HOW VIRTUAL REALITY WILL CHANGE THE WAY WE WATCH PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING
- INTRODUCTION -
Pro-wrestling has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Wrestlers are leaner, faster, and seemingly less tethered to gravity. There is no "top guy" in the industry, but "brand identity" is stronger than ever. In WWE, promos and segments are highly controlled, heavily scripted bits of theater rather than loose, improvisational workshops. There are no Monday Night Wars, but there is a vast and interconnected independent wrestling circuit that's more accessible than ever thanks to the internet. Wrestling isn't drawing ten million viewers every Monday, but how many scripted television shows are in this Era of Niche?
Pro-Wrestling, like the whole of entertainment, has fragmented into an increasingly specific subset of ever-evolving tastes. Gone are the rigidly defined days of your average "18-35 year old male demo" showing up to RAW & Nitro in their tank tops to drink beer and scream obscenities into the camera. Today's wrestling is about gathering together with fellow "smart" wrestling fans (whatever their age, gender-identity, race, or sexuality), and then evaluating themselves or their particular group against other individuals and other groups, all while existing under the larger umbrella of "modern pro-wrestling fandom".
These fans then regularly consume pro-wrestling media, often directly feeding it with their own opinions by way of podcasts and blogs (like this one). The business isn't just "exposed", it is relentlessly dissected with the same scrutiny, angst, and hot-takery that defines the real-world twenty-four-hour news cycle.
We have our own versions of CNN, FOX News, The NY Times, and The Washington Post. In fact, pro-wrestling media is a pioneer of the same system of biased misinformation masquerading as fact (i.e. kayfabe) that led to the popularization of sites like Breitbart & HuffPo.
Facts, in such a culture, matter less than one's ability to ("work") strike exposed emotional nerves within particular communities; such as discontent with the current pro-wrestling system and a desire to return to "the good old days" when pro-wrestling was great.
This self-sustaining information loop inevitably leads to the recycling of a few key talking points and reductionist concepts at the expense of a more nuanced reality, each side of a particular issue doubling down on their stance, attempting to lay claim to the pie-in-the-sky fantasy that their views represent "The Majority!"
It's certainly a more complicated pro-wrestling system than RAW vs NITRO.
But this system is as much a reflection of modern American culture as The Attitude Era was a reflection of the late nineties. Yet for all that change, there's something about pro-wrestling (and television on the whole) that hasn't changed much at all: how we watch it.
The delivery systems of cable television have evolved tremendously in recent years, moving us away from chords and commercials to recording and streaming services like DVR, Hulu, Netflix, and Sling, and the screens themselves have gotten "smarter", smaller, and curvier, but the experience of literally staring at a rectangular screen to absorb visual information remains the norm. We stand, we sit, or we lay down, and then we stare at a box from a distance.
How will that ever change, and how will the evolution of that delivery system affect the way we experience not just professional wrestling, but life as we know it?
- PART I -
VIRTUAL REALITY VS IMMERSIVE REALITY ENTERTAINMENT
One day sooner than people realize, pro-wrestling fans (among others) will have access to Immersive Reality Entertainment. Today, this kind of entertainment is still referred to as VR or "virtual reality" . That's a misnomer, because an Immersive Reality Entertainment experience (which I'll describe in more detail later) provides the user direct access to something that's actually happening in real-life, not something "virtual" or digitally simulated.
noun: virtual reality
the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.
Think of virtual reality as the tip of the entertainment iceberg and Immersive Reality Entertainment as the hulking mass of potential residing just below the surface.
Sony recently released Playstation VR, Samsung produces Gear VR powered by Oculus, and Microsoft is hard at work on competing technology for the next Xbox gaming console. This technology, while enticing in theory, is still in its infancy and has yet to really catch on in the mainstream. It hasn't even caught on in the videogame medium where it seems best suited. VR carries the stigma of being cumbersome, gimmicky, and unintuitive despite the advances that have already been made. It's great at a party, but not yet a viable way of consistently experiencing any entertainment medium.
