are going to be dramatically underprepared, underpowered and not ready for the challenge they're about to undertake."
Players equating challenge with the story and experience of their Guardian seems like an element of competition that's unique to Destiny. With the rise of esports—games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike—pure player-on-player competition is king. Companies and investors want to put money in their leagues and prize pools to catch the eye of an ever-growing audience. Destiny, even though it has a player-versus-player component, isn't chasing that. Instead, its big PR drive on Twitch is where a small group of players come together to overcome a grueling computer-controlled challenge.
Broman thinks that cooperative challenge acts as a feedback loop that fuels positivity in the Destiny community. "When games encourage communities to work together with other players to overcome the big bad guy as opposed to overcoming one another, I think that it forges very strong and positive bonds in that community.
"It always nourishes this really positive conversation and Destiny has managed to build a world where that can still happen."
That positivity can be capitalized on too. If you ever pull off a world's first, victory comes with its own questions. As with a lot of things in life, getting something is only a part of the fight. What you do with it is often much more important. "When you get world's first, it's an opportunity to take a minute and tell everyone who you are," Broman said. "It's the perfect moment to give your elevator pitch to the entire Destiny community. How you handle that moment will determine whether or not this event is incredibly impactful for you as an individual."
In the Destiny community, winning a world's first is a moment that can shape you. It's why so many covet it. King's Fall helped build Gothalion and Broman's profiles and in turn, helped them found GuardianCon, the premiere Destiny convention. However, more than being just a hyper-focused gaming event, GuardianCon is about raising money for charity. Earlier this year, the drive tied to the convention raised $3.7 Million for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. The next event will be changing its name to Gaming Community Expo to expand its focus but will remain closely tied to Destiny.
"Being part of the Destiny community has allowed me to do things I never thought I'd be able to do and get to a place in my life that I never expected to be," says Broman. "I definitely didn't expect it to also result in starting a mass charity convention and raising almost $9 million for St. Jude and all of this other stuff that we've done with the community."
The world's first remains one of the most unique competitions in gaming. In its DNA, Destiny has always been a franchise about challenge, teamwork and ultimately, hope. World's first is the perfect companion to that hope that runs through its veins. Anyone can enter. Anyone could win the race. Ascend proved that and they now get to enjoy their time atop of the podium. What they do with it, could shape their lives. It doesn't have to be about winning though. Raids offer you the chance to commit your time to sit down with five other friends to overcome a truly difficult task. You're doing it at the same time as the entire community too. You're part of something. There's not much in the medium that can replicate that.
Winning it will always be a dream for many. That opportunity will fuel future players to take on Destiny's hardest content, all for the opportunity to have their spot in the spotlight. Even years after a win, the glow still stays for some. "Aside from all the personal stuff, getting a world's first is one of the coolest fucking things I've ever done in my life," Broman added.