To say that DesMephisto loves World of Warcraft's warrior class is a grievous understatement. An average player might rotate between a handful of different characters, leveling new classes as a side project to WoW's endgame grind, but DesMephisto plays WoW differently. He's got 49 different warriors—just under the maximum number allowed per realm—and every single one of them is level 120. He's got a goblin male warrior named Gizmojuggs, a nightborne female warrior named Smugjuggs, and, his real pride and joy, an undead male warrior named, simply, Juggalo.
"It's a name I'm not super happy about," DesMephisto says with a sigh as we chat over Discord. "When I was 15 I was really into Insane Clown Posse. So, yeah, my main's name is Juggalo, and it's a bit awkward being like, no, I'm just attached to the name now. I don't listen to ICP anymore."
Feeling embarrassed by a username you made as a teenager is a classic internet experience, but having a WoW character select screen filled with warriors of every possible combination of race and gender is one-of-a-kind. That's just the start of DesMephisto's achievements in WoW, though. Last month, he organized an all-warrior party—no healers allowed—to defeat each of the 12 bosses in Ny'alotha, World of Warcraft's latest and most challenging raid.
DesMephisto is also one of WoW's few speedrunners: He set the world record for leveling a character from 20 to 120 (18:29:42 was his final time), and he's unofficially set the record for reaching the current max level in the alpha test of the new expansion, Shadowlands, in just 12 hours. He's waiting for confirmation on a Guinness World Record for longest World of Warcraft play session at 36 hours, which he streamed on Twitch.
Like WoW's hippie panda who reached max level by picking flowers, DesMephisto is a player celebrated by the community for his unconventional approach to World of Warcraft. He's one part theorycrafter, one part speedrunner, and all parts warrior. But being known as World of Warcraft's warrior aficionado isn't all fun and ganks. It's also a way for DesMephisto to raise awareness and talk about his own journey of being diagnosed with autism at the age of 29, and how Blizzard's MMO helped him cope.
"For me, someone with autism, I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for World of Warcraft," DesMephisto says.
World of warriors
Though autism is typically diagnosed in young children, some like DesMephisto aren't diagnosed until they're much older. For him, it meant going through life confused and frustrated by his inability to conform to social standards. Though he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in elementary school, that didn't explain why DesMephisto had such a hard time interacting with other people.
"When people hear autism, they might think that person is a loner, that they don't like people, that they don't want to interact," DesMephisto says. "But, for many of us, we desperately want to be social, we want friends. We want to feel like we belong. We just can't do it in a standard way that's acceptable. So I would always try to go out and make friends and often it resulted in me being beaten up because I didn't know that I was being annoying. I didn't know that I was asking too many questions or that I was hovering around people too much."
When DesMephisto describes his childhood as "hellish," he doesn't say it lightly. His teachers chalked his behavior up to being troubled and isolated him from his classmates, putting him in special education programs even though DesMephisto excelled at school. His "meltdowns" were seen as an anger issue rather than sensory overload, his difficulties socializing made him a constant target for physical and emotional harassment and abuse, and his own inability to explain his behavior made it impossible to get proper help. "You feel alone, you feel your back against the wall, you don't have anybody to turn to," DesMephisto says. "Every time you try to turn to people, you're dismissed because you can't even communicate the problem correctly."
During recess, while other kids were outside playing, DesMephisto would have to sit in the school office because teachers didn't like how he kept being bullied. Being unable to navigate social nuances but desperate for friends, DesMephisto says it was difficult to tell when someone was being nice or being abusive. "I had one person hit me with a shovel," he says, "and I still considered them a friend after that."
DesMephisto found a small measure of comfort exploring Azeroth when World of Warcraft first released nearly 16 years ago. Almost immediately, he fell in love with the warrior class thanks to the high skill ceiling where players could "stance dance" to open up new abilities and maximize damage.
"A lot of the other classes never really connected with me," he tells me. "I love the idea of being able to dual wield weapons and the combination of also being able to take more hits than everyone else. In a lot of ways, I guess it parallels real life where you get knocked down, then you always bounce back up. So I was able to feel that kind of connection with my character."
Compared to the confusing subtleties of everyday social interaction, World of Warcraft makes interacting with other people much easier. "The way we communicate in-game is often different from the way we communicate in the real world," DesMephisto explains. "In the real world, there's a lot of pleasantries. There's a lot of nuance. And in-game it's like, hey, I need this quest, you need this quest, let's let's meet up and do the quest. And while we're doing that, we might talk and, of course, we're going to probably talk about World of Warcraft. So not only is my special interest now something I can talk about, it's given me a lot of tools to be able to develop friendships that I would have never had to begin with."
"MMOs also let us feel powerful," he adds. "They take us from a world where we feel—I don't want to say meaningless, but where we feel like our lives have less value, and then put us in a world where we get to create that value. We can become something, and it is a very helpful experience."