This technology is destined to become increasingly user-friedly, cheaper, and more immersive, however. It will expand beyond the gaming and simulation industry to other forms of entertainment, including, in particular, live-events like WWE pay-per-views.
Imagine, rather than putting on a headset to enter a virtual simulation, putting on a headset to receive a live, first-person video-feed of WrestleMania.
What exactly does that mean (practically) and how would that work?
Cameras will be set up throughout arenas to provide users at home a point of view on the action that's similar to a fan's perspective seated at ringside. From the comfort of your living room, you will be able to purchase access to one of these "seats", the same way you purchase access to a live-streaming event at home. For WWE, this could be a perk designated to a particular payment-tier on the company's Network.
After purchasing your "seat", you'll put on your headset, and you will be able to watch the live-event from the same perspective as a fan in attendance.
It will be "like you are there", in real-time, immersed in that live-event: hence my distinction between the phrase Immersive Reality Entertainment and Virtual Reality. It's not a first-person three-dimensional view of a digital or virtual simulation, it's a first-person three-dimensional view of something that's actually happening.
Turn your head in real-life, the camera you're synced with will turn accordingly. The sound of the crowd will swirl around you thanks to hypersensitive headphones, and with the flick of a button, you'll be able to swap camera angles to gain different vantage points (likely for a higher price), so that you are not fixed to one position during the entire live-event.
You will hear commentary that's specific to your experience, directing you where to look and how to get the most out of your time. Eventually, you'll be free to float like a disembodied set of all-seeing eyes from the ringpost-cam, to the overhead-cam, to the crowd-cam, to the referee-cam, to the drone-cam, and back again, seeing pro-wrestling in a way you've never seen it before.
How can we safely predict that this is on the way?
Easy - it's already here.
- PART II -
THE FUTURE IS PRESENT
When I set out to write this particular piece, I didn't even know that this technology already existed. I thought I was ahead of the curb, predicting a not too distant future like the pro-wrestling-analyst version of Jules Vern. Lo and behold, after a few Google-searches, I discovered it was already being used in the NBA and elsewhere.
Much like VR-gaming, live-event VR experiences are still in their infancy.
Here is a description of a NBA game in VR via Time Magazine:
"The big problem with the VR presentation, at this point, is the resolution. Players can appear blurry, which puts strain on your eyes, and your patience, over the course of an NBA game. NextVR promises the pixilation will improve, and to be fair, Samsung's headsets are on the lower end of today's consumer VR tech. Neither the NBA nor NextVR are saying how many fans are watching the VR games. The numbers are surely modest at the outset. Either way, VR won't go mainstream right away. But based on my experience, it has a future on the court."
After seeing these Immersive Reality Entertainment experiments were already happening in the sports world, I wondered whether or not the WWE had gotten in on the action?
Sure enough, the WWE is one of the earliest adopters of this technology, having launched WWE 360 on Samsung's VR service with the aim of one day giving pro-wrestling fans a virtual front seat to pay-per-views.
During this gestation period, the technology has a much stronger future in professional wrestling than traditional sports.
The audience in legitimate sports is broader and less adaptable to fundamental change. Pro-wrestling is also more theatrical than sports; games naturally have lulls where pro-wrestling is a highly focused experience designed to deliver consistently entertaining, emotionally engaging spectacles.
When compared to other mediums and other fandoms, it's clear that pro-wrestling and its fans have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to evolve. It's also likelier that a Pro-Wrestling fan already owns a VR-headset because the culture of pro-wrestling intersects more directly with the tech-based-gamer-culture most-often associated with present-day VR.
Because of the Network, the WWE is free to give you exactly the kind of pro-wrestling you want, no matter your level of engagement and no matter your taste. That freedom will allow room for a gradual but inevitable shift in the specific way we experience that content, and it won't just be limited to WWE-wrestling.
- PART III -
WHAT TELEVISION TELLS US ABOUT THE FUTURE
When television first found its way into the living room it was a decidedly uncommon thing to possess. You were "the family with the TV" in your neighborhood. Friends would visit your home just to get a chance to experience the wonder of TV. Eventually, families started to own their own televisions, and the neighborhood fractured. The experience became increasingly insular. The family, rather than the entire block, would gather together in the living room and watch the same device, and there were only a few stations to choose from.
