WWE are truly elaborating on their product as a platform. The Network is WWE’s Netflix-like streaming platform, but there’s a lot more to the WWE platform than just the Network. WWE has non-televised house shows (which will soon be on the Network for $5 more). They also have the mix-gender tag division, which exists on social media. They have reality shows, merchandising, etc.
If you want more about the idea of a platform in this sense, I recommend the book Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek. His argument is that the new development of capitalism is by creating platforms: Netflix, uber, food delivery apps, social media in general, etc. The consequence of this is that the capitalists leech off of everyday interactions and performances, so that simply by browsing Instagram, we are generating capital for faceless turds in San Francisco.
Wrestling used to be a long-term, weekly storytelling medium. This form of storytelling still lives, on Lucha Underground and Impact for example, but not in WWE. There are also indie promotions that have “episodic” storytelling, but these stories are told much different than a tv show, since people rarely see every show an indie promotion puts on, so they have to tell stories for inconsistent viewers.
But WWE is the primary wrestling promotion in the U.S., and their storytelling has changed to a platform of numerous interconnected storylines and shows. They have embraced a form similar to the Marvel Universe, but more like the Marvel comics universe than the Marvel movie Universe. Most of that’s because of the constant release of comics and wrestling shows compared to movies.
In this post, I will look into WWE as a platform, analyzing the ways in which their shows intersect, but more importantly I will explain why their approach isn’t particularly successful, or at least as successful as it should be. Then, I will give my solution of how to make WWE more interesting, in the context of being a platform.
RAW and Smackdown are now two separate brands, with different rosters. This isn’t new to WWE, having previously done it for most of the 2000s. It stopped existing between 2011 and 2016, and due to an expanding roster, and the fact that Smackdown was a pointless supplemental show, they restarted the brand split. This is the foundation that helps splinter WWE from “a show” or even just “two shows,” into a platform. And in less than a year now, WWE will be featured on a major network when it moves from USA to Fox.
Another shift was the creation of NXT, WWE’s development brand. It developed out of WWE’s training “league” FCW, and functioned like a simple wrestling show, to give new talent the chance to practice with smaller and fewer stakes. As WWE began to recruit an increasing number of talented indie wrestlers, NXT became an indie wrestling show with WWE level production. Now, NXT is still a developmental show, but some people don’t go through NXT first, Braun Strowman and AJ Styles for example. Other wrestlers stay at NXT for years, simply because many people see it as a better program than RAW or Smackdown, especially for conventional indie wrestlers.
On top of all that, NXT added the NXT North America Champion and UK Champion. The UK Championship was awarded in an inaugural tournament, and since then was defended on NXT. It now has its own show, NXT UK. And on top of all that, WWE runs other tournaments besides the UK one. They’ve done a cruiserweight tournament, tag team tournament, and women’s tournament. These are also supplemental to NXT, because they film at the same place, with similar graphics, and many wrestlers from NXT, as well as potential WWE signees. And on top of all that, WWE now has a show called 205 Live, which is a cruiserweight show where every wrestler weighs 205 pounds or less. And on top of all that, WWE has a formal business relationship with indie wrestling promotion Evolve, where WWE actively uses the promotion for recruiting, and sends some NXT wresters to the promotion. For example, NXT wrestler Fabian Aichner used to be the Evolve Champion, for example, and WWE is currently in a working with relationship with their current champion Austin Theory.
These are just the smaller shows. I haven’t even gotten to the programs that feature talent that most casual wrestling fans would even recognize. RAW is the flagship show, and seen as the “main” show, because it’s older and is three hours long, rather than two hours, like Smackdown. Smackdown has traditionally been more wrestling oriented, highlighting ring work more than RAW highlighting promo storytelling. It also is seen as slightly more experimental, being less under control of Vince McMahon, although it doesn’t usually live up to that reputation. And finally, to tie back in the social media mix-gender matches I mentioned at the beginning: these use the roster from RAW and Smackdown, but like Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, it’s the same characters, but many of them are slightly different.
