Amid all the discourse about what makes video games special, we can sometimes forget their manifold links to other art forms. Consider professional wrestling and its narrative design. Xavier Woods, an educational psychologist and a WWE wrestler, jokingly described himself as a “professional LARPer” and a “bard who buffs his party while fighting.” Woods, who keeps a popular gaming YouTube channel called UpUpDownDown, is often pictured holding a colorful trombone in photos with his tag team, The New Day.
He took time off from a demanding touring schedule to grace Practice 2018 with his presence and talk about the overlap between the storytelling of professional wrestling and narrative design in games. “Physicality is the conduit for our stories,” he said, likening the ring to a canvas painted with combative brushstrokes. In this context, he played a hype-video of his tag team facing off against a more villainously coded team, The Usos. Any fan of wrestling would be familiar with the bombast, the grandiose declarations, the guttural death metal yells; but amidst it all, the outlines of a basic good-versus-evil story invariably take shape.
He played another video showing him being handcuffed by The Usos and whacked with kendo sticks. Woods earned permanent scars from that incident, a reminder that even amidst all the scripting and subtlety, lasting injuries can result from these bouts. But he spoke of the case with equanimity and even pride. “This is our art. When you can make people feel that emotional attachment, to care about these characters, that’s a huge success for us.”
Asked to expand on those thoughts in the Q&A, Woods added, “Getting beaten with the kendo sticks in the moment really sucks. But! Knowing there’s a group of people who’ve stayed with me through this, who’ve also sacrificed so much…this is my way to give back to them, and I know it’s a very weird way to do it — ‘here’s my body, beat me up’ — but for us hearing that sound of all those people in a closed arena…that kind of makes the pain go away for a bit.”
“There’s live feedback,” he added, telling us that there’s scope for silent communication between the wrestlers that allows them to respond to the audience’s mood. “If the audience likes what we’re doing then we can continue down that path. It’s like a choose your own adventure storybook. If you boo, go to page 16, if you cheer go to page 26. If you’re silent, we’re doing everything wrong.” In Woods’ capable prose, the image is of a collective roleplaying game, where the audience is making a mass input. But “it’s down to the storytellers,” he said, as they reach a predetermined outcome. The overall storyline may require one team to triumph over another on any given night, but how they get there is up to the wrestlers — and the audience. “It’s about the pageantry, it’s about the characters, it’s about being larger than life. Live action superheroes.”
"If the audience likes what we’re doing then we can continue down that path. It’s like a choose your own adventure storybook. If you boo, go to page 16, if you cheer go to page 26."
Woods spoke at some length about the importance of uniting gamers and wrestling fans, seeing them as nerds divided by an uncommon visual language. While wrestling is associated with macho sport, its colorful characters, dorky fandom, and the LARPing endemic to its constitution make it an analogue of gaming at its best, a concept literalized by the always-hilarious PAXamania video game wrestling championship. There, costumed games journalists, developers, podcasters, and fans get up on stage and indulge in all the usual costumed theatrics, only to take out their rage in a '90s-era wrestling video game.
For Woods, gaming has been an important part of his life since he was a child; the confidence he found there was something he took with him to all his creative endeavors. It could never be separated from wrestling, in his mind. One stage was virtual, the other bounded by rope, but each demanded a creative playfulness. That, he says, is his strength. To that end, he recounted to Practice how his father told him at the start of his wrestling career that he was neither the tallest, nor the strongest, but he was the most creative.
He brought some of that creativity to the WWE x IGN event at the MCV Awards last year, bringing pro-wrestlers together with pro esports gamers for a rollicking good time; one wrestler and one esport athlete teamed up against an opposing team to play video games competitively. Speaking to the WWE website afterward, Woods said, “My grand idea would be to bring esports athletes to our WWE Performance Center and have them learn our ways of bringing out the personality within yourself that is already there.”
It wouldn’t go amiss, certainly. There are superficial similarities between wrestling and competitive gaming — a tradition of trash talk, for instance. But in wrestling, these days certainly, the line between reality and theatre feels quite clear. In gaming, it’s often deliberately blurred in such a way as to permit actual abuse. In wrestling, by contrast, there’s a mutuality to it all; everyone’s consenting to pantomime abuse that manages to be funny, campy, and biting all at once. When you see the balancing act, you realize why Woods considers it an art.
The big event Woods built up to talking about was a dramatic crossover at this year’s E3, where, in a rare public performance, he took on a wrestler from a rival league–New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Ordinarily, such contests, though oft-requested by fans, are not permitted. But Capcom’s E3 pavilion would be an exception. Woods’ The New Day would team up against an NJPW team, The Elite, for a 3v3 video game tag team match.
The Capcom E3 event was the product of a deliberately over-the-top wrestling storyline, a combination of classic tale-telling and raw marketing. It began with trash talking on Twitter between Woods and his opposite number in The Elite, Kenny Omega. This was then was followed up by a promotional video where the two of them made a verbal contract to have a face-off, overseen by a Capcom official. The theatricality built up a head of steam that ensured the Capcom pavilion at E3 was packed to the gills with spectators. The short version is that Woods’ team lost and it all ended with both Omega and Woods eating red-hot peppers on stage and hugging it out.
Thus a video game match crossed over with worldwide professional wrestling, bringing together two communities that have a good deal more in common than many might’ve thought. As Daily Esports’ Jason Rodriguez put it in an article about the bout, “I never thought I’d see the day when a world champion for a major wrestling promotion would be at E3, or that WWE would mention him by name. All of this to inform wrestling aficionados to tune in for a gaming exhibition match.”
For all the evident savagery of wrestling — and Woods certainly has the scars to prove it — there is an underlying civility to the exercise that offers a lot to the world of gaming. There’ll be a lot to learn on both sides, of course, but I think events like PAXamania, WWE x IGN, and the E3 contest prove there’s a lot of potential here for finding healthy ways to channel competitive impulses. Can we narratively-design esports itself? With Woods spreading a bit of nerdy magic everywhere he goes, I have plenty of reason to be hopeful.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.