Few things in popular culture are as divisive as professional wrestling.
Seen by the majority of people as ‘that silly, fake fighting’, wrestling pushes buttons, provoking a fight or flight response. Upon seeing it on their television, many instantly change the channel. Others vehemently defend their passion to unconvinced family and friends. Fans argue in defense of wrestling, explaining it to be a complex, intricate form of entertainment serving as a time capsule for popular culture and combative theatre.
The mainstay of professional wrestling is the WWE, beginning in the mid 1950s and, overtime, redefining the wrestling business from carnival attraction to a global brand, combining sports with entertainment or as its simply known now: Sports Entertainment.
To remain relevant, the WWE follows trends in popular culture, mimicking fashions to attract attention. Global conflict in the 80s between the West and Middle East was replicated in the wrestling ring with patriotic flag waving and infuriating flag burning. During the mid-90s, fans were treated to numerous broody, gothic-themed characters or rebellious anarchists.
It could be argued the WWE is often a few steps behind trends, perhaps intentionally so, to ensure their in-ring mimicry of pop culture captures the widest possible audience. So goes the theory of wrestling writing; it doesn’t need to be clever, just understood.
Following tremendous growth periods during the aforementioned 80s and 90s, broader interest in the WWE dwindled to leave a small, insatiable audience. The WWE resigned itself to targeting new fans outside of their core fan base at one key event each year; WrestleMania, where wrestling history was made.
It was at WrestleMania that arguably the most important phrase in the history of professional wrestling was used, signifying the birth of ‘Sports Entertainment’. The Irresistible Force meeting the Immovable Object – Hulk Hogan battling André the Giant at WrestleMania III. Sadly that same phrase can be used to define the current state of the WWE. Time is immovable, and with the WWE brand in decline, it has proven anything but irresistible.
Putting cards on the table, I’m a fan who has been lucky enough to not only have worked with the WWE videogame series, but also with the WWE brand itself. Wrestling fans are the most critical, and it will only be fans that show the makers of the WWE videogame series it is time to take a break. Time needs to be spent reflecting on persistent problems, and exploring a direction that will cater to the needs of a shrinking but dedicated audience.
True enough, a change in publisher from THQ to 2K Games will help freshen the polish, marketing and online support for the videogame series, and at face value it could be argued that there’s a sense of energy around the IP in videogame form again. But the biggest change required needs to go beyond the fluff. Development of the WWE videogame needs to be taken away from Japanese developer Yuke’s and given to Visual Concepts (veteran sports game developers, responsible for the NFL2K and the NBA2K series, specifically the truly next-gen experience that is NBA 2K14). True, WWE 2K14 credits both studios, but the gremlins associated with Yuke’s’ SmackDown Vs Raw series (the precursor to WWE2K) still linger in last year’s Squared Circle release.
The current technology powering the WWE videogame franchise owes much to a legacy PlayStation 1 engine. Obviously this means it’s dated which is why it’s also sluggish and fails to translate to online play in a time where players expect more of their sports and fighting games. Visual Concepts understands the importance of a robust online competitive multiplayer suite, but without a new engine this is just window dressing.
During my time working on WWE videogames, it became evident Yuke’s had lost interest in creating a wrestling simulation game. Each year, an aging engine was given a lick of varnish, and new features were bolted onto an already bloated offering. SmackDown Vs Raw stopped being about wrestling and became a complicated creative suite so involved with itself it was impenetrable to new players.
The SmackDown Vs Raw series was once a giant of the videogame industry. Former publisher THQ hung its proverbial feather boa on the franchise, and throughout the mid 2000s there were only two games competing for title of Christmas-gift-game. In one corner was SmackDown!/SmackDown Vs Raw, in the other, EA’s Need For Speed.
In its day, SmackDown!/SmackDown Vs Raw would ship a staggering amount of copies, commanding vast preorders and battling Need For Speed for top place in the charts. During this period, the WWE brand transitioned from an era of strength to a slow but steady period of decline. Coinciding with a fan base that was getting younger and the death of the PlayStation 2, SmackDown Vs Raw was forced onto the Xbox 360 in late 2007; a platform out of sight and mind for a young WWE audience that already owned and loved the PlayStation 2.
Xbox owners had been hurt by bad WWE games before, as the original Xbox WWE game (WWE RAW, 2002) was poorly received by fans. To make matters worse, a superior WWE videogame experience had been available on the PlayStation since 2000 (Yuke’s’ SmackDown! series). When the Yuke’s games made the transition from PlayStation 2 to the next-generation, it did so with a tired looking engine and failed to impress fans.