And then, there’s the pay-per-views, which are culminations to the story arcs from other shows, primarily RAW and Smackdown. In terms of RAW, Smackdown, and PPVs, these haven’t changed too much. However, they have changed in a pretty relevant way, very recently…
In the past 10 years, a common complaint is that WWE is too reliant on former stars, at the detriment of developing new talent. It especially infuriates fans when a full-timer loses to a semi-retired part-timer. The way WWE has started reconciling this is by bringing old talent against each other in high-profile spectacle matches. Some examples that signify this shift is Wrestlemania 31, where Triple H wrestled Sting, or Brock Lesnar’s feud with Goldberg.
WWE has, in other words, been planting the seeds of a “Legends” pseudo-division for awhile. This Legends pseudo-division is becoming even more delineated and defined, because of the (yes, this is weird) Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman has begun essentially renting out the WWE for private national parties, the way rich people may rent out a singer to perform at their kid’s birthday. WWE televises these Saudi Arabia shows as pay-per-views, even though the matches have limited ties and impact on the greater storyline. This is why people call them televised house shows, because American house shows have a similar lack of storytelling impact.
And Saudi Arabia is stuck in the early 90s in terms of wrestling. We know this because the first time WWE went to Saudi Arabia, two of the most requested appearances were Yokozuna and Ultimate Warrior. Both of whom last wrestled with WWE in 1996, and are both dead. And due to a mixture of WWE’s love of pushing Legend talent, Saudi Arabia’s extremely outdated pro wrestling knowledge, and Mohammed bin Salmon’s grotesque amount of money, it has been a perfect storm in creating a pseudo-Legends devision.
Those factors led Shawn Michaels out of retirement to wrestle in Saudi Arabia. On top of that, the Saudi Arabia shows are almost their own self-contained universe, with a Legends division in it, and a pseudo-alternate kayfabe for the normal talent. For example, at their first Saudi show, the Greatest Royal Rumble, the main event was Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns for the championship, and Braun Strowman won the Royal Rumble. Now, the main event for Crown Jewel was (supposed to be) a three-way match between Lesnar, Reigns, and Strowman (before Roman had to step down, due to cancer), obviously drawing a macro continuity between the shows.
Then, it’s important to see how this serialized platform works. For one, the reason I said it’s more like Marvel comics than Marvel movies is due to the scale and frequency of cross-interaction.
Let’s look at Marvel movies first. Every movie has a self-contained story arc. In WWE and serialized comics, there’s no self-contained story arcs. Storylines can last months, or a single issue/episode. But as a serialized medium, story arcs are referential and interconnected to concurrent, past, and future story arcs.
“Complete” narrative elements in movies are the movies themselves. Iron Man is a complete storyline, and the Iron Man series is contained narrative packages.
In contrast, narrative elements in comics are understood differently. We understand them based on “runs” by writers. We think Grant Morrison’s Batman run, Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four run, Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, etc. We can also think of comic stories in terms of arcs.
Similarly (but somewhat differently), we understand wrestling in terms of eras, which are mainly informed by things like tv broadcasting and economic positioning, and who is booking the promotion. This is mostly the same as comics being understood in runs,
But we can also understand wrestling in narrative blocks of people’s career. We could look at Stone Cold’s entire career, beginning through WCCW and USWA, up through his work in WCW with Flyin Bryan, and his midcard singles career, transitioning to a brief stop at ECW, then going to WWE, and soon becoming the Stone Cold we know, being the face of the Attitude Era, and finally retiring as the Attitude Era ended, and the Invasion angle transitioned into the Ruthless Aggression era.
We could also look at the Attitude Era itself, from its early rumblings throughout 1997, to the Montreal Screwjob, to Stone Cold’s Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania win, which cemented the the era, through to 2001, with lingering elements until 2003.
Stone Cold was the “main character” of the Attitude Era, and they can’t be understood separately, but looking at both give insight into different aspects. We get multiple hermeneutic circles to analyze things through in wrestling.
So, that’s a thorough sketch of the current dynamics of how WWE operates as a serialized storytelling platform. But to what effect? What’s the impact of that?