The fragmentation would continue in the following years, with several TVs popping up throughout the entire home, and each member of the family retreating to their own TV.
Do you think that first TV-family, huddled together before the black & white glow of their newfangled magic box, could have imagined a world where not only was there a TV in every room boasting hundreds of stations, but that there would be millions of TVs inside people's pockets - and that they wouldn't just be TVs anymore, but computers and phones connected to an invisible information network?
That's the historical equivalent of where VR technology is right now; the curious gadget your friend might own, but that you don't take too seriously. Maybe he's the only one on the block who has one, and you play with it only when you go to see him. You might even think, This is a fad like 3D-movies.
TV had its detractors too, only VR won't take sixty years to undergo the kind of evolution and nomralisation television did. The change will come faster and it will be a shock to our entertainment eco-systen (not unlike how social media suddenly and unexpectedly changed the world).
The change brought on by VR will not only affect the way we consume entertainment, it will affect the way we live our daily lives.
These VR headsets will become ubiquitous.
The same brands and mediums that have dominated entertainment technology throughout the decades will continue to dominate and innovate, but the experiences won't be confined to one particular medium. Television, after all, didn't continue offering just a few stations.
You will be able to purchase VR-access to the MET Opera, The Super Bowl, the latest comic book blockbuster, Museums, and a host of other immersive live-feed experiences that we have yet to properly imagine.
Want to climb Mount Everest without needing to climb Mount Everest?
Want to know what it's like to be an ant?
Want to carry a camera with you at all times and make money allowing VR-users to pay for access to your "life-feed"?
Well all of that is fast-approaching.
More and more cameras will be set up throughout all corners of our society, and those that already exist will be repurposed to accommodate this trend, allowing people to roam like digital phantoms from one part of the world to the next, absorbing information and "experiencing" events that previously seemed impossible.
What will this look like in real life?
People reclined in their couches, headsets strapped to their heads, oohing and ahhing as they "fly through the air", peering into uncharted worlds of entertainment through the perspectives of jet-fighters, Nascaar drivers, celebrities, pro-wrestlers, and anything else they can possibly imagine.
Instead of gathering together at your friend's party to check out his new Playstation VR headset, you, and every member of your family, will have their own headset and retreat into their own private rooms to have their own specialized experiences.
This "introversion-effect" of entertainment has revealed itself to be a reliable constant. Fragmentation and specialization is the arch of entertainment. We evolved from people who told stories around the campfire to people watching stories on a screen to people habitually engaging with phones, constantly immersed in self-obsessed and competing versions of reality.
VR will embolden that process.
This technology will become increasingly effective at recreating the reality of "being there" - wherever and whatever "there" is. Perhaps by way of contact lens cameras, patrons at home will be able to link their headsets to the direct point of view of other patrons in attendance at RAW.
You will see what your friend sees, hear what your friend hears, and maybe even feel what your friend feels as you chat about the match you just watched.
But what about the people who actually are in attendance? Doesn't someone still need to actually be there? Why would anyone bother going to a live-event if it's not still inherently better or if it's not offering something unique that VR just can't replicate?
- PART IV -
THE PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE OF REALITY
Why bother going? is the same problem movie theaters face today.
Why spend money on overpriced tickets and overpriced food and surround myself with a bunch of idiots who spend the entire movie on their cell phones or talking with their friends when I can stream that same movie on my television for a fraction of the price and watch it in peace just a few weeks later?
The only argument in favor of going to that theater is: movies are meant to be experienced on a massive screen alongside other human beings.
Tell that to anyone who isn't a self-proclaimed cinephile and they'll likely roll their eyes at you. "The way the art is meant to be experienced" is the kind of argument someone already needs to be predisposed to believe in order to even hear it in the first place. An artistic medium's fundamental purpose is not something the masses care about. They just don't have time for it. The masses veer toward what's easiest, and people's rude behavior and the rising cost of live-events makes it all too easy to stay home and wait for the stream.
