The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) caravan has been rolling continuously throughout this year despite the pandemic, and had been functioning even when sporting competitions and leagues across the world came to a standstill.
The leading pro-wrestling promotion had to however, adapt to the new reality of hosting events without fans, with the superstars initially having to perform in front of empty seats at the company’s Performance Centre in Orlando, Florida, for some time. The management then, decided to station some of their own recruits along the sidelines as ‘spectators’ to make for some noise and cheer that is such an integral part of a professional wrestler’s life, and was sorely being missed.
Come Friday however, WWE has finally decided to take things a step forward and pull themselves out of the Performance Centre where they had been cooped up for months. The upcoming edition SmackDown as well as the Pay-Per-View (PPV) Summerslam will mark the debut of the ‘WWE ThunderDome’ — a project that will bring virtual fans to the arena on giant LED screens along with a host of other improvements from their current set, with the company shifting their base to Orlando’s Amway Centre. The ThunderDome will then play host to WWE’s Raw, SmackDown and PPVs until further notice.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the Summerslam weekend, in which the 30th edition of NXT Takeover event will also be taking place, WWE executive vice-president (Global Talent Strategy & Development) Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, sounded optimistic of the project paying off dividends as far as bringing back the excitement of the pre-COVID days is concerned.
“I think that right now, with trying to move Smackdown, Summerslam, Raw for the foreseeable future to Amway Centre and all the undertaking that is happening there… It’s spectacular and I’ve seen it in various forms. Spectacular as that is going to be, the ThunderDome.
“Obviously on Friday night, everybody is going to see their first shot of the ThunderDome, and I can tell you, personally for me, man I can’t tell you how much we’ve missed everyone. Our fans… just seeing everyone and having them be a part of it and that energy. It’s the secret sauce to everything we do.
“I cannot wait to get them back, whether that’s on video or in any other way possible. So the sooner we can do that, the better, and that’s for every single thing we do. WWE fans are everything to us,” said Triple H, a legendary performer himself who has been bestowed with nicknames such as ‘The Game’, ‘The Cerebral Assassin’ and ‘The King of Kings’.
⚡️ See YOU in the #WWEThunderDome this Friday. ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/bvyk5KcfO9
— WWE (@WWE) August 18, 2020
WWE however, decided not to include the NXT brand in the ThunderDome at Amway Centre, instead opting to remain at the Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida — a venue that has long been associated with the company’s developmental brand that Triple H has been a huge part of as a co-founder and an executive producer.
“Our partnership with Full Sail to me is probably one of the most important partnerships we have and I love it there. In this environment right now, with everything that’s happening, you can never say never so, we’ll see where all that goes,” said Triple H on NXT staying at their tried-and-tested venue.
One of the things that is a constant in a pro wrestler’s life is being on the road away from their families for a majority of their life, with the brands travelling across different venues across the length and breadth of the United States (and occasionally Canada) and the superstars performing in front of thousands of fans in a different venue every week.
Even though their shift to the Amway Centre starting this week will be a refreshing change of scenery for the performers, Triple H believes they’re still a long way from being able to hit the road like they did before the dreaded virus changed the world as we know it completely.
“We’re constantly looking into everything that we can do, whether that’s having fans for television, whether it’s having fans for live events, whether it’s having virtual fans. When we get to a point that we feel, or that the world is at a point where it feels it can return to those type of public gatherings safely and in a meaningful way for everybody involved, whether that be our talent or crew and or fans, then we’ll address it.
“But we look into all options at all times, it’s a never-ending search right now to get back to what we do,” said the 14-time world champion.
WWE programming has over the years, taken place in a variety of venues, from sold out arenas such as the iconic Madison Square Garden and stadiums such as Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium (which hosted Wrestlemania 28) to performing on makeshift rings in the US Army bases in the Middle East in their ‘Tribute to the Troops’ events.
The company has even had matches take place in unconventional venues, as was the case with the much-vaunted Undertaker vs AJ Styles ‘Boneyard Match’, or the Bray Wyatt vs Braun Strowman ‘Wyatt Swamp Match’. The latest edition of the ‘Money in the Bank’ that took place on 10 May earlier this year featured the main event that took place at the WWE Global Headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
There were even plans of having the 2020 edition of Summerslam take place in a boat, and commenting on those plans, Triple H said that the idea had about as much of a chance as any other, but ultimately could not materialise due to the challenges it presented.
“So every option was looked into. I think that option had about as much chance as all the other options. Everything was looked into across the board of any way that we can come back to doing what we do safely and in the best way possible. You can imagine, things on a boat aren’t quite so easy, I would imagine. Even just the motion of the water and everything else.
“There’s issues with everything across the board. I think that when you see the ThunderDome concept, when you see SmackDown, when you see Summerslam in that environment, I think you’re going to understand why we went in the direction we did.”
“I think when you get there and you see it, you will understand why we went in the direction we did. Because even if you did it on a boat, there’s no fans, there’s nobody there,” Triple H told reporters.
The current reality of having to perform in the absence of fans is one that Triple H, or some of his peers from the ‘Attitude Era’ and ‘Ruthless Aggression Era’ days would never have thought of. The energy and the noise that the WWE fans brought to the programming has been a defining part of the company’s success, and the crowd ‘pops’ often dictate some of the creative team’s decisions as far as giving a certain wrestler the push is concerned.
Talking about some of the challenges that the current roster has been subjected to for about six months now, Triple H said the crowd reaction is a factor that everyone in the locker room strives to get, and the fact that the current roster has had to manage without it is all the more commendable.
“Anybody in this industry that is going out there, in a business where we do what we do for that reaction, it’s everything we do. It’s not like a sport where I’m going to go out there and I’m going to win this game, and I don’t care if people like it, don’t like it, I’m just going to tune everything out and go do it. It’s the exact opposite of that, and you’re doing everything for that reaction, and that reaction isn’t there, or is very small or there’s very few people, whatever that is, it changes the game dramatically.
“I think it’s difficult. As a performer, there is no bigger adrenaline rush or… it’s why you do what you do. That crowd, that rush of excitement, that energy that they give you, it’s why you do what you do. You can’t really put into words how much that means as a performer so to be able to go out there and create that in and of yourself, to create that in your own mindset the excitement, the energy level, the impact of what you’re doing, the gravity of what you’re doing, the urgency of what you’re doing, to create that in yourself is incredibly difficult.
“You gear what you do towards that crowd, and when there isn’t one there, it’s tough, because you’re trying to create that in your mind and react to it accordingly. So it’s been extremely difficult, but my hat is off to everybody.”
‘The Game’, who joined WWE (then World Wrestling Federation) from World Championship Wrestling in 1995, went on to add that the team is not just producing shows that are of good quality, but ‘knocking it out of the park’ under the current circumstances.
“Everybody is, in my opinion, knocking it out of the park to give fans the best that they can. Everything we are doing, it’s for them. Whether they want to think that or not, that is why we do what we do every single day is to have them to be able to enjoy it, put a smile on their face, let them forget about everything that’s going on in the world and just get back and relax, enjoy what I consider to be the greatest form of entertainment in the world,” added Triple H.
It certainly remains to be seen how far the ‘ThunderDome’ concept, which has also been tested in various other sporting events such as the NBA, MLS as well as in some European football leagues, goes in bringing back the old vibe that has for long been an integral part of the product that the WWE has been giving its fans, and the absence of which has been viewed as one of the factors behind the recent fall in ratings.
Watch WWE Special: SummerSlam 2020, Live and Exclusive only on SONY TEN 1 channels on 24th August 2020, 3:30 am onwards