Review: Pro Wrestling Goes ‘Way Over the Top’ with the WWE Network

By March 31, 2014
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Professional wrestling is a quirky form of entertainment. It lacks a degree of success in the mainstream because of a perception that it tries to pass itself off as real sport, but also manages to often draw sell-out crowds in numerous arenas around the world for people to experience the spectacle firsthand. When you go to a WWE show in an arena, not only are you treated with a unique and meticulous kind of live performance art, but you also have to brace for all sorts of sights and sounds. Giant, stories-tall HD video screens pump in a full spectrum of color, music blasts and echoes through the powerful and thunderous sound system, and the flash and smell of pyrotechnic effects permeates intros, outros, and wrestler entrances. More often than not, the sheer presentation is often something to behold, and that’s often the hook that gets people in the door.

Then, if you look deeper, you also get to see that there’s a rich history and tradition behind the entire form of pro wrestling. With origins going as far back as 19th century France and beginning in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War, pro wrestling evolved into a territory-based business by the 1950s. Numerous independent promoters and performers had divided the country into their own territories, and largely maintained a respect of those boundaries. The 1970s saw a decline in the overall business, but by the 1980s young Vincent K. McMahon had purchased his father’s territory and acquired national aspirations, seeking to tear down the territory system of old and build a national organization on television, along with new media like Pay-Per-View helping to catapult the then-WWF into the national spotlight. Names like Hulk Hogan, André the Giant, and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage helped him do just that.

McMahon is a documented early-adopter of new media, dating back to his use of closed-circuit television for the first edition of his company’s extravaganza event “WrestleMania” in 1985 (thirty years ago today, as a matter of fact). While boxing took off in a larger way than pro wrestling on Pay-Per-View (PPV) initially, it is McMahon and the now-WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment (changed due to a 2002 lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund) that are largely seen as pioneers of the format. To this day, the WWE produces 12 PPV events per year, in addition to a network TV presence on USA and SyFy in the United States, and multiple other carriers around the world.

But, it’s that documented belief in new media that McMahon possesses that has spawned the brand new WWE Network, an internet-based hybrid of live-stream and video-on-demand content that’s comprised of an extremely wide range of previous television and PPV events from multiple wrestling organizations, in addition to new, original programming and including all of the future PPV events. It’s an extraordinary amount of sheer content, in addition to being a smart choice for avid wrestling fans.

The front page of the WWE Network app on Xbox 360. The center window accesses the Network's live-stream, with VOD and original programming selections filling out the rest of the selections.

The front page of the WWE Network app on Xbox 360. The center window accesses the Network’s live-stream, with VOD and original programming selections filling out the rest of the selections.

Available Formats and Devices

The key to most successful video-on-demand (or VOD) services is availability on a wide variety of devices, and for the most part the WWE Network is available on them. As of right now, it’s currently available to stream to your TV through Roku Media Players, Apple TVs, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and 4, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. It’s also available on iOS and Android, as well as Amazon Kindle Fire tablets. Weirdly enough, it’s not currently available for Xbox One, which is an odd choice after launch. WWE has assured current and future subscribers, though, that Xbox One and certain Smart TV support will follow this summer. It’s also, of course, available to stream on your computer through your web browser. From there, using Google Chrome and the browser’s “broadcast” app, you can also stream it to a Chromecast if you have one.

The launch of the Network at the end of February wasn’t exactly smooth, particularly for Xbox 360 users. The demand was clearly underestimated, and the “technology provider,” MLB Advanced Media, was hit with a slew of complaints ranging from the inability to even sign up, all the way down to successful sign-ups being unable to access any content. It took a full week for the problems to be sorted on the Xbox 360, since active subscribers couldn’t even access the Network through the dedicated Xbox app during that entire time. Eventually, though, the problems were sorted out.

So, what of the actual content of the Network itself? Well, as a lifelong wrestling fan with interest in the entire history of the form, I have three basic words: pretty damned impressive.

On-Demand Content

I got into pro wrestling because of my brother in the year 1997. Of course, anything that a 9-year old saw his brother do had an air of “cool” behind it, and when I watched my first event, it was immediately clear to me what the attraction was. I was already a superhero fan, and seeing these giant fighters step into the ring to do battle, largely in a “good vs. evil” manner, made the fundamental aspect of pro wrestling easy for me to get into. My brother’s organization of choice was World Championship Wrestling (WCW), dominated at the time by an internal faction called the New World Order, or “nWo.” So, waxing nostalgic made me immediately curious how much old WCW content I could enjoy on the Network, and the answer was immense: every single PPV event that the organization ever produced, and that was only at launch. If I wanted to relive the epic confrontation between Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Sting at “Starrcade” ’97, I could. Kevin Nash’s “World War 3” win? There it is. Goldberg’s WCW Title defense against DDP at “Halloween Havoc” ’98? Just a few clicks away. When the WWE bought the remnants of WCW after the company was forced to fold in 2001, they acquired the organization’s entire video library, including thousands of hours of TV programming that I hope one day appears on the Network.