This is the same problem theatre and Opera faced long before film or the WWE faced it.
But plays still exists. Opera still exists. And so too will live-events like Monday Night Raw. Such events will just become even more niche, even more specialized, and add even more incentives to try and entice attendees. The experience will cater to the most ardent fans of that medium.
For example, The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain serves full-course, movie-themed meals and alchoholic beverages throughout a film, plays archival kitschy movie-themed footage prior to the coming attractions, plays 35mm prints of cult classics, and observes a strict no-talking policy (security will literally throw you out of the theater if you talk or use your cell phone during the movie).
For me, The Alamo Drafthouse is Nirvana.
It is the only way I'll bother going to the movies these days because it's the only moviegoing experience that comes close what it should actually be like. Every other theater chain is an assault on my comfort and my senses, a relentless bombardment of advertisements and audio-visual chaos distracting from the fundamental purpose of going to the movies.
Not unlike the thought-process of a diehard fan with a highly specific argument about a highly specific topic, The Alamo Drafthouse is doubling down on the culture of cinema and moviegoing, in part because that culture is dying. When a culture fades into obscurity its most passionate defenders, or its "base", rise up in its defense, refusing to relent. That base becomes the market for that fading culture, and so the market transforms to service that need.
This model of incentives and catering to a vocal base and offering highly specialized experiences will continue to become the norm as the advent of VR technology becomes mainstream.
The WWE has already embraced this concept by launching a pay-per-view package program that gives diehard fans the chance to experience multiple events with varying degrees of perks and access over the course of an entire week.
For most, there will be no incentive large enough to leave behind the headset, however. It will always be more expensive to attend a live-event, and the headset, much like our televisions, will offer ritualistic ease and comfort.
If you do manage to tear yourself out of the headset and set foot in an arena, the best reward will be the badge of honor you get as "the kind of pro-wrestling fan who still goes to live events".
Pretentiousness, even in the future, never goes out of style.
- CONCLUSION -
If the future I've described intrigues you and terrifies you in equal measure - you are having an appropriate reaction. This kind of technology won't be used exclusively for jovial excursions for people who can't afford WrestleMania tickets. That's how it starts - curiosity, excitement, a thirst for easy access. And then it mutates into something else entirely.
This kind of technology will inevitably lead to invasions of whatever privacy we still have, and play a massive role in our continued cultural disconnect from reality. It very well may be the final stage of our entertainment evolution before reverting (or rebelling) back to some primitive state. Just as mothers and fathers condemned television as "The Devil!", mothers and fathers will condemn VR as "The Matrix!"
And they won't necessarily be wrong.
It's certainly possible that none of this will come to pass, and that VR will remain a novelty that fails to resonate with the masses. Television didn't have television to compete with, after all. VR must compete with television and social media. It's possible that we've reached our entertainment threshold, and that people are sufficiently stimulated, distracted, and jaded. The specific experience Immersive Reality Entertainment offers may just not be as unique or as appealing as it needs to be in order to wrangle people away from their cell phones.
But I think that view is overly optimistic, and ignores the human desire to get as far away from reality as possible.
For all the benefits of television, the internet, and social media, the unifying principle of such advances seems to be rooted in extracting the user from the real-world and repositioning them in a fantasy of their own making. The thrust of entertainment technology has been about refining immersion, making it so that you can feel like you're experiencing something that you're not really experiencing.
That makes me wonder, is real-life really so boring? Is looking through your own eyes that terrible? Is being outside the screen rather than inside the screen genuinely inferior?
These are worthwhile questions that future generations as privileged as ours, indoctrinated into whatever entertainment cults exist in their time, may not be inclined to even ask because they won't remember a life without VR or a life without Social Media.
I only hope that in such a future a pro-wrestling match is still a pro-wrestling match, and that people find a way to sync their minds long enough to enjoy a Moment of Pop.
DO NOT FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO WORK OF WRESTLING PODCAST