A group of medieval-looking video game characters crowd around each other while voices over a video debate their plan of attack. They argue, they calculate their potential rate of survival, they check and recheck their strategy. They’re trying to storm the Rookery, a notoriously treacherous area filled with dragons in the hugely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft. People are going to die, and they know it. The moment is pregnant with this gravity.
Just as you think they couldn’t continue to negotiate any further, one of the members of the group who hasn’t said anything up until that point screams out, “All right chums, time’s up, let’s do this!” and rushes into the area while screaming, “LEEROOOOOOOY JEEEEEENKIIIIIINSSSS.” The other members of the group are left dumbstruck, and soon charge in after him. But all it lost. They’re swiftly killed by the merciless digital dragons guarding the area. A dejected group member lets out a remark: “Leeroy, you are just stupid as hell,” which Leeroy retorts with, “At least I have chicken.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the video “A Rough Go,” first uploaded to the fansite WarcraftMovies.com and later to YouTube ten years ago. It pinged around the Internet till it became the mother of all gamer viral videos, in part because “Leeroy Jenkins” came to mean YOLO before anyone was saying YOLO. It spoke to a generation that was tired of talking.
The Leeroy Jenkins video caught on slowly, circulating upward from video game lovers to the culture at large. The initial post was touted as a genuine request for tips on how the group’s guild — an informal posse that WoW users gather themselves in — could plausibly defeat the enemy dragons in that area. “Please feel free to give us constructive criticism on our tactics and how you beat this room,” one post reads, which is then conveniently followed by download links to the video.
Gradually the video broke out of insulated WoW forums and was first covered in a feature in PC Gamer UK entitled “The Ballad of Leeroy Jenkins,” labelling the video as a fraudulent send up of overly scrupulous WoW players.
It only grew from there, and was mentioned in mainstream outlets like The Guardian, was an answer on Jeopardy, was the subject of a Toyota commercial, and was made fun of on those classic bastions of American cultural clout, Scrubs, My Name is Earl, and How I Met Your Mother.
It had solidified itself with cult status, and was further honored by Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, who used the notoriety of the meme to stir up some free advertising. It introduced people to WoW who had never even heard of it before, but it still carries with it a bit of WoW user backlash. They gave Leeroy Jenkins his own trading card, an achievement in the game itself if you kill 50 rookery whelps (a.k.a. dragons, n00b). And in 2007 they brought the man behind Leeroy Jenkins, Ben Schulz, at their annual convention, BlizzCon, with his famous catchphrase in tow.
The meme has been gift and curse for Schulz. The Denver newspaper Westword tracked Schulz down in 2007, and found him struggling with his newfound fame. Schulz, who worked at an industrial lighting company, couldn’t figure out how to capitalize on his Wow moniker. He and his friends created a clothing line around Jenkins, that foundered. He tried his hand at writing for a gaming website called GGL, but nothing came from it. When he met the makers of World of Warcraft he hoped they could float some job prospects his way, but the offer never came. He trademarked the sounds from “A Rough Go” under a company called “Leeroy Jenkins Entertainment,” though it hasn’t proven to be the cash cow he hoped it would be. This is sobering reminder of how memes can take on a life of their own without doing much for their originators. Sometimes a guy who just says a cool line and gets his avatar killed by dragons in a video game can’t spin that into a living. The world is a harsh place that way.
Schulz can take solace that his video made the unprecedented crossover from MMORPGs to the middle of pop culture. The world adopted his battle cry for the impetuous and the heedless. We are all Leeroy Jenkins at some point. We run with our gut, often into the teeth of dragons, usually getting our friends killed in the process. Thanks to Schulz we need only two words to justify our dumbest instincts.