Origins of the MDI: An Interview with Zorbrix and Healingstat

Season 2 of The Great Push is underway! The most exciting aspect of this weekend’s competition is arguably the fact that it will include two dungeons from the Legion expansion, Court of Stars and Eye of Azshara. The return of the Legion dungeons in the Mythic+ format during this special Timewalking event, and especially their upcoming presence in The Great Push, inspired us to take a look back at the origins of the Mythic Dungeon International (MDI). The esport that we know today began in Legion and has gone through many changes over the years. Join us in celebrating all things MDI by looking back at how it all began!

The Mythic Dungeon International (MDI) has a special place in our hearts here at Raider.IO. We are passionate fans of this creative and unique competition that has become such an integral part of the WoW Esports landscape. The event has evolved considerably over the years through the efforts of numerous teams and the contributions of the overall WoW community at large. We are incredibly fortunate to have had a front-row seat to this journey, having been involved since the early stages providing logistical support, data hosting, and more. Through this process, we have had the privilege of getting to know some of the amazing people at Blizzard working to bring the MDI to the masses.

Earlier this year, we interviewed one such person, the indelible Adrian Archer-Lock, aka Healingstat. He is the current Product Manager of the MDI, and it is Adrian and his team that have brought us the current format of the MDI as well as the electrifying Great Push event! Adrian has been involved with the MDI since its inception, but his role was quite a bit different at the beginning. So, to learn more about how the MDI came to be, we decided to go back to its roots. Yes, that is a pun. One of the men behind the creation of the MDI is actually a “Turnip”. We are incredibly honoured to be able to bring you this interview with Kyle Hartline, aka Zorbrix, the “Terrible Turnip” himself. We asked Kyle (and Adrian too!) to help us look back in time at the origins of the MDI, to share their memories, and to celebrate their achievements that have become such an important part of our own lives.

Image credit: Kruithne

Table of Contents

“From the start, the MDI was a labor of love, and it wouldn’t be possible without a heroic esports crew, a supportive development team, and the passion and energy of the WoW Community.” —Zorbrix

Q-1: Can you please provide us with some background info on yourself such as your role at Blizzard (now and during Legion), your WoW history as a player, and anything else you’d like to share about yourself?

Zorbrix: Hi! My name is Kyle Hartline, and I’m currently a Game Producer on the WoW Live Ops team. Back in Legion I was on the WoW QA team (one of the Test Leads), but immediately after Legion launched in 2016 I moved to the growing WoW Esports team as an Esports Manager to help out with Arena (AWC) and start the program that would become the MDI. I’ve been working at Blizzard for over 13 years now, all of it on World of Warcraft.

Q-2: What initially drove the creation of the MDI?

Zorbrix: I joined the Esports team in 2016 but they had been trying to find a good PvE angle for years prior to that. Lots of folks don’t realize it but WoW Arena is effectively Blizzard’s longest running esport (we’ve produced the same core 3v3 arena format every BlizzCon since 2008). So, we were all happy about that, but PvP is only a portion of the overall WoW experience. If we could figure out a good program format for PvE content and add that to our existing portfolio, we’d be unstoppable.

We had tried a few smaller things as experiments leading up to the MDI, some of which I helped with even though I was still in QA at the time. We did a few Live Raid Races at BlizzCon 2013 and 2014 (Siege of Orgrimmar and Highmaul, respectively), and I even got to see Sloot lose twice in a row on stage before I really met him! But as fun as those were, they were one-off events, and raids didn’t lend themselves well to a more “esports” format. During the Legion Alpha, the Esports team did a few prerecorded races, I believe Halls of Valor and Maw of Souls, as another experiment to see if dungeon racing could carry the same excitement. I helped set that up from the QA side of things, and when I got onto the Esports team that fall I used that as a springboard to help cobble together our first PvE Esports program, The Great Collegiate Dungeon Race, with our friends in Tespa. We learned a LOT from that event and decided to take it to the next level with the MDI the following year in 2017.