It's partially why DesMephisto loves leveling new characters so much—an activity most players think of as a grind before the real fun begins at max level. In World of Warcraft's endgame, a player might go days or even a week without getting a piece of gear that's an upgrade. Power is earned by inches. But DesMephisto can take a brand new character to level 120 in just under 20 hours. When coupled with the goal of finding the fastest possible routes to level quickly—optimizing everything from when to drink potions to the most accessible but strongest gear—it's a satisfying challenge.
DesMephisto didn't seriously start his mission to level every possible race and gender combination of warriors (46 in total, but DesMephisto has 3 extra warriors on other servers) until Warlords of Draenor, when Blizzard began increasing the number of characters players could have at one time. He branded the project World of Warriors, and when the current Battle for Azeroth expansion extended that number again, DesMephisto could finally complete his mission—a journey that took nearly 900 hours. Not all of those characters were a race to beat a world record, though. DesMephisto says some were used to research possible routes while others were just for the fun of it.
It's a project that he's chipped away at for years along with other remarkable achievements like maxing out his reputation with over 100 different in-game factions, and even competing in some of WoW's highest PvP brackets. In the real world, DesMephisto also got married, completed a bachelor's degree in neuroscience and started a master's degree in pharmaceutical sciences.
"I had developed coping mechanisms for school, so I was a lot more neurotypical presenting," DesMephisto says. "However, as soon as I graduated and went into the workforce, I struggled to maintain work. I was having constant anxiety and panic attacks, I was melting down a ton, and I was losing a lot of functioning skills. I was late to driving to begin with—I didn't get my driver's license until I was 21—but I lost that functionality. Everything around me was kind of falling apart. It was like I suddenly forgot how to be human."
It was an all-time low for DesMephisto, who says this kind of experience is upsettingly common. "For autistic adults, we can function in society with help," he says. "But a lot of jobs, a lot of employers, they're not willing to meet us halfway. I feel like my value is lesser because I can't maintain or hold down a job like everyone else."
It wasn't until DesMephisto's wife—who also plays World of Warcraft—finally suggested that he might be autistic that things began to make sense. Getting tested as an adult presents its own challenges—not least of which is how expensive it can be in the US, DesMephisto says, but two years later he was finally able to officially confirm what he had begun to suspect.
"You spend your time thinking this is just a personality deficit—I'm a garbage human being and no matter how hard I keep trying to not be this, it keeps tearing you down," DesMephisto explains. "But just having that answer, just knowing like, okay, this is what it is. How can I look at this now to work around it? What can I do to assist myself to be able to respond better?"
For DesMephisto, being diagnosed with autism gave him a way forward. As he learned more about himself and other people in his situation, he says he began to feel a desire to help others. Naturally, World of Warcraft would become the conduit for that, but DesMephisto says he never expected to also inspire change within Blizzard itself.
DesMephisto had been dreaming of attending BlizzCon ever since the first conference happened in 2005, but he could never afford tickets. It wasn't until two years ago, during the BlizzCon that became infamous for the Diablo Immortal announcement, that DesMephisto and his wife finally had the money to attend. It was a dream come true, until DesMephisto and his wife were told by convention staff the day before, while picking up their badges, that their tickets weren't good.
"I was overwhelmed," DesMephisto recalls. "There were tons of people there. I couldn't think, like, my brain was just... I was overwhelmed. I dropped to the floor and I started rocking back and forth. My wife's trying to talk to the security guards to tell them, hey, he has autism, just let him be. I'm gonna go and try and sort this out. And as I'm doing this, at some point, another security guard comes and starts poking me. I yell out, 'Stop fucking poking me!' And I'm freaking out at this point. I'm rocking back and forth, faster and faster, and now they have like a bunch of people that are talking about calling the cops. They're acting like I'm drunk. And I'm doing this in front of, I don't know, 90 people who are waiting in line."
For autistic people who struggle with sensory overload like DesMephisto, this is an all too common situation. Though his wife was able to get their badges and defuse the situation with BlizzCon security, DesMephisto says it was an awful way to kick off what should have been one of the most exciting weekends of his life. "Honestly, it sucked," he says. "I was embarrassed, but when you spend your entire life with a disability, you just accept it."
It's a moment that Mark Adams, senior vice president and chief information and security officer at Blizzard also remembers well. "After every show, I review the security incidents that occurred to figure out what we did well and, most importantly, where we could level-up—it's the incidents where we miss the mark that yield the strongest improvements," Adams tells me via email.
He says DesMephisto's incident immediately stood out: "Meltdowns don't just happen, they tend to have a catalyst. In this case, DesMephisto was looking for a place to escape the opening day sensory input, and our show security guards struggled with how to interact with him. I have a relative on the spectrum, so it hit close to home—this was a situation that happens with regular occurrence across our country."
