wrestling / Columns

Beyond Blunderdome – The Lessons From WWE’s First Week in the ThunderDome

August 27, 2020 | Posted by Ian Hamilton

The launch of the Thunderdome presents the latest step-change in WWE’s programming in recent times – but while the change in look may be welcome for some, the question must be asked: how much change is too much?

In the “before times,” one of the theories behind NXT’s performance in the Wednesday night head-to-heads was that Full Sail looked “small time” compared to the brighter arenas and larger crowds that AEW were in front of. During the pandemic, of course, both shows have remained ensconced at Full Sail or Daily’s Place, but still the “look” of the two shows remains rather chalk and cheese.

Meanwhile, Raw and SmackDown (along with the associated shows like Main Event and 205 Live) have been taped at the Performance Center since March. A taping set-up that originally looked silly, what with WWE sticking rigidly to their usual camera angles, which meant that for a little while, we got shots of rows of empty chairs, left over from the NXT taping at the venue just before the world went to hell.

Eventually WWE did tweak it, and threw in extra video boards and lights, before adding planted fans… which helped the atmosphere a little. However, those who are proponents of wrestling needing to “feel real” rather than just be a mish-mash of bright lights and loud noises perhaps died a little inside as the details behind WWE’s Thunderdome began to spill out.

The initial tests perhaps confirmed some fears – with the Amway Center in Orlando being populated by a mass of video walls where fans would usually sit. On those screens, the equivalent of a super-sized Zoom call, with an audience of fans watching the show online while being displayed in their virtual seat(s) from their webcam.

On paper, it’s not a bad idea, but there’s a LOT of refinement that needs doing. For one thing, the mosaic of fans can and will become a distraction for all – whether it’s them moving unnaturally (compared to how they would do in the arena), or the jarring differences in the backgrounds on the webcams. I’m not sure whether the Thunderdome gimmick allows for WWE to implement a fake background – although the screenshots floating around of the preview indicating that fans have a dotted outline to “live” in suggests that ability may well be an option down the line.

Still, at time of writing we’ve had three days of shows in the new WWE venue – SmackDown (& 205 Live), SummerSlam and Raw… and it’s safe to say that the one fatal flaw in the set-up has been exposed. And no, it’s not the audio mix. It’s the fans.

In the olden days, any misbehaving fans needed to buy a ticket – preferably one that’s in front of the hard camera – and travel to the show before they’d be able to make a scene. With the Thunderdome, the “Virtual WWE Universe” (yeah, I need to wash after saying that too) can appear anywhere, at random and sometimes more than once. So, if you’re hell-bent on, say, making sure a “fire Velveteen Dream” sign appears in your spot, you just wait until your screen is in a prime position, and Bob’s your uncle. Sure, WWE can kick you at a moment’s notice, but the punishment of having to “just watch the same show but on TV” as opposed to being tossed out of the arena isn’t quite as severe in the current era.

Quite how fans managed to hijack “their” feed with other footage is probably not a mystery for those who are technically minded… but also brings up how, just like in an arena, you need to moderate the crowd too.

Am I blaming WWE for this? They have a share in this. Anything online that involves crowd participation is always going to be subject to trolling, to “raids” or whatever you want to call it. While there’s only so much you can do to prevent this, the fact that only an unrelated, yet typical WWE camera cut prevented an apparent gruesome act from being shown in the background. Seemingly, the threat of WWE passing any fines onto fans isn’t enough – and besides, with a name and an email address, there isn’t that much WWE can do, particularly since you’d assume that fans who know how to try this are also smart enough to know of VPNs…

Of course, the biggest blame for this lays with the fans themselves. Yes, that Velveteen Dream sign raised a chuckle from those in the know, but the rest? It’s yet another sign of those who are in it to get over with their friends – while forgetting that WWE’s target audience, in spite of what ratings numbers say, are kids. Kids who pester their parents to buy the shirts, buy the games, buy the action figures. Kids whose parents will probably do their damndest to stop them watching if they catch any of this. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: while WWE absolutely should be doing a better job of moderating the video wall, those taking part shouldn’t be in it “for the lols”.

…and then we have the other obvious question. The question that’ll be raised when we come out the other side of this pandemic. Does the WWE move away from the Thunderdome and “back” to real fans, and if so, how? Their current television contracts have shown that in the current marketplace, WWE made more money than ever with no touring and just doing shows in a fixed location. Will that be the case with the extra overheads at Amway?

Of course, as and when things get back to normal, WWE won’t necessarily be able to block book the Amway Center for months at a time… nor would you expect they’d be able to move the current Thunderdome set around like they have done in the past. So, with WWE already knowing that house shows are almost a money loser, where do they go after this, especially if ratings don’t recover and the threat of the TV contracts not being as profitable as they were remain?

Market forces will decide, but it’s a safe bet that the version of WWE we’re seeing now is likely to be retained in the future, even if crowds and touring ever resume.

article topics :

ThunderDome, WWE, Ian Hamilton