In addition to that is every PPV event from the WWE and the Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) organization, as well as select episodes of past WWE TV events like “Monday Night RAW,” or “SmackDown.” Beyond the actual wrestling event archive is a respectable lineup of original programming that has been promised to expand in the months to come. Currently-running programs include “This Week in WWE,” a recap show that goes over what happened in the television events for the week, “Beyond the Ring,” a select group of previously released documentaries focusing on certain performers or events in the company’s history, “WrestleMania Rewind” highlights the stories and history behind some of the most popular main-event matches in “WrestleMania’s” 30-year history (like Hogan vs. André at “WrestleMania III,” or Stone Cold vs. Shawn Michaels at “WrestleMania XIV”), and “WWE Countdown,” which literally counts down notable aspects of wrestlers or wrestling events (like “best entrances,” or “biggest blunders”).

Future additions to the original programming lineup include “WWE Legends’ House,” a reality TV series featuring former WWE performers like announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and wrestlers like “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Pat Patterson, Tony Atlas, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Also forthcoming is a show called “The Monday Night War,” detailing the battle for pro wrestling ratings supremacy from 1995-2001 between the WWF’s “Monday Night Raw,” and WCW’s “Monday Nitro.”  All in all, for wrestling fans it’s a great variety of content that offers the best of pro wrestling’s past, and practically every single element of its present.

So, you might be asking…

What Doesn’t it Have? Is It Worth It?

Basically, the only major omissions from the Network lineup, particularly for the live-stream, is the current TV programming. In order to honor the existing contracts with its current television providers, there’s a 30-day delay between new airings of “RAW”and “SmackDown” and their arrival to the Network’s VOD section. WWE officials have been consistently promising that more will continuously be added to the already-vast VOD content, but it hasn’t specified exactly what that will be outside of previously announced shows like “Monday Night War” and “Legends’ House.” Perhaps previous, full episodes of “Raw” and “Nitro?” How about some “Thunder” and “Shotgun Saturday Night?” There’s a multitude of untapped content from the company’s video library that could potentially (and easily) be added to the backlog of available programming, and it’s clear that the WWE wants their fans to know it. The only other thing missing is international availability, since the Network is currently only available in the United States.

The Rock (L) staring down Stone Cold Steve Austin (R) before their match at WrestleMania XIX in Seattle, WA. Every edition of WrestleMania is available to stream on the WWE Network now, with WrestleMania XXX being live-streamed this Sunday.

The Rock (L) staring down Stone Cold Steve Austin (R) before their match at “WrestleMania XIX” in Seattle, WA. Every edition of “WrestleMania” is available to stream on the WWE Network now, with “WrestleMania XXX” being live-streamed this Sunday.

As for the question of worth, it depends on a couple of factors. If you find yourself ordering at least two of the WWE’s current PPV events, then it automatically becomes worth it. Modern PPV’s average at a price of around $55, and the WWE Network costs $9.99 a month with a six-month commitment. If you stay with the Network a full year, then not only are you getting every single PPV event, you’re also getting the entirety of available content, easily amounting to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours. The first major test for the Network’s PPV broadcasting will be this coming Sunday, when “WrestleMania XXX” broadcasts both on PPV and on the Network. I sure hope that the folks at WWE and MLB Advanced Media are stress-testing the hell out of the servers in preparation for the “Showcase of the Immortals.”

Overall

So far, I’m very satisfied with the WWE Network as a service. In the past, when it came to merchandise and PPV events, I’ve always thought that the WWE at-large skewed toward too expensive (in MY day, PPV’s were $30!). With the Network being relatively inexpensive, especially considering the inclusion of current and past PPV events, the availability on multiple devices with more to come, and a promise of more content continuously being added, this is a bit of a no-brainer for any present wrestling fan, and even a lot of past fans. There are a lot of implications for broadcast TV and for the WWE itself surrounding the success or failure of the Network, but it’s hard to ignore a bargain and its delivery when you see it. For my money, the WWE Network is a smart buy, and the new standard for any big fan of professional wrestling. So, I give the WWE Network a tentative recommendation, but we’ll see what it’s like watching “WrestleMania” this Sunday.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to relive Stone Cold vs. The Rock from “WrestleMania”…hmm…XV, XVII, or XIX?

Hell, I’ll do all three, just because I can.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
  • My friend raves about it. Seems like it has fricking everything!