Wanting to make BlizzCon more accessible to all types of people, Adams decided to reach out to DesMephisto. "I still remember our first call to discuss what went down," he says. "DesMephisto was nervous and quite surprised Blizzard was reaching out to him. I was unsure what to ask and how deep he'd want to go. Thirty minutes later, I was stunned—DesMephisto was not only willing to go deep, but he was proactively providing us with profound and highly useful suggestions for improving both the autistic and ADA (Americans with Disabilities) attendee experience. By the end of the call, we'd made DesMephisto a show advisor, and over the past couple years we've kept the dialog rolling."
Adams says DesMephisto's suggestions have been instrumental in improving the BlizzCon experience for autistic attendees. Quiet areas are spaced around the show floor so attendees can "reduce sensory overload," while all security guards and vendors now go through specialized training around how best to interact with autistic fans and "understand their point of view."
Thanks, in part, to DesMephisto's feedback, Adams also says that BlizzCon now has specific entrances and early hall access for people who need it, along with better information channels so attendees know what to expect from the show. "In addition to DesMephisto’s contributions, we brought in a third-party group who are experts in ADA live experiences to assist us," Adams says. "Everything from show signage, to queuing, to seating is reviewed with an eye towards improvement. We consider ourselves lucky to have DesMephisto, other community partners, and experts, who are willing to engage and help build a more inclusive BlizzCon."
DesMephisto says Adam's response to his incident at BlizzCon 2018 made an enormous difference. "Blizzard taking the time to actually address it and work with me gave me a lot of hope to make the world better," he says. "They invited me as a guest the next year too—we got free BlizzCon tickets—and that stuff was nice as well, but to me, what really matters is that they acknowledged me as a person."
In the years since, DesMephisto has used his unique playstyle and the popularity that's come with it to promote autism awareness. While sharing his progress leveling new warriors on the WoW subreddit, for example, he doesn't shy away when players inevitably ask what could inspire someone to spend 900 hours leveling only warriors. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to share his story. And though other players might not want to spend all their time leveling, they absolutely want to know the shortest routes to take—and DesMephisto is there. His theorycrafting has been instrumental to one of WoW's most popular mods, Azeroth Auto Pilot, that's been downloaded over 8 million times.
When DesMephisto began streaming in early 2019, it became an even bigger opportunity to help educate people about autism, including the aspects of it that can be uncomfortable.
In a recent stream, for example, DesMephisto was unexpectedly overwhelmed by personal problems and had to step away from the camera after he began hitting himself. Often referred to as "stimming," DesMephisto explains that this is self-stimulating behavior that many autistic individuals exhibit when stressed. Some might clap their hands or rock back and forth, but DesMephisto says one of his worst stims is hitting himself.
"It's something that I've been doing since I was a kid," he explains. "The diagnosis helped me to get better at it. Instead of it happening multiple times a year, it now only maybe happens once a year. I hopefully can get it to stop, but it's a lot of work. It's taken two years just to get to where I am now."
To an uninitiated viewer, DesMephisto's stims might be upsetting, but it's also an opportunity to build empathy and understanding with his audience. Minutes later, DesMephisto returned to his stream to explain what happened and why. And while having 49 different max-level warriors is cool, it's that honesty and openness that makes DesMephisto such a remarkable person in the WoW community.
Above: DesMephisto has now started leveling every possible combination of druid to max level.
As his platform continues to grow, so does his ambition for how he can make a difference. In April, DesMephisto attempted to set a Guinness World Record for the longest World of Warcraft play session. He clocked just over 36 hours, using the event to complete the last leg of his World of Warriors marathon and set an unofficial record for leveling in the upcoming Shadowlands expansion. With the help of other notable WoW community members, DesMephisto was also able to raise $5,110 for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.
This is just the beginning, though. DesMephisto says he has plans to expand the campaign, now called Warriors for Autism, to partner with bigger charity events and other games like Final Fantasy 14 and Overwatch. He's also started a new project called World of Druids, where he plans to level every possible combination of race and gender that can be the druid class—though fortunately there's far fewer combinations.
But World of Warcraft will always be at the heart of those efforts. After all, it's part of the reason he has an audience in the first place. "I am so incredibly thankful for World of Warcraft," he says. "It's given me a social outlet. I used to joke that I should put World of Warcraft on my resume, because it's taught me how to manage groups, how to manage individuals, how to delegate tasks, how to work with currency. There's a lot of value that comes from World of Warcraft that often gets ignored because it's seen as just a game."
"It's given me a way of doing some good in this world, and I love that," DesMephisto says. "I love being able to spread that positivity to help bring people together. It makes the struggles that I've experienced feel worth it."