Blizzcon 2014 Live Raid Race. Video credit: Mooshjie :D

Q-3: There are very few esports out there that center on PVE-structured gameplay. Are there any esports or competitions that you modeled the MDI after or found inspiration from? How much did the format and structure of the AWC inform the first MDI model?

Zorbrix: I wish there was a blueprint to follow on how to do ‘PvEsports’ but there wasn’t a lot of existing programs to pull from at the time. Speedrunning had been around for a while (and I personally found a lot of inspiration from speedrunning events like Games Done Quick) but those are closer to showcases or exhibitions, or maybe a short one-off race. Nothing long-tailed like a bracket or season.

We took a lot of lessons from AWC to lay the groundwork for MDI (general rules, broadcast packages, a lot of the same crew), which gave us a good foundation to build upon. Actually, the first MDI studio broadcast was out of the same studio we had just produced an AWC tournament out of the week prior; there was a lot of piggybacking to get it off the ground for sure and we couldn’t have done it without the AWC.

“There were certainly a LOT of unknowns with a program like the MDI but we had very supportive allies on Team 2. They really believed in the potential of the MDI and that was a big reason it was as successful as it was.” —Zorbrix

Q-4: Was it a difficult process getting the MDI approved since it was such a novel concept?

Zorbrix: Hmm, yes and no. There were certainly a LOT of unknowns with a program like the MDI but we had very supportive allies on Team 2. They really believed in the potential of the MDI and that was a big reason it was as successful as it was. In fact, on the very first broadcast of the Tespa Collegiate event, I remember we encountered some bug or issue that was getting in our way. Ion drove into work early on a Saturday morning to write and push a hotfix to change it before it became a big problem. Getting that kind of direct support and validation was huge for the team and it gave us the solid ground to keep building.

I think the other reason why it wasn’t difficult to get approved was that we really took a crawl-walk-run approach with the MDI. Each event was a little bigger than the last, and we slowly added complexity and scope instead of going full tilt out of the gate. We gained a lot of confidence from that Tespa broadcast, and that made us comfortable getting a larger prize pool and going with a longer broadcast format. If you look back over the early years, you can really see the slow methodical addition to bring the MDI to where it is now.

Q-5: Was the creation of the MDI part and parcel with the introduction of the Mythic+ system, or was it something you thought of later down the road?

Zorbrix: Mythic+ had been in the works for quite a while, well before we pitched any PvE programs. I think there was a general idea/hope that we could do something cool with it, but it wasn’t a requirement for the feature. Everybody was rooting for us though! The idea of doing something with dungeons and esports had floated around before, but Challenge Mode (the precursor to the Mythic+ system) in Mists and Warlords didn’t lend itself to broadcast the same way the Mythic+ Keystone dungeons do. With affixes and keystone levels, we had a lot of knobs we could turn to get the right difficulty and exciting stakes that would make for great broadcasts, and Challenge Mode just didn’t have that variability.

“Looking back, Legion had a TON of dungeons, and we unintentionally made players put in a lot of practice time as a result of that.” —Zorbrix

Q6: What were some of the biggest hurdles or obstacles you faced in creating, implementing, and then running the MDI all throughout Legion?

Zorbrix: For Legion specifically, Artifacts were tough to manage. We had to find ways of leveling them up as player power rose throughout the expansion, but not just max them out immediately. We didn’t want players to grind out Artifact Power on the Tournament Realm to try to power it up, that would be miserable. But they scaled at a higher item level than your other gear, so it was a technical challenge to get them to stay at the right power level. I think for a little bit we had them underpowered (accidentally) which led to the rise of Windwalker Monks since they didn’t rely on their artifact as much as some DPS.

The Netherlight Crucible from patch 7.3 was a challenge as well, since relics had a lot of RNG. Ultimately, I believe players had to randomly roll for the perfect relics because there were simply too many variations to try to hardcode them all onto a vendor. I felt bad that we couldn’t come up with a better solution, and that was something we really tried hard to improve on during BFA and beyond (like when we added custom scrolls to pick which corrupted traits you had on gear). Sorry!

Looking back, Legion had a TON of dungeons, and we unintentionally made players put in a lot of practice time as a result of that.

Windwalker Monks you say? 2018 MDI Time Trials

Q-7: What are your thoughts about how the format of the MDI has evolved since its first iteration?

Zorbrix: The Esports team has done a fantastic job with continuing to iterate on MDI’s format. The original format in 2017 was exciting, and with the different regional group stages you were seeing a different set of teams every day, but teams really had no safety net so one bad run meant your entire tournament was over. In future years we expanded the amount of content which gave players more chances to compete and make a name for themselves, but the danger of getting repetitive was a real concern. I really like the current iteration’s way of splitting teams into groups, so you go into the Finals without immediately knowing who’s the best, but still letting teams get a second chance with the Last Stand weekend. The Great Push event was incredible to watch – I personally was very impressed with the broadcast tools because I know how challenging it is to run a single match, let alone 6 teams at once. Seeing it in action gives me a ton of hope and excitement about the future of dungeons.

“Our first LAN in the summer of 2018 was a blast...Folks just came together and had fun. It was an incredibly stressful event to produce if I’m being honest, but I was so proud of the entire team for crushing it.” —Zorbrix

Q-8: What are some of your favourite memories from the MDI in Legion?

Zorbrix: Oh wow, there’s so many to pick from!

Our first LAN in the summer of 2018 was a blast. I got the chance to meet the players in person for the first time, and I think it was the first time most of the teammates met each other in person too. There wasn’t really any trash talking or egos; I think the PvE nature of the game meant the atmosphere was just different. Folks just came together and had fun. It was an incredibly stressful event to produce if I’m being honest, but I was so proud of the entire team for crushing it. And it was paying off, our viewership numbers kept climbing, and we even hit 100,000 concurrent viewers on the WoW Twitch Channel. That was such a cool feeling! After the show was done, everybody went out to dinner and relaxed and just nerded out together. I feel like everybody knew this was the start of something big, that there was going to be more to come.

And then for BlizzCon 2018 we had a small MDI exhibition (MDI All Stars), just a few matches at the start of Day 2. BFA had just launched, so there wasn’t time to do a full season leading into BlizzCon but we wanted to showcase the dungeons and show the audience some cool tricks from the players. This was our first MDI broadcast with a live studio audience (the previous LAN only had a few friends/family attend, so nothing big). But the audience at a BlizzCon, taking over an entire Hall; you’re not going to find a better concentration of loving, passionate WoW fans anywhere else.

I was the stage lead that year, in charge of the whole wow area so I was swamped with work. But my manager at the time, Jeramy McIntyre, managed to drag me away from backstage for like 15 minutes and we just sat in the crowd for one of the runs. Reacting like fans would, cheering and gasping, and just taking in that live esports energy that you can’t get anywhere else. I’m very thankful for that moment because I’m the kind of person that dives into the logistics and details of stuff, and I rarely unplug myself and experience the humanity of the moment. Every so often I think back to that event and remind myself to stop and smell the roses.

Healingstat: My favourite moments in MDI are where the games come down to a nail-biting finish, and Legion had a TONNE of these. Instantly, my memory is drawn to two moments in particular. In the first-ever weekend of Mythic Dungeon Invitational in 2017 we had a series between Carly’s Angels and Goinmul from Korea in the Asia-Pacific region where the teams finished the first dungeon within less than half a second of each other, it was literally impossible to tell who had won to the human eye and I was clearly rather struck at the time. Ultimately it took some digging with the admins but we were able to confirm a 0.468 second difference between the two sides, that was our first millisecond ending in MDI history. Having casted that first weekend and followed the journey of Honestly & Free Marsy in particular it was really exciting to see how the Asia Pacific teams performed at the Global Finals where they managed to defy all odds making our first Global Grand Finals an all-APAC affair.

