The Unlikely Parallels of Pro Wrestling and World of Warcraft

There is beginning to be something of a similarity between World of Warcraft and one of my other, longstanding hobbies.

I’m going to wind this post up a little bit, so follow along for a journey. It will take a bit to get back to WoW, but it will get back to WoW, so hang in there!

Longtime readers will know that I am a wrestling fan – to the point that I once trained to be a wrestler. However, despite it being something that I would label as a fundamental hobby of mine, both in terms of enjoying it as entertainment and using it as a sort of positive life fuel, it is also something that I don’t talk about all that much, if ever – with posts during the high holidays of WWE, the January to April Wrestlemania season, being the only ones that graze the topic.

Why is that?

Well, I love wrestling, but I don’t like wrestling.

Firstly, while I have watched a bit of competing promotions to the main, global phenomenon of WWE, I’ve been subscribed to New Japan Pro Wrestling’s online streaming service for less time than I spent subscribed to Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 – not, in NJPW’s case, for a lack of quality. Ring of Honor seems like it can be good, although not much lately, but watching it on TV requires a local Sinclair affiliate to syndicate it, and if they do, it is usually on late on Saturday nights in a death spot, so even if I wanted to support it, it would be exceedingly difficult. They do have a streaming service, but I wouldn’t find the value in paying for it on its own merits. There are other promotions with less reach that I could access, but don’t. When I talk about wrestling, it is essentially talking about WWE as an organization. I’ll probably give AEW (a new promotion starting up from some former NJPW/ROH wrestlers and former WWE wrestler Cody Rhodes, the son of legendary Dusty Rhodes) a shot, but they currently don’t have anything outside of YouTube shows weekly that are non-wrestling, which is the only weekly appointment viewing of wrestling I have.

So, WWE. The thing about WWE is that it is typically…not great. The weekly programming they put out is dense and large, with 3 hours every Monday for Raw, 2 hours every Tuesday for Smackdown, 1 hour on Wednesday for NXT, and the monthly pay per view which is 4 hours with a one-hour kickoff show. On a regular week, that is 6 hours of viewing, and in an average month, at least 29 hours of content! For a show that is intended to be at its best in the live format, that is too much time to commit on a regular basis, even if the shows are fantastic top to bottom.

Which is made worse by the fact that the shows are usually awful with flashes of occasional goodness. The 3-hour flagship show of WWE, Raw, usually features around 6 matches of no more than 15 minutes over the course of that 3 hour time window, and the rest is made up of short story segments, in-ring promos, or recaps of things that happened earlier in the show. Lots of graphics pop up to tell you to keep watching for a big match in the last hour, and the commentators will spend time during other matches selling the main event, ignoring what is currently happening in the ring. During the matches, the camera work zooms in nauseatingly on punches and move impacts, which makes the show hard to watch and the action tough to follow.

Wrestling, as a storytelling format, depends on the usage of the weekly television shows to promote big matchups at the pay per view events, where the bulk of those shows is the in-ring action and the escalating tension of the storytelling over the weeks leading up to the event are supposed to be paid off to a satisfying conclusion or a good reason to escalate and continue the story to the next pay per view, usually involving a more extreme match stipulation – cages, weapons, falls count anywhere, etc. However, long-term storytelling is something that many wrestling promotions struggle with – if you lean on it too hard, an untimely injury can mean that the whole thing is rendered pointless or delayed to a point that makes the build-up worth less. The solution to this, is to try to build over a medium-term duration, with most storylines lasting only 1-2 pay per view event cycles, and any longer-term storytelling between the same wrestlers coming later, after some time apart to refocus. The story of this year’s Wrestlemania main event, the triple-threat match between Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch, used this formula by spinning different combinations of these 3 performers from August 2018 until two weeks ago, when the story was ultimately paid off. In August 2018, at Summerslam, Charlotte and Becky were friends involved in a 3-way match for the Smackdown Women’s Title, a match which Charlotte was inserted into near the end of the build to Summerslam. This infuriated Becky, who lost the match to Charlotte as she pinned the 3rd person in the match, and ended with Becky beating up Charlotte, turning heel (wrestling term for the bad guy) in the process.

This continued through the fall, with matches between Becky and Charlotte leading to Becky claiming the championship and proving her superiority over Charlotte. At Survivor Series in November 2018, Becky was scheduled to take on Ronda Rousey, as the two were respective women’s champions on their shows (the theme of Survivor Series for the past few years being a showdown between Raw and Smackdown where the champions of both shows face each other), however, a real injury on the final Raw before the show sidelined Becky (and looked badass, as she continued to fight with a broken nose and led to one of the more iconic images in wrestling in the last few years).

becky

So with Becky unable to participate, she had to pick a replacement, and she picked Charlotte, who had a decent match with Rousey and ended it with a disqualification by using weapons to beat down Rousey. Becky moved on after recovering from the nose injury (and a concussion received at the same time) and had a match against Charlotte and Asuka, another Smackdown woman wrestler, in December 2018, in which Ronda Rousey gave the match to Asuka by beating down both Becky and Charlotte. Becky got her title rematch at the Royal Rumble in January 2019, lost that, and then won the women’s Royal Rumble match that same night, securing a title match of her choice at Wrestlemania and doing so by eliminating Charlotte last.

