At the star-studded premiere of the Hollywood blockbuster “Warcraft” last Monday, Ben Schulz walked the red carpet as a relative unknown. That is, until he opened his mouth.
He heard that Jamie Lee Curtis was in attendance, dressed as an orc shaman straight out of the film. While Curtis isn’t in the movie, she’s reportedly a big fan of “World of Warcraft,” the hugely popular online game that’s part of the video game series that inspired the film. To prove it, she and her son were making their way down the red carpet in green face paint, shouting the most celebrated battle cry in the game: “Leeroy Jenkins!”
Schulz, his long blond hair in a ponytail and his bushy beard nicely combed, made his way over to Curtis. “I have a surprise for you,” he said, without introducing himself. Then he let out a holler. “LEEROOOOOOY JEEENKINS!"
Curtis immediately knew who he was. “I need a picture,” she told him excitedly.
Experiences like this are par for the course for Schulz, 34, a Colorado resident who 11 years ago helped make an in-game video of the “World of Warcraft” character he’d created, Leeroy Jenkins, and whose life since has never been the same. One of the first viral videos to go global, the clip has been watched more than 45 million times, spawning Leeroy trading cards, Leeroy figurines and endless Leeroy T-shirts, not to mention Leeroy references in “South Park,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “The Daily Show,” “Jeopardy!” and even in the military’s Armed Forces Journal. While Leeroy doesn’t make a cameo in “Warcraft,” that didn’t stop Blizzard Entertainment, the developer behind the games, from flying Schulz out for the premiere and many folks referencing the meme in relation to the film (“Even Leeroy Jenkins could not save this stinker,” groused a particularly harsh Popular Science review). For better or worse, Leeroy Jenkins will forever be intertwined with one of the biggest video games on the planet — with Schulz along for the ride.
— Jamie Lee Curtis (@jamieleecurtis) June 7, 2016
In an International Business Times exclusive, Schulz weighs in on what that’s like — and offers his thoughts on the film.
For many, the tale of Leeroy Jenkins is as familiar as that of Don Quixote or Indiana Jones. For those not in the know, the video behind the legend, originally titled “A Rough Go,” might not make a lot of sense. In the clip, a bunch of “World of Warcraft” players plan in geeky detail how to tackle a dangerous den of young dragons nearby — “We're gonna need Divine Intervention on our mages,” “I’m coming up with 32.33, repeating of course, percentage of survival” — until then-24-year-old Schulz, playing as Leeroy, loses patience and charges headfirst into the fray, deranged and shouting his character’s name as his now-legendary battle cry. Flabbergasted, everyone dashes after him, leading to a chaotic mess that turns all the characters, including Leeroy, into dragon food.
The video became a hit on WarcraftMovies.com before spreading to the then-nascent YouTube. Soon other players in “World of Warcraft” were stalking Schulz, then a postgrad living in his parents’ house, as if he was an in-game celebrity, and folks started using Leeroy as a figure of speech: “That jerk totally Leeroyed us.” That was just the beginning. A friend spotted schoolgirls sporting “I love Leeroy” T-shirts in Korea. Someone remade the video as an artsy short film. The wife of a Hollywood movie star asked him to record a birthday greeting, in Leeroy’s voice, for the celebrity’s birthday. Schulz can’t reveal who it is, but suffice to say it’s one of the biggest names in the business.
Today, most successful viral videos are short, basic and catchy: A sneezing baby panda. Exploding watermelons. Hitler saying the darndest things. By such standards, the low-res, 2-minute, 50-second Leeroy video, steeped in “World of Warcraft” arcana, doesn’t fit. So why did it blow up? Maybe, as Schulz puts it, “It was just the right timing. I don’t think that video would get 50 hits today.” Released in May 2005, the clip emerged just as “World of Warcraft” was becoming a global phenomenon and YouTube was ushering in the era of user-created videos.
But maybe it’s something else. While offering users an open world with seemingly endless possibilities, “World of Warcraft” hewed closely to typical video game processes: Kill the monster, score the loot, progress to the next level, repeat ad nauseam. Schulz and his buddies used the game’s own in-game video recorder to thumb their noses at that achievement system. While Schulz refuses to reveal whether his asinine charge was real or staged, either way it injected a much-needed dose of humanity and hilarity into the proceedings. It was the dawn of tech-enabled pop culture hacks, a phenomenon that now ranges from LEGO-fied versions of “Star Wars” trailers to endless homemade “Let It Go” parodies.
Some people have criticized the potentially politically incorrect nature of a name like Leeroy Jenkins, which Schulz coined one college evening a few years earlier while drinking one too many 40-ounce malt liquors. But at the time the video was made, Schulz had no idea the clip or his character would touch a nerve, that his goofy, slightly inappropriate hijinks ever would be viewed beyond his circle of friends. “Some people might get upset about how I came up with the name,” he said. “But I was a 22-year-old college kid. Most 22-year-old college kids while drunk don’t respect everyone’s feelings, and I am sorry about that.”
There are parts of the Leeroy Jenkins commotion that make Schulz really happy, like how a 2009 Armed Forces Journal article on the reckless way American forces were charging into supervisory roles in Iraq was titled “Let’s Do This! Leeroy Jenkins and the American Way of Advising,” and how a National Geographic series on an Afghanistan Air Force rescue team showed that its mission alert signal was the audio of Schulz yelling, “LEEROOOOOOY JEEENKINS!"
“It might have helped somebody,” Schulz said. “And I do love the fact that some of our troops got enjoyment from it as their alarm.”
But there have also been frustrating aspects of living in Leeroy’s shadow. Schulz and his friends came up with a Leeroy clothing line, but it couldn’t compete with all the other unsanctioned Leeroy-branded attire that folks were selling — and there was no way for Schulz to develop official Leeroy merchandise, since Blizzard owned the rights to the video and everything in it. Schulz also took voice lessons to hone and market is now-famous deep voice. For a while, the effort seemed promising: Global Gaming League hired him as an announcer for some of its video game tournaments. But that didn’t last. “I probably wasn’t the best at it,” he said.
Still, 11 years in, Schulz has made peace with the fact that the legend of Leeroy Jenkins is out of his control. “Every now and then I wonder whether I could have done something more with it,” said Schulz. “But it’s a two-sided sword. I think part of the reason it’s gone so well is I didn’t ruin it.” He never threatened anyone making unofficial Leeroy shirts, never tried to make “A Rough Go, Part 2.”
“I got to the point where I realized it’s cooler that folks are spreading Leeroy even more and people are enjoying it,” he said. “I think letting Leeroy go has let me do more.”
He’s doing a lot these days: Working as a building engineer for a federal agency in Colorado. Preparing to get married to fiancée Kathleen, a Denver lawyer whom he met at a local renaissance festival. Doing yard work and house projects at the sizeable home they recently purchased in the suburbs, with striking views of the rolling Colorado foothills. And yes, playing video games, since he’s still very much a gamer, although he hasn’t touched “World of Warcraft” in several years. “It’s a fine game, but I just played it enough that I was done,” he said. Now he sticks with titles like “Overwatch,” “Diablo III” and “Titanfall,” although he doesn’t use his famous online handle. “Ever since the video,” he said, “trying to get the name Leeroy is next to impossible.”
Meanwhile, Leeroy has scored his own achievements. A few years ago, Blizzard built an official adventure around Leeroy in “World of Warcraft”: If players help him finally defeat the pesky dragons in the dungeon where he was famously killed, he joins them on their quest. But when the company first unveiled the addition, Leeroy was voiced by a voice actor, not Schulz. Schulz brought the issue to Blizzard’s attention, and the company flew him to California to re-record the audio. “I was not as smooth as the voice actor, but my yell is much better than his,” Schulz said. “It was just another free experience I got to do as Leeroy Jenkins.”
Another free experience was attending the “Warcraft” premiere. He’d heard at least one version of the script included a Leeroy character before it was nixed, but he was still excited to be recognized. As for the movie itself, Schulz is circumspect, displaying the sort of thoughtfulness and reserve Leeroy lacks. “I think the critics are a little rough on video game movies,” he said of the film, which has a 27 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “I don’t think the movie was as bad as they made it out to be.”
But, he added, “It did not have a lot of humor in it. There were not many breaks in the weight of the movie.” The film is all about somber duty and honor, solemnly moving from one mission or battle to the next, like an old-school video game. There’s no sense of swashbuckling adventure, no sense of messy humanity.
There’s no Leeroy.
Schulz is hoping that can change. Having already raked in nearly $200 million at the box office thanks to a record-breaking performance overseas, Schulz figures “Warcraft” is primed for a sequel. And while he was in Los Angeles for the premiere, he asked a favor of folks at Legendary Pictures, which produced the film: In the next movie, work in his alter ego.
Leeroy Jenkins might ride again.