WWE videogames missed out on a PlayStation 3 release in 2007, the intrinsically ‘Sony’ brand missed a beat, a year, and it’s audience. WWE SmackDown Vs Raw moved from challenger to ‘jobber’ in less than two years. The impact on THQ is plain for all to see.
In contrast, that same year EA made a bold decision to release a stripped down FIFA 07 in order to deliver a new engine. With new animation and an intuitive control system, FIFA rose above rival Pro Evolution Soccer, defining a football experience on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The difference between how THQ with the WWE and EA with FIFA handled a transitional year for their major sporting franchise is telling.
Release dates also have an important role to play in determining the fall of WWE videogames. By comparison, both FIFA and PES are released in September, a key period for football where audiences are eagerly anticipating a new videogame for the new season with updated rosters, new teams and playing kits.
Conversely, the WWE videogame has been released prior to Christmas, arguably the least interesting period in the WWE programming calendar where storylines are typically in a holding pattern. Surely releasing the game during WrestleMania period would be an easy win and could help leverage interest from the largest number of WWE fans? And if that’s too much, the Royal Rumble, which is the inaugural “Road to WrestleMania” PPV would also make a lot of sense. Hell, you could even look at Money in the Bank as a starting point. The fact that the height of, or kickoff point for, a slew of major storylines isn’t a noted release window for any WWE-branded game is clearly a hugely missed opportunity.
The THQ product notoriously featured locked rosters dated 12 months prior to the game’s release, often resulting in playable characters being featured in videogame storylines who were no longer on WWE programming. With a stronger focus in persistent updates for sports titles through content updates, DLC or even week-to-week stat-tracking, this really is something any future WWE titles need to avoid. It’s not difficult to maintain a sense of relevance to the television and live-show brand the company takes around the US and oft across the globe, and WWE itself consistently reminds viewers about their social media and fan engagements – the next game in the series absolutely has to be on-point as far as remaining up-to-date and series-relevant.
Another issue facing the WWE videogame series is identity. Like the WWE brand, the videogame flits between calling itself a sports/fighting game and a family entertainment game. In doing so it fails to lay claim to either. I hope to see 2K double down on the promise of a wrestling simulation. Let’s see the return of General Manager modes, a refined suite of creation tools and best-in-class implementation of sharing and streaming features inbuilt into the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Most importantly, the existing engine needs to be burnt in a fire. Hair and character models clipping through one another are unforgivable, consumers paying for the game and the WWE brand deserve better.
What WWE 2K14 represents is a transition point from one console generation to the next. It will be interesting to see how 2K handles the follow up release, and would be wise to focus on getting the core experience right before broadening their scope. The truth remains, when 2K acquired the WWE license from THQ, it wasn’t buying a brand that could compete with the sales of NBA 2K or FIFA.
As fans, our own nostalgia is partly at fault for the inability of the WWE brand or videogames to take stock and access the issues. We now expect our wrestling to be available 365 days a year, to be accessible via social media, with increased touring schedules and additional TV programming. We are saturated with the WWE.
It is hard to fault them for meeting this demand, and they don’t have a very good track record of saying no to do what’s best for the brand (see countless terrible WWE-produced movies and videogames including WWE Crush Hour).
But what is right for the WWE brand is for WWE videogames to take a rest. 12 months would be great; two years would be even better. The likelihood is low, given 2K has signed a new contract and will be eager to please their new business partners. For the sake of the series, however, give it a rest. Much like the product the game emulates, without an opportunity to feel genuine nostalgia and longing for something, even diehard fans tire of the best talent, moves, entrances and storylines (just listen to crowd reactions to John Cena these days, for example).
Previously I reviewed WWE 2K14 and likened it to a rest-move, a necessary maneuver performed by wrestlers to catch their breath and prepare for a more spectacular spot. The big moments, the ones we remember, they take time, energy and resources. Rest-moves are ugly, slow and unpopular with fans, but accepted as what needs to pass before something amazing happens.
Paul "Hoops" Houlihan is a former gaming PR guy who now dabbles in writing about games and hosts videogame podcast The Fourth Player (@PlayerFourth on Twitter). When not playing video and boardgames he can be found dancing and playing basketball, both awkwardly.
Recent articles by Paul:Find and follow him on Twitter - @paulyhouly.