In the end, Free Marsy won the series off the back of a reverse sweep, you can’t really ask for much better from a first Grand Finals. The highlight of the series for me was game 4: team Honestly had a commanding position in the dungeon leading up to the final boss but ended up wiping at 6% on Viz’aduum the Watcher. After, Free Marsy went on to also wipe on the boss at 4%, and the back and forth continued. In the end, Free Marsy did manage to win the game and advance to Game 5 where they completed the reverse sweep, it was an unbelievable turn of events at the time.

As a side note since Kyle mentioned the event above, BlizzCon All-Stars in 2018 was the first time MDI was played in front of a buzzing live audience and that was in itself a monumental moment. The crowd loved the matches, and at the end of it all I had the privilege of conducting the winner’s interview live on the stage with Xera from Free Marsy, I loved following the team’s story and Xera was a delight to talk to – a picture from that interview remains my Twitter profile picture to this day!

Q-9: Adrian, what was your role with the original MDI, and did you see yourself back then being involved the way you are now?

Healingstat: So this is actually a pretty fun story – at the time the planning was happening for the first broadcasts of MDI in 2017 I was working for Blizzard in Europe and had been the assistant lead for our European AWC Finals which were hosted live at Gamescom that year. It was a hectic time in the calendar for us as we juggled multiple AWC Finals, planning for the first ever MDI, and BlizzCon all within the same 2-3 month period.

At the end of our event at Gamescom, Kyle and Jeramy approached me asking me to be the broadcast host the first weekend of MDI focused on the Eastern regions. Since it was the first rendition of MDI it made sense for us to have hosts on Blizzard side who could conduct & steer the broadcasts as we wanted, so Rob Wing and I hosted the first weekends. Naturally, I was super excited for the opportunity & 2 short weeks after Gamescom I was flying back to Ohio and the show began! We knew when we were on-site that this was the beginning of something special, if you had asked me at the time whether I thought I would have been in the position I am now all those years ago I would have certainly said no, but I couldn’t be happier being on the product side now and helping forge the path for MDI going forward.

Q-10: Were there any ideas for the initial version of the MDI that were scrapped?

Zorbrix: In terms of format or broadcast, I don’t think so. We intentionally started with the bare minimum to make sure it would work – just producing the show was enough of a task that we didn’t need more things to juggle. Something that did change kinda last minute was the name, actually. Originally, we planned on calling it the Global Dungeon Invitational, and I think some of the early in-game code that drives the tournament format still references that. Somebody (correctly) pointed out that the acronym GDI is already used to mean goddamnit in some parts of the world and that’s not a great term to be instantly associated with (can you imagine the memes? No, thank you), so I reluctantly picked a new name. We sorta brought back the “global” part of the name when we swapped from Invitational to International a few years later anyway. We made the right call for sure – Mythic Dungeons are unique to WoW and they should be in the name.

“I had sooooo much trouble getting to sleep the night before. I remember I couldn’t sleep that night. I was wearing an Apple watch and I just kept looking at my heart rate, which just made it worse.” —Zorbrix

Q-11: What was that very first weekend of MDI competition like?

Zorbrix: That was an incredibly stressful weekend. The weekend prior was spent producing an AWC LAN in Ohio. My boss and I planned on staying in Ohio for that week, taking a day or so for rest and then spending the week getting ready for the MDI broadcast. We trained up some of the GCDTV folks as observers, and that was the first time getting their hands on it. One of the issues with observing dungeons is that we’ve always had to use internal tools to do it, and we couldn’t hand those tools over to anybody else because they were internal. So we had to kind of write the book on how to observe dungeons, while teaching a team how to do it. Thankfully my boss and I had come from WoW QA years prior, so we had some knowledge of the internal WoW client to pass onto the crew. But giving a crash course was bumpy at best and we continued to iterate on it for years.