This leads to Becky challenging Rousey for the match she wanted at Survivor Series, but now with her chasing the Raw Women’s Championship and on the biggest stage the WWE has. If the story ends here and the two have basic promos occasionally on the way to Wrestlemania, the story could have been pretty great. However…it wasn’t meant to be, because the WWE can’t help themselves, and so a fictional knee injury at the Royal Rumble for Becky leads to her being suspended and out of the match, with Charlotte inserted into it instead, Becky keeps showing up anyways, beating up both Charlotte and Ronda, and in the end, a match at the March 2019 pay per view Fastlane between Charlotte and Becky with the stipulation that Becky winning gets her added back to the match, which ends with Ronda beating up Becky, which counts as helping Charlotte, disqualifying Charlotte and awarding the win to Becky, cementing the triple-threat match. Along the way, Charlotte claims the Smackdown Women’s title, it is added to the match, and the crowning moment comes as the most popular current wrestler in Becky beats both (in an iffy legitimately messed up finish which I won’t add text for here) and she celebrates her coronation at the end of a messy, awful journey that saw the whole thing diluted with fake injuries, suspensions, the involvement of the WWE leadership in the McMahon family, and some legitimately baffling decisions along the way.

But, if you watch Wrestlemania alone, knowing vaguely what is going on, you wouldn’t be bothered by all of that, because before the match, the hype video the WWE airs manages to neatly sidestep all of the terrible bullshit they did to keep filling their weekly TV with content. Instead, you get this:

This video hints at some of the bullshit – Becky clearly limps and has a crutch, and there’s some footage of the hilarious handcuffs scene that closed out that build, but it is a tight, cohesive 3 minutes that uses the best promo snippets and action to tell the story that took nearly 3 months of weekly TV to build. If you only saw this and nothing more, this looks fucking awesome! Okay, I’m hyped for this, now show me the match.

And I think that should make clear the comparison I am going for. But one more little thing to close out the wrestling side of this post!

I’ve watched wrestling in some form or another since I was 2, or, quick match, a smidge over 31 years. I got about 14-15 years of that watching weekly, live, as it happened – I was eager to consume the weekly shows and before digital encryption, my family had one of those infamous cable black boxes that could grab the pay per views and show them normally without paying. I could not wait to watch every week. However, around 2007 or so, I stopped watching weekly and began to resort to reading recaps online and maybe trying to find clips of the more interesting moments and matches. At present, it is easier than ever to watch wrestling without watching it weekly. WWE posts matches to YouTube almost concurrently with the live shows, clips of key moments are all over Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit within seconds, and so it is almost never necessary to watch the full shows live. This is how I “watch” wrestling now – almost-live, never completely, and just enough to feel connected without actually having to slog through 6 hours a week of live content.

I’ve been playing WoW for 14 years this June. Timewise, I realized it lines up nearly perfectly with my wrestling fandom – being super engaged for a teenaged number of years before falling off and reaching the point where I just want to be there for the big moments. Right now, my WoW fandom and my wrestling fandom are nearly identical to one another – I spend more time reading about them than I do actively consuming them, more time discussing them than directly interfacing with them, and I feel like that gives me what I want.

Systems in WoW like seasonal loot power jumps, Artifact Knowledge, and story chapters are designed for the game like WWE’s hype videos are for their storylines. You can be there for the whole ride, if you want, but sometimes, that whole ride just isn’t that great and will let you down. You can instead choose to come back in-between, and you get a condensed burst of fun that seems a bit more fulfilling and allows you to dip right back out without missing much.

In a future post, I think I am going to discuss this topic more specifically (and more game-focused so you won’t have to read more wrestling storyline recaps!) but I find it fascinating that with the focus on MAU (no matter how fervently they deny it), the game actively engages in a sort of self-sabotage, where the smart play if you want to get the most reward out of your time is to come back on the season markers, play for a small, focused burst of time, and then you’re free to go, cancel your sub, and return later when the next season kicks off.

The question for me is this – is this a fun way to engage? I’d argue that I’m not really engaging with WoW in this way, because I still log in at least a few times a week (and I have been doing some light alt leveling, so my playtime in WoW as of late has been higher), but I do know plenty of people who would do this in the past on an expansion basis. Many of my longer-tenured guildmates have been like this since Mists of Pandaria – they’ll buy the expansion, log in and play to level cap, do dungeons, do a bit of content at endgame, and then we won’t see them for two years in game, when they repeat the cycle. To them, I think they would express their interactions with WoW the same way I describe mine with wrestling – they love WoW, they just don’t like it all that much.

I guess the question that leaves for Blizzard is this – what would it take for people to love the game and like it at the same time?

I’ll leave my answers for that to a future post series, but for now, hey, food for thought!

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