The Legend of Leeroy Jenkins

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Rooster Teeth Productions has created a business around its comedic video series Red vs. Blue, which it produces in the games Halo and Halo 2. "Most people have powerful computers sitting at home, and that's pretty much all you need to make these videos," says Gustavo Sorola, staff member and voice actor at Rooster Teeth. "Without too much investment, people can make their own videos. It's the equivalent of everyone having a camera."

But it only took one camera to capture Leeroy Jenkins and turn him into the most popular figure in World of Warcraft. Part of Leeroy's attraction, suggests Carl Goodman, deputy director and director of digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, may be the fact he is such a loser -- his straightforward foolhardiness is immediately identifiable and seditiously refreshing for players who spend way too much time planning strategies with their teammates and obsessing over virtual accomplishments. "In World of Warcraft, there is might and magic," he says. "You have an instant action movie available to you" -- an action-movie set that Ben and his friends had the audacity to use for a slapstick comedy. "It makes fun of gamers' overly analytical approaches to action," Goodman adds. "It's saying, come on, you geeks, just get in there and do it."

That Leeroy is the game's biggest failure rather than its highest achiever may explain why he's transcended the self-referential sphere of World of Warcraft and moved into the realm of pop culture. Everyone everywhere has pulled a Leeroy. "There's something more universal about this guy who screws things up for everybody than someone who is the best at something," says Henry Lowood, curator for film and media collections at Stanford University. "If you're not a player in the game, you are not going to be that interested in how spectacularly good a player is. But you can relate to someone who messes up."

These days, says Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, people don't just identify with the lowly underachiever; they take subversive pleasure in using the Internet and other new social mediums to elevate him to a status previously reserved for the rich, talented or otherwise successful. As proof, Jenkins points to atrocious American Idol contestant William Hung scoring a record deal, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf winning the popular vote for People magazine's most beautiful person and Leeroy Jenkins becoming enshrined in video-game history alongside Pac-Man and Mario. "For the first time, we as a society get to decide who's famous," he notes. "Having gained the right to project celebrities forward, we often choose losers, because in the past it was always success that connoted celebrity. If Leeroy Jenkins can become a celebrity, anybody can."

But maybe all this high-minded pontificating misses the point. Maybe "A Rough Go" -- with its madcap battle cry, hopelessly nerdy and foolishly loyal teammates ("They had to follow me into the dungeon," Ben would say. "We're pals for life!") and bizarre reference to chicken -- is just plain funny. And in this YouTube era, it's easy for an in-joke to go global. "The whole Leeroy Jenkins thing is amazing," says Scott Rubin, editor-in-chief of National Lampoon. "It's an inside joke that a couple of million people are hip to. This could only happen because of the online world that funny people now express themselves in. It wasn't that long ago that a bit like this would have been confined to a few gamers at a high-school cafeteria with too much time on their hands. Now these same guys are one phone call away from being the next Kevin Smith."

Ben wouldn't mind getting that call. He's heard a rumor that a computer-monitor company wants to use Leeroy's voice in its promotions. He's thinking about finding an agent, possibly making a demo CD, getting started in that voiceover business -- although even he admits, "I don't know why you would want Leeroy to endorse anything."

It takes a while, but I discover someone in Stormwind who's fond of Leeroy. "Funny video," declares Hawkz, a friendly-looking bearded gnome jumping up and down on the stairs of the local bank. "So you like it?" I ask excitedly. "Oh yeah," he says. "You know what they say."

I don't know what they say.

"Any press is good press!" Hawkz jumps up and down.

Score one for Leeroy -- although Hawkz may not be the sort he wants as his fan-club president. When he's not hopping on the steps, he seems to be feverishly shining his belt buckle. Nevertheless, I use a game command to salute Hawkz, thank him for his time and continue my quest.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner