Let me tell you about a man named Tyler.
Physically, he resembles He-Man. Shoulder-length blonde locks, skin like a bronze god and the face of a model. During his entrance, he carries with him an impenetrable air of superiority and a feather boa-clad selfie stick. Hailing from his seasonal residence in Cairo or Monte Carlo, Tyler is narcissistic to an alarming degree. However, when you see him perform in the ring, you can’t really blame him. Natural talent in WWE wrestlers is usually pretty easy to spot and Tyler exudes it instantly. Not only is he gifted in his agility, his work on the microphone makes fans take notice. He has charisma to spare, a natural confidence in speaking and allows the time and space to make his character come across like a lovable, compelling scumbag. WWE has given him his own ringside VIP section and his theme song (which he sings himself) claims that his eyes are so gorgeous they will “set you free”. He is hilariously entertaining.
If I could describe the strange, amazing and sometimes completely stupid realm of World Wrestling Entertainment to someone who doesn’t watch it, I would equate it to a drug. The kind of insidious, consuming, wake-up-in-a-dumpster narcotic that people have been addicted to for decades. Like junkies, fans are strung out. The highs are few and far between but when they hit, they attack all of our nerve centres at once. They keep us going through many, many lows. These moments make us pump our fists in excitement. Rewarding loyal fans who have invested heart and soul in our favourite superstars. When a wrestler’s storyline takes them over the line to a three-count or just an amazing match, everything is worth it. We may have been exhausted and confused for months but it all fades away instantly. This magical event is what we wanted.
Currently, the WWE roster has the potential to provide that magic in colossal amounts. There’s a hulking beast of a man who lays waste to his opponents while his advocate hypes him up with a silver tongue. A gold and red painted cosmic warrior who spends interviews talking about unlocking the secrets of the galaxy. A Swiss super athlete who performs feats of strength that betray his size. A group of mystical swamp hillbillies. And a corrupt, corporate husband and wife who hold all the power.
The best kind of wrestlers go all in. They are always “on”. They never falter from their character and are believable every hour of the day. They’re the ones that convince you they might just live on a different plane of existence. Of course, you’re not immediately convinced (because you know this is all predetermined entertainment) but they’re dedicated enough in their actions and beliefs to make you stop and question their behaviour. Just for a split-second. Just enough to get you to keep watching. Despite periods of regret as fans, we continue to use this product to capture these moments of self-doubt. We’re desperate to get that high back. We’ll do anything to feel that satisfaction again. Every major WWE event (or ‘pay-per-view’) is bursting with so much promise that we’re quite willing to say “come on man, I got these cheeseburgers man” as we hand over our monthly subscription fee to the WWE Network. Every single time. At the moment, it is because of these characters. They all possess this compelling and convincing quality both in the ring and in front of the camera.
But there’s a problem. Despite all of this eclectic talent currently on staff, the disappointment of them being underused in favour of less interesting but more marketable wrestlers never ends. It is so inherent to WWE, that it is all but expected. In amongst all the celebration of victory, legendary characters and emotional moments, there lies an undergrowth of maddening frustration. Whether the company decides to write haphazard, last-minute storylines that seemingly benefit nobody or keep bringing out old wrestlers in a desperate attempt to relive their past glory, the decisions made on a regular basis are consistently bizarre. You could simply put the blame at the feet of its 70 year-old billionaire CEO who has the final say but it’s just as much our fault as his. As fans, we continue to go along with it. Watch it. Promote it. Buy its merchandise. As long as we continue buying at such a ravenous rate, this dealer will never change its product.
That’s why the WWE2K franchise is a perfect fit. With first-person shooters or strategy titles, there’s endless choice. But for WWE, 2K is the only game in town. Every year, Osaka-based developer Yuke’s delivers a confusingly mediocre game filled with disheartening gameplay and sub-par visuals. WWE2K16 was no different. Sold on the nostalgia of former champion Stone Cold Steve Austin and some admittedly striking marketing campaigns, this year’s game suffers from a lack of soul. Dead-eyed avatars walk through sparse, wooden crowds to engage in matches that barely approach any hint of excitement. There’s no emotion. Which in turn, instantly kills any desire for further enjoyment.
Again and again, the overwhelming lifelessness of the WWE2K series drags it down. All we want is to feel like a badass when walking to the ring. Or experience the thrill of a well-planned, ‘holy hell, did you see that?’ type of match. But in reality, these games have all the charisma of a poorly maintained sewage treatment plant. Every wrestler resembles a clone of themselves but somebody either stopped the procedure before it was complete or put in a DNA sequence that was way off target. Their eyes are like graveyards. Their hair moves like piles of slightly undercooked spaghetti. When expressing pain in the ring, their stilted expression seem about as natural as Hulk Hogan watching 12 Years A Slave.
This has become the norm. It is expected. In a perfect world, it would be a pleasant surprise if 2K published a game that somehow matched the emotional heights of Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 25, Brock Lesnar destroying John Cena at Summerslam 2014 or Stone Cold vs Mr McMahon at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. But the WWE2K games consistently maintain a plateau of barely keeping their head above water. By releasing a product that only does the bare minimum, 2K keep this annual expectation of mediocrity alive and well.
Let me tell you about a woman named Sasha.
She is small in stature but completely assured in her role as one of the most important women wrestlers in history. She floats to the ring with an air of confidence typically reserved for veterans. But calling herself “The Boss” is warranted considering the brutal and innovative style she exhibits. She has done more to bring the women’s division out of the horrific pit of sexism that plagued the nineties than almost anyone. Recently, she had a match that is considered the best of the year, made grown men cry and instantly placed herself and her opponent leagues ahead of any male wrestler on the card. She is an absolute star.
The most recent major WWE pay-per-view was Survivor Series. Thousands gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to watch the three hour extravaganza. Nine matches (including one on the pre-show) and thirty five wrestlers were on the card. Promotion and marketing leaned towards The Undertaker’s 25th anniversary and the finals of a tournament to determine the next World Heavyweight Champion. Despite the potential to be explosive, the majority of the matches fell flat. Undertaker went through the motions that he had done a thousand times before and the tournament ended in an unsatisfying finish that nobody wanted.
WWE save their most memorable moments for their annual Wrestlemania event. It’s their Super Bowl, their Grand Final. Out of the eleven other pay-per-views throughout the year, a handful are viewed as top-tier (Royal Rumble, Summerslam) while some seem like an afterthought (Fastlane, Extreme Rules). Survivor Series has contained some of the most groundbreaking matches in WWE history but 2015 was not one of those years. It was unfulfilling and for the most part, forgettable. But, as the most deluded smackhead who has sold all their furniture to live in a shipping container might say, it doesn’t matter. There’s another pay-per-view event coming up soon. That one might be better. Let’s just get to the next hit.
On the flip side of this coin, when it comes to WWE2K16, the main problem here is that other games exist. If it existed in a vacuum or if it was the only video game you played every year, then it could stand on its own two legs and perhaps be considered a quality addition to your gaming library. But we live in reality, a place where these games don’t even deserve to be hidden away in your garage. When compared to the lightning-fast accomplishments made by other games in 2015, WWE2K16 feels stuck in a previous generation of clunky controls, terrible animations and tiresome commentary. On top of that, when compared to 2K’s own staggeringly lifelike NBA2K series, the juxtaposition between the two franchises is insane. NBA2K is like watching your favourite wrestler explode to the ring or yell amazing things in a promo. WWE2K is like watching your favourite wrestler caught on camera drunk out of their mind saying horrifying things about gun control or same-sex marriage.
Let me tell you about a man named Kevin.
A French-Canadian brute, the only people he cares for is his family. That’s why he’s here. To get to the top and he doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get there. His agility in the ring is immense but pales in comparison to his calculating, harsh persona. He has betrayed best friends, defeated champions and currently holds the Intercontinental Champion belt. If you stand between him and more money for his family, then you’ll regret it. While other wrestlers take the time to respect the commentators and listen to questions in interviews, Kevin doesn’t care. He’ll shout at them to stop wasting his time in a way that has you truly convinced he has better things to do.
Tyler Breeze, Sasha Banks and Kevin Owens are three wrestlers whose potential for long-term stardom seems unlimited. They have been competitors in the ring for years but are only new to the main roster of WWE. Despite that rookie status, they run rings around veterans who have become stale and ineffectual in almost every way possible. Watching them do what they do is a joy of entertainment and athleticism. All three of them are the complete package.
However, it is expected they will fail. Tradition dictates that the company will never give them the proper chance to advance on any meaningful ladder. None of them fit the traditional mould of a WWE champion. They aren’t muscle-heavy or role model material. Their characters are self-centered and ruthless. Their fans, despite passion and dedication, are just waiting until the company bury them. Such jaded cynicism flows throughout WWE like a river. Not because of outside influence or ungrateful fans but rather as a result of previous events. Chances are, the most disappointing thing that could happen will happen. Just look at what has come before. If these three wrestlers get to the top and stay there someday, it will be a miracle.
The current status of WWE and the WWE2K franchise are intertwined in sad, run-of-the-mill embarrassment. 2K’s video game is supposed to recreate its real-life counterpart and quite accidentally, it does. Just not in the way it intended. When moments of shock or elation erupt in wrestling, they are remembered and forever deemed groundbreaking and wonderful. But these moments don’t accurately reflect what occurs most of the time when WWE plan a pay-per-view event. And they certainly don’t reflect whatever is happening when 2K delivers another dull, uninspired WWE video game.
It’s clear after all these years, regardless of how much we force-feed ourselves with denial, that both of these products are content with not achieving anywhere near their full potential. Both of them could be consistently incredible. They could pull us deeper into this insane world of explosive storylines, over-the-top characters and personal satisfaction. But they don’t. Their bumbling, second-rate attempts to appear fresh and exciting are paralleled by each other so consistently that there can be only conclusion: WWE and WWE2K deserve each other. And if we continue to hand over our money, we completely deserve them.
This post originally published on Kotaku Australia on December 4 2015