WWE has grown to a point where they could write some amazing, deep, intricate stories. There’s so many elements at play that could be utilized. Instead, WWE has struggled adjusting to their increasingly new and alien medium of storytelling. Matches are so frequent, and there’s so many wrestlers, that they end up having little impact. The average match on RAW or Smackdown doesn’t need to exist. A lot of storylines feel less motivated by character, and more like exhibition matches to show off different in-ring abilities.
Instead, what WWE could and should do, is find a narrative structure that embraces the comic book continuity nature of their programs.
I want to return to how comic book (Marvel/DC) narratives usually work, so it’s easier to see my vision for WWE. I know I said Marvel earlier, but I will use DC, because I’ve read a lot more DC Comics. The way it works is DC will publish many serial comic books, let’s say 50 per month. On the first Tuesday of the month 12-13 comics would come out, then the next Tuesday, 12-13 different comics would come out, etc.
So let’s break that down further: DC will often have 5 or 6 Batman comics–maybe 2 starring Batman, and 4 with other Batman characters. They would have 1 or 2 Superman comics, and then maybe a couple Superboy/Powergirl etc comic. They would have a few Justice League comics: Justice League, Justice League America, Justice League Dark, etc. A couple Green Lantern comics, an Aquaman comic etc. You get the idea.
Then, there’s also event comics, which are a limited run, that involves multiple aspects of the entire Universe. They often crossover with many other comics, and set a general, universal narrative premise, that every comic book interacts with in it’s own way.
To draw a comparison to WWE, look to one of the more constant authorial figure in many of their shows: Triple H. From 2013 to 2016, he was the leader of the self-explanatorily named Authority. He was the boss of WWE, until Wrestlemania 32. He went on hiatus, occasionally popping up on NXT, his pet project show, before interjecting himself into random matches, mainly to set up a feud with Seth Rollins, his former henchman.
One standout moment at this time was when Seth Rollins “snuck” into NXT TakeOver: San Antonio, and called Triple H to the ring, knowing he would be there. Triple H came out, and forced security to escort Rollins out. Keep this in mind because it’s an example of telling a good story in the WWE narrative context.
From there, Triple H lost to Seth Rollins at Wrestlemania, then began interjecting himself when needed: interfering to help heels, joining Elimination Chamber and Survivor Series matches, and appearing in general exhibition matches.
Triple H (and Stephanie McMahon), in the absence of Vince McMahon, are the closest thing to consistent, authority figures. Triple H specifically, has appeared on RAW, Smackdown, and PPVs. He also is the creative head of the NXT and 205 Live brands.
And yet, why isn’t their continuity between these Triple Hs? During his time in the Authority, Triple H would be head heel on RAW, then go on NXT, and raise the hot new babyface’s arm when they win, with no disregard to the contradictions there.
The apparent key to solve WWE’s biggest problem, its inability to have cohesive and forward-propelled narrative, is make the platform more like comic books. An easy way to do this is make Vince McMahon, or Triple H, a consistent character throughout the whole platform. If they commit to heel authority figures, it needs to be a character. It can’t just be the writers’ room excuse to write things the audience will boo.
If Triple H is the head heel, in charge of the company, he doesn’t even have to appear on every show, or even most of them. Instead, have Drew McIntyre be his right-hand man/stand-in. Make Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe bodyguards. Make William Regal, GM of NXT, opposed to Triple H within the management system. Make several different large factions, with different presences on different shows. Make several different overarching storylines that manifest in different ways depending on the specific roles of the characters and their context.
What I’m suggesting does call back to the Attitude Era, and the era that slightly preceded it. I think factional storytelling is a good thing, something NJPW has shown us also. The difference is, with WWE’s current systematic storytelling platform, they are able to tell stories with factions in a much more complex, rich, and nuanced way than they had the ability to do in the Attitude Era. They have an entire platform to make these storylines manifest in any number of ways.
In conclusion, the current problems with WWE booking are rooted in the fact that its now a platform for distributing a wide range of content, but is still booking wrestling the way they did in the late 2000s. Vince knows how to write a two hour wrestling program. So what happens if he’s writing ten or so hours of wrestling in a week, with varying degrees of modes split between all these hours. The storytelling method in WWE has not caught up with its medium of distribution.