We also didn’t set ourselves up with an easy first day. For some unknown reason (I literally can’t remember why) I picked China as our first region. Since the players were playing remotely from China, the broadcast started in the middle of the night for us in Ohio. I had sooooo much trouble getting to sleep the night before. I remember I couldn’t sleep that night. I was wearing an Apple watch and I just kept looking at my heart rate, which just made it worse. So then the next day (or night, in this case) not only was I worried and running on little sleep but we were ALSO dealing with language barrier issues because none of us could read Mandarin. We knew that going in, and we had some partners in the Blizzard China office helping us to translate (thank you Maya and Bob!) but since this was our first day of broadcast we were still figuring stuff out as we went. Then one of the teams got disqualified, and then the next team wasn’t ready to go and oh boy I’m getting flashbacks just typing this up.

Long story short, we got through the bracket and wrapped up a long day of broadcast...and then Mike Morhaime took us out for pancakes – no joke, he was in town visiting some family and they stopped by the studio to see the broadcast and give us support, and then took us out for breakfast the following morning after the show wrapped up. I’m literally not joking, that happened, and it was surreal. I was so tired I don’t remember the meal at all.

Q-12: If you could go back and change one thing about the MDI in Legion, what would it be and why?

Zorbrix: I shouldn’t have let Tettles’ team compete with 4 players on broadcast. Look where that got us – years of Tettles! And it could have all been avoided.

In all seriousness, I wish we had come up with a better way to do Court of Stars. We ended up disabling a lot of the class/profession buffs there and it made what was an exciting dungeon a little boring for broadcast. Letting the party pick their professions in a smart manner and normalizing the spawns would have been better, but we had concerns about professions and less tools to deal with problems.

“The WoW community is one of the most passionate and embracing I’ve encountered and is very much the reason I got into WoW Esports in the first place.” —Healingstat

Q-13: We here at Raider.IO all strongly believe that the MDI has improved the landscape and experience of World of Warcraft tremendously. We are forever grateful for the hard work that went into its creation and its evolution. If you could pinpoint one aspect of the MDI that you are the proudest of, what would it be?

Zorbrix: Honestly, this will sound like pandering but I love the integration with sites like Raider.IO and Wowhead. I don’t even remember how I first started working with Raider.IO all those years ago, but I couldn’t imagine the MDI being as great as it was without that strong community support. Leaderboards were a huge part of the Proving Grounds and then the Time Trial format, and then having brackets and historical stats on top of that was amazing. And Wowhead graciously let us use their tooltip database when we got our gear inspect tool working, to say nothing of supporting and amplifying the MDI from the start. The WoW Community is really special, and I’m proud of that.

Also, I’m really honored that the Esports team keeps adding the Terrible Turnip into cinematics and the Tournament Realm. I never asked for that, but since they keep doing it, I must have done something right.

Healingstat: I think Kyle hits the nail on the head perfectly. The WoW community is one of the most passionate and embracing I’ve encountered and is very much the reason I got into WoW Esports in the first place. Many of the improvements we’ve made to MDI over the years from program design to broadcast UI are a direct response to passionate community feedback & organizations such as Raider.IO and Wowhead enabling that success. Whenever we make decisions for MDI we have servicing this community at the front of our minds, and I can say with confidence that has resulted in the changes to Global Groups in the recent MDI and new formats such as The Great Push. Having this community backing makes me more excited than ever going into next year.

Q-14: Is there anything else you would like to add about the origins of the MDI?

Zorbrix: From the start, the MDI was a labor of love, and it wouldn’t be possible without a heroic esports crew, a supportive development team, and the passion and energy of the WoW Community. From the bottom of my cold turnip heart, thank you. Thank you for everything.


About the Author

Hulahoops has been playing WoW since Vanilla. She has recently shelved Retail to go back and re-experience TBC in all its glory, but will one day make her way back to the Shadowlands. In her hey-day, Hulahoops could be found raid-leading in Mythic Progression, or competing in the MDI with her team Angry Toast. Hulahoops is a Holy Paladin in every sense of the term: she moderates the Hammer of Wrath Paladin Class Discord, and she was a practicing Lawyer for 7 years. Judgment isn't just a spell! Hulahoops decided to put the law books away and follow her passion for gaming and esports by joining the team at Raider.IO. In her capacity as General Manager, Hulahoops oversees events, content, and more!